The unspoken sacrifices of an AFL footballer

George Horlin Smith GoalAnother year of the AFL season is underway. For those teams with a poor start to the year, reality has hit hard, while those who’ve had early season success remain optimistic about a finals campaign and dare to dream of premiership glory.

I sit at a cafe, perusing an article dissecting Geelong’s poor team defence. The early ‘keep a lid on it’ disposition has rapidly changed, having lost the last three games. The smell of freshly cut wood and the mesmerising dance of the fire provide a feeling of comfort. A South of Johnson long black warms me from the inside out, against the chill of a gentle Melbourne breeze announcing footy is well and truly here. A Hawthorn footballer sits across from me, deeply engrossed in a novel, mind far from the disappointing start to their 2017 campaign.

Amidst the chilled indie rock playing through the overhead, I contemplate what a life after football looks like for these players. The AFL is a business. Clubs strive to attract members and bolster ticket sales to increase revenue. Players are assets, pawns whose health is sacrificed in the pursuit of greatness. A win at all cost mentality ensues, one that pushes the boundaries of physiology and medicine for an edge that thrusts them ahead of the pack. But at what cost? The impact of continually pushing the body each week bears it’s ugly scars later in life. “76 per cent of past players experienced serious injuries in elite football and of those who reported serious injuries, 64 per cent are still affected in daily life and 60 per cent require ongoing treatment” (1). The result of years of continual trauma, the underbelly that we as supporters, don’t see.

ACL D. Menzel

Daniel Menzel has had three full knee reconstructions

The game is now a free flowing, continuous and entertaining spectacle. With such speed, although the contests are perhaps less frequent, the force of collisions and load through soft tissues are such that injuries are an unsurprising by-product. For these athletes, this is their job, with the injuries passed off as an occupational hazard. “Injury rates at the elite level are on the decline, indicating better treatment and preventative management for players” (2), but rehab is a lonely place. Daily physiotherapy means structured exercises programs performed with mind-numbing repetition and laser focus, in order to meet the deadlines for next weeks match selection.

Cats Gym

While player support and education is better than ever, once playing days are over, only “6 per cent of players will have treatment costs covered by their club or the AFL Players Association”(1). Not only do players still struggle with pain from old battle scars, it seems some are left feeling empty, devoid of meaning and purpose without the all consuming nature of elite level sport. Their careers have been based around long term health sacrifice for peak athletic performance and hence it is post football that these players need support.

Clinical practice has given me perspective. I see the result of many years at the elite level and how an athlete’s bodies has compensated for old strains, multiple surgeries or a new found sedentary occupation. True they are pursuing something they love, but there are repercussions for neglecting overall health.

My Hawthorn companion gets up and leaves. No doubt to attend, a post mortem of the weekend, scheduled recovery or other training activity. I feel at ease, knowing he has other passions to pursue after football. I just hope for his sake, that looking after his long term health is one of them.

 

References

  1. Lane, Samantha. “Players Pay A Lifelong Price: Study”. The Age. N.p., 2017. Web. 15 May 2017.
  2. Orchard J, Seward H, Orchard J. AFL Injury Report: Season 2014 :http://s.build001.aflprod.com/staticfile/AFL%20Tenant/AFL/Files/2014-AFL-Injury-Report.pdf

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