loris bertolacci

Sport, Health and Fitness


Small sided games and fitness through games has really made its mark in team sports training. Lot’s of work filtered through from Hockey and other sports and in AFL we saw the Adelaide Crows pioneer this approach. Nevertheless they used other means (for example ergometer work) to supplement fitness, but less formal running. But has their high injury rate occurred due to high fitness levels and poor motor patterns? Who knows? This is a bad mix and at the base of my discussion. This approach has filtered through to many sports and recently we saw a research article by Gabbett on Volleyball with juniors. Obviously “bang for buck” in simplicity is far greater when things can be combined but my opinion is that there is a downside to what seems a simple solution to fitness. Yet I have seen many problems with this approach.

We have seen an explosion in sports science in Australia and a huge influence on sports such as cycling and rowing for example. Team sports have achieved enormous benefit due to sports science, with areas such as load management, heat management, hydration and many other areas receiving enormous backup. Huge factors and load management has been a big one with GPS and databases etc.

Sports such as soccer are now creating skill based TID schemes where kids are encouraged to play heaps of games and learn lots of skills early and then they are selected later on from a larger pool of skilled players. Simple.

But we have direct evidence that the relative age effect destroys the careers of many young players and only the gifted younger ones come through (and in fact succeed more often) coupled with kids with advanced maturity that sneak through. So many good kids are left behind. That is kids that are born early and who survive due to talent, do well at elite level. On the other hand the “bruisers” with no talent also do well as well as older kids. So many young (born early) players are lost and this is mainly a physical factor due to maturation and/or training.

And look at Tennis. We have a massive generation of players whose parents have mortgaged their houses for coaching and yet no result so far.

Sports Science has been little assistance to track and field. The scientists would say that the coaches do not want to listen. But my opinion is that the sports scientists have little to offer because very few really know how to create advanced athletes. Sports Science is awesome at telling us how to manage a player in Malaysian heat but has little idea how to propel someone over 2 45.

In team sports like AFL we simply aimed at the average. One needs to be good at many areas. Intermittent sports require a broad long term base of conditioning and good acceleration and a sufficiently developed aerobic system to assist repeat efforts. Average to OK in the gym and average to OK in power. All achievable and in the end injury management becomes a key as does talent. My experience in all these team sports is much the same. One usually does not need to create super athletes. But if a team has a core of players who have talent and also have developed all their fitness skills (running/jumping/change of direction etc) then that team should always beat a mob that can play and are fit but lack “fitness” skills. Always the same principle. All things being equal, one factor will make the difference.

Getting back to tennis, my opinion is that strength and conditioning and fitness are simply massive factors why we are falling behind in many sports.  And this needs to happen early. Puberty. And by then kids should be fully developed in all facets of running and jumping and change of direction and also have a broad base of conditioning. What we see in OZ is a huge number of skinny kids with good aerobic qualities and one sided bodies coming up against explosive “Europeans” and now Asians. Forget what happened 30 years ago. No one played tennis.

And with all due respects let’s not really consider many sports in OZ like netball and cricket and AFL because they are not played on the world stage. Our female basketball improved when they started all going OS. So there is nothing to compare here. Even Rugby League is limited in exposure. Rugby Union is only now starting to go PRO all over the world and we will see the effect of that in ten to twenty years.

In Athletics we do not have coaches for kids. Kids are not taught. There are other problems but it is difficult to change bad habits. In AFL usually paid and competent fitness personnel spend 2 to 3 years fixing up massive deficiencies in players from 17 to 20. And that works and we see a reasonable product by 21. That’s ok for footy and then add some skills based games for fitness and VOILA …Fit and at 25 yo the team wins games.

We have seen the push to work a lot on agility versus change of direction. But my experience was that the freaks (e.g. Gary Ablett) had it all. Ability to change direction, balance and then vision and skill.

In Volleyball all I see is skinny little frail kids jumping around and getting fitter BUT reinforcing very poor “fitness” and neuromuscular habits. Once ingrained hard to change. And Volleyball is a real sport. Played everywhere. Lot harder to succeed in than cricket and netball and AFL. So strength and conditioning at an early age is now in my opinion an absolute priority. We must have players ready at 16 to 18 to explode on the world stage. In AFL they usually cannot squat with a broomstick at that age and it doesn’t matter. One has time in the cloistered environment of AFL. But in tennis and athletics and volleyball and soccer, there is no time. Be good early or perish. So know how to play the sport, make decisions on court, do the clean and jerk and bound through the roof. Not balance on a swiss ball.

I have spent 15 sessions with an elite junior soccer team (12 yo) and have done 45 minutes a week of running technique and core and balance work. The results have been great and now many players are starting to challenge other players in state teams from other clubs. The coach says they are more explosive, balanced and change direction. Add skills and decision making and a talented player assumes their right position. And the young boys like doing it as long as they are not being flogged and they are learning and having fun.

The skills based approached in my opinion can be lazy. Simply get heaps of kids doing the sport and see who comes through. Chuck them a ball and let them play. Of course they will get fit.

It is obvious that one has to learn the sport early and learn to make decisions. We know that multi lateral development is the key at least till puberty. But the missing link is strength and conditioning and movement education at an early age. And core development and balance.

Of course if I get kids to play all day at 100% pace in the backyard chasing dogs and jumping fences they will improve in their vertical jump and 5m tests. But we need to slow down and realize that life aint that easy, and ask the question why we struggle in so many sports.

I think sports science has to slow down a fraction and ask the question “Can I get a male volleyballer to vertical jump 95cm?” or a tennis player to explode sideways and drop their centre of gravity and smash a forheand back to NADAL. Having good salt balance in a drink at Wimbledon will not help if you cannot get to the ball.

Let’s remember that the best coaches are ones that combine ART and SCIENCE.

I love sports science and in fact if we can attend to the strength and conditioning issues at a young age and have skilled kids ready to go at 14 to 16 we will dominate the world. My opinion.

So in summary.

Do everything in development. Zero shortcuts.

And forget non-international sports and non eccentric sports (circling/ rowing, swimming, kayak etc) when comparing and or using sports science.



July 18, 2008 Posted by | AFL, Development, General, Soccer, Strength and Conditioning, Tennis, Track and Field, Volleyball Strength and Conditioning | 2 Comments

Brisbane Lions and Development in the AFL


Here you can see the changes that occur in 2 to 3 years. Whilst Brisbane had a good average age in 2005 their distribution was poor with too many young players and too many old and no warriors. In 2008 we see a team that is too young on stats to win a flag but developing perfectly with a core of players coming through and when that BELL CURVE or PEAK hits 25/26 and 100 games they should be very close. So this seems to be the model required for success in the AFL unless one is lucky or simply has heaps of older or younger champions. Geelong fits this model perfectly and in 2004 had too many young players. So this type of analysis and planning is the key it seems plus add good players and all the other factors mentioned in the previous article on development.

July 7, 2008 Posted by | AFL, Development | Leave a comment

Development in the Australian Football League AFL

I recently listened to Kevin Bartlett and Peter Daicos on SEN talking about development in the AFL. Daicos spoke about the importance of development. It was interesting but still missed the real factors involved in long term development in any sport really. In the end the discussion focussed too much on one or two years.

The AFL is a sanitized and manipulated sport. And so one cannot buy teams it seems. We have seen teams try to mix and match in the past few years and develop on the run by recycling some players. This simply has not worked. Most teams that have won flags recently have stuck with a core of players and worked through almost 10 years of development. West Coast Eagles started a restructure in the late 90’s with their list. Sydney had been though a lengthy period with a mature group before crashing through. Port Adelaide the same with a very mature group. Many years of pre seasons and heartache. And more so waiting till the core group was an average of 25 to 26 years of age with really good proven veterans and quality young players mainly from 21 to 25. Thats it. Add to that what seems to be a need to have some money floating aound to service the team with needs such as medical, fitness, massage and other critical needs. Clubs such as North Melbourne have certainly not delivered given they simply have not had resources in my opinion and yet have been thereabouts. I always use a seemingly trivial area such as massage to point out the need for resources. I am sure the power clubs have massive budgets for massage whilst North would have very little. This is not a 1% but may be a .25%. All adds up by finals.

Time and time again we point at reviews or culture or other totally nebuluous and subejctive concepts. If the team has a core of hardened players that have an average of 6 pre seasons and some finals experience one has a chance. If they average 100 games of AFL footy the chance increases. If the club is well financed the chance increases. If there is some relative and current political stability then the chance increases. We have seen recent examples of clubs winning flags with supposedly poor cultures so I query that one.

We are talking about young men who represent these clubs, but with mature bodies. Every club has a leadership group now but someone has to finish last. If the club can get on a winning role then usually everyone is happy including media and supporters. Added to financial stability this helps . Then clubs make good decisions when in a positive frame of mind and the positive cycle continues. Teams that lose a lot usually meddle and overtrain inseason. More disasters. Young bodies. Old bodies. Stress. Crash and burn.

When teams are firing, bodies are mature, but still vibrant and fresh, less injuries occur. It simply is less stressful. And when less injuries occur there is less drain on the current list and so again less wear and tear occurs and the load is evenly distributed. So less injuries.

Without talking about the science of it all, there is no doubt that a positive frame of mind can assist the avoidance of injury and illness so the whole cycle becomes “virtuous” and one is on a roll.

It takes a glut of injuries or total political instability and some losses to upset this “happy” cycle. Does happen and recent events have demonstrated this. Or in the end your best players are too old and young players too young and there are no warriors in between. By 2005 this was Brisbane. And did Adelaide lose their opportunity to win in 2006 with an injury glut at the end of the season Maybe? But now they seem to have old players and young players. So do they make a decision to go into a long term development phase or do they keep trying to have a crack by mixing and matching given they are so weel resourced and well coached. Tough eh! And is the Bullodgs now reasonable well resourced and with a quality core gorup at the right age? When I did my consultancy on their ACL injuries in 2006 at the Bulldogs I can assure readers that their resources were light years behind those of Geelongs without elaborating. It was tough for the players I thought, after having worked at Essendon. Colingwood and Geelong.

So development means that over time players have pumped weights, run miles, made heaps of decisions on the ground, learnt their skills from coaches, grown up socially and been involved in a vibrant well resourced club. After all there have been some excellent cultures with clubs that are poorly resourced and they do not seem to win.

Remember it takes time and in the highly controlled AFL compettition, 9 times out of ten one simply has to get the best players together at a young age, train them properly for 6 to 8 years and make sure the business is ok. You won’t win with a bunch of 23 years olds or a bunch of 28 year olds and it seems you won’t win with a paupers budget. And this is the AFL not Premier League Soccer where the best can be bought so the AFL’s contolled environment allows for objective analysis.

And then those 25 year olds have to be good players with the odd star. And really the 22 games is the accurate reflection of development. The finals are a slight lottery. And yes other things have to be ok, But get long term development wrong and fight nature and forget it.

Simple. HA.

Loris Bertolacci

July 5, 2008 Posted by | AFL, Development, Uncategorized | 2 Comments