loris bertolacci

Sport, Health and Fitness

The future of High Performance programs in the AFL in Australia post COVID-19

Sad time in modern world history and I wish a discussion like this could be avoided. But reality is the AFL landscape and elite team sports will be forced to change. No one knows what impact this will have. Sporting teams have to start putting plans in place on how they are going to set up the team behind the team to get the product rolling again.

My AFL career started with Essendon Football Club in 1987 in a Strength and Conditioning Role. This was the first year of AFL but players still worked. I stayed at Essendon till 1993 and after the club won a premiership went to Collingwood for a year as High Performance Manager. I was deemed a guru! We featured in a famous game in Perth called Mission Impossible against West Coast Eagles in 1994. Almost won! Back to Essendon as High Performance Manager 1995 to 1998 then 8 years at Geelong Football Club in the same role. By 2006 when I left, the club had featured in 5 finals in 2004 & 2005 and this was the nucleus of the great team of 2007 and 2011. I also was a consultant at the Western Bulldogs in 2006 and 2007, delivering a report on their 2006 ACL injury plight and assisting with their speed and strength program and staff development in 2007. 

I have been lucky since to work in many sports and also at the development and sub elite level of AFL football. Now in China I am assisting teams with strength and conditioning at the Shanghai Institute of Sport. You can check my CV on  this blog and also my Linkedin profile.

One of the first job cuts we saw in this crazy period with Covid-19 was in elite sports. It was reported that 80% of High Performance staff were sadly and hopefully short term laid off. This hits home when compared to the explosion of Exercise Science courses and High Performance courses in Australia and the number of highly qualified, skilled  and competent people and graduates competing for these valued positions.



The best case scenario is that Australia can recover quickly economically and that most of these people can get back to doing what they love and do so well, even if with less financial reward. The worst case scenario may be a return to High Performance programs in the AFL, similar to those that evolved from 1993 to approximately 2002. The show will go on but the worst case will be that the team behind the team will change drastically for a while. 

Will the product on the field be drastically reduced? I believe we have to look at the law of diminishing returns to answer this. How much did each increase in Football Departments since the “arms race” started in earnest in the mid 2000’s impact performance on the field? 

So what did the AFL football department look like in 1993? At Essendon, Danny Corcoran was the administrative manager but at night swapped his suit for tracksuit and was on the track. I was doing all the strength and conditioning and rehabilitation part time and Oscar Kenda took speed. We had the odd dietician coming in and out. That was it. I am not going to describe the medical side but to be honest the evolution with medical, massage and specialists has been the same. So in 1993 what was the cost? If we leave Danny out (because he was Football manager) it was maybe $30,000 maximum $50,000 and in 1993 Essendon won the premiership. At that time in my part time role I did all the skinfolds, all the rehabilitation with return to play and all the S&C, plus any sports science we used at the time. At the same time I worked full time as a gym manager. 

In 1994 Collingwood undertook a rapid transition to become one of the first full time programs in AFL. Here I was the full time High Performance Manager and had a full time assistant (which was unheard of then) plus one part timer. The club had a consultant dietician and I think that was it. With on costs, staffing this program cost approximately. $100,000 to $130,000. I do not have exact budgets but the trend is apparent.

At Essendon in 1995 again I was the only full timer, this time with 2 part time assistants plus consultants, dieticians and psychologists who back then would not have been getting paid much. I really think that the costs to staff that program again came in under $100,000. Not 100% sure but not $200,000!.  This remained the same in 1996 and interestingly I employed Andrew Russell (who has won flags at Hawthorn and Port Adelaide as a High Performance Manager and now at Carlton) in 1996 as a part timer on $20 an hour. By then I had heart rate monitors, lactate analysers and other sports science gear and I was doing it all again with a few interns assisting me.

1997 saw a massive change at Essendon where with  CEO Peter Jackson, we organized a trip to the Australian Institute of Sport where we spent a week looking at evidence based best practice in all areas. On the trip we had fitness, sports medicine and coaching staff plus management in attendance. Essendon went full time and revamped its facilities but in the fitness and sports science area we still only had one full timer up until 1998. After that the landscape throughout the AFL changed rapidly and some clubs started spending more money. However the big revenue from TV rights had yet to kick in, facilities were still pretty basic and many clubs still did not have many full time roles. 

Working at Geelong from 1998 to 2003 I was at a club that was cash strapped due to debt uncovered in 1999. After that the High Performance department had a very tight budget. Not much more than $100,000 I reckon for fitness staff and equipment. I remember my brother in law Gus Puopolo, who is a Geelong supporter, made some power racks for the club and I luckily knew where to buy very cheap second hand gear due to my gym background. In 1999 and 2000 I only had 2 part time staff helping me. By 2001 I did have one  full timer but their pay was in the vicinity of $32,000 plus one or two part timers on casual rates. We did have a very small budget for sports science but again I was the Sports Scientist, S&C coach, rehabilitation for return to play and High Performance Manager all rolled into one. 

So that paints a picture of how teams were prepared in that era. It did vary. Some clubs like West Coast Eagles, Swans and Essendon were evolving quickly but the Arms race in fitness and sports science had not started yet.

The million dollar question is how much has the product on the field improved due to the massive High Performance programs now? Obviously it has improved a lot. But a lot in sport can be 3%. High Performance staff numbers and costs were skyrocketing until the AFL put in place a “soft cap” on spending in footy departments. Players now are leaner, more individually and specifically prepared. Budgets in High Performance programs have gone up a lot more than 10%. In some cases 10 times more now than the era I have described.! 

By the mid 2000’s we could afford GPS units and dieticians and rehabilitation staff plus some specialists like tackling coaches. It was obvious in the late 80’s and early 90’s some players were awesome athletes and comparable to now but others simply could play footy, squat and bench press 60kg, have high skinfolds and would not survive in today’s game unless they improved their conditioning. 

High performance programs in any elite sport worldwide are a very recent phenomenon in the world history of sport and it is difficult to not ask the question how much has the “Arms Race” in AFL Football Departments produced a better product. 5% or 20%? Probably can only subjectively answer that given the impact of assistant coaches, medical staff, video technology, facilities.

With everyone looking for the 1%ers the law of diminishing returns ensured that we were possibly reaching a ceiling. So in the worst case scenario will we see a return to less full time staff? Time will tell. One model I used at Geelong in 2005, when we were making the transition to having some cash to splash around, was to have 2 full time staff but have a large contingent of part timers who had specific roles from sports science to speed development to Strength  & Conditioning and Pilates for example. All up probably represented 75% of my Assistants full time salary. In the worst case scenario this is a model that would make things tight but can work to underpin the training needs of an AFL team, and I think the product would look much the same, plus keep current staff aligned to elite programs.

What the public wants to see when this crazy time in history ends, is their champion players playing at their best. The game on the ground is what matters most, the fans will return and they will want entertainment. So administrators need to carry the burden also.  

It will be difficult for current staff within the system to visualize or implement necessary changes given downsizing is always tough. And this is new ground for managers. Many have been seduced by the hype surrounding sports science and gurus.  I hope Australia bounces back economically ahead of the world and we can get the best case scenario occurring so that a lot of my mates are back doing what they do best. 

No one can predict the future at this stage let alone what will happen in the AFL High Performance system. It is not high on the agenda given the health and economic issues confronting the world. But given there are best case and worst case scenarios I am sure clubs in the AFL, and around the world are starting to plan for options on how to set up their departments in the future. I assume eyes will be on China where the CBA Basketball competition was supposed to start soon but has been put back as has football (soccer). They have commercial needs just like clubs in Australia and  some overseas staff have been asked to come back to China to prepare the team. Sure their progress will be interesting. 

GIven I spanned many eras in AFL High Performance settings I am more than happy to connect and share what I have learnt in football departments on how to deliver an efficient program with minimal resources. I just left the scene when the Arms Race was starting.  Let’s hope again this feedback and expertise is not needed. But the High Performance AFL landscape could be a bit different for a little while. The AFL product is strong though and the public love their footy. I do not like talking about the “new normal”. One constant in life is change and as the economy heals so will football departments.


April 2, 2020 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment