AFLPA CEO Matt Finnis
Put yourself in the shoes of a player - if I'm focusing on these other activities, is that positive or negative for football?
AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou admitted he was disturbed to hear at Wednesday's AFL Drug Summit that it was becoming increasingly difficult for players to undertake education and engage in meaningful off-field activities while forging an AFL career.
However, the AFL Players' Association has been aware of that reality for a while, so it is going beyond the clichés about work-life balance in its search for ways to increase the prospect of AFL players living balanced lives.
As part of that quest, it has commissioned research to better understand what players need to achieve a positive lifestyle.
The research project being conducted by the Australian Catholic University under the leadership of Associate Professor John Saunders and funded through the AFL Research Board will also examine associations that exist between off-field educational and recreational activities and on-field performance.
While similar topics have long been a discussion point in AFL circles, this project - Associations between AFL player off-field activities and on-field performances - intends to look deeper into the subject than the sport ever has before.
The findings will underpin efforts to make AFL clubs what AFLPA CEO Matt Finnis describes as "first class sporting environments that take in the needs of players as individuals".
The project also acknowledges the tension that can rise between clubs striving for a premiership while its players try to retain some normality.
Key researcher Matthew Pink from the ACU spent two weeks inside an AFL club during phase one of the three-year, three-phase project, to better understand what variables were relevant in creating a positive environment.
He will use this information to develop survey instruments that will generate understanding about the situation at all clubs concerning AFL players' off-field activities during the next two seasons.
He presented the lessons learned in phase one to AFLPA delegates in December.
Pink is likely to update AFL CEOs on the purpose of the research at their next meeting in May.
The initial findings will be included in the AFL Players' Development and Wellbeing report to be released this week.
Among the key initial findings was that the ease with which players were able to schedule off-field activity determined their willingness to be involved in things away from the club. The time they had to 'fit in' the activity was also considered critical to determining their engagement and satisfaction with off-field activity.
The AFLPA sees the initial results as further validation of the need for players to have a set calendar during the football season that provides them with as much certainty in planning off-field activities as is possible.
While some clubs are unlikely to schedule a specific day each week in 2013 – as was envisaged in the CBA completed at the end of 2011 – many will allocate their day off as being two days before each game allowing players to engage in some long-term planning.
A club's recognition of the player's life outside of football, the quality of a player’s relationship with the club's player development manager and encouraging rather than forcing players to engage in off-field activities were all considered relevant to how satisfactory a player was able to arrange a balanced life.
Pink said it was natural for people to focus on the now but it also did not appear to be beneficial to demand players do something (off the field) in order to plan for life after football.
The decisions facing players were much more complex than that.
"Put yourself in the shoes of a player," Pink said. "If I'm focusing on these other activities, is that positive or negative for football? At the moment as lot of those decisions are made on gut feel."
And the information will work to lessen any tension that might exist by understanding how best to reach both club and player objectives.
"It's not about proving a causal link between off-field activity and on-field performance, it is seeing how they are related, and how we can get the best out of these off-field activities particularly around both education and recreation [that] provide a work-life balance without them impeding upon a club's core business," Pink said.
The first phase of the research is over. Some lessons have been learned about what a positive experience looks like through a player's eyes.
And with work-life balance for players now on the agenda it's important a new model for a new era is identified.
"It may not only be what the player does but also how they do it, how often, how they perceive the activity and the level of support provided by the club that influences any association between the activity and a player's performance," Pink said..