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Enjoyment has gone out of the game, says coaching legend

Ben Collins  June 6, 2013 5:09 PM

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Veterans like Sam Mitchell are concerned that careers may be shortened by modern game's demands

We pay them (AFL players) extreme amounts of money, and then we make them the most unbalanced people in Australian society by not demanding other things of them.
AFL FOOTBALL has become so structured that some players no longer enjoy playing it, while the increased physical demands could shorten careers.
 
These revelations emerged during a speech by four-time premiership coach David Parkin, who was the keynote speaker at the third inaugural Norm Smith Oration at the MCG on Wednesday night.
 
A typically impassioned Parkin was disturbed by conversations he'd had with experienced players – including Hawthorn champion Sam Mitchell – who were struggling to cope with the changing demands of the game.
 
"(Players are) going quicker more often and they’re tiring a lot faster, and they’re having to come off (the ground more)," he said.
 
"Sam Mitchell's a good mate of mine … (and) he talks about the impossibility of playing the role that he plays on a weekly basis without, a) not doing anything but to recover from one week to the next, and [b)] not being able to play out the full game at the intensity that's required with and without the ball …
 
"We got up to about 21kms in a game – a half-marathon – and it's gone back to about 13.5kms. But the 13.5kms will be run at an incredible repeat speed. And that has placed certain things in jeopardy.
 
"I talked to the three inside players at Hawthorn over a meal not so long ago and they were saying the way the game was being played, the chance to prepare for the next game and train for it is impossible, and they are convinced that the end product for them will be a shorter playing career."
 
Parkin, who says he speaks to many players, was also troubled and saddened that these evolutions were testing some players' love of the game.
 
"What really concerned me at the AFLPA's seminar this year – I sat with a number of players, but they tended to be the older ones – (and they) were saying that they don’t enjoy the game," he said.
 
"The sheer going out, chasing the ball, kicking it and creatively trying to do something was being controlled by the structures they play within. They come to a stoppage (and) they all have a role to play which is predetermined.
 
"So their joy of actually playing the game that most of us played as a sheer expression of chasing a ball and doing something with it has been lost somewhat. Now that seems to be very sad at the top level."
 
A longtime advocate for players achieving a healthy work-life balance, Parkin is in favour of lifting the draft age by a year.
 
An "absolute bugbear" of Parkin's, which he has shared informally with AFL commissioners (including Linda Dessau, who was in attendance on Wednesday night), was that some draftees enter the AFL system as balanced teenagers and were transformed into unbalanced adults.
 
Research to help AFL players find better work-life balance
 
"We recruit them into our game at a pretty young age … when they’re just finishing their schooling, rather than (drafting them) the year after they've finished their schooling and have grown up a bit.
 
"We then put them on a pedestal because they can kick and catch a football. We pay them extreme amounts of money, and then we make them the most unbalanced people in Australian society by not demanding other things of them …
 
"From the moment they come in the door, we should be preparing them for life after (football). The transition is the difficult thing.

"If you've lived your life in a specialist role and that's the only thing you've done … and you retire, or are forced to retire, you lose your identity … I have dealt with it so often."
 
Parkin cited Carlton's 1995 premiership team, which he coached, as an example of a group of players who were leading "fulfilling" lives post-football. He said the club had "compelled" the players to do something worthwhile outside the game.
 
"If they weren't working, if they weren't studying, if they weren't doing an apprenticeship, if they weren't working in one of our community programs … we'd want to know why, and a lot of pressure would go on those people," he said.
 
The president of the AFL Coaches' Association, Parkin plans to convince the coaches that "more football is not necessarily better"; that another vocation might enable players to perform more consistently, enjoy longer careers, exhibit less anti-social behaviour and make more successful transitions to their post-football careers.
 
Ben Collins is a reporter for AFL Media. Follow him on Twitter: @AFL_BenCollins