Is poor player management the reason why players get a premature exit?

by Clint Youlden

I met this AFL footballer (let’s call him Player X) through a friend of mine, Tavis Perry. Tavis has long been involved with me, and my training innovations, for the past 5 years and encouraged this player to seek out my expertise in speed and coordination training. Tav floated the idea to Player X a few years ago when he was in full demand in the AFL, a stage where he was a great mid-fielder of the competition.

Player X didn’t end up training with me for obvious reasons – footballers are under contract and they must do all their training ‘in-house’. This is fair enough due to injury concerns and the unknown coaches and techniques that outsiders may give their players and the main reason being they think they are the best at what they do, so no one else will be able to do a better job. There are obviously politics involved with this reason also, with coaches being scared that someone might show them to be inferior in either knowledge or being ineffective at improvement, so it’s easier to dismiss others and protect themselves by either highlighting their elite position or ignoring new experts and failing to innovate, overcome or adapt. Player X has since informed me that this is the exact case at a football club and his constant questions regarding ‘how’ he can improve after being told he has to be ‘better’ continually go unanswered by the coaching staff. He claims that this very problem cannot be solved because the people employed to make the athletes better simply don’t know how to make them better. Thus I speculate, as does he, that it is a simple case of coaches hiding behind the theories and ‘standard’ practices of those they read in text books and deferring blame to the ‘expert authors’ if something goes wrong. This is a perfect way for any coach to keep their job, by using everyone else’s methods from ‘regarded’ authorities, it makes them free of responsibility, excuses them from thinking, dismisses them from evaluation and, protects them from any scrutiny.

What results, then, is a player like X, mid 20’s, being shown the door while still in his physical prime. If athletes are properly managed, they reach physical peak between 28-32 years of age. That’s peak, not the end! This means that they should continue to play at the same level until at least 35 and over because any lack of physical ability will be made up for in skill, better energy distribution and expertise at reading the play. If players cannot play until they are this old, it is a simple case of motivation, chronic injury, usually caused by poor player management or overtraining, also caused by poor player management.

I could see the pain and frustration in Player X the very first day we started the training. We spoke candidly about his career and the problems he is now facing. It seems that as a mid 20’s player, he’s being hung out to dry because he doesn’t fit into the ‘future plans’ of the team. A problem all too common in football, the attitude is unacceptable! “Let’s sit on the bottom of the ladder for 10 years and get 10 great draft picks, climb our way up the top of the ladder over the next 3 years, spend 3 years on top the ladder and hopefully win a few flags. Then after the players are all 30years old, get rid of everyone and spend another 10 years at the bottom getting more draft picks.” If anyone ran a business with that attitude in the real world, it wouldn’t last a year!

This bad attitude has only developed over the last 10 years (players being told they are not wanted after 28, or even as young as 25). All this reflects is poor player management and failure to understand the needs and desires of players when they have families and life’s other commitments to get the best performance out of them. A 30-year-old veteran does not need the same coaching and control that an 18-year-old draft-pick does. Two very different stages of life and football experience between them and to treat them the same is going beyond even my boundaries of stupidity. Football is a game that players love and should be enjoyed, not shoved down their throats 24/7.

I’m not going to go into why they should be treated differently, but a 30 year old is bigger, stronger, faster, and takes more out of themselves due to a higher playing intensity and experience. This higher intensity creates more fatigue and requires more rest than what the younger players are able to accumulate. The older players simply don’t need it. There is no merit in treating everyone the same because they aren’t and until football teams realise that, they will be destined to spend most of their seasons on the bottom of the ladder, justifying poor results to fans with their ‘youth policy’ and hiding behind their ‘rebuilding phases’.

About Clint Youlden

Clint Youlden is a High Performance Sports Scientist that specializes in the biomechanics/coaching and training of speed and is also the inventor (and patent holder) of a training method that simultaneously increases all aspects of athletic performance. He deals with skill acquisition, training, nutrition, supplementation, and recovery of athletes. You can contact him on 0402 498 798 or at [email protected]


  1. I’m interested in hearing people’s responses to this article. As you’ve eluded to, we’ve been working together for a long time and have discussed how the AFL condition their athletes ad naseum. I’m still gob smakced that teams still do runs around the tan, let alone put so much onus on the results of them! I chuckled when I read how ‘brock mclean is flying – he beat chris judd in a time trial around the tan..’; almost implying that because he ran a fast time trial he’s ensured of having a good season.. If that’s the case why didn’t Carlton recruit Buster Motram! I doubt anyone could find me a correlation between a fast time trial time and being an effective footballer, in any standard of footy. The most obvious being there’s no correlation between how fast they can run a time trial and how great their work capacity is during a game. It may also have something to do with footy being more specific with repeated, high-intensity, short duration bursts and that excellent anticipation (reading of the play) is more critical than all out speed.

    In terms of player management, I couldn’t agree with you more. I remember talking to a very respected and decorated conditioning coach with one AFL club who said ‘we’ve done the studies and it takes a full week for players to completely recover from a game of AFL footy’. I then asked why, then, do they train them so hard during the week? (though admittedly they don’t train anywhere near as hard during the week as they used to), and he replied ‘they’re full time athletes, they have to do something..’ I think it’s this mentality, in particuluar, that is prematurely ending the careers of a lot of players. Tom Harley and a lot of other retirees this year have said in their retirement speeches ‘my body can’t cope with another rigorous pre-season’. I’m just not convinced that at that age, with that much experience, a player like Tom Harley should be expected to do a ‘rigorous’ pre-season..? Just because they earn a sensational salary from playing footy doesn’t necessarily mean they should be expected to train almost every day. I’d argue that with the correct, calorie controlled diet, a player like Tom Harley could continue to play at the highest level on one training session a week; players get their ‘football specific fitness’ from playing football!

    I think a lot of coaches and conditioning staff would be well advised to look at the theory of ‘how can we ensure that each player is as close to 100% fit (both physically and mentally) as possible, each game’. It’s not rocket science, it’s sports science and I’m yet to meet anyone who makes more sense of it than Clint Youlden.

  2. Clint Youlden says


    North Melbourne also raised concerns this year about their TAN runs. Both of their big men beat the entire team in the run. This obviously raises concerns of the rest of the teams’ fitness, off season slothing around and where were the mid-fielders?

    It raises even more critical issues for me though… First of all is the failure of the mids to maintain their fitness over the break. Why would that be? My experience with AFL players is that they are flogged senseless by season end and they just don’t want anything to do with footy for months. It’s just not the way it should be. Making a professional athlete so sick of his sport he couldn’t be stuffed staying in shape because he knows he has to use everything he’s got when pre-season starts. It just drives them away. (Nathan Ablett anyone?)

    Secondly, is the relevance of the TAN run. If your so-called fittest players (who run the most in games) are not winning the TAN runs, like Tav said, it’s a pretty good indicator that the TAN run is useless for measuring football success. So why do it?

    They do it as a pre-test measure of fitness no doubt and to assess the effectiveness of their fitness program with a post test prior to the season. It’s basically another waste of time because long continuous fitness has nothing to do with game fitness. I’ll leave you with a hypothetical….

    If the TAN pre and post test runs were determining of the success of the pre season program, I would take one player and get him to run the TAN once per week during pre-season and not do anything else. The rest of the team can do the regular training. My one player would smash everyone in the post test TAN run but his football fitness (the one that matters) would be pathetic.

    Like Tav said, It’s not Rocket science, just sports science. Keep it all simple and you’ll win games.

  3. Did the Cats get something right in 2009? Finished off the year a lot better than 2008.

  4. Thanks for the fascinating article Clint.

    A couple of questions:
    – What sort of pre-season regime would you give someone like Tom Harley?
    – How much does a high level of fitness (‘TAN fitness’ rather than ‘football fitness’) minimise injury? I often hear clubs trott out the line that a good pre-season will protect players from injury throughout the season.

  5. I personally do not like the way the game has got so much faster, and therefore players are required to do so much more rigorous training which really does disadvantage the older players. Its alway a shame to see ‘old favorites’ forced into early retirement because their bodies can simply no longer cope with the relentless training they are expected to do.
    I strongly believe the AFL should review this!
    In my opinion AFL players should be able to play until they are at least 35 yrs.

  6. Clint Youlden says


    The Cats built their success on the back of their previous fitness guy Loris Bertolacci. He put all those pieces in place for the success and was made the scape goat for their bad 2006. He always told me that players need about 7 days to recover from a game and the players just got pilates and bullshit training to keep them “busy” during the week. It’s more relaxed stuff to keep them occupied but they should be kicking and handballing instead just to keep their touch up but nothing strenuous.

    Geelong on the back of Thompson, are notoriously light trainers. They don’t train as much as other clubs so I assume you can reach your own conclusion about teams doing too much. The Bulldogs are are prime example, too much periodisation, entertainment and novel training to look impressive, but wouldn’t be any better than just doing simple stuff.

    Rev, Pre-season for Harley would be a solid game situation + weights hitout once per week and just light skill work for accuracy and touch during the week. Maybe throw in another upper body weight session tuesday is he wants and just a good solid diet.
    Working up the time from 1 quarter to 4 quarters over the last 4 weeks prior to the season and you’re away. Match fit, in touch and fresh as a daisy with only really one session per week during the off-season. (And that is plenty to maintain and develop fitness)

    I wouldn’t think that a TAN run would minimise injury at all. Fitness is extremely specific to the characteristics of a sport. Craig Mottram can run the ass off the TAN but as soon as he got on a field and had to cut, tackle, sprint and back it up, he’d last about 3 minutes and probably tear a hammy. It wouldn’t minimise his injuries at all, in fact it would actually increase the chance of injury. When someone is highly trained in a specific fitness quality, his muscles only really adapt to the characteristics of that activity and if it is of a very high level, the muscle is basically weak and ineffective at doing anything else. So if he then asks his body to produce a maximal force, cut or sprint, his muscles simply cannot contract that way effectively and they usually tear. We had 7 hamstring injuries during the first round last season, if pre-season training is so good, why is this happening? They simply aren’t ready for game specific activity which proves that pre-season training is usually sub-par.

    This is why specific fitness is the only way to minimise injuries and maintain longevity in sport. Start with 100% intensity and gradually build up from 1 quarter to 4 quarters. Not hard just smart and simple. The players would benefit from more actual football play too instead of long boring and novelty training.

    Does anyone actually ask the players what they want to do or what they need?

  7. Clint,
    Great article in that you are actually questioning the validity of some of the methods employed by AFL clubs. I, too, am amazed that elite-level clubs are still conducting pre-season time-trials around the Tan or Princes Park. I still remember “Whale” Roberts saying how much he despised pre-season Tan runs. It’s a wonder they are not still playing scratch matches at Skinner Reserve!
    How will it all change? Some time in the future, one particular club will employ a novel pre-season regime which is followed by regular-season success…watch all the other clubs then scramble to alter their pre-season methods to follow suit!
    I also continue to be staggered by the comments of retirees in the vein of “I couldn’t face another pre-season”. I would suggest they are referring to both the physical and psychological aspects. Would a Matthew Lloyd be fronting up again if the thought of yet another pre-season was NOT looming in front of him.
    The increased pace and more physical nature of the game is also having a great effect on players’ longevity. It was interesting to note that, for instance, some 12 or so Bulldogs players had post-season surgery of some sort. I would guess that this would be par for the course at AFL clubs these days.

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