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Idle Hands, Devil’s Work: St Kilda FC and their Problem with Early Career Players

In the past few months the St Kilda FC has been struggling to manage a number of highly publicised incidents involving its players – early career and senior. Following an incident at a training camp in Queenstown (NZ) St Kilda suspended four of its players (three of whom were just beginning their AFL careers) for six weeks and told them to get a ‘real job’. Officials at the Club said that these young men had too much money and too much time on their hands, and this explained why they got into trouble (mixing alcohol and sleeping pills and breaking ‘team rules’).
Over the past decade or so Clubs, the AFL-PA, the AFL Executive and the Commission have done much to support the development of the idea of a professional identity for today’s crop of AFL footballers. Over the last five years we have been interested in the ways the AFL, its Clubs and the ALF-PA approach the development of a professional identity for players in the current environment of the AFL sports entertainment industry. In 2008 we published a book called The Struggle for the Body, Mind and Soul of AFL Footballers that explored many of these issues in detail.
It is clear that the dominant approach to professional development in the AFL has largely followed a risk management model underpinned by a player welfare logic. There is a tendency in this model to try to minimise the risk or damage associated with less than professional behaviour hopefully before, but often after, the event. And to counsel, even punish, players in the hope that players will be more professional in the future. St Kilda has been dealing with their recent issues in this sort of way.
Yet tensions exist between, and within, different levels of the AFL sports entertainment industry about what it means to be a professional footballer at the start of the 21st century. These tensions can best be understood in the following ways:
From the time that a young man sets out to develop an identity as a professional footballer he is encouraged to plan, to think, and to take steps to NOT be a footballer:
The position description of a professional footballer increasingly extends beyond an ability to run, jump, and kick into various off-field responsibilities and duties shaped by the sports entertainment environment.
In our book and in a number of papers we have suggested that the many complex issues that shape player performance and development (on and off the field) can best be understood by focusing on the relationships between a player’s Body, Mind and Soul, and whether they are Early, Mid or Late Career players.
In this sense:
The Body presents itself, and what it can do, as something that can be objectively and scientifically defined, described and developed. It can be made stronger, repaired, trained, cared for, understood by the individual and by others whose job it is to get it out on the field each week.
The Mind also presents itself as something that may be described, measured and understood in scientific frameworks. It presents itself, or is described in terms such as ‘coach-ability’ or ‘teach-ability’, or ‘football brain’. It can be developed and moulded by concerns for decision making, accountability and discipline – both on and off the field.
The Soul should not just be thought of in ‘spiritual terms’. It presents itself as something that is obvious, but hard to describe. Words such as character, attitude, work ethic, courage, and moral judgement indicate what we are describing here. The Soul is an intangible concept that presents great problems for scientific measurement and definition.
We have described different career phases in the following ways:
  • Early Career players – zero to four years as an AFL player
  • Mid Career players – 4 to 8 years as an AFL player
  • Late Career players – 8 plus years as an AFL player
A snapshot of the different challenges and concerns at these different times in a career comes from these quotes from interviews we did with players
Nothing can prepare you for the intensity of the training. The first two years I was here I just used to go home and lie on the couch between training sessions. You’re just bloody exhausted. I started a course doing something, marketing I think, but to be honest I didn’t give a shit about it. I was just flat out keeping up with the training. (Early Career player)
It’s a different feeling when you become part of the team and you stop having to worry about whether you will get a game, or even stay at the club, any more. I don’t know when it happened but all of a sudden I knew I could compete at the top level and wasn’t worried about that anymore. I guess that’s when I started to think about other things, things outside of footy. (Mid Career player)
I’ve always played like it could be my last game, or year. Being a Late Career player doesn’t change that. I could’ve done a knee or something years ago and just disappeared out of the game. I’ve seen a lot of that over the years. There’s a fair bit of luck involved in playing football for a long time. (Late Career player)
The overwhelming message that we got from talking to Early Career players was that they wanted to do everything that they could to establish a career. They didn’t have the energy, the time, the drive to do things to prepare to NOT be a footballer.
What Clubs might think about when faced with the sorts of issues confronted by St Kilda is that in the first few years of a player’s career – which according to some data may last less than three years and not reach 30 games – it makes little sense to compel young players to prepare to NOT be a footballer. Investing in excess of $150,000 each year on each Early Career player should, you would think, make the Club focus on the ways it develops young players to give them the best opportunity to succeed (and provide the Club with some return on its investment).
Keep them around the Club. Develop them. Make them accountable. Provide education, support and challenges – on and off the field. Accept some responsibility for the organisation’s culture and how this shapes, and is shaped by,  the young men it recruits. In the end, move from a player welfare, risk management logic to a professional development logic. Really embrace diversity. Open up to outside influences. Don’t adopt a siege mentality. Join the 21st century!
With Christopher Hickey


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