Working as an AFL Sports Physiotherapist
Working as a Sports Physiotherapist in the AFL can be incredibly challenging, but simultaneously, incredibly rewarding. Challenging, because the stakes are so high, yet rewarding because you are assisting the development of young elite athletes and ensuring their physical preparation is optimal, to promote performance. I am sure anyone who has pushed themselves in training to reach a goal can understand, whenever an athlete trains hard to perform, inherently there is a risk of injury. As an AFL physiotherapist, this is the constant juggling act.
Preseason training can be brutal, not just for the players, but also support staff. It typically runs for three to four months and the key in this stage is to gradually condition players to be tolerant to a long season ahead. As such, training sessions are long and players are tested both physically and mentally. Invariably in this phase of the season, overload injuries are the most common as loads increase. Tendinopathy can present and bone stress injuries are often a risk. The physiotherapist has a major role in screening players physical condition week to week, monitoring any injuries that have, or may be evolving and of course, rehabilitation. The key is to keep players on the track for as long as possible, but if injured, return them back to training as fast as possible. As we know, missing large chunks of pre-season can be a major hindrance to elite performance through a season.
Everyone in the football department are always elated when the season finally arrives. So much of the training, strengthening and planning has been done to ultimately start striving for the ultimate goal, winning games of football. As the match simulation increases late in pre-season and as we move towards games, the incidence of acute soft tissue injuries (such as hamstring strains) and contact injuries (such as knee injuries or shoulder dislocations) become more common. The physiotherapist continues to screen each player weekly post games and this is crucial to help guide and structure their training week. When injuries do present, there is a very structured approach to return them back to play and much discussion is had to coordinate their rehabilitation. The physios are also responsible for preparing the players for training and games (such as taping and treatment).
Athletes at this level, are very lucky to have elite dedicated teams around them to assist including, sports doctors, physiotherapists, sports psychologist, podiatrist, dietician, coaches and a strength and conditioning team. For different athletes and different injuries, the extent that each members plays in the rehab and management of injury is variable, but certainly warranted in most cases.
Challenges and Reward
One of the major challenges as a physiotherapist within the AFL is team dynamics and communication. Within the football department, there are approximately 70 members. This includes players, support staff, the medical and conditioning team, coaches and sports scientists. For team success to occur, each group must be incredibly aligned and communicating the same message. This can be a challenge when the environment is so fast paced, and decisions come quickly.
The reward from a physiotherapy perspective comes when we assist and develop a young athlete to become stronger, more resilient, overcome injury adversity and ultimately return them to their goal of achieving both individual and team success. Working so closely within a team and within competitive sport can be such an adrenaline rush as you ride the waves of wins and losses.
Overall, life as an AFL physiotherapist is constantly challenging as no one day is the same. Different injuries present each week and the skillset to manage and rehabilitate different injuries must be extensive. The ability to communicate within such a large team and work so closely with individual athletes is critical to achieve common goals. Ultimately, it is an amazing place to work as a Sports Physiotherapist and one that is incredibly fulfilling.