The game of AFL football has often been referred to as a ‘young man’s game’.

However, with so many players now playing well into (and well in) their 30s, does this idiom actually hold any water?

With names such as Dangerfield, Cotchin, Hawkins and Pendlebury still performing above par past their 30th birthdays, this theory has already begin to leak.

According to the AFLPA, the average career length for a footballer in 2014 was said to be around six seasons. Due to the vast majority of these athletes beginning their careers at just 18, many are forced into other lines of work well before 30 candles are lit atop their birthday cake.

Nevertheless, there are currently 82 footballers in the league aged 30 and over. This is exactly double the amount of 41 recorded in 2010

This former leak has progressed to deluge status.

So what are the reasons for this current inclination? Also, will this trend continue or will it fade out of fashion like bellbottoms and Barry Manilow tunes?

There are numerous reasons credited for this rise, but none mystifies the masses more than the implementation and improvement of sports science.

Although we often hear this term uttered by the game’s many talking heads, we are regularly at a loss as to what the discipline actually involves.

With so many of our greatest stars inching towards greying, we sought to peel back the layers of ambiguity and misinterpretation to provide you with some answers as to why Zimmer frames may eventually become de rigueur for professional footballers.

The science of the matter

At the elite AFL level, there are a myriad of off-field roles designed to improve player’s on-field performances.

According to former AFL sports scientists David Mission and David Buttifant, positions such as high performance, rehab and strength coaches provide necessary information and instruction designed to optimize player output in games.

When paired with the additional professions of club doctors and dieticians, sports scientists are tasked with a plethora of responsibilities that include:

  • Introducing tailored training schedules
  • Collecting and analysing GPS data
  • Beginning and maintaining injury prevention and rehabilitation programs
  • Implementing recovery courses (including the dreaded ice bath)

As these programs are personalised, they consider a player’s age, body shape and role in the game.

Already we can see that AFL players are not like the general population. With the ability to focus solely on their high paying job and with so many trained professionals at their beck and call free of charge, it has theoretically never been easier to remain fit and injury free.

But how do these programs specifically allow for so many athlete’s careers to continue past 30?

American journalist Jeff Bercovici believes he has the answers.

In his 2018 book ‘Play On: The New Science of Elite Performance at Any Age’, Bercovici introduces the notion of ‘peak age’. This is the supposed period in which athletes are at their most likely to succeed.

After meticulous research, this window of opportunity is said to arrive and remain open in the latter portions of athletic careers, citing Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Tom Brady as prime examples. It is said that their collective experience and maturity across many situations allow for their individual successes.

The San Francisco based scribe also states that when athletes age, their bodies get worse at rejuvenating and repairing themselves.

New research into fatigue and the implementation of technology to monitor it allows for players to minimise their risk of injury and thus prolong their careers.

Further research conducted by Peter Keir, a professor of Kinesiology at McMaster University in Canada, corroborates Bercovici’s contention.

Keir, like Bercovici, points out that the biggest factors in athlete’s career lengths are that as they age, it is smarter play, not harder or faster, that allows for their careers to continue.

The Canadian academic also contests that the intangible and immeasurable elements of ‘luck and mindset’ play a part in longevity.

Keir is also emphatic that competitors that play in low contact positions and conditions are almost certainly the most likely to play past standard use by dates.

Now this may be well and good for those that wield a racket or play clad in armour, but Australian Rules Football is without doubt the most athletically demanding sport on the face of the earth.

With the ability to be crunched from all angles and a contemporary premium placed upon endurance running, surely there are other factors specific to our code that must be analysed.

Research conducted at Brisbane’s Australian Catholic University in 2018 begins to paint a clearer picture.

In their publication titled ‘Applied Sport Science of Australian Football: A Systemic Review’, ACU sports medicine scholars looked at a myriad of factors specific to the indigenous code, such as:

  • The many demands of AFL footballers
  • Physical and player qualities
  • Fitness of elite footballers
  • Body composition/s
  • Training loads
  • Fatigue
  • Match Importance

This review conducted by three academics and one Brisbane Lions employee (sports scientist, Nick Murray) allowed for a multitude of conclusions to arise.

Firstly, it was found that the physical demands of AFL football exceeded those of other sports due to the length and nature of the game.

Secondly, elite footballers must be given tailored training regimes in an effort to build tactical and physical skills.

In conjunction with this, internal and external workloads of players must be managed to not only improve performance, but also minimise potential injuries.

Finally, and most tellingly, it was found that younger players often take upwards of three seasons to build these skills and become competent, consistent footballers.

A young man’s game, you say? Think again.

For the modern footballer, their job is no longer confined to four quarters on the weekend. It is a 24/7 profession where preparation is as important as performance.

It is now completely clear that the days of professional footballers digging ditches and collecting wheelie bins during the week are dead and buried.

Gone too are the serves of Friday night fish and chips, cigarettes and skinfuls of grog the players of yore once consumed.

Footy’s food pyramid

Modern footballers may earn higher wages and have fingertip access to a myriad of food delivery services, however, they have never had less agency in regards to what fills their stomachs.

For years, cereal giants Kellogg’s have shifted Nutri Grain with a simple slogan – ‘you only get out what you put in’.

This motto may as well be the catch cry of club dieticians the league wide.

Although the ideals of ‘clean eating’, regular exercise and remaining hydrated seem like habits that the human race understand the benefits of, still, these practices only became common place at AFL clubs in the past few decades.

Tony Wilson’s 2020 book ‘1989: The Great Grand Final’ is more than just a quarter by quarter breakdown of arguably the greatest decider in games history. It provides readers with a peek within the inner sanctum during Hawthorn’s halcyon days.

Wilson stated that after being overpowered and overrun by Carlton in the 1987 Grand Final, the lethargic Hawks employed the services of pre-eminent dietician, Karen Inge.

Inge imparted on the playing group the importance of hydration and the necessity in abstaining from ‘fatty foods’ and alcohol. She was also credited with the introduction of the feared skinfold calipers.

Former mulleted Hawk and noted September specialist Gary Ayres stated that Inge’s advice not only helped him shed five kilograms of added weight, but in turn aided in expanding the length of his career with his soft tissue woes eliminated.

With premierships in ’88, ’89 and ’91, Inge’s post as culinary and lifestyle advisor at Glenferrie was soon adopted by every other club in the league.

With KFC kicked to the curb in favour of kale, the era of ‘athlete first and footballer second’ had dawned.

It is why fans in the stand are more likely to see player’s with Mark Blicav’s frame and fitness than that of Tony Lockett.

Contemporarily, players spend more time within the four walls of the club than ever before. Due to these long days of meetings and training, eating meals as a collective has become the norm.

These meals are not prepared by the players themselves, but rather by professional chefs and volunteers under the watchful eyes and specifications of the dieticians.

Away from the club, playing lists are still under strict dietary instructions. Be that as it may, the superstars of the code still have the ability to separate themselves from the rest of the competition – even in the kitchen.

In 2014, reigning Brownlow medalist Gary Ablett Jnr revealed that one of the secrets to his on-field success was the stringent adherence to a previously unheard of regimen – the paleolithic diet.

It was said that Ablett, then a Gold Coast Sun, would consume a diet of grass fed, pasture raised meats, birds, fish, nuts, vegetables, and fruit.

So fastidious was he in his obedience, Ablett even directed trained culinary professionals at the team’s hotels on how to prepare his meals.

With the AFL being a ‘copycat’ league and with Ablett still performing wonders at age 36, we may see more players eating like cavemen in order to replicate even an iota of his output.

It is true that a healthy diet, in conjunction with the benefits provided by sports science, can add years to a footballer’s career. Nevertheless, they are not the only factors halting many from hanging the boots up.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – SEPTEMBER 20: Gary Ablett of the Cats in action during the 2019 AFL Second Preliminary Final match between the Richmond Tigers and the Geelong Cats at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on September 20, 2019 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Adapting and advancing

With each dawning season, the league’s rules committee eagerly announce new rules in an effort to counteract the ills of the previous year’s fixture.

While the vast majority of these alterations on the surface seem to have been designed solely to irritate crowds, it must also be said that some improvements that aide player health have been enacted.

The implementation of the 2014 concussion protocol and the condensed quarters of this 2020 season have realistically helped avoid injuries and in turn re-injuries.

According to a Sydney Morning Herald article in March of this year, research conducted by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare showed that head injuries (namely concussion) made up 12% of the 4789 AFL players that were hospitalised between 2016-17.

With the sheer weight of these avoidable injuries occurring and the post career CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) plights of Graham ‘Polly’ Farmer and Danny Frawley coming to light, the league mandating that the head be sacrosanct is welcomed by all.

Such a decree, along with shortened shifts being worked by players this season, not only allows for smaller windows for injury to open, but also lengthier recovery and rehab periods available for players and coaches alike.

As the game has become faster, with a premium placed on running ability rather than disposal efficiency, less one on one play occurs on the oval.

If we bear in mind Professor Peter Keir’s research that stated that those in low contact positions are rewarded with longer career spans, the current state of the game offers a perfect platform for footballers to continue playing well into their 30s and beyond.

ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA – APRIL 26: Travis Boak of the Power celebrates a goal during the 2019 AFL round 06 match between the Port Adelaide Power and the North Melbourne Kangaroos at Adelaide Oval on April 26, 2019 in Adelaide, Australia. (Photo by James Elsby/AFL Photos/Getty Images)

Lightening the load

Despite the fact that it is a key factor in allowing their careers to continue, players despite it.

Former Houston Rockets and New York Knicks head coach, Jeff Van Gundy labelled the ploy an Australian invention.

Since the trust in sports science measures have grown due to the results they yield, further adaptations that wouldn’t have flown in the past have recently been implemented.

I speak of course about the ploy of load management or put technically, the practice of monitoring physiological stress.

Unlike yesteryear, players are no longer forced to play whilst hurt. Routinely, we see them sitting on the bench, clad in tracksuit tops with ice attached to minor ailments instead of being hit with the magic spray and hidden in the forward pocket.

These players often used to retain their place in the team for the next week, but in recent times doctors have erred on the side of caution, preferring instead to play the long game.

The attachment of the term ‘managed’ next to a player that has missed selection is now as ubiquitous as those of ‘injured’ and ‘omitted’.

Load management may not be as prevalent in Australia as it is around the globe, due in no small part to less rigorous fixturing demands, still it is regularly implemented by teams as a tool to preserve the fitness of their youngest and oldest players.

Australian sports scientist Dr. Tim Gabbett believes that a balance must be struck between rest and play.

Gabbett claims that “Load Management has to be about making players available more often – and making them available in the best shape possible.”

He does contend though that rather than focusing on how long and how often players are on the field for, the attention needs to be shifted to the quality and quantity of the time spent preparing for these playing minutes.

Gabbett does acknowledge that the practice is not entirely foolproof.

“Good load management minimises injury by bringing players safely to their peak performance. But even the best training programs cannot eliminate injuries all together, nor can they predict them with perfect accuracy.”

Although an inexact science at the best of times, it must be noted that clubs nationwide have access to technology that has the ability to measure muscle imbalances and perform body composition scans in an effort to reduce and predict injuries.

Once again, smarter, not harder or faster.

Despite being hotly debated across a range of codes and wildly misunderstood by fans in the stands, when you next see an ageing veteran from your favourite team sidelined for what seems to be no particular reason, just know there is method to the madness.

The refusal to hang them up

Once footballers begin playing past the age of 30, they have usually achieved accolades in the game and are seen as ornaments of their respective clubs.

This level of clout often allows players the right to ‘go out on their own terms’ and retire when they best see fit.

However, with player wages at an all-time high, the ability to bask in the public limelight and an outlet for their invariably competitive natures, it is unsurprising that so many are desperate to keep pushing the sunset back into the sky.

Sadly, we can’t stay young forever and the rest of our lives come calling. Footballers are often at a loss with how to operate in standard society once the final siren sounds. ‘Post playing blues’ set in and their competitive natures can’t be satisfied with a family trip to the bowling alley.

Even though footballers are remunerated handsomely for, in essence, playing a game, it is not simply physical fatigue that can bring careers to untimely closes.

The issues of stress, anxiety and depression can affect even the strongest and richest athletes. We need look no further than former number one draft pick Tom Boyd calling time on his career due to his battles with these ills.

Hall of fame baseball catcher Carlton ‘Pudge’ Fisk summarised this panic best in an interview prior to his eventual retirement.

“I’m afraid to leave the game because I’m afraid there’s nothing out there for me. I have no burning desire to do anything else. Baseball has been so much of my life. Will anything else be that rewarding?”

Fisk’s fears are not at all uncommon amongst athletes. However, these negative emotions are often used by ageing competitors as motivation.

Aforementioned kinesiology expert Peter Keir claims that it is an unyielding stubbornness that keeps so many players motivated past 30.

“A lot of it is, for a lack of a better term, old fashioned stubbornness. [These athletes] are going to stay on top as long as they can.”

“I think that plays a huge role in the desire to stay there and work as hard.”

With clubs more willing to sign veterans to single year contracts on discounted rates, these mule-like old timers are afforded the opportunity to scratch their competitive itches whilst planning for life after football. All the while still studded boots still on their feet.

Dayne Zorko during the round 10 AFL match between the Brisbane Lions and the Sydney Swans at The Gabba on May 26, 2018 in Brisbane, Australia.

What does the future hold?

Every sport has one. Some ageing champion who seemed destined to live out every boy’s dream for eternity. A middle-aged man that refused to give in, give up and go home.

Tom Brady is just about to begin a new chapter in Tampa at 43.  Stanley Matthews played first division football until he was fifty. The great Satchel Paige pitched just shy of his 60th birthday. Gordie Howe retired from the NHL when he was 52 only to return to play a shift in his sixties.

In AFL lore, we have Dustin Fletcher – the inspector gadget doppelganger who laced his behemoth boots and became only the second man to play past his 40th birthday.

As the discipline of sports science continues to evolve and the specialists at each football club seemingly wield more power than ever, this collective of senior specimens are likely to become members of a pack rather than just a quintet of memorable outliers.

So, unlike flared jeans and furiously poor soft rock records, this current fashion of remaining forever young looks set to continue.