A Victoria University study that examines how Australian Football League (AFL) recruiters draft new players shows that psychological assessments play as strong a role as physical abilities.
Lead author Dr Paul Larkin said the AFL-commissioned study, conducted pre-pandemic, involved in-depth interviews with 12 fulltime recruiters from the League’s 18 teams. Each had extensive experience that ranged from 10 to nearly 50 years in the AFL.
While COVID-19 has dramatically disrupted the capacity of clubs to assess the potential of young talent this year, the study is still significant as one of the only academic investigations ever to detail what AFL recruiters perceive as important when they pick players, and the processes they use to make their decisions, he said.
This year, Australia’s top young footballers will learn their playing futures via a first-time ‘virtual’ national draft on December 9. Selections will be based on limited evaluation opportunities for recruiters to watch prospects play in under-18 championships – where most draft players come from – amplified by budget cuts at many clubs that have affected player-recruitment staff numbers.
“In a normal year, recruiters would have studied hours of in-game video, met and interviewed friends, family, teachers and coaches, and conducted other background checks to develop a full understanding of the player and see if they’re a good fit.”
Mental fitness critical
This study showed that while recruiters considered a variety of interdependent technical, tactical, and psychological attributes, they rated mental fitness and character as among the most critical make-or-break qualities.
“Without exception, recruiters indicated they ruled out prospects they perceived as being unable to handle the pressure of elite competition – no matter how talented they were.”
Recruiters also agreed jumping, running, time trials and other performance 'combine test' were only a small part of a selection puzzle, and much less important than intrinsic qualities, such as gameplay intelligence, that are not easy to coach.
Many perceived that athletes from small communities who had limited exposure to professional training and development had greater potential to improve compared to their city counterparts.
Recruiters also relied on “gut feelings” when statistics didn’t add up, and compared the abilities of prospects to current players at the same age, the study revealed.
Importantly, all recruiters had a deep passion and love of the sport, typically developed through playing the game.
“Recruiters acknowledge theirs is not an exact science, but with increased access to resources and data, they believe they are getting better at identifying who will be the best player for them for the longest period,” he said.
“An eye for talent: The recruiters’ role in the Australian Football talent pathway” was recently published in PLOS One. Dr Paul Larkin is a Research Fellow in VU’s Institute for Health and Sport. He is available for comment.