Closing gap between kids, debutants

When he started at the AFL early last year, the first thing Mark Evans turned his mind to was the umpiring department. Next on the list: talent. That the league is finetooth-combing a junior pathway that doesn’t have too much wrong with it creates the sense that its review has come at a good time, and that the ideas raised and adopted will be considered and thoughtful ones.

Each season introduces us to a bunch of impressive kids and this year has been no different, but ask the clubs and they will tell you the gap between the under-18 competitions and what they expect, demand and are doing is only getting greater, and more challenging for the bulk of draftees to adapt to and cope with.

They talk of players reaching them in less than ideal physical shape – 82 per cent of 2008’s 96 first-year players arrived having managed draft-year injuries caused more often than not by too much work – but say that many also arrive underprepared mentally, without enough resilience to handle the very adult world of which they find themselves a part.

Plenty of other things will be discussed at Tuesday’s forum, which will bring more than 100 recruiting and list managers, football bosses and state talent representatives together. What level should the AFL-controlled programs start at – is under-16s too late? Are under-age coaches paid enough? Should the league pick its elite squads off a more extended run of form than it currently does?

Why are there only 10 Northern Territory players on lists, and even fewer from Canberra? What can we do to keep the game’s talented indigenous kids in the game longer? How can the relationship between the AFL programs and private school system be improved? If clubs can invest extra time and money in international players, what can we do to give kids from remote communities and recently arrived refugees the same opportunities?

The list goes on, but the overall issue remains: how to best bridge the gap, to give everyone who gets drafted their best chance of making their career last. A draft age of 18 means most draft hopefuls must combine the most important year of their junior football with the most consequential year of their schooling.  Lifting the age to 19 would give kids the chance to focus on both, properly. But while lots would use their “gap year” well, others would tread water.

It’s tricky, and there are other options. Could the age be raised, but clubs be able to draft one or two 18-year-olds. Could we keep it as it is, but the AFL expand its junior pathway to better cater for players who miss out at 18, and provide (even more) opportunities for 19-year-olds and beyond. If so, how would that look?

Then there is players’ mental preparedness. This is what clubs would love to have more to do with. Could they provide more work experience opportunities, for more than just the 30 National Academy players, who without fail describe their one week of pre-season training at clubs as a huge eye-opener.

Could first or second-year AFL players play a part in mentoring the kids hoping to follow in their path? Separate to coaching, could more of the $18.75 million spent by the AFL and clubs on talent each year go into wellbeing programs that better develop the mental toughness and coping skills of draftees?

Tristan Salter, the AFL’s projects manager, has already spent some months on the review, interviewing more than 50 people and reviewing the surveyed thoughts of about 170 more. The overall feedback is that the pathway is a good, well-run one, but everyone has ideas on what can be done better, and how.

As Vic Metro prepares to play Vic Country at the weekend, kickstarting another national championships and bringing the dreams of many kids closer to real life, it will be interesting to see what Tuesday’s forum teases out.

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