Science in the change room is better than the bad old days

Andrew Sutherland Roar Guru

By Andrew Sutherland, Andrew Sutherland is a Roar Guru


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    According to the AFL, club doctors are being undermined by an ever-growing band of non medical professionals calling themselves sports scientists, high performance coaches, and movement specialists.

    Or, as AFL football operations manager Adrian Anderson rather disparagingly said, “whatever you want to call them.”

    Citing player welfare and the possibility of legal action as causes for concern, Anderson stressed: “We need to make it clear that doctors are the only ones qualified to be making medical decisions. We’re talking about issues such as when a player can return from injury, what sort of treatment occurs, to sports medicine, diagnostics.”

    The Collingwood website doesn’t mention doctors at all but rather a bevy of “sport scientists” headed by Mick Malthouse’s and now Nathan Buckley’s go-to man David Buttifant.

    With Buttifant there is a sports scientist, a strength and conditioning Coach, a biomechanics/weights expert, a weights co-ordinator, a head trainer, a physiotherapist, and an exercise scientist and PhD candidate.

    To conform with a holistic approach the list includes a high performance manager who is also a player psychology expert.

    Getting the AFL and some players nervous would be “the most passionate innovative enthusiastic, energetic and experienced sports performance expert in the world”, Wayne Goldsmith, when he points out that the main differences between medicine and high performance sports medicine is that the latter involves “instinct, inspired guesswork, and shortcuts”.

    I’m sure though the players have nothing to worry about. These sports scientists are there to maximise performance by enhancing preparation and recovery.

    Any time a player needs a facial reconstruction, like poor James Hird, you’d think there would be a really good surgeon on hand.

    Anyway, not all GPs are the ant’s pants. They can vary as widely in their retained knowledge, skill levels, enthusiasm, personal manner and results as the plumbers who turn up in the small hours to unblock your toilet.

    In 2010, when Jordan Lewis’ brain had been puréed in the collision with Jarrod Harbrow, it would have seen the Hawthorn doctor coming and sighed with relief that its idiot owner wouldn’t be allowed back on the ground (whoops!).

    Not all medical practitioners can be guaranteed to use scientific methods either. The Munich doctor Hans-Wilhelm Muller-Wohlfahrt, for example, pumps the entire Bayern Munich football team and numerous track stars full of calf blood extract and “various homeopathic substances”.

    It’s harder these days to get into physiotherapy than medicine.

    There was a time, of course, when ‘medicine’, ‘science’ or even ‘basic training’ had little to do with the football changing room.

    There were ‘masseurs’ who knew they had to get their thumbs in and elderly trainers who were savvy with wiping blood from faces and slapping liniment on arms.

    My club once had a ring-in doctor, a personal assistant to a kickboxer, who after having discussions with non-medical staff – which if I remember correctly included the captain, the late and great Richmond premiership player Terry Smith – strapped my broken and badly dislocated little finger to an icy pole stick, gave me a couple of morphine pills, told me to bear with it, and disappeared to Thailand for a kickboxing tournament.

    In his defence he did have Terry Smith advising him. It must be pointed out that Collingwood lost the 1980 Grand Final largely because they didn’t dare enter their own forward line for fear of running into Smith. The toughest player I had ever played with (but the gentlest and most articulate off the field) was not the man you wanted advising your doctor on the best method of injury treatment

    “Here, just strap this on to it and get the wimpy bugger out there!”

    My local doctor removed the strapping about a week later to reveal the beginnings of gangrene caused by the icy pole stick digging into the flesh. My suggestion that the now crooked finger would look better if it was straightened were laughed off by my doctor (he was a rugby man).

    The first time real medical science got a look in was the arrival of the therapeutic ultrasound machine, which was great for corked thighs. In the right hands.

    Me: “Simpkins, I’m fairly certain you have to stop the bleeding inside your thigh muscle before you put the ultrasound on it.”

    Trainer Simpkins: “You just lie down there Andy. I know what I’m doing.”

    Me: “Simpkins, It’s feeling really warm in there. I think you’re making it bleed more!”

    Trainer Simpkins: “It’s too late for you to get back on the ground so just relax. With me and this machine you won’t miss a week, I can promise you that.”

    (Fifteen minutes later)

    “Strange, I’ve never noticed that before.”

    Me: “What, Simpkins?”

    Trainer Simpkins: “Your left thigh being twice the size of your right.”

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