THERE has been some interest of late in the world of sport regarding the AFL’s decision to abandon skinfold testing as part of their pre- draft assessment.

Their concern is the psychological sequelae for young footballers’ who themselves believed that an unfair emphasis was placed on skinfold tests by potential recruiters.

It appears that many athletes thought that the main reason for not being selected was due to a perception of being unfit or overweight, which in turn would lead to doubts over commitment and application to their craft and careers.

All sports have an emphasis on the physical. There are multiple systems in place that are geared to provide data that can be analysed, to ascertain where a potential recruit fits into the hierarchy of excellence.

Skinfold testing is but one of these objective assessments, but perhaps unfairly seen as one of the most important.

The AFL consulted the Australian Institute of Sport who have released a position paper on the issue and other experts on the matter before making their own decision to ban the pre-draft testing.

The AFL was concerned they would not have the appropriate mechanisms in place for the psychological welfare of young players and thus made the decision to withdraw the testing.

The future of such testing is to be debated further.

At this stage, it only applies to pre-draft testing. Clubs will continue to entrust their medical, psychological and conditioning personnel with all forms of anthropometric testing and its impact on their players.

In their memo to clubs, the AFL raised the prospect however of setting up a working party to look at whether a league-wide policy is required to ensure clubs conduct such tests professionally.

The working party would determine who has access and who should have access to the data and for what purpose it is being gathered.

The league is keen to ensure players are given adequate psychological and nutritional support when tests are held and that appropriately qualified and trained people within clubs have the authority to order and conduct the tests.

Clearly, as has been the case in recent times with other sports, the mental health of the athlete is now seen of the utmost importance.

An emphasis on body shape and size can be a prelude to serious mental health issues including anxiety, depression, body dysmorphic disorder and at the most extreme, somatic delusional disorder.

As well as eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia.

Anxiety and depression can in turn result in drug and alcohol abuse.

Then there is the range of emotional reactions experienced if the skinfold tests are the subject of criticism, humiliation, jealousy, inferiority and rejection over the short and long term.

As opposed to those emotions associated with acceptance, adulation, respect and superiority by peers and older authority figures.

An AIS spokesperson replied as follows:

“The AIS does not oppose or prevent skinfold testing and respects it is the responsibility of each sport to determine whether this is a useful tool for their own sport and athletes,” a spokesperson said.

“However, the AIS is happy to advise sports on best practice when it comes to conducting skinfold testing. We particularly encourage a testing environment that has a strong consideration for athlete wellbeing.

“The AFL sought advice from the AIS earlier this year regarding on-off skinfold testing protocols during the AFL draft camp.

“The AIS provided advice on issues to consider, in line with resources the AIS provides to all high performance sporting organisations.”

The AFL’s position on skinfold testing has been polarising amongst other athletes and commentators.

AFLW player Darcy Vescio, conversely, doesn’t understand the backlash. “If we’re serious about mental health and wellbeing of players [and society] then why slam a change that promotes that?” she tweeted. “The impact of body image issues and fat shaming is deep.” Former Sydney Swans player Luke Ablett says he still has “body image issues over skin folds and the fear of being put in ‘fat farm’”.

Olympic swimmer Liesel Jones recalled her experience of such testing as a teenager.

“Whenever I have to stand on the pool deck in my togs, listening to my body being discussed like it’s an engine and not the arms, legs, thighs and stomach of a teenage girl, I am self-conscious and miserable,″ she wrote in her autobiography, Body Lengths. “We were always getting weighed in, always being judged. We were actively encouraged to skip meals to lose weight. It is irresponsible and terribly damaging.”

Jones has gone on to document her struggles with body image and depression.

On the contrary, Essendon chief Xavier Campbell was critical, calling the game a “performance-based industry” with an emphasis on “the physical aspect”. Former Port Adelaide player Kane Cornes labelled it “just ridiculous”. “Society has shifted, I understand that,” Cornes told SEN SA. “But this isn’t your average person off the street, this is a person who is aspiring to become an elite athlete.”

Sports psychologist, Dr Noel Blundell, said the AFL had “missed a major opportunity” to frame skinfold testing in a positive way.

“To attack it from a positive perspective and go about putting the appropriate protocols in place, so that a test that does have value can be utilised by the clubs,” Blundell, who has worked with numerous Olympians and also completed psychological assessments at the draft combine since its inception in 1994, told SEN. “And, more importantly, to assist the players to develop as elite athletes.

“The AFL could’ve taken a step forward and said ‘we’re a high-class body, we stick to the scientific protocols, we really care about the athletes and their

development, and we also want the athletes to be educated in terms of, ‘if I’m getting to the next level, what are the facets I need to improve in my game?’”.

Chris Pappas, the A-League Men club’s head of sports science and strength and conditioning, opined:

“A lot of players don’t know what to do,” Pappas says. “We have a broad range of athletes with different understanding of athletic performance or nutrition. You may have athletes who really monitor and are careful with their diet and on the other hand you have athletes who will just eat whatever is cooked for dinner at home, so it’s about educating our players.

“Education in this sense is no different to strength training education, good physical fitness and the mental skills within the game. The club’s philosophy is about teaching our players the right life skills that they can take with them beyond football and into their future careers.”

Netball Australia is unique in that it only tests skinfolds on its senior national team, the practice operates on a strictly opt-in basis, and those who volunteer must be over the age of 18. The results are confidential and not used as a metric, but as guidance for players to assess their progress. The organisation’s sports nutrition manager, Kerry Leech, is developing a new eating disorder policy, which includes guidelines around skinfolds testing.

Sydney Swans list manager Kinnear Beatson, who relies on testing data gathered before the draft to help make recruitment decisions, believes body-fat measurement is “part and parcel” of the game with some additional considerations.

“I think what needs to happen, and it wasn’t probably been done well enough in the past, is to educate the players on the benefit of having them [skinfold tests] done and how it can enhance their physical performance by them understanding how what they’re eating will have an impact on their skinfold readings, and will then in time have an influence on their endurance abilities,” Beatson told SEN Drive.

“We also probably in the past haven’t held the results private enough. I do know nowadays is that with the medical testing … the only people that get access to that are our doctor and our physio. The only person that sees the psychological profiling [now] is our psychologist. If they were going to go back and do the skinfold readings, perhaps those readings have to go to a qualified dietician, and then they can give us some kind of summary.”

Regarding mental health, the issue is not so much skinfold testing but the meaning attached to the test. How it is measured, physically and psychologically, and what weighting it is given in any drafting assessment.

Moreover, how are any body-related issues communicated to the players, who does the communicating and when. Furthermore, is there a level of education and reassurance if an athlete is rejected.

Ignoring the sensitivity of these issues is a perilous position for a contemporary, successful sporting organisation to find itself.

Sport has the opportunity and responsibility to change perceptions of body image and the deleterious effects of perfection on a young individual.

Nevertheless, in an increasingly, ego driven society where perfection is valued but realistically unattainable, it will be difficult to make inroads into a generation that demands instant gratification especially given the use of social media.

 

Image via theguardian.com

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