Working as an AFLW physio – what it’s really like!

I’ve been very fortunate in my physiotherapy career – I’ve had some wonderful opportunities presented to me and always tried to accept any with open arms. Back in my undergraduate university days, my now-colleagues would look at me as someone who played sport myself and tell me they could see me as a sports physiotherapist. In truth, I didn’t think it would happen for me when I started my career as a hospital-based physiotherapist working at Eastern Health. But opportunity came knocking through a colleague to commence as Hawthorn Football Club’s inaugural women’s Head Physiotherapist. Fast forward 5 years and I have just completed my second season as Carlton Football Club’s Head Physiotherapist in the AFLW program.  

Working as a Sports Physiotherapist, particularly at the elite level, is great. We have access to our athletes 3 or 4 times per week for treatment, progression of their rehab and importantly the ability to get to know them as people and what make them tick. Having this close working relationship and being able to drill down into their psyche, motivation and drive for constant improvement and performance makes them an ideal client to work with. We have, at AFLW level, access to some of the most amazing equipment and state of the art facilities to ensure that every player has all the necessary tools at their disposal to become elite. Through networking opportunities, players also have access to the best medical and high-performance staff in the country. With a phone call or two we can have world leading surgeons, sports physicians or strength and conditioning coaches at the players’ disposal and compliment the excellent in-house teams that we employ.

What all of this means, is that we can follow absolute best practice and ensure we as physiotherapists can achieve the best possible outcomes for our players and our athletes. In a community setting, it isn’t practically or financially possible to see a client 3 or 4 times per week as is clinically indicated. So, when I am asked how players can perform week after week in such a physical and brutal game like AFL football, all of these factors count.

The ability to share in wins with the players, build wonderful relationships with both players and staff and see people achieve some incredible feats that we as physiotherapists have played a small part in, gives me a great sense of accomplishment. Maybe that’s the selfish side of working in elite sport.

But it isn’t all fun and games. Working in elite sport has its challenges. At AFLW level, the players are semi-professional which means whilst they and us as staff are payed, the remuneration does not equal the time dedicated to the role. This goes for both players and staff. Almost everyone at an AFLW club has a full time job or study commitment so it means late nights, weekends and there are no such thing as penalty rates in professional sport. When my phone rings at 7:00am or 11:30pm from a player, I answer because that’s just the nature of the beast.

Another consideration in a national sport is travel. In a post-COVID world we are fortunate enough to be able to travel again across this great nation to take the game to some remote parts of the land. Darwin, Alice Springs, Perth, Sydney, Launceston, Adelaide or Canberra are just some of the locations I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to with teams. It’s great for Frequent Flyer points, but it again means weekends and late nights. Often we would check into the team hotel fresh off the bus and I would roll out the portable treatment table to complete some last minute preparation with a player well into the wee hours of the morning, just to make sure the player felt ready leading into a game. Then you factor in equipment that we take – not only tapes, creams, medications and treatment tables, but equipment for all departments. We had tubs of food shipped with us, resistance bands, laptop screens were all included on the plane to ensure the players had the most similar game-day experience whether home or away.

But truly, the hardest part about being a physiotherapist in professional sport are the hard and often very brutally honest conversations abouts injuries or illnesses that will result in players missing games. These conversations can be hard whether I’m telling a player they can’t play for 1 or 2 weeks, or in the most difficult circumstances, a whole season or longer. As it stands, the AFLW season lasts only 9 weeks, plus three weeks of finals. The weight of a single game is so much higher than the men’s AFL 22 game season and the players are acutely aware of this. Having an injury, and being the person to break that news to a player has been truly heartbreaking at times. I’ve laughed with players a lot in my time in sport, but I’ve definitely cried for them too. I’ve maintained a brave face for a player when telling them that they’ve torn an ACL in their knee and they’ll miss the next 12 months, only to excuse myself a short while later and break down in tears myself. Footy is brutal game for all at times.

But with all that negativity around it, why do I do it? I love the players and I love the game. There are some incredible challenges I’ve faced as a physiotherapist in sport at the elite level but I wouldn’t change it for the world. Except for a few of those nasty injuries.  

For further information or to book an appointment, please contact the team at Instinct Health today.

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Working as an AFLW physio – what it’s really like!