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Comparison of size & performance characteristics of indigenous and non-indigenous AFL players at the NTIS

This is a short paper from a presentation at the Pre-Olympic Congress: Sports medicine and Physical Education International Congress on Sport Science, held in 2000 in Brisbane, Australia.

Wood, R.J., Marsden, J.F. and Finn, J.P., Comparison of size and performance characteristics of indigenous and non-indigenous Australian Football League players at the Northern Territory Institute of Sport, Proceedings of the 2000 Pre-Olympic Congress: Sports medicine and Physical Education International Congress on Sport Science, 2000.


The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS, 1996) estimates that the Indigenous population of Australia comprises around 2% of all Australians, yet they produce many of our great sporting champions.

The public stereotypical perceptions of the abilities of Indigenous Australian Rules Football players are that they are “lithe, fast and skillful” (Inside Sport, 1992). However, there appears to be no scientific research to support such claims. While skill needs to be learned, being fast and agile may be the innate abilities of the indigenous population.

The relatively small population of Indigenous Australians makes research difficult, however, the Northern Territory has a high proportion of Aboriginals (nearly 30% compared to only 1-3 % in other states), making it an ideal population to study. In the Australian Rules Football League (AFL) senior ranks the percentage would be below 10%, compared to the Northern Territory Institute of Sport (NTIS) Australian rules football squads which is often over 50%. Many AFL indigenous players are recruited from this region.

The purpose of this study was to compare the physiological characteristics of indigenous and non-indigenous Australian rules football players at a similar age and player development level, who are part of a Darwin-based developmental team.


This study analyzed the fitness test results of the NTIS Australian Rules Football squads for the years 1997-2000. The players were divided into groups based on the classification as being either of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent, or not. The Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders were further classified as being from regional areas or the Darwin local community. The coach of the squad also further classified the players by position played on the field (either forward, center, back or follower).

The fitness test results were available for some players over several years. As the specific training undertaken while part of the squad could have influenced the subsequent test results, the results from only their first testing session as part of the NTIS squad were analyzed. At this stage the player would have just joined the squad and would not be influenced by the training undertaken while part of the NTIS.

Measures such as age, height, mass and skinfold total were analyzed. The fitness tests that were analyzed were vertical jump (stationary and also with a 5 step run up), sprinting ability (with split times at 10, 20 and 40 meters) and the multistage shuttle run to measure aerobic power.

Data analysis

Analysis of playing position was required as the indigenous players may have higher representation in follower and forward playing positions which may lead to them having a particular physiological profile.


TABLE 1.  Comparative test results for indigenous and non-indigenous Australian Rules Football players from the NTIS squads of 1997-2000.

    Indigenous non-Indigenous  
    average range average range %diff.
Age (years) 16.5 ± 1.2 14.5-18.2 16.5 ± 0.9 15.0-18.4 0.2
Height (cm) 177.3 ± 5.7 168.5-190.8 181.3 ± 6.5 165.0-192.3 2.2
Mass (kg) 69.3 ± 7.9 53.3-86.7 73.2 ± 7.0 62.5-86.5 5.6
Skinfold sum of 7 Sites (mm) 56.7 ± 19.8 36.0-122.4 53.6 ± 15.6 31.3-93.2 5.4
Vertical jump (cm) 61.6 ± 6.9 50.0-74.0 60.6 ± 4.1 53.0-67.0 1.6
5-step vertical jump (cm) 72.8 ± 8.2 53.0-84.0 72.0 ± 5.4 64.0-83.0 1.2
10m time (sec) 1.72 ± 0.09 1.48-1.85 1.78 ± 0.09 1.59-1.96 3.6
20m time (sec) 2.94 ± 0.20 2.18-3.19 3.07 ± 0.12 2.79-3.31 4.3
40m time (sec) 5.28 ± 0.19 4.85-5.78 5.45 ± 0.16 5.07-5.67 3.1
20-40m ave speed (m/sec) 8.57 ± 0.52 6.80-9.52 8.38 ± 0.24 7.84-8.89 2.3
Multistage Fitness test (shuttles) 93.8 ± 17.5 69-128 92.9 ± 14.2 67-116 1.6
pred. VO2max ( 50.0 ± 5.2 42.4-59.8 49.8 ± 4.3 41.8-56.5 0.4

* significantly different from non-indigenous (p<0.05)

The age was similar between the two groups. The indigenous tended to be shorter and lighter (~5%), though had a larger skinfold total. Vertical jump was slightly higher. There was a significantly faster sprint time, by 2-3%. MST score was similar.


Analysis of playing positions showed a greater representation of indigenous players along the centerline, while there were more non-indigenous players in key end field positions, the ruck and along the half lines. Positional segregation has also been found in Rugby League (Hallinan, 1991). The positional differences may relate to the body size requirements for each position. These results support the public perception that indigenous Australian rules football players are faster. While skill and agility were not measured, the smaller and lighter indigenous players may require greater agility and skill levels to compete with larger non-indigenous players. Further research on the physiological and skill levels of each group is required to further investigate the stereotype.


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