Home Australia Why this sport moved away from skinfold testing years ago

Why this sport moved away from skinfold testing years ago

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Skin folds have been a hot topic this week after the AFL formally banned clubs from conducting the test that measures them on any athlete in their talent pathways.

This follows the sport’s decision to prevent draft prospects from undergoing skinfold testing in 2021 and to remove player weights from any official AFL publications or websites in January.

Body weight will now only be measured by qualified professionals in a safe and private environment, while women and girls in the system can choose not to be weighed altogether.

The ban on skinfold testing has been met with outrage, mainly from male figures within the media, who argue that it is about more than just “body shaming”. Some critics have even gone so far as to suggest that the sport had gone “soft” and “the world had gone mad.”

Former AFL coach Paul Roos was among them, telling ABC’s new AFL Daily podcast that if players were worried about skin folds they should “go look for another job”.

“Let’s put it in perspective,” Roos said.

“How many 18-year-olds are going to line up if you post a job ad that says: play AFL football, free massages, free weight room, listing all the benefits… but you have to get skin folds?” , and we Will pay you an annual salary of $350,000 a year?

“The line would be 10 miles long, so this is just a travesty… they are such a minor thing that removing them seems ridiculous… There are a lot more pressures in football than worrying about that.”

Paul Roos says if players are worried about the test they should “go look for another job”.(AAP: Julian Smith)

Discussion has largely focused on how this may impact the development of AFL’s aspiring male stars, failing to prepare them for the big time, but a broader look shows other Australian sports have also been scrapping the test for a time.

For example, in a female-dominated sport like netball, it has not been recommended for anyone under 18 for at least five years.

Once netball players reach adulthood in the elite system, they only participate in skinfold testing by choice (usually before pre-season, during and after season) to see if they have truly been underfueled. and if they need to eat. further.

Nationally, the Diamonds began using skinfold testing less and less during former head coach Lisa Alexander’s tenure (2011-2020). This has continued under Stacey Marinkovich.

Instead, the world’s number one ranked team prefers to use DXA body composition data, a less invasive dual X-ray method that has a more accurate readout of body fat, bone density and lean muscle mass.


The DXA machine has its limitations.

It is more expensive and not as portable as the calibrating instrument used for skinfold testing, which is why some Super Netball clubs still use the old school method. In Victoria, a doctor’s referral is also needed to perform a DXA scan due to the small radiation dose.

If players choose to have a skinfold test, then it is vital that they receive education each year on what exactly they are measuring and how it could be considered beneficial to their progress. These results are always kept strictly confidential.

Kerry Leech, Netball Australia’s national nutrition lead and Diamonds tour manager, has been involved with the sport since 1995 and said the national set-up had a good approach to these trials even back then.

Leech wears red glasses and smiles at the camera with a crowd behind her.

Kerry Leech at the Netball World Cup 2023.(Netball Australia: Lauren Morgan)

Leech currently combines her long-standing netball commitments with her work in golf at the Queensland Sports Academy, as well as her Eat Smart Nutrition practice.

Her career as a fellow sports dietician (SDA) has spanned more than 30 years and involved consultations with a variety of elite sporting bodies including Queensland Cricket, Golf Australia, Brisbane Roar and Brisbane Broncos.

Leech believes a widespread decline in skinfold testing began around 2019, when the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) published two detailed resources in conjunction with the National Eating Disorders Collaboration.

This prompted sports to review and evaluate whether the process was doing more harm than good.

An AFL staff member pinches the back of a player's arm with a skinfold testing instrument.

AIS staff perform a skin fold test on the arm of an AFL player.(Getty Images: Mark Nolan)

The first is the AIS position statement on Eating disorders in high performance sports. The second is a set of Considerations for body composition assessments. which were developed after a train-the-trainer approach was adopted to educate staff in sporting organisations.

Both have shaped Netball Australia policy.

“There is very little evidence in the research literature that correlates the exact number of skinfolds with performance,” Leech told ABC Sport.

“Each sport approaches it differently, but they all work towards common goals with a focus on health and the prevention of eating disorders without losing sight of performance.

“When we talk about AFL pathways, generally at that age an athlete is still growing and developing, and a lot of those young male athletes won’t have fully mature bodies yet.

“The actual application of the skinfold test, or surface anthropometry as we call it, is probably not as applicable during that time for that reason, because they are still in a period of growth.”

Leech stands behind a row of chairs with positional netball bibs.

Leech is behind the Diamonds bench.(Netball Australia: Lauren Morgan)

Leech hopes skinfold testing will continue to play a role for professional football players in AFL clubs, but hopes it will be carried out carefully by properly trained people.

In an ideal world, Leech says they would be educated beforehand, have the ability to revoke their consent at any time, which would be carried out by a trusted ISAK-accredited anthropologist in a private setting, and at a time when they would conduct a survey. series of physical and strength measurements. is also being done.

General trends (up or down) can then be observed in correlation with other results to provide a complete picture of how an athlete is tracking.

In this way, more attention is paid to a range rather than a specific number, keeping in mind that skinfold tests can be inaccurate and that bodies fluctuate day to day, week to week, especially in women and girls during menstruation. .

A netball team gathers on the court for a group photo holding an Australian flag as a sign reads

The Diamonds are the number one team in world netball.(Getty Images: Ashley Vlotman)

When asked for his personal opinion on whether it was an outdated method, Leech said that skinfold testing is just one metric that shouldn’t really be focused on in isolation, as it can cause psychological trauma to athletes if handled incorrectly.

“Of the high-performance men’s programs I’ve worked with extensively, the way the skin folds are made and the way those results are treated cause distress,” Leech said.

“Eating disorders don’t occur superficially in athletes in the way that many people would believe; they can occur in any body shape, size or age, so anyone could have one and wouldn’t be able to tell because they are still acting up.

“There are many stories in sport where skinfold testing is done at a standard time within a club and the athlete knows it’s coming, so they starve themselves beforehand… That’s not going to improve the performance of nobody.

“The evaluator should also be able to recommend certain athletes to opt out if they think it’s something they might have difficulty with, for their own interests, because athletes are very good at analyzing numbers and drawing conclusions from them, so we have to be considerate of that.

“It’s important that you do as little damage as possible.”

Lisa Alexander smiles sitting at a desk with a microphone in front of her

Lisa Alexander coached the Diamonds from 2011 to 2020.(AAP: James Ross)

As mentioned, Lisa Alexander was at the helm around the same time that skinfold testing became less and less of a priority for the Diamonds.

Commenting on the response to the AFL’s decision to ban the test, Alexander told ABC Sport he couldn’t understand the outrage, especially knowing this was only for the tracks, as in his lived experience, he had never established the link between skin folds. and performance.

A close-up of the skin on an athlete's arm tightened with a skinfold caliper.

AIS staff conduct a skinfold test at a Rising Stars AFL Draft camp.(Getty: Mark Nolan)

During her years as a player throughout the 80s and 90s in the Victorian state league, national championships and the Australian team, she was never asked to do anything.

The other reason is that I knew the pressures of testing could lead to eating disorder issues.

“It wasn’t of interest to me at the Diamond level because I had already had experience with athletes who had eating disorders before taking on that role,” she said.

“As a trainer, you don’t have the experience to deal with that, so I didn’t educate people about nutrition, diets or anything related to that, and I certainly didn’t need to know the results of the skinfold tests because that was between the dietician and the athlete

“Food is part of performance, of course, but we were concerned from a nutrition and recovery point of view, and more concerned about the players with a lack of nutrition.

“However, we didn’t necessarily need skinfold testing to determine that… If a player had decided not to eat properly, then it would show up in their performance and they wouldn’t be able to last a full game.”

Australian diamonds announced for the 2015 World Cup

The Diamonds won the 2015 Netball World Cup with Alexander as coach.(AAP: Dean Lewins)

Netball has also never published the weight of the players, but rather the heights.

This was important, because over the past two decades, as coverage of women’s sports, netball and the Diamonds, grew, the extra attention could distort players’ priorities.

“We were trying to sell the sport and girls liked to look good in photos,” Alexander said.

“That was a powerful motivator to restrict their eating, so we had to use a holistic approach on the part of the staff to help them understand and make it clear to them that we needed them to be strong and powerful.”

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