Rugby league stadium

New research reveals how rugby league players make it to the top

25 June 2018
As New South Wales celebrates Origin victory it's likely some parents have hopes for their own children's sporting careers. So what does it take to make it to the top tier of rugby league?

A University of Sydney study examining the career trajectories of 224 professional National Rugby League (NRL) players suggests early specialisation, early selection in representative teams and intensive training load is not the only way to make it the top.

The study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences also identified a group of professional players who showed a delayed trajectory. This was characterised by involvement in other sports up to 12 years of age, lower levels of training in junior years, and lower levels of rugby league competition before ages 17 to 20.

Lead author Balin Cupples said contrary to popular belief there are likely multiple distinct pathways that can lead to senior elite sporting success.

“This study shows that achievement at junior and youth tiers and representative levels is not a necessity for long term success,” said Mr Cupples, a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney.

“Nearly 40 percent of the professional players in our study reported a less intensive and delayed investment path.”

“Their more intense training and game involvement occurred later in age and developmental terms compared to the early investment group. They also showed greater improvement over the teenage years with less intensive training.”

Rugby league is one of the most popular sports in Australia with 1.4 million participants from recreational to senior levels.

Despite age restrictions on professional contracts, players often focus on rugby league from a young age in anticipation of a highly coveted position within an academy squad or a specialised rugby league secondary school.

“Many parents and coaches think early-age specialisation, accelerated practice at a younger age and representative participation through academy squads or scholarships programs is the key to success, but this study calls for a rethink,” said senior author and sports and exercise psychologist Dr Stephen Cobley.

“The fact that a significant number of players in the representative pathways were replaced with those from a delayed trajectory also highlights the potential costs and set-backs of high levels of participation and intensive training in the early and teenage years.

“These athletes could be at greater risk of injury, mounting psychological pressure, as well as psychological and physical burnout.”

In the current system, talented youth rugby players are often identified from as early as 12 years.

They can then potentially be put on a pathway through formal representative training squads onto representative U16-18’s, national U20’s competitions, open age semi-professional, right through to professional NRL contracts.

“It is important that we keep youngsters engaged in sport for the right reasons and provide them with a positive environment to develop, which in the early participation years shouldn’t be based solely on performance,” said co-author Professor Donna O’Connor.

Eleven of the 16 NRL clubs participated in the survey data, which reflects over 50 percent of the professionally contracted NRL players at the time of collection.

The study is part of a PhD thesis by Balin Cupples under the supervision of Dr Stephen Cobley from the Faculty of Health Sciences and Professor Donna O’Connor from the School of Education and Social Work.

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