NRL research aims to lift participation rates and promote junior players’ wellbeing

Dr Wayne Usher, from the School of Education and Professional Studies, has played a significant role in helping guide Australia’s Rugby League into an exciting new era.

Dr Wayne Usher.

Through a number of studies, Dr Usher’s research has helped inform the NRL’s Player Development Framework to provide families of junior players the opportunity for them to play in competitions more closely aligned to their stage of development. The proposed interventions are focussed on giving families a more enjoyable experience in the sport.

Dr Usher has been working (2016—18) with the NRL’s game development staff to investigate participation retention rates and experiences in both junior and senior age groups, with an aim to improve the delivery of the game in 2019 and beyond.

“Research suggests that players tended to not return to the game due to a few main reasons, these being associated with a negative experience and the fear of injury,” Dr Usher says.

“These reasons were age dependent (either junior or senior), however, commonly, the issues of fairness, social inclusion / connectedness and levels of fun and enjoyment were some of the main reasons for not returning.”

Dr Usher’s research, together with a number of other academics, have influenced the NRL’S 2019 Player Development Framework (PDF), providing a foundation for the consistent and optimal delivery of Rugby League across Australia.

“The key objectives of the PDF are to attract and retain participation, foster personal development and to transition and nurture performance, especially within the junior ranks,’’ Mr James Hinchey (Participation Manager NRL) said.

The PDF will enter a testing phase in Victoria and South East QLD while some of the concepts will be adopted individually in leagues across the country.

“We hope these changes will make the game less intimidating and help build confidence around things such as tackling and being tackled, resulting in sustained lifelong engagement in the game and in sport participation generally.”

Recommendations from Dr Usher’s research have assisted in shaping the 2019 PDF strategic initiatives including:

  • Weight related competition guides for juniors are among the options being investigated in the NRL’s PDF for the future;
  • Consideration of stage of maturity for players born later in the year aimed at ensuring their continued participation by providing an opportunity for them to play in competitions more closely aligned to their stage of development;
  • Encourage a more inclusive mentality in younger age groups at grassroots level to ensure all players are developed while negating the impact of Relative Age Effect and varying stages of physical maturity among juniors and;
  • Develop strategies (at the junior level) which promote fairness, social connectedness, inclusion, fun and enjoyment.

National campaigns will feature across traditional and online media, with junior league playerssharing their stories and reasons why they love playing rugby league.

Further research (together with the Menzies Health Group) will explore whether the NRL Rise Development Program is effective in enhancing players’ personal resilience and promoting positive emotional wellbeing for 13-to-15-year-old male rugby league players.