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AFL on the cusp of change

PhD student investigates the nation’s first elite women’s football competition.

During the 'footy season' in Victoria, news from the Australian Football League (AFL) is often big news.

But in 2017, AFL news is set to become even bigger when its first national women’s league kicks off with eight participating clubs.

With AFL Commission Chairman Mike Fitzpatrick acknowledging that the game is now on ‘the cusp of change’, it’s not surprising that Deakin student Kim Encel has jumped at the opportunity to undertake a PhD into the nation’s first elite women’s football competition.

Funded through the AFL and a Deakin University Industry Partnership Scholarship, Kim’s research – ‘The AFL National Women’s League: Lessons for Development, Organisation, and Management of Professional Sport for Women’ – is examining how improve a number of outcomes relating to the newly-launched league.

‘These relate to potential rule modifications to make the game enjoyable to watch and having effective structures to support the players, coaches and administrators,’ he explains.

‘By modifying the rules, it may be possible to make the game freer flowing and less congested. Effective structures refer to the procedures and policies put in place to ensure that the stakeholders’ needs are being met.’

Kim’s interest in AFL research began during an industry placement as part of his undergraduate degree in exercise and sport science.

‘I was lucky enough to do a practicum placement with Deakin researcher Associate Professor Pamm Phillips and colleagues who were working on a project that examined rule modifications in junior Australian Rules football … it was research that eventually led to changes in the rules in junior football,’ he says.

After completing his degree, Kim went on to study honours in psychology and after a six-month study sabbatical, he managed a research project which was an extension of the original research about rule modifications in junior football.

Deciding to follow his research passion, he applied for a PhD.

‘I was really open to any area of study in line with sport and a special population but after the second component of the junior AFL project (where I met Dr Helen Brown), Pamm and Helen had developed a good relationship with Josh Vanderloo –the Head of Female Football and Junior Development at the AFL – who was seeking further research to better understand the AFL National Women’s League,’ Kim explains.

‘Josh needed longitudinal action research that began in the development phases of the women’s league.  When it was proposed that an industry outcome, as well as an academic one, could be achieved through a PhD it was an offer too good to refuse.’

Planning to complete his PhD in 2019, Kim hopes his research will make a positive contribution to women’s sport. He says the research is important because it’s cross disciplinary and there’s little empirical literature around the implementation and development of a new professional women’s sport league.

‘Not only will it be important for the AFL and its National Women’s League but it will also provide lessons for other women’s leagues around the world,’ he adds.

Kim believes that one of the keys to successful – and enjoyable – PhD research is the collaboration between student and supervisor.

‘I chose to study at Deakin simply because I’d developed a really strong and effective partnership with my supervisors Pamm Phillips and Helen Brown. Not only do we have a great working relationship but our research interests – mainly with the AFL – align really nicely.’

While he’s keeping an open mind about the possibilities beyond his PhD, Kim would like to continue working in sport research.

‘That would be ideal but I’ll just wait to see what opportunities present themselves within women’s football or another related field. The benefit of a PhD is that it can open many doors.’

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