The Silent Achiever
By Foti Mantis
The hardest thing a man can do is beat himself. Throughout our lives, as both fans and witnesses, we have seen dozens of inspiring comeback stories from the world’s greatest athletes. Whether it be physically, mentally or socially, the ‘greatest’ always overcome that steep downfall and cement their names in history.

Awards and trophies are only given to winners; and the highest honour an individual can receive in the AFL is the Brownlow Medal. The Brownlow is not necessarily given to the best player on the best team in that year, but rather awarded to the athlete who showcased the highest and most influential performances over the course of the entire season. However, a question arises with the term ‘performance.’ That is, does every athlete ‘control’ the level of their performance? The answer is partly no.

There is a silent achiever inside every athlete which controls and influences muscle mass, energy, and behaviour. It is a hormone found in both men and women which can seriously alter, or determine, the success of an individual in their field of sport. It is called testosterone.

In males, testosterone levels peak at early adolescence around the age of 17-19 which sees a boost in impulsivity, competitiveness and risk-taking. Growth spurts are also a common consequence of this peak of testosterone, which, tragically, serve as either a gift or curse to upcoming young players. In fact, testosterone levels at this stage in an adolescence’s life could explain why many promising young players, who showcase superior athletic ability (and, of course, talent) draw the attention of top-tier scouts in professional clubs.

However, when we look at the current best players in the AFL, most are in their mid-to-late twenties and should have already passed their ‘peak’ levels of testosterone. So, then, how is it that these older players can keep up with these energetic younglings?  Well, the ‘peak’ associated with early adolescence is a ‘natural’ phenomenon which is not influenced by social factors such as winning. For example, young teams, such as the Gold Coast Suns, Carlton and Fremantle, are bursting with talent and potential, and, on average, should have higher levels of testosterone per player than older teams like Richmond, Geelong and Port Adelaide. Therefore, the younger teams should be more energetic, aggressive and competitive than their counterparts. But this is not the case.
Winning games increases players’ testosterone levels and accumulates over time if their team wins on a consistent basis. That, at least, is a biological answer to ‘form.’ Additionally, older teams generally have more experience and better technical ability. However, when young teams suddenly latch onto that late form in the season, it can certainly result in additional aggression, energy and competitiveness.
As of now, Geelong, Port Adelaide and Brisbane have the most players aged between 18-21. Couple that with the experienced club veterans of Joel Selwood, Justin Westhoff and Dayne Zorko, and you have the three best teams in the league.

Reference: Sapolsky, Robert M.. Behave: The Biology of Humans At Our Best and Worst. Penguin Press, 2017
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