Growing up as a “mad” Essendon fan, Sergeant James Debono felt no qualms about going to work with the Geelong and then Collingwood AFL clubs as part of an ADF Aussie Rules (ADFAR) physical training instructor secondment program. 

“I’m a temporary Collingwood supporter this year,” Sergeant Debono joked. 

“I learned pretty early on you become a football lover, and when you form connections and relationships with people, you want to see them do well.” 

Holding AFL level 3 coaching accreditation, the physical training instructor (PTI) is acting assistant and strength and conditioning coach with the Collingwood AFLW and VFL teams. 

Sergeant Debono aims to learn best-practice coaching and strength and conditioning methodology at Collingwood Football Club and implement his findings through a PTI continuum. 

“We’re thinking outside our traditional box to find solutions,” Sergeant Debono said.

“Army placed a sergeant PTI in an elite-level sporting organisation as a shared learning experience. 

“I hope to bring back one-percenters to drive human performance optimisation.”  

He sends quarterly findings to the Chief of Army, with the latest report highlighting the importance of corps-specific training for units looking to reduce injury rates. 

“First year AFL players spend more time in the gym and their running loads are 40 per cent less as they need to build size and strength,” he wrote. 

“PTIs and fitness leaders could learn from this approach as it relates to the development of fitness to address macro tasks such as break contact drills, building a bridge or bringing a gun into action.”

ADFAR chair Brigadier Dave Smith said the secondment was important to realising one of the association’s key objectives, namely to contribute to ADF capability. 

“We run programs for men, women and Indigenous personnel as well as give wounded, ill and injured players a chance to play Aussie rules via our wheelchair AFL program,” Brigadier Smith said. 

“At the same time, we provide opportunities for coaches like Sergeant Debono, as well as footy administrators, to work closely with the AFL. 

“This allows us to enhance the ADF’s reputation in the community, support recruiting and retention and learn lessons about elite sports that can be brought back into the ADF to improve the performance of our people.”

The original aim of the program was to establish rotating, 12-month secondment opportunities for PTIs; however, there are limited personnel who hold an AFL level 3 high performance coaching qualifications and are passionate about the game, according to Sergeant Debono. 

He recommended PTIs undertake study, which could include a university degree in sports science, to gain strength and conditioning qualifications to work with the AFL.

Sergeant Debono said he planned to apply his findings at his next posting. 

“I have just been offered the Warrant Officer PTI position in Darwin, which I was pleased to accept," he said.

“I will have the responsibility for looking at the PT continuum and implementing the learnings from Collingwood in the Darwin region.”