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The secret behind Jarryd Hayne’s success on the US footy field

Australian Jarryd Hayne (right) is attracting much attention as he plays for the San Francisco 49ers against Dallas Cowboys in pre-season NFL game. EPA/John G Mabanglo

The secret behind Jarryd Hayne’s success on the US footy field

Jarryd Hayne’s bold move to try his hand and fast feet in the United States National Football League (NFL) has generated a media storm in recent weeks. That’s not surprising, given he has walked away from an established career as a rugby league player in Australia, and guaranteed dollars, with no guarantee of success in the US.

But Hayne’s encouraging form for the San Francisco 49ers is also not surprising for the those who have an interest in the developmental pathway of expert sport performers.

Skills learned from other sports

There is strong evidence to support the notion that skill-transfer from similar-type sports played during the development years can fast track the ascension of athletes to expert status. This is particularly the case in team sports, or what are classified as “invasion games”, such as rugby league, American football, basketball, hockey and soccer.

Our own research in the Australian Football League (AFL) has shown skill transfer to be a powerful mediator in the development of those players classified as expert on-field decision-makers. In one AFL funded study, the expert players were compared with less-skilled decision-makers (both groups were elite AFL players). The former were found to specialise solely in AFL much later due to concurrent participation in other invasion sports throughout their formative years. That is, the experts played lots of games early on, and not just AFL.

The finding of massive hours clocked in basketball was a common theme among the expert group and the transfer of the game smarts, including visual perception and decision-making, between these invasion type sports appears influential in developing sport expertise.

American Jason Holmes in his first game for the St Kilda Saints against the Geelong Cats, at Etihad stadium in Melbourne, Saturday August 22. AAP Image/Joe Castro

The research is making an impact in AFL circles. After an extensive international recruiting drive by the AFL, Jason Holmes of St Kilda last week became the first American athlete to play in the AFL.

Holmes has a college basketball background, but importantly for the kicking skills required in AFL, he had spent several seasons on his high school football team as a punter. The punter’s job is to achieve good field position at the end of a play phase. They kick the ball as long and high as possible to allow their team enough time to race from the line of scrimmage and stop the ball.

At the AFL pre-draft testing day in 2013 – interestingly named the Combine after the NFL equivalent – Holmes kicked five straight on the set-shot goal-kicking test.

Australian eyes on the US

The AFL is not misguided in this push to open the pathway for American athletes. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in the US has more than 200,000 male student-athletes training and competing in high performance programs. The larger of these university programs operate on annual budgets some ten times greater than an Australian NRL club.

The opportunity for the AFL, and perhaps NRL, is that NCAA college level is the end of the sporting road if the athletes do not make it to the professional level. And according to NCAA statistics, only 1.2% of basketball players make it to the professional level. That’s a lot of elite athletic talent looking for something to do after college.

As part of a detailed analysis conducted for one AFL club, I estimated more than 1,000 college athletes would have a realistic shot at playing AFL football. With these numbers outstripping the current number of players in the AFL system at 792, the AFL’s foray into American athlete recruitment will only get stronger from here.

Collingwood Football Club appears to be exploiting this skill transfer phenomenon. The most high profile example is five-time All Australian team selection Scott Pendlebury who briefly took up the offer of an Australian Institute of Sport basketball scholarship before deciding to return to AFL football in the elite Under 18 TAC Cup.

Scott Pendlebury in action for Collingwood during the round 17 AFL game between the Collingwood Magpies and the Western Bulldogs, at Etihad Stadium in Melbourne in July, 2015. AAP Image/David Crosling

Other Collingwood players fitting the skill transfer model include Nathan Brown with basketball, Jarrod Witts with rugby union, former player and Irishman Marty Clarke in Gaelic football and now Mason Cox, a collegiate basketball player from Oklahoma State University touted as the next American to make an AFL debut.

Other Australians who’ve scored overseas

So the Jarryd Hayne story is exciting and the skill transfer model will hopefully work in his favour. He may also benefit from a psychological sense of invincibility, knowing he does not have to face the likes of Sam Thaiday and Willie Mason without pads or a helmet.

But this transition of Australians to the NFL is not new. Darren Bennett heads the list of success stories with the former Melbourne and West Coast player an NFL Hall of Fame inductee as a punter for the San Diego Chargers. Ben Graham from Geelong punted in a Super Bowl game with the Arizona Cardinals. Collingwood goal kicker Saverio Rocca punted with the Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins.

Australian Ben Graham (right) punts the ball for Arizona Cardinals against the Pittsburgh Steelers, in the third quarter of Super Bowl XLIII at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, USA on February 1, 2009. EPA/Tannen Maury

While Jarryd Hayne is receiving the media attention, there are four other Australians currently in the NFL. Jesse Williams is a Lineman for the Seattle Seahawks and played in a National Championship at college with Alabama. His background is rugby league and basketball. Tom Hornsey is a punter with the Dallas Cowboys and punted the ball to Hayne on a couple of the plays last week, but this interesting Aussie link received little mention in the media.

At the Pittsburgh Steelers, two Australians are locked in a battle to win the roster spot as punter. Jordan Berry and Brad Wing are former AFL players in the elite Under 18 TAC Cup, transferring their booming kicks with the AFL ball to the highly specialised role of punter in the NFL.

While punters are at the bottom end of the food chain when it comes NFL salaries, the winner of the Pittsburgh contract will overnight earn the equivalent of the elite players in the AFL and NRL.

With Jarryd Hayne vying for a role as a playmaker with the 49ers, his potential earnings for a successful career in the NFL will make Buddy Franklin’s A$10 million deal at the Sydney Swans pale in comparison.

Given the evidence supporting positive transfer of skills across sports of a similar games category, combined with the amazing fact the player salary cap at a single NFL franchise far exceeds the salary cap for the entire NRL competition, there will be many more Australian athletes following the current trailblazers across the Pacific.

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