Alumni News

Ensuring elite athletes are performing at the top of their game

James Hanisch

Bachelor of Applied Science (Human Movement)
Director of Performance Science for the Philadelphia Eagles
James and Coby Hanisch
James and Coby Hanisch

After starting his career volunteering for the Australian Football League (AFL), UniSA alumnus James Hanisch has gone from strength to strength and is currently the Director of Performance Science for the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Philadelphia Eagles are a hugely popular National Football League (NFL) club in the United States, and have sold out every game since 1999. James is responsible for testing, analysing and interpreting the player’s performance metrics, and then communicating recommendations to head coaches - and the athletes - to ensure the team can compete as best as possible.

We caught up with James after the recent Super Bowl to learn more about his fascinating career with the NFL, what it’s like ‘behind the scenes’ of the AFL and the biggest difference between the two giant sport industries.

Congratulations on your position as the Director of Performance Science for the Philadelphia Eagles! Please describe your time working for the NFL in the US.

Not sure where to start. It has been an unforgettable experience. I had always watched American Football growing up and I am truly grateful for the opportunity to work at such an amazing franchise especially one where the owner is dedicated to giving us the resources from a performance science standpoint. We have a dedicated performance team here at the Eagles. Sport-specific technology has improved drastically over the past decade and we implement strategies using new sport science technology that makes the job exciting. This new technology consists of heart rate sensors to camera and force plate analysis. Although the job carries high expectations we have fun doing it.

Philadelphia is a great city with fans who are passionate. The Eagles organization is like a family and the owner goes above and beyond to make it truly feel like that. My wife and son are cared for extremely well, game day is exceptional, they have Christmas parties and events for the family, for kids and for the partners. It is a very inclusive place to work and it doesn’t go unnoticed.

What does your work day look like?

Depending on whether it is in-season or pre-season most of the days consist of helping players pre-practice with warming up, measuring outputs in the weight room, involved in practice, coordinating recovery session post practice and any additional conditioning the players need and then finishing the day discussing information with coaches and staff. Repeat.

You started your career by volunteering at the Port Adelaide and Adelaide Football AFL Clubs in Australia. Did you feel that volunteering was imperative to gaining a position in this field?

Imperative, no. But, invaluable, yes. Elite sport is a small community especially in the coaching/sports performance circles. Not only does volunteering give you an opportunity to learn and develop a specific skill set but it also allows you to understand the difference between a research/scientific and a practical approach. Human Movement gives you an outstanding base knowledge of sports performance across multiple levels, but nothing prepares you for the rigors of elite sport. Elite sport is demanding, long days, weeks and constant weekend work. Volunteering gives the opportunity to understand the demands and helps in the decision on whether I wanted to do this as a career.

It also helps develop networks. It is my belief that gaining employment boils down to this: It takes who you know to get a job and what you know to keep it. Networking is an important part of the business and volunteering helps start that.

Have you noticed any significant differences between the AFL and the NFL?

There are some big differences as well as many similarities. The main similarity is that the players are just people like everyone else whether that be in Australia, here in the US or around the world. We all idolize athletes and their talents but when you are in this environment you develop relationships with them by understanding that they are just normal people. The other similarity is good communication. A successful work environment really comes down to excellent communication. Communication of results, of standard and expectations and of performance. This goes throughout the whole organization from the players to management. As a Sport Scientist if you are too complex with reporting or analysis and cannot portray that information effectively to players, coaches or staff then your message, no matter how important it is, is not being utilized by the decision makers and you are not adding value to the program. This goes for both AFL and the NFL.

In terms of differences. The game is obviously different and the tiny nuances of the game have taken longer to understand than I expected, which is something that came easy in AFL growing up playing the game. Game day is a significant difference both from a spectator standpoint (it is like a full entertainment package), to in the locker room. The locker room in AFL before the game is intense and serious, the NFL locker room there is music blaring, dancing and an easy and calm before the storm. Culturally both environments are very different.

From an organization standpoint having an owner and the structure of leadership is different but also refreshing. You know who the owner/owners are and their vision for the business. Coaching wise, there are a large number of coaches all playing very specific roles which again comes down to great communication.

What is it like ‘behind the scenes’ at the AFL? What is the biggest misconception about the AFL (in your opinion)?

A big misconception would be time. We work a lot of hours and basically 7 days a week throughout the year. One of the biggest questions I get asked is ‘what do you do in the Off-Season?’. Although it seems like when the players are not here that would be the best time for us to have break. In actual fact for me that is the busiest time. When we are In-Season the days really just repeat themselves and you get into a rhythm. There is no time for personal development, solving problems or discussion on big picture outcomes. The Off-Season is a great time for that as well as our time to review the year, identify areas to improve and also plan the next pre-season and in-season programs. There is a lot that goes on behind the scenes other than the day to day preparation for game day week to week.

What is your favourite memory from your time working with the AFL?

I have two:

  1. Rather than just one memory I think it is more about the day to day. The conversations in the locker room, helping improve the players and the thirst for competition each day.
  2. My first day as an intern the High Performance Manager asked me how my kicking technique was. I said it was ‘OK’. He needed my help with some extra conditioning with a player. That player ended up being Andrew McLeod who was my idol growing up. That was one of the best experiences I have had. First day on the job, involved in a goal kicking session with Andrew McLeod!

Please tell me about your time at UniSA studying a Bachelor of Applied Science (Human Movement). Why did you choose this course?

It really comes down to my passion for sport and competition. This degree has such a wide range of career possibilities and it is perfect for anyone who is passionate about competition and is unsure of their final direction in life. I have always thought the human body is fascinating. Its ability to adapt, push through pain and the constant ‘limits’ that are broken really fascinate me. This degree was perfect for developing knowledge of the human body and its capabilities but also how to practically apply solutions to the general population and athletes on solving problems whether it be through rehabilitation, biomechanics or physiologically.

I guess when it comes down to it. If you love sport like I do and enjoy being around like-minded people this is the degree for you.

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