Skinfold tests: a problematic ordeal or legitimate method of gauging elite fitness?

Leisel Jones was no stranger to skinfolds testing and weigh-ins. The Australian Olympic gold medallist remembers in stark, humiliating detail the clinical process, undertaken by male coaches in full view on the pool deck. She was a teenager then, training at the Queensland Academy of Sport and enduring experiences she says contributed to the depression she suffered throughout her swimming career.

“Whenever I have to stand on the pool deck in my togs, listening to my body being discussed like it’s an engine and not the arms, legs, thighs and stomach of a teenage girl, I am self-conscious and miserable,″⁣ she wrote in her autobiography, Body Lengths. “We were always getting weighed in, always being judged. We were actively encouraged to skip meals to lose weight. It is irresponsible and terribly damaging.”

This is not an uncommon ordeal reported by professional athletes, particularly – but by no means limited to – women. It is the reason the AFL has scrapped standard skinfold testing on draft prospects, a decision that has chiselled a firm frontier between sporting figures who believe the internationally common body-fat measurement tool is a form of body shaming, and those who view it as a legitimate method of gauging the fitness and physical condition of athletes.

Essendon chief Xavier Campbell was critical, calling the game a “performance-based industry” with an emphasis on “the physical aspect”. Former Port Adelaide player Kane Cornes labelled it “just ridiculous”. “Society has shifted, I understand that,” Cornes told SEN SA. “But this isn’t your average person off the street, this is a person who is aspiring to become an elite athlete.”

AFLW player Darcy Vescio, conversely, doesn’t understand the backlash. “If we’re serious about mental health and wellbeing of players [and society] then why slam a change that promotes that?” she tweeted. “The impact of body image issues and fat shaming is deep.” Former Sydney Swans player Luke Ablett says he still has “body image issues over skin folds and the fear of being put in ‘fat farm’”.

But are the actual tests themselves the problem, or is it the archaic, insensitive manner in which they were conducted? In terms of failing to acknowledge and prevent the exacerbation of body image issues among professional athletes, is the skinfolds test the common denominator, or is it the process surrounding them?

In the AFL and AFLW, part of Cornes’s complaint is that draftees can still be tested for skinfolds the moment they step into their new club environment despite the practice being banned before they are selected. The AFL, for its part, is understood to have made the decision after balancing the usefulness to clubs of a single measurement against the risk of negatively affecting the mental health of young players – particularly those who miss out.

The league prioritised the latter after consulting the Australian Institute of Sport, who advised that if body composition assessments are to be made, they should be supported by appropriate nutritional and possibly psychological support – infrastructure that is available in a club set-up.

The AIS’s position is that is does not oppose skinfold testing but encourages “a testing environment that has a strong consideration for athlete wellbeing”.

“The AFL sought advice from the AIS earlier this year regarding on-off skinfold testing protocols during the AFL Draft Camp,” a spokesperson said. “The AIS provided advice on issues to consider, in line with resources the AIS provides to all high performance sporting organisations.”

Sports psychologist, Dr Noel Blundell, said the AFL had “missed a major opportunity” to frame skinfold testing in a positive way.

“To attack it from a positive perspective and go about putting the appropriate protocols in place, so that a test that does have value can be utilised by the clubs,” Blundell, who has worked with numerous Olympians and also completed psychological assessments at the draft combine since its inception in 1994, told SEN. “And, more importantly, to assist the players to develop as elite athletes.

“The AFL could’ve taken a step forward and said ‘we’re a high-class body, we stick to the scientific protocols, we really care about the athletes and their development, and we also want the athletes to be educated in terms of, ‘if I’m getting to the next level, what are the facets I need to improve in my game?’”.

If the science is sound, how is that communicated to the players? Are they educated about the process and its value? Is there dialogue between fitness staff, psychologists and nutritionists to ensure sensitivity?

Each sport has its own approach. At football club Sydney FC, for instance, it’s about eduction and teaching players healthy habits from an exercise and nutrition point of view in looking after their body.

That, says Chris Pappas, the A-League Men club’s head of sports science and strength and conditioning, is a life skill.

“A lot of players don’t know what to do,” Pappas says. “We have a broad range of athletes with different understanding of athletic performance or nutrition. You may have athletes who really monitor and are careful with their diet and on the other hand you have athletes who will just eat whatever is cooked for dinner at home, so it’s about educating our players.

“Education in this sense is no different to strength training education, good physical fitness and the mental skills within the game. The club’s philosophy is about teaching our players the right life skills that they can take with them beyond football and into their future careers.”

Netball Australia is unique in that it only tests skinfolds on its senior national team, the practice operates on a strictly opt-in basis, and those who volunteer must be over the age of 18. The results are confidential and not used as a metric, rather a tool for Diamonds players to assess their progress. The organisation’s sports nutrition manager, Kerry Leech, is developing a new eating disorder policy, which includes guidelines around skinfolds testing.

Sydney Swans list manager Kinnear Beatson, who relies on testing data gathered before the draft to help make recruitment decisions, believes body-fat measurement is “part and parcel” of the game but adds some key caveats.

“I think what needs to happen, and it wasn’t probably been done well enough in the past, is to educate the players on the benefit of having them [skinfold tests] done and how it can enhance their physical performance by them understanding how what they’re eating will have an impact on their skinfold readings, and will then in time have an influence on their endurance abilities,” Beatson told SEN Drive.

“We also probably in the past haven’t held the results private enough. I do know nowadays is that with the medical testing … the only people that get access to that are our doctor and our physio. The only person that sees the psychological profiling [now] is our psychologist. If they were going to go back and do the skinfold readings, perhaps those readings have to go to a qualified dietician, and then they can give us some kind of summary.”