If Mitch Henderson occasionally stops to pinch himself, it’s hardly surprising.
Raised in sports-mad Gerringong on the New South Wales South Coast, it was pretty much a given that the UTS Sport and Exercise honours student would grow up knowing his way around a football field. At one time, the rugby league fullback even made the trip to Europe, where he played briefly as a semi-professional.
But back then few, least of all Henderson himself, would have envisaged he would become assistant strength and conditioning coach with the Australian men’s rugby sevens team. And that he’d be completing his honours thesis on the demands of competition and other key factors influencing performance in the game.
“I had a moment recently when I wondered how on earth I got here,” admits Henderson. “When I was gallivanting around Europe as a rugby league player, I certainly never envisaged being a research student sitting in an advanced statistics class and thinking ‘this stuff is cool!’”
As it turns out, it was Henderson’s time in Europe that prompted him to consider a non-playing career in sport. “I knew a playing career wasn’t for me but I’m happy with what I got from my time overseas,” he says. “I’m more worldly because of it and I learned a lot of life skills.”
Henderson also learned French while playing rugby league in picturesque La Réole in south-western France – something that, long-term, could prove handy in the increasingly international world of high-performance sport.
Right now, though, his focus is firmly on his ‘home ground’ at Sydney’s Moore Park. It’s here that UTS’s state-of-the-art sport and exercise science facilities have just opened at the new Rugby Australia Building. It’s the first Australian university facility to be embedded within a premier sporting precinct and comes about thanks to a partnership between UTS, the Australian Rugby Union and the Sydney Cricket and Sports Ground Trust.
According to Henderson, the facility is a game changer.
“It’s easy for academics and students in their ivory towers to dictate how things should be, but it’s a different story in the trenches for athletes working within the constraints of professional sport,” says Henderson. “Bridging that disconnect by having world-class research and sport in the same environment is one of the most exciting things about the partnership.”
With plans to embark on a PhD, Henderson will have plenty of time to make the most of the new facilities.
There’s also the lure of being involved in Australia’s rugby sevens campaign for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and, beyond that, hopefully a role leading a high-performance program at a professional club. But as Henderson says, “Who knows where I can go? For now I’m just working to prove myself in a very cut-throat business”.