Matt Pine, SportUNE

Interview with Matt Pine , UNE’s High-Performance Manager

After interviewing a handful of the UNE Sports Academy students, I discovered that there was a consistency in behaviours each student displayed – that of which were a well-balanced view towards their training and study, as well as a strong desire for improvement and self-development.

It became obvious that the Academy is not just a program that helps student-athletes juggle their sport and study demands but is also a place where students are learning personal attributes that will have them set for life.

The Academy has a solid philosophical approach in guiding the athletes, and I felt compelled to sit down with the man behind these inspiring students and find out a little bit more about the Academy’s philosophy and why it is important to a university like UNE.

That man is Matt Pine. From working for the AFL Sydney Swans to his current role as a high-performance manager for our very own UNE student-athletes, he is nothing short of impressive with his knowledge in the field of elite athleticism and dual careers.

Can you tell us a bit about what your role as the high-performance manager at SportUNE involves?

There’s a broad range of strengths and abilities across the multiple sports that our student-athletes compete in, on and off-campus – I find this both exciting and challenging.

In a nutshell, it’s about helping our student-athletes balance their academic workload and their sport. The UNE Sports Academy is pretty special and has a focus on looking after all student-athletes – our on-campus and the EAP students that study online.

Because of locations, how we work together can a little different, but basically, my work within the academy involves spending time with the student-athletes, learning about where they come from, any injuries or limitations they might have and where they want to get to in their sport. From there I help map out a plan of how to achieve this. This involves a structured training plan, working out what suits them around their studies, work and social time.

You previously worked for the Sydney Swans as an assistant strength and conditioning coach, can you tell me about that experience?

I was a few years out of University, working at the Sydney Academy of Sport, and a job came up at the Swans. At that stage, I was a Swans supporter and also played AFL footy in Sydney. It was a dream job, and I was really lucky to be in the right place at the right time and have some of the skills they were looking for. I was there for eight years, working in various different roles, which included looking after rehabilitation, sports science, and innovation, as well as general strength and conditioning.

What did you learn at this time that helps you at SportUNE?

What the Swans were quite strong on was managing training load and adjusting an individuals’ training accordingly, they were really great at avoiding injuries, whilst still pushing an athlete hard and knowing when to pull back. This has been an important concept in training the student-athletes in the program and helping teach them these values within their own training.

In your words, what is the UNE Sports Academy?

Simply, it’s a program to support university student-athletes balance the demands of study and high-level sport. It’s about developing, enhancing, supporting and inspiring our students to kick more goals and graduate with dual careers.

What was your role in starting up the UNE Sports Academy?

David Schmude, the CEO of UNE Life had this idea for a few years – I moved back to Armidale and we started developing the idea together. There was lots of planning and questions… how are we going to make this work, who can we encourage to be a part of it and how are we going to spread the word to potential students? We had incredible facilities for the program, a gym and training area, so it was essentially about tapping into those areas and collaborating with the academic staff, making sure we are here to develop and support the students to be better athletes as well as students.

Today, the Academy is in its second year and we are starting to entice student-athletes to come to UNE because of the program, which is really exciting.

Why is this program important for UNE?

There is a heavy focus on the academic side of the program, making sure students are balancing their workload with sport and life, it’s all-encompassing – because we want all student-athletes to leave UNE with really well-rounded achievements, on and off the field. We are lucky to be able to provide a pathway at SportUNE with great links to sporting associations – it’s pretty cool.

The Academy is important, especially in a rural and regional area like Armidale, because it allows talented athletes who have finished the HSC to find a support program for their sport after school. The Sports Academy allows those who are rurally and regionally based to pursue their sporting aspirations at a higher level and gives students the opportunity to be able to balance their sport with tertiary study.

How do you cater to each individual athletes and sport they participate in?

Overwhelmingly, it’s all about support and building relationships, be it remote or in person. I encourage each of them to get into the gym, to do some form of strength training, and that will vary whether its rugby or dressage. For a lot of the team, they haven’t ever had a structured gym program, so much of it is getting them familiar with the gym and teaching them to benefits of regular strength training, which inevitably improves them as an athlete and makes them more resilient.

Can you give an example of a training session for one of the athletes?

A good example would be Sam Finlayson and his sport polocrosse. Because of the nature of the sport, their horses have to be fit as well, and they’ve got this really fascinating interaction between the horse and the person. They ride four or five times a week, so they are naturally very horse fit, so it is then about building other training around this.
Polocrosse, as I understand, is “flat chat” for about five minutes; they go hell for leather on the back of a horse, chasing after a ball, trying to score a goal and then they come off and have a rest. For Sam, he needs to be fairly cardiovascular fit and needs to have good mobility and core stability for balance as its quite an effort to control a horse while chasing down the ball. His gym sessions would include a combination of cardio, mobility and strength exercises, with a particular emphasis on core strength.

Another component to training is recovery, what are your tips for recovery after a gruelling training session or game?

Make sure you do some form of mobility like stretching out and using foam rollers!
Another form of recovery we encourage is yoga, it’s a great activity that engages you both physically and mentally.

I recommend dedicating 45 minutes to an hour to your body, a few times each week to work on recovery and to switch off mentally.

There has also been a bit of stigma surrounding mindfulness – people think it’s irrelevant, or struggle to find the time, but I like to challenge the students to incorporate it into their schedule. All it takes is to stop for 30 seconds and breathe, allowing you to reset your focus; people don’t realise how beneficial this can be on a performance level.

Injury can be hard to avoid. What is important for an athlete to remember when recovering from an injury?

As a high-level athlete, no matter how well you prepare, some form of injury is inevitable. What is important is for an athlete to keep moving forward, you can still improve when you have an injury. For example, there is an ankle injury, but the athlete can still work on their strength and core strength, or on their coaching and game understanding.

Injury management and rehab can be a real learning experience for the athlete too. My job, in consultation with our physio, is to help injured athletes to be patient and methodical, be more realistic about when to hold back and when to push forward; help them to have a bigger picture.

What are some of the challenges you have faced in your role with the Sports Academy?

There are two challenges – finding balance and finding time; from my perspective and the student’s perspective. A typical UNE student is on campus for 12 weeks, twice a year so it can be quite challenging to make a difference in the time that is available. What we have learned with the Academy is that you have to be organised and plan ahead. For online student-athletes, they may also have to balance a job a family, you name it. Because we focus on the dual career, there is a strong educational component to our philosophy, and it’s a lot to get your head around, but that’s why I’m here!

The philosophy of the academy is to help each individual come through the program understanding themselves better and knowing what they need to do to keep improving, they don’t always need me every step of the way, which is why it also works for the EAP students.

How is the Academy beneficial to the study of the student-athletes?

I have to say, the people that apply for Sports Academy are pretty switched on characters, and sport is naturally a big part of their life. As a requirement of being in the Academy, students need to be able to balance their sport with their studies. We are really fortunate to work closely with Lisa Rice who is the Manager of Student Scholarships as their academic mentor. Lisa manages and supports the student-athletes on and offline – she is amazing at encouraging students to plan ahead and decide the sort of study plan they should have that won’t affect their sporting competitions and training and to tap into extra help when needed.

Looking towards the future, how do you see this program growing?

We’re big on continuous improvement

Which means, there is always room to improve. One of our goals is expand our team of experts to further support our student-athletes. For example, it would be amazing to have someone in the gym dedicated to training the academy students! Having more coaches that specialise in different areas would be beneficial for all of the students.

Another goal would be to collaborate more with different departments within UNE, such as the Sport and Exercise Science program. As part of the practical requirements of their degree, the Academy could be a way to give them some experience in strength and conditioning.

It would also be great to enhance the program by strengthening our partnerships with existing sporting groups and experts like NIAS, AIS, as well as other State and National Sporting Organisations.

Another goal would be to develop a coaching pathway within the Sports Academy – I think you get the gist; I could go on and on about our goals!

What did you study at University?

I grew up in Armidale and moved to Sydney to study Sport and Exercise Science at UTS. I had travelled for a few years after school so I was a bit older when I picked up the textbook and I think that helped me a lot with focus. I encourage people to do that, to take a break and get some life experience, and take the time to try and find something that you’re passionate about and interested in.

What was an important component for you in balancing student life with your other commitments?

When I was at university I was playing sport, living in a share house and working a part-time job, so it was certainly busy. If you get all those things in place and find something that you enjoy that is 90% of the job done.

How do you find that balance today?

Initially, I moved back to Armidale to find balance for my family, living here gives you more time and less pressure in life. It feels good to be in a job that is busy but being able to put my skills and experience into practice. I continue to play sport (for a local hockey team) because it helps me to have that balance and still be somewhat competitive.

What advice can you offer to school-age athletes who want to continue with their representative sport while transitioning towards tertiary education?

Take the opportunity to pursue your sport, and get the best out of yourself, if that’s what you are really passionate about. If that means having to do study part-time, so be it, don’t try to take too much on at the detriment of everything. With the Sydney Swans for instance, when a new player came into the club they had to first adjust to the schedule of being a full-time athlete. Being fresh from school, the club didn’t try to push study on top of a new recruit’s program. Once their second year came around, they were required to start a venture like study or a trade, alongside their sport.

In this vein, another tip for school-aged athletes is not to put all your eggs in one basket. Pursue your sport passionately, but make sure you find something outside of sport that interests you as well. Remember that only a small minority actually make a career out of their chosen sport, so it’s important to have a plan B.

A big thank you goes out to Matt Pine and the team at SportUNE who help and assist the Sports Academy students on their journey at UNE!