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Kick-starting an Elite Sports Career with Michael Rennie | Fitness Education

by Glenn Cullen
Posted: December 08, 2015

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From little things, big things grow. Michael Rennie started his fitness education with a Certificate III. He’s now eyeing off a postgraduate degree in medicine and ultimately a role as a sports high-performance manager.

It’s been an incredible decade of focus and commitment from 28-year-old Michael Rennie, yet he’s humble enough to suggest it was as much a product of mentoring and opportunity as it was his dedication to the craft.

From another certificate in fitness, to two diplomas and a Bachelor of Human Movement and Honours year, Rennie now finds himself completing a PhD. But if you have him simply pegged as a professional student, you’d be off the mark. He’s also the strength and conditioning coach with the Sydney Swans, coincidentally, during one of their most successful periods in the AFL. A former national-level sprinter, he’s one well-rounded fella. Michael spoke to Open Colleges about his journey.

Finding my feet

After I finished high school I went to UNSW and started an advanced science degree. But it just wasn’t ticking my boxes, so I did the cert III in basic fitness instruction. Off the back of that I really enjoyed the sports stuff, having come from a pretty strong athletics background as a 400m runner. When I finished the cert four, I got introduced to Sean Burns who worked with the Jersey Flegg (under 20) team at NRL club Parramatta. He invited me along; I watched training and got a feel for the environment and how the systems worked. That was my gateway to seeing how an elite organisation ran. Everything came off the back of that.

The attraction

Because I participated in sport for such a long time, it felt like a second home to me. I was interested in the one percenters; the really high-end stuff; the people that you didn't actually have to motivate ? the ones you actually had to try to hold back. Those were the personalities I enjoyed working with. The environment, the high stress, the pressure, the intensity ? all those things attracted me to elite sport.


My PHD is on game analysis, so it primarily analyses the running demands in AFL. It fits in with my role quite nicely because I am a conditioning coach at the Swans. I profile the good and poor performances. We know what it takes to win and lose games. Based on the statistics we get out of a game, we could pretty much have predicted if we were going to win or lose.

Big data and sport

The data can help with decision making, but the experience that the coaches, conditioners and medical staff have – a lot of that isn't based on data but contextual factors. It comes down to feelings and experiences, and most of the time those are the things that determine our decision-making rather than the data. But I think the data provides confidence and scientific robustness to the decision-making. If you went into a boardroom and had to back up something to illustrate your finding with numbers rather than your gut feel, that's a more scientific way to go about it.

The Goodes factor

Last season, when Adam Goodes was still playing, we did tests on the bike and aerobically he was still one of the fittest players in the team. For a big guy and someone who had been playing for such a long period of time you’d think he would go backwards, but he was actually getting better. It was something I didn't expect. I think the top athletes when they get older, they are smarter how they go about things. I think that is the case with education as well. 

Opportunity knocks

I never expected it to progress into something like this. It was the opportunities provided throughout the qualification that made all the difference for me. In 2011, I got a running conditioning job with the AFL umpires. I could run my own program the way I thought it should be done. I wouldn’t have had that opportunity unless the staff at the TAFE had taken me under their wing and provided me with mentorship. It was really inspiring as I didn’t get the chance to do that as an athlete.

The future

I'm with the Swans for another year, over which time I'll finish my PHD. I have been applying to get into medicine for the past couple of years. That's the last frontier after the PHD. I think it would be a really nice combination: having the sports-science understanding as well as the medical injury-prevention side of things. Then you could act as almost a high-performance manager ? you run the entire program from medical and conditioning. That is my vision for the future.

But you don’t have to study for a decade!

Heaps of people I know are successful personal trainers with a cert IV. There are numerous opportunities to go down different paths with university or other qualifications.


Glenn Cullen

Glenn Cullen has worked as a Journalist and Editor for 20 years and has traversed the globe covering sport, business and travel. He has written for media outlets as diverse as Qantas The Australian Way, AAP, Inside Sport and Australian Doctor.

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