Ausnew Home Care | Teenager Mitchell Harwood aiming to be an AFL umpire after being told to avoid sport

Teenager Mitchell Harwood aiming to be an AFL umpire after being told to avoid sport

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It might be footy's least-appreciated skill, the boundary throw-in.

Unlike the centre bounce, we rarely ponder its degree of difficulty or sense of occasion.

There is no high-stakes prestige, like there is in rugby's lineout.

Cheyne Mason has practised and coached this minor art form since 1998.

"It has to be like a loop," said the Tasmanian Football Umpires Association (TFUA) stalwart.

"It's got to go up really high, then come down on top of the rucks."

The misconception is that it is all in the arm.

"It's really about a technique that is built like a pendulum," Mason said.

"You start really high above your head, then you go back in behind your knees, and all the force comes out of your legs.

"A lot of people think it's driven by the arm but it's not. You're pushing off with your legs and the power comes through there."

Add the senior boundary umpire's average running workload of 20 kilometres' worth of intermittent sprinting per game, the harshness of Tasmanian winters — wind resistance and slippery footballs are the natural enemies of the boundary umpire — plus the threat of verbal abuse, and it is easy to see why the TFUA is always desperate for new umpires.

It is also easy to see why recruits like Mitchell Harwood are so treasured.

When Mason began coaching the 19-year-old this year, the first thing that struck him was Harwood's enthusiasm.

The least-enticing appointments for veterans are school games: Harwood volunteered to run the boundary in all of them, if required.

Better still, Harwood took every piece of coaching advice imparted on him and immediately applied it in games.

"Everything you throw at him, he takes in, and the next week you see it play out on the field," Mason said.

"He's 100 per cent into umpiring."

Cheyne Mason pictured standing next to Mitchell Harwood. Ausnew Home Care, NDIS registered provider, My Aged Care
Cheyne Mason (left) has been one of Mitchell Harwood's biggest supporters as the 19-year-old climbs the umpiring ranks.(Supplied)

A few weeks ago, Mason granted Harwood his first senior game.

TFUA administrator Lynette Genders thought Harwood's story was worth sharing on Facebook.

Her post, to Harwood's delight, drew comments of praise from former AFL coach Rodney Eade and Tasmanian Premier Jeremy Rockliff.

Mason, on the other hand, was stunned by the information within it: things Harwood had never even mentioned in their many coaching sessions and conversations throughout the season. It read:

"Tonight we would like [to] highlight one of our TFUA Boundary Umpires, Mitchell Harwood. Prior to birth, Mitchell suffered a stroke, resulting in life-long brain damage. In addition to this, Mitchell has cerebral palsy and autism. Suffering from a disability can put barriers up for people wanting to participate in sport.

"Mitchell joined the TFUA in 2021 and had a great first season. He came back this year and has worked hard on his fitness and today debuted in his first senior game. Mitchell is beyond proud of his achievement and it just goes to show that you can achieve anything with dedication, commitment and support.

"The TFUA is proud to support Mitchell to achieve his dream. We are a very inclusive group welcoming anyone [who] wants to have a go."

'If it came to sport, that was easy for me'

Depending on how things pan out in the Oatlands District Football Association preliminary finals this weekend, Harwood will be in line for selection in the country league's senior grand final to follow.

That he has achieved such success in the space of barely two seasons as a boundary umpire is less surprising to Harwood than it might be to others.

"I had a hard life growing up," Harwood said.

"I suffered a bit with learning difficulties. But, if it came to sport, that was easy for me."

Last season, to his mother Tania's dismay, Mitch temporarily put umpiring on hold and tried to fulfil his dream of playing Under-18s football.

"He went to training one day and ended up with concussion," she said.

"I was definitely happy that he stopped playing after that and decided to go back to umpiring."

Mitchell Harwood prepares to throw the ball in during an Australian rules match.
Mitchell Harwood works hard on all aspects of his umpiring performance.(Supplied)

This season — reflecting the steady improvement of his performances as a boundary umpire — Harwood progressed rapidly through school footy, women's games, colts, then men's reserve grade appointments.

"I've improved a lot," he said.

"I was below-average in my throwing at the start, but I've gotten better in every game. I've changed my technique a little to make my throws longer and higher. It's just changing-up your technique to get it right."

Still, until barely a month ago, Harwood felt like selection in senior men's games was a way off.

Not so in Mason's mind. When the AFL came to town, a group of his more-experienced umpires wanted to skip a week and be spectators for a change.

"I thought, 'Bugger it, I'm just going to elevate some younger guys'," Mason said.

"Since then, Mitch has just improved from week to week. He keeps getting better."

The problem now is how to fit the others back in.

Was Harwood nervous when his debut rolled around?

"It didn't hit me until game day," he said.

"The life I've had, with my disability, I've gone through health issues for most of my life, so to get my first senior game, I just couldn't believe it."

As Harwood assesses how far he has come in such a short space of time, he is especially thankful to Cameron Lee, his TFUA coach last season, and thinks that nobody other than Mason would have backed him in so quickly.

Mitchell Harwood holds a football with his right hand before an Australian rules match.
Mitchell Harwood has been praised for his work ethic in umpiring local football.(Supplied)

However, in umpiring, enthusiasm and punctuality go a long way.

Genders gave a recent example of Harwood's uncommon commitment when, last week, another boundary umpire had to withdraw from a reserves game at the last minute due to a positive COVID-19 test.

"Mitch was there early," Genders said.

"That's how passionate he is. He's always there. He said, 'Look, I'll do it', and he did.

"Then he ran out in the senior game straight after, which is more than I could say I'd ever do."

Harwood did not mind at all.

"At half-time of the seniors I was a bit sore but, coming into the last quarter, I just decided to go my hardest and not think about it," he said.

"I just have fun out there.

"I don't care if it's one game or five in a week."

'We couldn't be any prouder of him'

Unlikely as it might have seemed at the start of the season, Mason now views Harwood as a "foundation umpire" within the association and said the teenager's goal should be nothing short of reaching the AFL and AFLW.

"There are a lot of avenues for him," Mason said.

"If he's willing to apply, we'll push him a lot further. He loves it and we love having him."

With that backing, Harwood does not talk himself down.

"My ambitions are really high," he said.

"I've got high expectations of myself. I'm planning to have a big pre-season and do TSL [Tasmanian State League] next year."

What would be his dream debut location — in the AFL or AFLW?

"I don't care if it's in Tassie or Melbourne or somewhere else," Harwood said.

"As long as I get to step on that turf."

Harwood has taken on coaching responsibilities, too, becoming a cog in a system that, Mason hopes, will improve standards across the board.

Mason said he had witnessed positive attitude changes in all of his young umpires this season.

Mitchell Harwood speaks to students at Claremont College.
Mitchell Harwood has spoken to students at his old school, Claremont College, about his umpiring journey.(Supplied)

That attitude and confidence recently took Harwood back to Claremont College, where he had been a student not long ago.

Now he was able to give an assured presentation on his umpiring work.

Like any parent, Tania Harwood has always hoped for the best for her son, but she also grew used to the knockers.

"When he was young, the doctors reckoned he wouldn't be able to do anything like this," she said.

"But he's proved them wrong, and the umpiring people have been really good to him.

"He's come so far, given the medical issues he's had. We couldn't be any prouder of him."

Although match payments ranging from $50 to $135 are handy — and he will soon commence volunteer work with the JackJumpers NBL franchise — Mitch's next challenge is to secure full-time work: Something outdoors, he hopes, perhaps close to home in Gagebrook. He would surely be an asset.

In Tasmanian umpiring, Genders said, Harwood had not only set an example for his peers but should also give hope to others.

"I did the Facebook post because Mitch wanted his story to get out there," she said.

"He wanted people with disabilities to know there was nothing stopping them from umpiring or doing other things."

At the very least, the TFUA would offer a sense of community.

"Sometimes people just find their niche and where they belong," Genders said.

"I think Mitch has done that with us."


Source: ABC

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