Rising NRL star Isaiya Katoa crashes into some of the biggest, strongest and fastest men in the country but says some aspects of university life can be more daunting.
The 19-year-old, who plays professional rugby league for the Dolphins, is a first-year Bachelor of Business student at the University of the Sunshine Coast.
“I think I probably deal with pressure in footy a bit better than I do in exams,” he said.
“Exams haunt me (laughs). But it’s cool.”
Balancing studying and sport has become a constant in his life. Being earmarked as one of Australia’s top schoolboy rugby league and rugby union talents will do that.
“I finished up school last year in Sydney and then had to sit my HSC exam across the other side of the world in the UK,” he said.
He wasn’t on holiday. He was representing Tonga at the Rugby League World Cup in England, at just 18 years old.
“That was a different experience. I was in a hotel room by myself with no one to study with and get help from – it was pretty difficult,” he said.
Joining the Dolphins for their inaugural season in the NRL brought him to Queensland and to the University of the Sunshine Coast’s High Performance Student Athlete Program.
However, he admits he wasn’t sure how he’d go balancing university with professional sport at first.
“I’ve always been pretty intrigued by business management – whether that’s related to sports business or even just running your own. I wanted to get a good insight of what it takes to do things like that,” he said.
“After talking to the wellbeing staff and understanding how this is setting myself up for the future, I realised it was probably a smart decision. Especially as a young kid just coming out of school with studying still fresh in my brain.”
That doesn’t mean it’s all been smooth sailing.
“It’s been a matter of time management. Probably halfway through the year is when I finally found a rhythm in terms of balancing out studying and training,” he said.
“Luckily, one of my teammates Jack (Bostock) is studying a Bachelor of Business at UniSC too and that’s been really good because we feed off each other. Honestly, I might have been a bit lost or forgotten some of work that needed to be done if he wasn’t in my class.”
“We’ve also had a study group going at the Dolphins, organised by our welfare and wellbeing staff, where once every week or so we can come in and even get some tutoring help if needed. We’ve had really good support from the club and UniSC.”
A business degree might not help much with his current day-to-day concerns of pro sport but he has already seen some overlaps between his coursework and the business of rugby league.
“I think the business management side of it and decision making … that’s been a massive part that I’ve found interesting,” he said.
“Obviously it’s in a different industry but seeing some of the decisions our coaches make, and the things they have to take into consideration – whether that’s injury, workload or how the body’s travelling. Understanding the link between that, and the concepts that we’ve been learning, has been pretty interesting.”
He said master coach Wayne Bennett could make a good business teacher.
“Yeah, for sure. He’s smart bro, he knows a lot. He’d be good.”
He said his friends, family and girlfriend have helped him keep a level head and his priorities in check.
“The leadership group we have at our club has to be one of the best in terms of looking after their life outside of footy with the likes of our captain Jesse (Bromwich), Felise (Kaufusi), Euan (Aitken) and Sean (O’Sullivan),” he said.
“It’s been awesome to have those guys around as mentors.”
But now, as a rugby league international and university student, he’s becoming something of a role model himself to thousands of young kids in Australia, Tonga and New Zealand, where he grew up.
“Honestly, I try not to think of myself as a role model or anything. I’m still pretty young myself and still working out how to juggle my studies with my footy,” he said.
“I just try to be a good human first, and a good footy player second.”
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