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“Championship resources” drive holistic mental and physical wellness in Spartan Athletics

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Michigan State University Spartan Athletics
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Ashton Henderson, a four-year letter winner for Spartan Football from 2006 through 2009, returned to MSU in February of 2022 as executive associate athletics director for championship resources

In this new role, Henderson oversees student-facing areas associated with health, mental and physical wellness, and student athlete engagement. He oversees many of the areas that support student athletes beyond their sport-specific training. This means athletic training, academic support, career development, nutrition, and strength and conditioning with a holistic approach.

Henderson tells why he chose MSU to pursue his college football career. And he talks about his career path leading up to taking this new position at MSU. Henderson played for both John L. Smith and Mark Dantonio; he compares the two.

“I'm passionate about this work; this is my calling. I really feel this is why I was born, to help serve and help young men and women have an unbelievable experience at the best institution that there is known to man. Every day I wake up fulfilled, passion driven, and fueled knowing that I'm walking to my purpose and I'm in alignment with my vision. And I know that same energy is infectious, and our student athletes feel that, our coaches feel that, and our internal stakeholders, donors and supporters feel that. What you put out into the world is what you get back. I truly believe that, and that's what I bring to the table every day.”

What are championship resources?

“Under the auspices of the Championship Resources umbrella, you'll find athletic training and Spartan's Fuel, which is our nutrition program for the entire athletic ecosystem. You’ll find our athletic performance unit, which most would call strength and conditioning, which is critical and important to the student athlete experience. I'm immensely happy and proud of our new revamped mental health program; that falls into the auspices of Championship Resources as well.

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Russ White | MSU Today
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Ashton Henderson in the MSU Audio Studios

“Then you have sports science, which is new. It’s an unbelievable area where I'm learning every day about how those modalities and opportunities really activate and help our student athletes gain competitive advantages through scientific-based research and evidence-based research. Also, I have the privilege to champion our name, image, and likeness strategy along with a team of 10 other individuals and our entire department on what we do to educate our student athletes in that capacity. I work together with our Spartan for Life student athlete development program and our Varsity S program, which is for our former letter winners. And I'm the sports administrator for women's basketball.”

What is your assessment of the state of mental and physical wellness with student athletes at MSU and across the country?

“There is often a stigma attached to treating your mental health, like you must have something wrong with you to see a mental health counselor. I see a mental health counselor every month to help keep me sane as well as to de-stigmatize and let folks know it is okay. But it's not okay to not be okay.”

Henderson talks more about what he and his team are doing to help improve student-athletes’ mental and physical wellness. And he talks about the Ultimate Growth Foundation and its mission.

“It's important for us to have a pulse on what's going on. So, for me, it's getting into the training room and getting into spaces where student athletes reside. It's easy to just stay at your desk and emails will inundate you. But for me, I make it a priority to get around and talk to student athletes and connect with them to understand their experience, who their families are, what's their why, and what drives them.

“There is a genuine pulse and understanding of where our student athletes are, which I'm grateful for, and that comes with building authentic relationships and asking the right questions, not just saying, ‘Hey you good? I'm good. You good? Let's keep walking.’ No, we must have a meaningful conversation saying, ‘Hey, how are you doing today? And what has been a challenge in your day?’ Those are the questions we must start asking to get folks more feeling connected to us instead of the real quick hitters where you're never going to get the right and real answer because they know you don't have time to talk to them.”

Henderson says MSU’s name, image, and likeness plan “is the most comprehensive, most thought out educational platform program in the country.”

What are your long-term goals for Championship Resources?

“We are providing the utmost quality care and first-class experience to our student athletes to the best of our abilities. We do that in a cornucopia of different ways, and I'm committed to doing that and to being on the ground. It’s a competitive advantage.”

As a Spartan Football player, Henderson may be best known for returning a blocked punt for a touchdown in MSU's 35-point comeback win over Northwestern in 2006, the biggest comeback in FBS history.

“Russ, October 21 defined my life for me; I knew that day that anything is possible. Never give up. Our team never gave up that day. I've never had that many text messages in my life. And that's a moment my parents have captured on DVD. We watch it sometimes during the holidays, and it's something that's truly special.”

(audio courtesy of Scott Moore; George Blaha on the Spartan Sports Network)

MSU Today airs Saturdays at 5 p.m. and Sundays at 5 a.m. on WKAR News/Talk and Sundays at 8 p.m. on 760 WJR. Find “MSU Today with Russ White” on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and wherever you get your shows.