Like almost every young girl I had dreams to play netball for Australia and represent my country.
I started playing this great sport when I was 8 years old, which was a year early than the traditional age. My sister started at this time and given we did most things together, I wanted to play, I was also tall, so was given the green light. I was a natural from the get go and spent most of my time after school, shooting goals with my mum’s old netball ring, that my grandad made. I would throw the ball off the wall, land, set-up and visualise myself shooting the winning goal for Australia with seconds to go (Just like my idol Sharelle McMahon did many times in those nail biters against NZ). I would drag mum out with the broom so I could practice shooting over obstacles. Repeat all the shooting variations – step back left, step back right, falling out of court, one handed, long shots, eyes closed, medium shots, under the post – over and over again. I would be there all evening until the sun went down.
I lived for Saturday netball and could happily spend my whole day down at the courts. After my game I would sit on the sidelines of my sister’s game praying that they would need a fill in and would often whisper to my mum, who was the coach, to drag player X as I could do a better job.
I progressed through the standard player pathway quite quickly – Association, regional, state school girls, Under 17’s, Under 19’s, Under 21’s.
At the age of 16, I was playing for division 1 State league and out of the blue got a phone call from the Perth Orioles head coach. She mentioned that they had some injuries and players going overseas and asked me if I was free on the weekend to fly to Adelaide to go away with the team. Huh!? This was like a dream come true.
I remember when I was signing my player contract (well before the league was as professional as it is now) and reading that there was a sign on fee which was $50. I was like, soooooo just to clarify am I paying you $50 or are you paying me $50? She laughed and confirmed that they were paying me $50. I was like where do I sign!
Not only was I playing the sport I loved BUT now I was getting paid for it.
At the age of 18 I won the Perth Orioles player of the year – which was a huge surprise for me. It was after this time that I was invited to the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) to live in as a full-time athlete. This was a huge decision to make given that I had a good year with the Perth Orioles, but one I felt would benefit my development for the future. Living in Canberra and having access to world class facilities and being coached by elite coaches was what I thought was required to get me to the next level.
On reflection this is where my mindset and unhelpful thoughts began to take over and my netballing abilities would never be the same. I remember when I decided I was going to the AIS I instantly put A LOT of pressure on myself to perform. I was one of the few players already playing in the Commonwealth Bank Trophy league so took it upon myself to be a leader. This is when I began to doubt myself and I would build up a lot of anxiety about playing, but mostly about shooting. I would think about shooting ALL DAY to the point that I would make myself sick and nervous. What if I miss? What if I can't get it in? What if I miss multiple shots in a row? What if I don't get the rebound?
When I would then get to training, I would be so nervous to the point that my hands would be stiff and feel like I had no control over my fingertips or the ball. I couldn’t even play Bump without the nerves (a fun shootout game that didn’t matter if I lost or missed). It didn’t matter what it was if it involved shooting, I was anxious. I was lucky if I shot 50% in a game. Many air balls (or passes as us shooters say) were had.
From a starting player I was now spending a lot of time on the bench, which was just as stressful! I would get anxious if a shooter got injured, if we were winning by too much that they would make changes or if the other shooter wasn’t performing in fear of being put on. I would often pray that I got injured so I wouldn’t have to play.
After a few months of this I noticed that my hair was thinning significantly. I was so stressed that I was losing hair. I spoke to sports psychologists but I don’t think people get it when you say you’re nervous all the time. I’m not talking a few butterflies, that’s normal and healthy, I’m talking nervousness that you feel sick to the stomach that consumes your whole day and you can’t think about anything else.
I learnt to manage it as best I could. I still had moments where I was my old self, earning Player of the Match in a close State League grand final and working my way back into the West Coast Fever team, and persisted playing for another 4 years. Never the same. I would have good days and bad days. It would depend how I could manage my anxiety and negative thoughts as to how I would perform. Eventually I made the decision to stop playing as it was putting too much stress on my body, physically and mentally, and I didn’t want to have to continue to put myself through it.
SO this is part of the driving force behind why I share as much as I can about mental health, working on our mindset, identifying unhelpful thoughts and implementing strategies that help to improve or manage this.
We so often focus on training, the court sessions, putting up the shots, ball co-ordination sessions, weights sessions, recovery sessions and rehabilitation sessions. We get educated on nutrition, ensuring we are eating enough quality foods, enough carbs, reducing sugars, hydrating, eating enough recovery food, which are all important.
BUT how often do we check-in with our mindset and observe the thoughts we are having? If they helpful or unhelpful? Visualising ourselves winning or succeeding? Implementing routines that set us up for success ? Taking ownership of our actions?
I have an exciting project in the works to share with my fellow netballers whether you are a keen Saturday netballer or have dreams of playing for Australia!