Having struggled when their careers ended, a band of former Silver Ferns are committed to helping the next generation of top netballers smoothly transition from professional sport to everyday life.
When Silver Fern Millie Lees left netball to pursue her medical career in England, she completely cut ties with the sport she’d been smitten with.
“When I first got here, I couldn’t watch a game,” Lees (now Poyser) writes from the English city of Manchester, where she’s an anaesthetist on a maternity ward. “I haven’t touched a netball in over five years.
“I think most athletes experience something similar – a dislike towards the sport they gave so much to. It’s hard not to feel a little hard done by, wishing I got my fairy-tale ending. But that’s life and it’s not always fair.”
In 2014, with 14 test caps to her name, Lees had decided to give her international career “one last crack” – taking a year out of medicine to concentrate fully on netball. She came home to Auckland and focused on making the Silver Ferns again for the 2015 World Cup – but failed to get the call-up.
At 26, Lees decided she’d had enough of netball. So she moved to the other side of the globe “wanting to step as far away from [netball] as possible”, and start a new chapter in her life.
Now she’s sharing her story of life after sport with the current generation of elite netballers, in the hope her experiences might help others make a smooth transition from professional sport to normal life.
It’s part of a new initiative the New Zealand Netball Players Association began this year to support players retiring from the game.
Another former Silver Fern, Debbie Christian (nee White), is running the programme – talking to other players about their struggles post-netball, and helping prepare today’s players for what lies ahead.
Christian tapped into the support networks rugby and cricket have set up for their former players’ welfare, but made sure the netball version was tailored specifically to women – looking at issues like fertility.
“I’m really excited where female sport is heading, and that netball is at the leading end of the professional world. We’re about 10 to 15 years behind rugby, so I can see the challenges ahead for our female athletes,” she says. “They’re only going to be amplified as the sport becomes more professional.”
Challenges like athletes losing their identity when they leave sport.
In her role as the NZNPA past player relationship manager, Christian set up a working group of former players from different ethnicities and different eras (Poyser among them). She found they all had their own identity issues and hardships after ending their playing careers.
“When you’re playing netball – or any sport at a high level – you’re in a bubble. You’re really important, you have a sense of purpose and a physical structure to your days, your weeks and your year,” she says.
“And then all of a sudden, you’ve finished – maybe you’ve chosen to, or you’ve been forced to – and you look forward to free weekends.
“But when you get there, you’re like ‘I have no structure; I had this really strong purpose and now I don’t know what that purpose is. I’m 34 and haven’t had any work experience – where do I go?’ Their identity and purpose is lost for a while.”
Former Silver Ferns shooter Jodi Brown was one of the players in that working group. She spoke to LockerRoom earlier this year about struggling to find her place in the world after her 61-cap career ended.
“Since retiring, it’s been a really hard slog, really challenging mentally, because for 18 years my life had been netball. It was so structured – go to training, come home, do the housework, study, go to training again,” Brown said.
By the second online meeting of the working group, the former players realised they were all on the same page. “It was amazing to discover we weren’t alone,” Christian says.
“For the first three years, we didn’t want to have anything to do with netball. Everyone thought it was just them – I did too. You just need that distance to heal, almost, because you’ve been through a lot of stuff.”
Christian played just one test for the Silver Ferns, but was the most capped player to turn out for the Otago Rebels over nine seasons in the National Bank Cup.
She remembers being “the last Silver Fern to have a full-time job.”
“I was a teacher, and I was lucky because I work all the way through my career,” she says. “I was a farm girl, so you just worked.
“Then I was told I needed to go part-time so I could spend more time on netball. I hated it – so I studied as well, doing a post-grad in sports medicine at the same time. I’m just not a sit-around person.
“That’s one of my strongest messages to today’s players: you actually play better if you have other things in your life. If you are building something on the side, or following your passion outside netball, you’re a way better netballer.”
You don’t have to look far to find proof. Pulse midcourter Claire Kersten puts her recent recall into the Silver Ferns down to a change of mindset and a new balance, helped by her return to work as a relief teacher in Wellington this year.
Millie Poyser says she was fortunate to have two passions in her life, that complemented, rather than competed, with each other.
“When study was stressful, I needed an outlet; when we were losing netball games or the pressure of team selection played on my mind, I could always focus on my medical studies,” she says from Manchester. “But as netball started becoming more professional and I was working as a junior doctor on the wards there was more pressure to commit fully to netball.
“Many aspects of my sporting past now play their part in my life as an anaesthetist. Skills transferred from netball to my medical career have set me up well for a life of study, discipline, lack of sleep and pressure.” And Poyser has recently rediscovered her love for the game, going to last year’s World Cup in Liverpool.
It was when Christian moved to Auckland and was coaching netball at a high school that she saw the pressure young players were being put under. It led her to a role as Auckland Netball’s first player welfare liaison, after she’d had her second son with husband James Christian, the former Auckland Blues rugby hooker.
Christian wants to get the message to netballers as early as secondary school level to think ahead to a future after netball.
“We should prepare the girls while they’re playing, which is a challenge, because they’re young and they don’t think it’s going to happen to them,” she says. “I see it as working with the ex-players and bringing them in to work with the current players – so it’s almost like a life cycle.
“That way, we keep our ex-players connected in a social network, but we’re also educating our current players on the realities of life.”
Silver Ferns centurion Leana de Bruin recently spoke on Zoom to the ANZ Premiership players about her experiences trying to find a job outside netball. Since the start of this year, she’s been the commercial executive for Chiefs Rugby.
“It’s exciting how much we can help each other – present and past,” Christian says.
She spoke to the Silver Ferns at their last training camp on how they can balance their identity on top of playing for New Zealand. “We want to make sure both are supported right through,” says Christian.
“I want to do a wellbeing survey to find out what help our players need. We’ll be looking into specific health issues like fertility, especially now that you can play longer. Several of my friends have been negatively impacted by this.”
It’s also about taking care of players when their seasons – or careers – are abruptly ended by injury, or they’re simply dropped from a team.
Christian tells the story of athlete who’d played 99 matches at elite level, then didn’t get a contract for the next season.
“She got told to drop her car off, and then she didn’t even have a ride to the airport to fly home,” she says. “That was just two years ago. It’s about being there for those people. Players who get injured, and are out for the season, who don’t have access to physios anymore.
“Yes, that’s the brutality of sport, but does it need to be done like that? We certainly haven’t got that balance right yet.”