The country’s top netballers have been hit hard by Covid, and their return to play is being carefully managed. But the aftereffects emerging are both physical and mental, Merryn Anderson discovers.
As Covid continues to run riot through New Zealand’s elite netball teams, there’s a major emphasis on getting players back on court – but not before they’re ready.
While they recover then return, it’s not just the typical lingering physical side effects – strain on the heart and lungs, migraines and fatigue – the sport’s medical experts are keeping an eye on.
They’re seeing some athletes also suffering from ‘brain fog’, impacting decisions they make out on court.
Silver Ferns’ medical lead, Dr Mel Parnell, has been given a new responsibility during the ANZ Premiership, becoming the Covid medical advisor. She’s overseeing the return to play of domestic competition players, ensuring they receive well-rounded support during both their physical and mental recovery.
The biggest concern is not pushing players too hard – Covid is a “very different beast” to other viral illnesses, Parnell says, with long Covid hitting even the fittest athletes.
“We’re still learning a little bit about Covid as we go, but what we know is if we push people back too fast, there is a potential of increasing their risk for long Covid.”
And while it’s easier to monitor the physical effects of Covid – the medical teams observing players’ heart rates while exercising, resting and recovering – one prominent symptom is a lot harder to test.
Some people in their recovery are experiencing brain fog – a phenomenon that’s hard to put a finger on.
In the community it appears as people forgetting where their keys are or getting in the wrong side of the car to drive. And it’s affecting our elite athletes, too.
“We’re seeing on the court sometimes, someone make poor decisions and we wonder if that might be a result of their recent Covid infection,” Parnell says. “They’re well-recovered, symptom-free, and for some of them it’s a month down the track and they’ve been playing quite a few games but still not feeling 100 percent and making some poor decisions on court.
“We’ve been talking about what we could or should be doing, but there are no tests we can do apart from our usual medical tests to make sure there’s no other underlying cause we should be concerned about.
“We can monitor things like their heart rate, and make sure their heart’s not racing during those times… we can look at their resting heart rate and make sure they’re well recovered. But they all seem to be doing really well in that regard.
“An elite athlete doesn’t like to be unwell and not performing, so there is that psychology component we should also address.”
Working in with the Silver Ferns’ sports psychologist, Rod Corban, Parnell says the answer could be to simply give those athletes’ time to recover. “It seems to be working; people are getting better. It’s just taking a little longer than you’d expect,” Parnell says.
But time is of the essence for our top netballers right now.
The 2022 ANZ Premiership season was already condensed because of July’s Commonwealth Games, and now postponed games have meant an even tighter schedule, with some teams playing up to three games in a seven-day period.
The Southern Steel have been hardest hit in the last 10 days. Having postponed two games last weekend, they’ve had to call off Saturday’s match against the Tactix, with only two fully-fit players available in their squad.
The other team members are either in isolation or haven’t been cleared to return to court and are still working through their return to play programmes. Some players have already been through the return to play process, including captain Shannon Saunders.
The postponement of a third game shows how seriously the medical staff around these teams are taking in helping their players get back out on court.
“It does add a huge amount of pressure at the end of the season, both physically and mentally, to play catch-up. But our main priority is ensuring our players return to the court safely and their wellbeing is paramount,” Steel coach Reinga Bloxham said.
In her role as Covid medical advisor, Parnell is also working with the league’s match commissioner, Emma Fowlie, and the franchises’ liaisons and team doctors to ensure the competition is running efficiently and answering any medical questions teams may have.
With just 90 days to go until the Commonwealth Games, Parnell and the Silver Ferns team are being proactive, and understanding how the physical and mental recoveries differ.
“On top of it all, we’re listening to our athletes, we’re looking at our athletes, we’re making sure we’re optimising everything around them at this point so they can do what they do best – which is to perform on court,” says Parnell.
“If we’re pushing them back a little fast, there’s a potential of unmasking perhaps ongoing underlying inflammation that then might reveal itself in something that might affect their heart, like a myocarditis or a pericarditis [inflammation of the heart or the lining around the heart].
“For those reasons, monitoring the athletes, making sure they remain well is really important every step of the way.”
Fortunate to have avoided the grasps of Covid for so long, New Zealand netball’s first brush with the virus came as the Silver Ferns returned from the Quad Series in England in January. Multiple members of the team tested positive for Covid, some experiencing quite severe symptoms.
Defender Sulu Fitzpatrick was one of the affected team members, testing positive during her managed isolation stint.
The virus left her essentially bedridden for days, with Fitzpatrick describing her main symptoms as “a persistent headache that just would not go away, body aches, fatigue and night sweats.”
Parnell started managing return to play protocols then guiding Fitzpatrick and other players through pre-season and the beginning of the ANZ Premiership in March.
Fitzpatrick’s journey was long – after 17 days in MIQ, doctors had to give her clearance for her heart and then her lungs, before starting light training.
“The big thing that’s helped me is I haven’t been under pressure. If anything I’m putting pressure on the Silver Ferns and the Mystics to get back out there,” she said in February.
“But they’re both making sure the priority is that I’m safe and healthy first. They’re very aware of the impact it’s had mentally and emotionally, and that can transfer onto the court as well.”
Parnell says these super-fit athletes have reacted to Covid “like normal members of the community.”
“There’s been a really wide variety of symptoms – from no symptoms at all and being detected on a routine RAT test, all the way through to being quite unwell,” she says.
“We’ve had some that have been quite unwell and bedridden for a few days bounce back quite quickly and do really well in their return to play. And others who’ve been grumbling along with some fatigue and not quite getting there who’ve taken several weeks before being fully cleared to get back onto the netball court.”
There are minimum timeframes in place for players to return to court, but Parnell stresses that every case is different. “You can have an element of prediction and we’ve got some protocols to help guide, but it’s an individual response,” she says.
It’s not just New Zealand’s elite athletes who’ve had their seasons affected by Covid, of course – grassroots and community level sport has been reeling with the impacts of the pandemic since 2020.
Auckland Netball have made the decision to run a shorter competition in June and July this season, to not only give netballers the chance to recover from Covid, but also to ensure friends and family feel safe to return to sport in their community.
Dianne Lasenby, Auckland Netball Centre’s CEO, says it’s so important to give Covid-conscious members of the community the safest option possible.
“We appreciate there’s still that nervousness in the community and let’s face it, we still have Covid in Auckland,” she says.
Some players have felt unsure their seasons would go ahead fully and were reluctant to pay a season fee with the threat of cancellation through a lack of numbers during the peak Omicron wave.
“By having this shorter six-week comp, those people missing out now and feeling it’s not the right time, should by then feel more confident. At least they can come in and join in and have that shorter experience so they’re not completely missing another year off netball,” says Lasenby.
Auckland’s 2020 season was cancelled due to Covid, and the 2021 season was cut short, with the summer league and casual indoor netball games unable to be held as well.
Lasenby says it’s also important to understand why some people aren’t returning to netball, with the financial impacts of the pandemic also hitting the community.
“We have to recognise that families are suffering out there,” she says. “There have been people who’ve lost their jobs…we’ve just been really mindful of what we can do to help if that’s the case.
“We know the cost to play netball, compared to a lot of sports, is relatively low.” Lasenby estimates the team fee averages out to around $4 a game. “But obviously there will be parts of our community that are really hurting and that’s a big amount.”
Lasenby and Auckland Netball are conscious that their players and families are eager for a return to normalcy, but there’s still a few months to go before Omicron starts to retreat from our shores.
Parnell says time is an important factor in the holistic approach to Covid recovery.
“We really want to make sure our athletes remain healthy and we’re not doing them harm by pushing them back early,” she says.
“It’s that fine balance of wanting them back out on the court to play the game they love so we can all watch them, but not pushing them. And making sure their return is efficient, but not unsafe.”