Sport

Australian Diamonds’ Caitlin Thwaites on netball’s growing success, joining the Collingwood Magpies and managing her inner demons. By Cindy MacDonald.
Credit: NETBALL AUSTRALIA

Ring master: Caitlin Thwaites, 31, netballer

At the Diamonds, we’ve had a lot of chats about wanting to have that culture of continued success. It’s no longer just Australia and New Zealand at the top. We can feel England gaining traction, so we’re definitely trying to come up with a really smart game plan against them.

In recent years we’ve seen crowd records continually broken for netball. For the 2015 World Cup final in Sydney, they had 16,000, 17,000. The physicality makes top-level netball an amazing spectator sport, and we constantly hear that from people who come to a game for the first time. They are shocked at the clashes and the pace of it.

Growing up I played volleyball and netball at state level. In 2002 I was offered a scholarship as a 15-year-old to the Institute of Sport in Canberra for volleyball. I’d also been selected for an under-age Australian team for netball and I wasn’t ready to make a choice, so I turned it down. I was offered it again in 2003, which was a big year in terms of qualification tournaments for the 2004 Olympics. They pretty much put Olympic rings in front of my face and I was like, “Oh, yes, I’d love to be a part of that.” So at 16 I moved to Canberra. It was thank you and goodbye to netball at that point. Unfortunately we didn’t qualify for the Olympics and funding for indoor women’s volleyball was going to get pulled after 2004, so I ended up moving home to Bendigo for my Year 12.

I thought I’d stick with volleyball, to be honest. The next move for me would have been American colleges – I had letters of offer from three or four – or trying to get a contract in Europe. But at the time I wasn’t ready to move across the world from my support network because I was going through some mental health issues. Not that I realised it then, but retrospectively I can see that that was informing some of my decisions. Then the netballers came knocking again and the Melbourne Kestrels said, “Hey, would you like to come down for a few trainings?”

I deal with anxiety and depression and at any given time I can lie at a good or a bad end of the scale. I’ve had some quite big down times and it’s definitely been a bit of a journey getting to understand myself and my symptoms and the things that put me at risk in terms of my mental health. For the past three to four years I’ve finally managed to keep myself on the up end, which has been amazing. The support and education we’ve had around netball has been a huge part of that. We’ve got wellbeing officers at our clubs as well as at the Diamonds level. I’ve got no qualms in saying that if I hadn’t had that support, I would’ve been spat out of the system pretty early on.

When I’m on court, any other stresses or worries I have, I don’t have to deal with them until that 60-minute game is over. I get a bit of self-worth from being good at something – I think everybody does – so being able to contribute to something bigger than myself is a big thing. At those low points – when I didn’t want to get out of bed or was really struggling – I had that external motivation of not wanting to let down my teammates. That accountability really helped me. It filters through: if I’m having a low day, I can rely on my teammates to try to pick me up, and if someone else is struggling another day, then I’m there to support them. That team environment for me is super special.

When you’re at a really low point, you don’t want to be sharing everything about yourself. That’s where I think sport is a hard industry to be part of, because the media’s out there reporting on you whether you’re having a good day or a shit day. The same goes for social media stuff these days. People are able to have all sorts of commentary on what you’re doing without knowing any of the behind-the-scenes story of what you might be dealing with.

It was a big relief to get a diagnosis because then I had a prognosis. I could go, “Okay, well now I know that it’s this, I can do this, this and this to help me”, as opposed to wandering blindly. The first thing I sought out was other athletes who were in a similar situation to see if they’d been able to still get out there and succeed. In turn I’ve always been quite vocal about [mental health] because potentially other people who might be struggling may be looking to hear about other people’s experiences.

I’m not far from finishing my psychology degree. It’s just been put on hold for a little while. I chose psychology before I knew I had [mental health issues] because I had an interest in helping others. Again, in hindsight you kind of go, “Oh, maybe I was curious about that because…” I do a lot of work assisting disadvantaged groups and I’m an ambassador for One Netball, which is about multicultural inclusion. There’s also Our Watch, which has a relationship with NRL, AFL, rugby union and netball. It looks at violence against women and children from a primary prevention point of view.

It’s been lovely to be reacquainted with Melbourne because I’ve spent six years away – three years in New Zealand and three in Sydney. But I met a lovely Kiwi boy when I was in New Zealand and it’s really nice to be back home in Melbourne with him and have family close by.

My footy team is Essendon. My nan knitted me a jumper before I could walk or talk, so I didn’t have a choice. Hated Collingwood. But I guess you can’t help wanting to support the club you’re a part of, and the Magpies really is an amazing club. Still, I’ve got quite a few family members who say they will support me but they can’t support Collingwood. I don’t think you can take that love or hate Collingwood out of some people. It really runs deep.

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This week’s highlights…

• 2018 Commonwealth Games

Until Sunday, Gold Coast, Queensland

• Horseracing: The Championships, Day 2 – Queen Elizabeth Stakes Day

Saturday, 1st race 11.25am (AEST), Royal Randwick, Sydney

Soccer: A-League: Central Coast Mariners v Newcastle Jets

Saturday, 7.50pm (AEST), Central Coast Stadium, NSW

• Netball: Commonwealth Games bronze and gold medal playoffs

Sunday, 11am and 1pm (AEST), Coomera Indoor Sports Centre, Queensland

NRL: Penrith Panthers v Gold Coast Titans

Sunday, 2pm (AEST), Panthers Stadium, Penrith, NSW

AFL: Hawthorn v Melbourne

Sunday, 3.20pm (AEST), Melbourne Cricket Ground

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 14, 2018 as "Ring master". Subscribe here.

Cindy MacDonald
is The Saturday Paper’s deputy editor.