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Jakiya Whitfeld on Goal Setting and Self-Belief

Jakiya Whitfeld is an Australian dual international sportsperson who has represented her country in both Rugby Sevens and Rugby League. From her beginnings in rugby at age 14 to making her debut for Australia shortly after completing grade 12, Jakiya attributes her success to never giving up on her goals. In this interview, Jakiya discusses the challenges of transitioning between codes and her commitment to raising awareness about mental health in Australia.

Can you give us a rundown on your upbringing and how you became so passionate about sport?

I grew up in country New South Wales out on a property about 20 minutes from Bathurst. I played all sports from hockey to soccer and even horse riding competitively until I was 16. I was about 14 when I first picked up the footy. I just got roped into playing a local game for our school and then got picked up in the Central West team and then the rest is history.

Who and/or what was your biggest driver when you were growing up in Bathurst?

We didn’t have too many girls to look up to as role models when I came through in terms of my footy. But my drivers in terms of sport were my family predominantly. My mum was the one who drove me around everywhere and supported me to get to my training sessions and made it possible for me to get to where I am. Obviously coming from the bush, you’re quite disadvantaged in terms of all the facilities and the resources and the coaching staff that are all based in Sydney, particularly at the higher levels. I am very fortunate to have the Mum that I do.

Were you always naturally competitive from a young age?

I’m a super competitive person and always have been. When I first started playing, I struggled to even catch the ball. My skill level was pretty bad, it took me a while to learn to pass both sides.

But I think I have always had that competitive edge, that drive, and that hard work. I think that’s what got me as far as it has today.

You’ve made your debut for Australia for Rugby Sevens and Rugby League. You were also a part of the Australian Sevens Triple Crown winners in 2022, alongside playing for the Newcastle Knights, West Tigers and now North Queensland Cowboys. Looking at your career so far, what are some of your most fond memories of your sporting career?

Debuting was one of my fondest memories. I debuted at 18 years old, three months after I finished Year 12, over in Cape Town in South Africa. I think the atmosphere over at that tournament particularly was pretty incredible and I think being able to debut there was awesome. It was the first time that Australia had played a tournament there as well which was pretty cool so I love that. We recently went over with the Prime Minister’s 13’s team to PNG and played over there which was an incredible experience. Seeing how much Rugby League means to the people over in PNG and the impact that the game and the people have on their culture was amazing. It was a massive highlight for me in my career.

You are one of the few who have succeeded so highly in both Rugby Sevens and now Rugby League. What was the most challenging thing going between the two sports?

One example – in Sevens, we’re taught to tackle really low, and in League it’s quite the opposite. So five years of being taught to tackle down around the ankles and then all of a sudden that’s frowned upon. In terms of the footy side of things, the technique, that’s probably the biggest thing, and also just learning to play the game. I’d never played Rugby League before.

Off the field, as people might not know, Aussie Sevens is fully professional, so it’s full-time, which means you don’t have to have another job, whereas Rugby League is still part-time. Most of the girls would have a second job, sometimes full-time, maybe part-time. Getting used to that juggle and for me, whilst it’s been really challenging, it’s also been really rewarding. I love the work that I’m doing outside of being a Rugby League player. Finding that balance – sometimes you get it wrong and sometimes you’ve got to re-evaluate, but that’s probably the most challenging part so far.

Last year with the season that you had, you shone so brightly in the rugby league sector. Is there anything specific that helped you get through those challenges, in terms of the transition?

I found the girls in League have been really supportive and have helped me technically. When I first started I literally had a three-week preseason and that first season I played two games for Newcastle. I remember running around like a headless chook with no idea, no idea of the rules. The first tackle I made I got penalised for not moving, which is standard in sevens. It’s just so different. But the girls have been awesome, the girls at West Tigers and all the staff last year really supported me to help me take my game from rugby union and my strengths and be able to transition that into Rugby League and still play the style of footy that I’ve played for the last few years.

Traveling from Bathurst to Sydney a few times a week, that sacrifice and dedication in itself as a 16-year-old is pretty amazing but how do you stay so committed and dedicated five years into a professional career in both sports?

I’m very goal driven so I like to be able to plan what things are going to look like. Obviously, there are a lot of things in footy and in life that are out of my control but being able to set myself short-term goals and long-term goals allows me to see the progress that I make. Whether that’s just a daily thing like having a to-do list. I always tick off my to-do list and I see the little progress that I make, which will eventually be the bigger picture. I’m definitely very goal-driven and like to set myself those goals and be able to tick them off and achieve them.

I know you like to keep super busy, whether that’s at training or studying. Can you explain to everyone what you do outside of sport and how you balance between the professional training and also the study and everything else you love to do outside?

Outside of footy, I have two other jobs now. I work in out-of-home care as a youth worker and I also work with Greg Inglis at the Goanna Academy which is a preventative mental health organisation that exists to improve the mental health outcomes across Australia. We deliver programs in the workplace, community and schools. We go out to regional, remote, and metropolitan areas to deliver these programs. For me, that’s really fulfilling and something that gives me a little bit more perspective in life. It makes me feel really happy and fulfilled, which makes me feel that when I go onto the field, I can just play and it puts me in a good space.

Can you tell us a little bit about why that work is so close to your heart?

Growing up, after I finished school and going through my own mental health, the struggles that everyone goes through – it’s something typically that no one ever spoke about. Particularly after I finished school I would struggle in my own way as everyone does, and I found it really hard not being able to talk about that and the stigma that surrounds mental health.

Getting to work with Goanna and understanding what they do and the skills and strategies that we are teaching these kids, they’ve not only helped the kids that we work with, but they really helped me. I really believe in what we deliver and that’s why I practice what I preach and I think when I can go out and deliver it, it’s very authentic. Our whole crew, we believe so much in what we deliver.

We are really trying to get kids to understand they can have those conversations and ultimately reduce the stigma that surrounds mental health in Australia at the moment.

Now, as you have been involved in a few different teams, as I said, with Rugby 7s and Rugby League, have you experienced the way in which different teams operate and the importance of team culture in the sporting environment?

I’ve been in a few different teams now and have seen the way that different clubs do it. Ultimately, culture is what drives the team. Creating a really positive and safe culture is really important and that’s when girls feel the safest and play their best. Not just on the field but also off the field it’s important to create that culture where girls feel safe and especially the young ones coming through. Creating a culture where they’re not afraid to speak up and ask questions and be vulnerable, not only on the field but also that safe culture off the field.

You’ve worked with a few different teams and coaches. Is there anything you’ve taken away from those experiences that you are now put into your coaching of athletes with PlayBook?

What I’ve taken away is the perspective that these young kids coming through, they’re athletes but also they’re people. I think being able to understand that is a really important thing that we all need to understand. When I have young girls coming through, I think it’s important to understand what drives them because what drives me is going to be very different to what drives you and the person next to us. Being able to get to the bottom of that allows me as a coach and a mentor to get the best out of the kids that I’m working with.

You can book a coaching session with Jakiya here: Train with Jakiya

What do you think is the one thing that has made Jakiya Whitfeld become a dual international sporting professional so far?

Hard work and never giving up on your goals. Life’s full of setbacks and there’s going to be a lot of hurdles, whether that’s in your career or just life in general, but never giving up and never losing sight of your dreams and your aspirations in life will lead to success. Always finding a way to get over those hurdles and barriers and just do what you want to do.

What are three of your biggest tips that you’d give to a young, aspiring Rugby Union or Rugby
League player?

Firstly, I think your opinion of yourself is so important. Self-belief is one of the most important things. There are going to be times when you might be the only person in your corner and having that belief that you’re good enough to be there and you’re good enough to make it is so important.

Secondly, be the change that you want to see. That can be to do with anything. Having the confidence to have a voice and speak up on things is really important. And, you know, whether that’s on the field or off the field, in footy or just in general in life.

The third one would be just never give up.

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