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Leadership and Being a Team Player with Karla Pretorius

We chatted to Karla, the Vice-captain of the Sunshine lighting and vice-captain of the South African National Netball Team, about her netball insights on leadership, the importance of team and turning unsettling comments into motivation. Karla Pretorius was born in South Africa and moved to Australia in 2017 to play with the Sunshine Coast Lightning in the Suncorp Super Netball competition, winning the inaugural Grand Final and named MVP of the game. Karla has represented South Africa at 2 World Cups and 2 Commonwealth Games and is considered one of the World’s best defenders in netball.

Can you tell us about your first ever netball game? 

Well it was many years ago. Netball is one of the first sports you get introduced to as a young girl, so, after athletics, that was the 2nd sport I was introduced to. I really loved it from the very start, which was when I was about 8 years old. My first game was on grass and I remember the parents going ballistic because their kids were playing for the first time. I remember I fell over, I missed the ball, I was intercepted so it was a bit of everything. 

You talk about your parents being amazing supporters of you all the way through your netball journey. Has there been 1 piece of advice that they gave you that has stuck with you throughout your professional sporting career so far? 

I think one thing they really did well was lead by example. It wasn’t just about the verbal encouragements but also backing it with actions and that is how they lived their everyday life. In the start of a netball career, and particularly when still at school, you have to deal with a lot of disappointment.

The thing they always told us was to go back and work harder. There’s no replacement for hard work so you just have to keep fighting and then you’ll reap the rewards.

That’s just one thing, besides supporting us and providing us the opportunities to succeed, they encouraged us to work hard. 

I know sometimes sports people get told ‘you’re not fast enough’ or ‘you’re not strong enough’. Has that ever happened to you? And how did you deal with that?

Yes, definitely. I think that’s the beauty of our sport is that you can be all shapes and sizes. I think especially when I was just getting out of school and I was transitioning to a semi-professional league in South Africa, people were always saying ‘you need to get stronger, you’re too skinny!’.

I remember that first game in the Suncorp Super Netball league they were referring to me as ‘toothpick’ as well. But I’ve never really seen this as a negative, I always use it as a motivation to work harder or prove them wrong. I feel like people don’t often say it to be negative or break you down, it’s more to motivate. That happens to a lot of people – they got told they’re not the right size or shape. But you can decide how you want to see it; as a negative or as motivation.  

I do believe that my build suits my style of play. You just need to make the game your own and back yourself.

For a young athlete playing netball, how do you turn a comment like that into motivation? 

First of all, I believe you have to see it has a choice. Are you going to see it as a negative or a positive? I believe if you see it as a negative you already put yourself back a few steps. Seeing it as a positive motivated me to work on my weights program and make sure I got some muscle gains but you still need to make sure it still suits your style of play. For any young kid, seeing the positive and doing the work will help you succeed. 

You grew up in South Africa, how did you go about transitioning from an 8 year old girl playing on grass courts to representing your country on the world stage? 

I grew up in Pretoria, went to school there and then I went to study dietetics about 4 hours from my town. From there I went to England and then to Australia. The school system in South Africa was quite good in regard to netball so, to continue playing after school, you need to compete for one of the big universities. This is really where I first got a taste for the high-performance environment. In this team, I played in all the tournaments with the hope that somebody would see me. I got pulled up for the national side where I got to play lots of international games and that’s where I got my opportunity. After the 2015 World Cup I got selected to play in England and then Australia. It’s just about getting that international exposure and getting people to know you. 

Who was the coach or mentor that had the biggest influence on you as a junior? 

All of my coaches really had a big influence on getting me to where I am today. Right from preschool into school and university. As our paths crossed, I feel like I was privileged to work with lots of really good coaches. Particularly Norma Plummer had a big influence on my opportunities and also getting me to where I am now as a player. She got me the introduction to work with Anna Mayes and Jess (Thirlby) from England who each took me to the next level. It’s not just the way they coach but also how they go about their normal lives. I learnt so many things from them all and not just about netball.

Tell us about your decision to join the Sunshine Coast Lightning? 

I was playing in England in the Vitality Netball Super League. From there I was offered the opportunity to play with the Sunshine Coast Lightning. It has always been my dream to play with, and against, the best. I always knew from a young age that, to play at the highest level, you have to come to Australia or New Zealand. Secretly, I think this really motivated me and pushed me to be the best I can. In 2016, I got the call from Noels (Noeline Taurua) asking me if I wanted to join and, for me, it was an easy one. I worked so hard for it and, being a South African, there’s not a lot of people who get the opportunity to play in Australia. It was a great opportunity and I couldn’t let it go. Even though I had to leave a lot behind, including my husband and family.

When you have a dream, it doesn’t mean it’s going to come easy. It will require a lot of sacrifices, but I would do it all again. 

How do you personally prepare for a game? 

For me, nerves are just part of the preparation leading up to the game. Getting the morning routine right – going for a walk, getting the nutrition right. As the years go on, you figure out what works for you and it’s good to keep it the same heading into each game. I remember as a younger player, nervous Karla would just eat her nerves. But then the older I get the more I know about what I should and shouldn’t do. Being nervous is definitely a good thing. I believe it gets me focussed on the game. 

Has there ever been a time in your career when you wanted to give up? 

There was one time in 2015 when I was going into my community as a dietitian and I really enjoyed that. It was really difficult trying to juggle both my work and my netball career. There were a lot of international tours which I had to miss because I didn’t have enough leave but then I couldn’t just do the netball because, in South Africa, it doesn’t pay well enough. It was a struggle of what I had to sacrifice. Sometimes, when you have to make choices like that, you can’t make the choice in the heat of the moment. You should take a step back and figure out what you can change. Later that year, I made the World Cup team and, from there, I got the opportunity to go to Bath and play in the English league. Had I given up at that point, I never would have had the opportunities that were unlocked by that tournament. Sometimes those decisions are difficult, but it just takes time. 

You’re considered one of the best defenders in the world. Is it something you set out to become?

Honestly no. I don’t set goals to be the best at something or get medals. I believe in the here and now – doing what I can to be the best within myself and give the best for my team. All the other things will come from that. The accolades don’t define how hard I work or how I go about my training. I control what I can control. I want to be the best defender for my team, and I do the hard work to make sure I’m at my best. If those awards then come along from that, that’s just a bonus. It’s a team sport so I’m nothing without my teammates. They all want to be the best for the team too. When we’re all doing our best, that’s when there’s magic. 

You’re a vice captain now, what do you think are important qualities for a player to bring to their team? 

As you go through the ranks, you learn from different leaders. You pick up skills from different people. You don’t have to be a captain to be a leader. I believe our Lightning team is a good example of that – in that environment, you don’t have to be in a leadership role to have your say. For me, I’m all about actions rather than words. I believe I have to lead by example and if my peers believe that’s suited to a leadership role then that’s where I’ll go but I don’t believe you should change your values for the role. If I wasn’t in this role, I wouldn’t change my actions at all. But it’s not just on the court, it’s off the field that really makes the difference. It’s supporting your friends and teammates, helping where you can and giving what you can. You know what you’re good at, so you just need to build on that. As you grow older, you will naturally just add new skills. 

What’s been the most special moment in your netball career? 

I think receiving that call and being the first South African to play in the Suncorp Super League. Just representing my story – South Africans, my family, my dream. The world cup was also very special with the win against Jamaica and coming up against Australia in the semi-final. You will always remember where you come from and what you’ve experienced. 

We hope you enjoyed those netball insights with Karla Pretorius. Karla is available for netball coaching on the Sunshine Coast with PlayBook, you can book a session with Karla here

To watch this conversation visit PlayBook IGTV

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