Steph Wood is a two time Super Netball Champion and Commonwealth Games silver medalist but Steph didn’t always make the team. We chatted to Steph about her journey in netball and how a hard conversation with a friend lead her to consider why she wasn’t playing at the level she wanted to. That talk made her reflect on natural talent versus hard work and ultimately changed her mindset towards her approach with netball.
The early days
How did you start out playing Netball?
I started playing Netball because I have two older sisters. They were 8 and 10, and I was 6 years old. Being the annoying sister and wanting to do what they were doing I convinced my parents to let me play in my sisters 8 years team. I started playing pretty much because I wanted to be like my sisters and at the time they were probably really annoyed with me, but now they claim that I am playing now professionally because of them.
What do you remember about your first Netball game?
I actually remember my first shot, I did the classic shooting from the chest. It was on film and my sister was annoyed because there was a bigger deal made out of that than the fact she was also playing. I remember not being able to sleep the night before and it was at Pine Rivers Netball Association at a carnival.
Tell us about the coach who influenced you the most in your junior years…
There has been so many, there are probably two that stick out the most. Sue Gaudion, she was probably the first coach that was quite brutal with me and pretty much told me how it is. Sue didn’t let me get away with taking short cuts, she really called me out on it. I had her as a Coach down at the AIS, the first year I didn’t like her very much, the second year I had a new found appreciation of her. She was probably a big part of the mind shift and learning how to work hard.
The other coach was Kylee Byrne who was also down at the AIS at the same time. I have had her since I was 17, and she has been coaching me for the past 10 years. She is very personable, we do have that personal relationship, she understands how I tick, and knows how to annoy me to be able to get the best out of me and she has had a big influence on me throughout my career.
Natural Talent v Hard Work
What is your perspective on natural talent versus putting in the hard work? I try and tell kids when I am coaching, that when you are 8, 10, 12, natural talent probably will get you into teams, but there will come a point where people are just as talented as you and if people have the work ethic that is something coaches will look at, especially when you start making it into elite teams.
It isn’t just about the person you are on the court, coaches also look at the person you are off the court and what your work ethic is like at training. Natural talent is great but it isn’t going to get you to the elite level, it takes a lot of hard work to get to the elite level in your chosen sport.
Was that your experience as well, you relied on your natural talent?
Yeah, definitely. Probably till I was about 18. I made every team, I was MVP, I was starting, I was playing division one at an association when I was 12 years old. I was starting 7 player in teams, where people were much older than me and then it got to a point where I was benched in those teams and then not making teams and it took me a long time to realise what it was and it took quite a hard conversation with a friend (I was quite annoyed with her afterwards), but I was at a point where I was going to quit netball. We were on a run at the time and I was either going to quit Netball or go and play in the English super league, she was my boss at the time and she didn’t want me to leave work, but she pretty much said to me the reason you haven’t made it is because you don’t know how to work hard. You don’t put the effort into your skills, you rely on your ability to read the game. That conversation happened and I gave myself a year to do everything I could to make it to an elite team. I didn’t want to get later in life and people say, you were so talented, but… and if I had those ‘what if’s’ it would’ve been a massive regret. So, by the end of that year I had done all of those things to ‘make it’.
What did you do in that year that was different?
I reflected on the feedback I had got from coaches, who didn’t select me. Prior to that I was listening to the people who were saying “Oh, you should be there.” They weren’t making the decisions and I was putting all my time and effort into that. When I started to listen to the coaches and reflect on their feedback, they were saying well we don’t think she is fit enough to run a game out, her skills under fatigue can falter. So, I worked really hard on my fitness that year, I dropped weight (I had a bit of weight on me that I didn’t need), I got into the gym and those things I worked really hard on throughout 2014 and by the end of that year I had a contract with the NSW Swifts.
Were you doing more than what your Netball team at the time was doing, putting in the extra hours?
Sometimes we would get given a program and it was optional. I would always take the “oh yeah, it’s optional so I don’t need to do” approach. In that year I got up and did those things. Nutrition wise it can be quite a difficult one, there is so much in the media at the moment and it took a while for me to shift my thinking around food, I always viewed it as “you’re on a diet”, but after learning about nutrition it has switched to “what do I need to perform?”, or “what do I need for a certain training session to get the most out of it?”. Throughout that year, I had more information and I made the effort to learn about it, rather than someone just handing you something to do, but actually learning what works for me.
Specialist Coaching and Mentors
Have you engaged a specialist coach or a one on one coach anytime in your netball journey?
No, but I think that is what is great about PlayBook, you have access to professional athletes who can coach you, which is something when I was younger I would’ve absolutely loved to have. I don’t think there was ever a platform around that was so accessible for people to get access to professional athletes. That is what I think is fantastic about what PlayBook offer kids out there.
Have you had any mentors? Sue Gaudion was definitely one. Laura Langman has probably had a big part as well, I was lucky enough to have lived with Laura in my second year at the Swifts, just living with her she taught me a little bit more about balancing life and making sure not everything is netball. You do have to have that outside thing. Netball can sometimes not be going great, you need to have that other stimulation in your life. She has been a big mentor for me and she still is. She is back at the Lightning and it has been awesome for me, just to bounce ideas off, debrief training, she has a different approach to things which is really cool. I think what has been cool about this year, in previous years I have probably just listened to everything she has said, but this year I am bouncing back off her, and I think that is helping me to grow as a player and a person.
Tell us about getting the call to play for Australia.. That was in 2016, I never thought that I would play for Australia. I wasn’t a starting playing at the Swifts, I had been elevated to the squad the previous year. It was a shock to me, I had booked a holiday with my sister. I got the dates for Aussie games and I realised that it conflicted, but I did not think that it would ever happen, so I was like it will be fine. I emailed Lisa, saying I have these dates booked for a holiday, but I will be willing to not go if it meant I got to play for Australia. I got the call and she was like “are you willing to not go on your holiday?” Of course, I didn’t end up going on my holiday… but my other sister ended up getting a free holiday.
You have been a part of two premierships with Lightning, why do you think the team has had so much success? I would put it down to Noelene, I think the culture she has built without probably thinking she is doing it, she is a very smart lady. The way she puts training together, the drills she puts us through evoke a lot of emotion. Whether it is frustration, anger, happiness all of those emotions and I think subconsciously it really brought the team together. From an on court perspective she is very good at that. The fact that we moved to the Sunshine Coast, you instantly had a little family, you were hanging out a lot and I actually think that is super important in professional teams. You don’t necessarily need to be best friends with everyone, because it can be very hard especially in a big group. You need to respect each other and I think if you can know someone personally, not just as a netball player, you can understand why they are the way they are.
I think that is really important to get to know people off the court, because I think it helps on the court.
What do you think are some qualities of being a good leader within the team?
I think every captain is different. It is really hard to say this is what a captain should be, I have had several different captains and they are all different and they are all great. I think the best thing about leading, is leading by example, if you are going out there and busting your gut, people will follow. Words are great and they can motivate people, but for me it is all about actions and what you do. You can say one thing, but if you do a different thing they contradict each other. For me it is all about your actions.
Body Image and backing yourself
Let’s talk about body image, girls sometimes restrict themselves to netball positions, or sports, because of their body shape. Tell us about how Noels has taught you to appreciate your body as a strength… Body image is something that is so prevalent at the moment. When I was growing up, it was very much I became too short. I am not a tall, lean Netball player and that’s maybe why I didn’t make teams. Noels, was very much like okay this is your body shape, we can definitely change things, but this is your strength and that’s what I try and say to young girls coming through and playing Netball.
If you want to be a shooter 100% back yourself and be a shooter, yes you will have to do things differently if you are a little bit shorter, you have to learn your step-backs. There are so many things that shorter girls can do, that taller girls can’t do, but there is also the flip side where tall girls can do things that shorter girls can’t do. That doesn’t mean either of them are wrong.
The great thing about Netball and I think Gretel Tippett has been a big part of it, she is 192cm, she plays Netball completely different to anyone else, that is an awesome thing. There are different ways to play GA, different ways to play WA. You don’t need to be a particular shape or size to play a position and that is something that I think Gretel has been great at. Bringing in a lay-up, be bit different it is something that is so out of the box. It is something I definitely struggled with when I was younger but Noels has switched my thinking and even Kel our nutritionist switched my thinking as well… you are fit enough to run a game… use it as a strength, rather than thinking it is a weakness.
What do you love about coaching? When someone thinks they can’t do something and then they can, I love the smile that goes on their face. When I have a netballer for just one hour, you can do so much in the hour, whether it is something that continues on and the improvement you can get is something that I actually really love. I enjoy haring my experience. There are some of the best players and coaches in Australia on PlayBook and just having the opportunity to pick their brain! I am only more willing to give as much as I can as if people ask questions.
If I can inspire a girl who is short to continue to be a GA, I am pretty happy.
Do you have a favourite quote or mantra?
I probably have two. There is one I lived by, when I was trying to make it to the elite level. “Hard work beats talent, when talent forgets to work hard.”
Of late, I tend to overthink, so my new mantra at the moment is: “Don’t think, just do.” You do a lot of training, where your thinking comes in and there is an aspect of that when you are out on the court, but there also needs to be that natural gut instinct.
Train with Steph Wood