Romelda Aiken has played in 3 Commonwealth Games and two World Cups as well as 10 seasons with the QLD Firebirds. Romelda has played over 150 games in the professional netball league and has recently joined PlayBook as private netball coach. In this conversation we chat about her netball journey, creating a great team culture in sport and why she loves being a netball coach. Romelda shares her tips on how to stay motivated.
You moved to Australia from Jamaica in 2008. What was that like and did you ever think about moving to Australia before?
When I first got the opportunity to come out I was around 17 years old and it was kind of a whirlwind romance. I was in Melbourne and I absolutely fell in love with it, even though we were freezing. I said to my friend at the time “Even though this place is so far, I would love to come back again.” We then went to World Champs in New Zealand and I was contacted by Vicki Wilson to come over and play for the QLD Firebirds and I said straight away “I am coming!”
Is it true you considered moving to America for Basketball, but your Mum wouldn’t let you?
When I got the offer to come out to Australia and play, I was turning 19. During the two years prior, I went to a star search camp in America, which is a Basketball Camp. Myself and a couple of my friends got selected to go over and play, but my mum said ” You are too young, we can’t allow you to go.” She tried to make a deal with the coach, saying if my older sister was allowed to go, I was allowed to go because I still had another year of high school but it didn’t work out. So I went to World Champs in New Zealand and I said to Mum you can’t keep turning down opportunities for us to go out and see the world. She was very hesitant to let us go, but for me I had packed my bags weeks before. She had to consult with heaps of her close family members to let me come over to Australia and play. She eventually let me go, but before I left she listed all of these things that I should and shouldn’t do.
How did you find adjusting to Australia? Was it a big cultural shock?
It was very different. Coming from this small island just off the coast of America, the longest I have stayed away from home would’ve been a week. That was very shocking to Mum, that first week went and she realised I wasn’t coming back and I realised I wasn’t going back. It was very scary, but at the same time I really wanted to know what it was about. Along the way I have met so many incredible people like Clare McMeniman and Laura Geitz, they took me under their wing and just ensured I was okay. We had a girl in our team called Tamsin Greenway, she would come to my house and take me out, because I wouldn’t leave because Mum said not to leave the house. So I pretty much stayed inside most days and the lady that was looking after me, June Bothwell, was scared to come down and ask what I wanted to eat, because Mum said I shouldn’t eat food from strangers. So it was quite shocking and really hard for me to open up to people. I wouldn’t make eye contact and that is something I still struggle with, just like the little bits and pieces every young person should know but I didn’t know. In saying that, I was really grateful for the opportunity to come out to Australia, every year it is so amazing to represent such and awesome club. It’s always uphill for me.
You have mentioned a few of your Firebirds team mates, were they instrumental in making you feel like this was your home?
Definitely, we had a group – Jenny O’Connor, Tamsin Greenway, Megan Rooney and myself, we were always just going out and adventuring and they were pretty keen to show me around and being a Jamaican, I am very much an introvert, so things they would find amazing to do, I would being thinking “Danger!” and they were always pushing me to come out of my shell and try new things. Those girls kept me grounded all the way through. G (Laura Geitz) just retired so she is the last one from when I started so I do feel like the old duck in the group, but I think those girls just kept me grounded and always wanted me to try new things even though it was kind of scary.
Is team culture something that is really important to the Firebirds? Is it led by the coaches or was it something that was just formed by the players themselves?
I think as a group we try to create a leaderful team and to make sure that no-one feels like they are being left out. Back in the old days it was the rookie who gets to carry the ball bag and the Firebirds has never been like that, it is a level playing field for everyone. No-one is bigger than the another and I think when we generate that within the team, no-one feels as though they are superior or they aren’t good enough for the team. Everyone has a role and we try to drive family and support around the group. I guess that makes it easier for anyone coming in because if you ask anyone leaving the firebirds, they will always say Firebirds is such a family, loving and we embrace each other. It is great to have that because going into an environment that isn’t friendly is really hard.
We have created such an awesome culture, even if it is just for two hours you feel like you are a part of us and we have driven that from day one to now.
How is playing netball for Jamaica different to playing with the Firebirds?
Playing for Jamaica is so different. When I do play for Jamaica it is free-spririted and we play with a lot of flair. There isn’t much structure to a Jamaican program, but when you do play for the Firebirds there are so many boxes you need to tick in order to be successful on court. I love playing for Jamaica because it is so different. If I can take something that I have learned from Firebirds and try to teach the girls in Jamaica they just love it. A few of the girls did get the opportunity to go overseas and play, so now it isn’t as hard to explain things as most of the girls have now had experience playing overseas.
You have played 10 seasons with the Firebirds. How has the club changed and how has the professionalism of netball changed?
When I first started out, netball wasn’t where it is now. Everything has changed from professionalism to payment. It has gone from playing sport to a business. We get more free to air TV and just having more viewers. Walking around the shops you used to just get young girls recognising you, but now you get older men asking for a photo for their daughter which has made the sport so much bigger. Netball is a female sport and has grown so much and us players are now driving and pushing for the next generation for what we want the sport to eventually be. In terms of the player agreements and what we are entitled to, last year was the first time we have something in place if we fall pregnant, which is really great as athletes. So many female athletes go through their career and then struggle to fall pregnant, so to have the support and a process in place if we do fall pregnant is great. Whereas 8 years ago that was not considered in our contract, if you get pregnant you get cut. Now we support mums to return to netball. For example, Laura Geitz took a year off, had Barney and was able to return to play. That is showing our sport is growing and we are trying to push our limits and when we walk away we are leaving the game in a better place.
You have played 150 games. How have you evolved as a player and how have you had to change your game to maintain being one of the best players in the game?
Every year we have an IAPP (Individual athlete performance plan), where we sit down with the coach and discuss what you want to achieve for the year. When you have played the game for so long, you do gather so many tools in your toolbox and at the same time you want to grow as the game grows. For me, I know my strengths and I know my weaknesses. So every year I try to challenge myself to be a little bit better. Over the years I have challenged myself but there are times when I have slipped into the complacent mode and when that happens it isn’t good because that’s when injuries come along. If you stick to the game plan of what you want to achieve and keep pushing yourself and keep fine tuning the little things.
Do you advise younger athletes to keep working on their strength as well as their weaknesses?
As an athlete when you look at the amazing things that you can do and when you look at the things you can’t do. If you keep working on your strengths, your weaknesses will also catch up. You just need to to just keep working hard!
In your 10 years your performance have been very consistent, but one thing that has changed a lot would be your hairstyle. Tell us about your hairstyles.
My hairstyle depends on my mood. If I am feeling a bit sass then the braids will come out. If I am feeling a bit pretty, I will straighten my hair. I think it all depends on how I am feeling and sometimes it is what the people want.
Has it been tough to stay motivated your whole career? Has there been times where it has been hard to be motivated because you achieved so much early on in your career?
I’m not going to lie, it did happen and I think that is when you need to have a lot of support around you to help dig you out of the hole. It is a dark place, you don’t know your value, you don’t know if you are just a netball player, you don’t know if your team mates still like you anymore. All of those things came into my head and the best way to overcome it is to talk about it. The more you get help it is better for you.
For me to stay motivated Rose had to challenge me as I went along. Rose could set as many challenges as she wanted, but it was up to me to take them on board.
At times, I have slipped and Rose has been really hard on me and reminded me that I do know better and as soon as you see those changes you start to feel better about yourself, you are pushing eachother at training and have a new lease on life.
As much as you want people to motivate you, you need to find it within yourself. It could be your weakness and that is something you need to work on because at the end of the day your game doesn’t really change unless you want it to and there are a lot of steps a long the way.
If people are honest around you, that keeps you accountable. To be able to have the hard conversation with your teammates it makes you feel like crap, but at the same time it is a team sport and you need to do what you need to do for the team, and for yourself, to perform better. For me, it is keeping myself accountable and my team mates accountable as well as the coaches keeping us accountable on court, that keeps you motivated and gives you drive.
How do you describe your relationship with Roselee Jencke (QLD Firebirds coach)?
It has been really good. Rose and I have been working together for a really long time. She knows how I operate and doesn’t have to say a lot to me. She does know when I am going off track and she is really quick to pull me in line. Being with her for so long she knows my strengths and weaknesses. With me she is straight down the line and that is what I need, even though it might hurt my feelings.
Is that something you think is important, for coaches to know their players?
Every player is so different, the approach that may work for me may not work for another player. Keep in mind you have 12 players to work with so having a coach that is very understanding and can break down a player and know what works for them and what doesn’t is important.
You do a lot of work with our PlayBook coach, Tiernan Stewart. How has she helped your game in terms of strength and conditioning?
Do I have to say nice things [laughs]? I think working with T has been amazing. I find when anyone has been direct with me it really works. Like this year, I gained a little bit of weight and I really needed to do some extra sessions and I rang her and told her what I needed to do and she said okay I will see you in the gym before or after training. It is only like half an hour but she will make you work. I only had a short amount of time before I went off to Commonwealth games and she made me work so hard, which was good. In terms of performance, I was so much fitter and I reached places I didn’t know I could go. I really enjoy her sessions and appreciate the work she does for me.
For the Firebirds you are a starting player but when you were playing for Jamaica you were starting from the bench. Did you have to change your mindset and approach so that when you came on you were still making a huge impact?
It was really hard, going from I guess being a starting GS to now sitting on the bench, I knew the person that was next up, which was Jhaniele Fowler (West Coast Fever GS) she was awesome. I wasn’t worried because I knew the job was going to get done. I am the biggest supporter, the biggest cheer leader, I will get everyone up and going. I tried to find the positives in the negative moments. When I had my opportunity to go out and play, I gave it 100%. Four years ago when we were in Glasgow, Jhaniele was in my position and obviously I had to make sure I did what I had to do. When it was her time to do her thing and shine I was number one fan because I knew what she has been through and we were able to room together. Even now whenever we play against each other she always tells me what I need to do and I tell her, except when she is playing the Firebirds. We are awesome friends and we keep each other accountable and if you are out there on court you need to do your job and not worry about people sitting on the bench.
You do have to sit on the bench sometimes. Some of the best have had to sit on the bench. When your opportunity arises you just have to go out there and do your thing.
You sunk the winning goal in the double extra time Grand Final against the NSW Swifts in 2016. How do you handle pressure situations like that? Do you thrive on occasions like that or do you wish someone else had the ball?
I think about that one moment, every time I see that footage. It brings me back to the Michael Jordan quote. “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Even just talking about it I get stressed. A much as it is exciting, and I love playing in those games, it is scary and there is so much adrenalin. It brings back so many memories and that is the best part. You do all the hard work and you get this opportunity to make something of this moment. There was nothing in the game, it was like a million things coming down. I didn’t even know it happened and that we had won.
You have now been on board with PlayBook for a little while. What have you enjoyed the most about coaching?
I think seeing the little girls face when they first meet me and most the time I am just as nervous as them. Just being around them, the vibe they bring and the excitement. Giving to the next generation and how much they appreciate and love being in our presence as athletes or as a mentor and we feel like we are actually doing something. It has been a great experience, as much as I am teaching them, I am learning so much about myself and learning on how to create better sessions for the girls. It has been a really cool experience so far.
We had a couple of questions from our followers: How do you stay composed under pressure? I Breathe! Each person has a different strategy. For me, I sing in my head, make sure I am in the moment and try not to overthink it too much, which is easier said than done. When you are shooting you don’t really think and you don’t have that much time.
What would be your best advice for aspiring shooters? Practice. If you enjoy shooting, shooting is not just a one day kind of job. It’s is going to be hours of shooting and shooting when you don’t want to shoot. It is repetitive, you will miss a lot of shots. By making it fun and challenging yourself, and just keep shooting. For me this year shooting everyday was something I had to fully commit to, which was very frustrating and you go to games and you are shooting and you know you can do it.
Shooting is boring! At the end of the day you get the praise, they call the shooters the princesses.
How much extra work do you do on your shooting? A lot! I do pay a lot of attention to my shooting and accuracy. It is not where I want it to be. You do get the pressure from your team relying on you for the winning shot, if you do miss you play the shot over and over in your head. The next time you know you are going to nail the winning shot. You can be hard on yourself, and you do need to realise that sometimes you will fail, but the next time you will nail it.