Inspiration. Role model. Hero.
They’re words that are thrown around a lot, especially when talking about our sporting personalities. In Caitlin Thwaites’ case, they are particularly apt. It’s been almost two decades since her early years as a dual-sport athlete, to her current role as one of Australia’s most prolific shooters.
The time frame, and her experiences along the way, have seen her develop a strong awareness of the “bigger picture” in life. Caitlin is now a powerful spokesperson for a range of social issues including multi-cultural inclusion, mental health awareness, anti-violence campaigns and empowering women.
Thwaites’ entry into the sporting world started early. She grew up watching her mum play tennis – in a crèche on the sidelines, she joked – while a memorable family holiday was spent at the Masters Games in Alice Springs, a long road trip from Victoria to watch her mum play netball. Thwiates played a range of sports as a youngster, showing such promise that she was selected into state netball teams in her primary school years.
“That was when I first met Julie Corletto (nee Prendergast), Renae Ingles (nee Hallinan) and Kim Green who was in the NSW team. It’s amazing to reflect that we met each other when we were 12 years old, went through the entire system and got to play for the Australian team together.”
It’s amazing too, that Thwaites went on to play netball for the Diamonds, as she was almost lost to a different sport. Following her older brother to a high school that had a particularly good volleyball program initially set her on another pathway.
“I was quite good at tennis and I think my ability to serve got my foot in the door with volleyball. My interest grew from there.”
She became a dual-code athlete, somehow finding the time to combine training for both sports with her studies and a considerable distance factor.
“Being from Bendigo, from very early on there were three or four trips to Melbourne a week for trainings. We’d pick up at 3.30am on the dot after school, Dad would have to knock off work early to drive me to Melbourne, we’d hit peak hour traffic and eventually get to training. By the time we would leave it would be after 9pm and we were pulling in at home by 11.30-12 o’clock at night.”
Although it was a gruelling schedule, Thwaites wasn’t quite ready to choose between the two sports. Offered a volleyball scholarship to the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) at the age of 15, she turned it down. “I wasn’t ready to leave home at that age and I was also still juggling both sports. I’d made a couple of under-age Australian teams and if I’d committed to one sport I wouldn’t have been able to do the other. I wasn’t ready to make that decision.”
As a 16-year-old, Thwaites decided on volleyball, accepting the AIS scholarship and spending two years based in Canberra. The Australian team had hoped to qualify for the 2004 Olympic Games; when that didn’t happen, Thwaites returned to Bendigo to focus on her studies. Scholarships to American universities and European contracts beckoned when she finished Year 12, but the decision was made to stay at home.
“I wasn’t in a place where I wanted to be on the opposite side of the world from my family. In hindsight I was probably experiencing bits and pieces of depression at the time, although I didn’t know it. Some of that was informing my decisions and I wasn’t ready to move away from my support network.”
Thwaites then returned to netball, playing with the now defunct Kestrels, which then morphed into the Melbourne Vixens. It was during their 2009 ANZ Championship-winning season that the goal shooter experienced the crippling symptoms of what was later diagnosed as depression and anxiety.
She struggled to get out of bed at times but despite being advised to take a break from netball, found it was a valuable constant in her life.
“Early on when I was first diagnosed, netball was a place where I felt like I was valued and contributing to something, particularly when I didn’t feel like I had a lot of self-worth in other places. That’s what is so special about team sport, being part of something that is bigger than yourself and people rely on you.
“It’s a strong message to put out there; that people who are dealing with mental health issues can still get out there, perform, and do their job really well. During the year (2009) the Vixens won the premiership, I was actually in a very deep, depressive hole at the time. So your mental health is not necessarily indicative of the way you can perform.”
She parted company with the Vixens after a challenging 2010 season and chose to move to the Central Pulse, based in Wellington, New Zealand. It proved to be an invigorating three years.
“I saw netball from a different perspective, as it’s taught completely differently to the way I was brought up in the Victorian and Australian system. I added some of their teachings to my own game and had insight into the way they defend. I now have greater understanding of what they are trying to achieve in the way they set up defensively and that’s been invaluable to me internationally.
“The culture around netball is also really different in terms of the importance of family and how everyone includes you in their life. In the very first season our pre-season camp we went to the coach’s parents’ farm. We stayed in a marae and had a beautiful cultural experience. I was welcomed and I loved that there was so much family involved in the club.”
Accommodations had been made to allow Thwaites and Julie Corletto, also based in New Zealand with the Mystics at the time, to continue playing for the Diamonds. With pivotal years looming, however, the goal shooter knew it was time to return to Australian shores. In 2014, she signed with the NSW Swifts for three years.
“I’d been in the Aussie squad for quite a few years and hadn’t been named in the team of twelve consistently. Moving to Sydney was a huge step in that process. The World Cup was being held there the following year, so being in the same city was an exciting move and in terms of my netball development, I needed to get back to playing the Aussie style of attack – the quick, fast ball movement. That was the biggest thing that helped me to secure a place in Commonwealth Games and World Cup teams. And playing with Susan Pratley and Kim Green – you can’t get better than that in terms of people feeding you and developing a solid combination.”
For Thwaites and her New Zealand-born partner, Sydney was “mutually foreign territory” and they had a strong desire to be more connected with at least one of their families. That and the tantalising prospect of a new venture, led the couple down the Hume Highway to the Collingwood Magpies.
“I was excited about the potential input you can have into creating a legacy that will be left behind, hopefully for a long time to come. Being a valued part of it from the beginning really excited me.”
Thwaites’ composure and experience were crucial in the Magpies’ inaugural Suncorp Super Netball season as she played virtually a lone shooting hand in the circle. While some would have crumbled under that pressure, Caitlin described her approach as ‘problem solving’.
“To me each game, and situations within the game, were a challenge – how do we get the best out of ourselves and the players around us? For me, how did I work my way through each game? Was I out of the circle too much? I tried to draw on the strengths of the players around me and allow them to be brought into the game as well.”
If Collingwood didn’t quite hit their straps in 2017, the Diamonds certainly did, dropping just one of their 10 international games. In career best form, Thwaites was a powerful and significant point of difference to the Diamonds other spearhead, Caitlin Bassett, although it had taken her some time to appreciate that.
“It’s been a big thing for me to embrace that I’m different and not play like other shooters. For a little while I was comparing myself and how many goals I shot per quarter. But I’ve realised that the way I play allows the goal attack into the game and therefore their volume is higher.
“I can be a holding or moving shooter, which opens up the circle or the space. Seeing that as a strength has given me the confidence to now utilise it as a strategy. For example, I might have both defenders on me in one quarter and our fire power comes more from the goal attack. Then our opponents have to pay more attention to her, leaving me one-on-one back in the circle, so the fire power switches again. It keeps the defenders guessing.”
Part of Thwaites’ unique style is that she holds space differently to most other shooters, with her back, rather than her open shoulders, to where she wants the ball placed.
Trying to explain, Caitlin laughs, “Every time I play with a new midcourter we have to strip everything down. I apologise, telling them, ‘I hold really differently. I know it’s weird, but we will get there! We just need to work at it.’”
“The midcourters need to take their cue from where the defender is and for them to put the ball into the space where my back is, is counter intuitive. So I need to develop that combination with the midcourter where they can read the space opposite to where the defender is and just trust that I will turn, open and get there somehow.”
An automatic sixty-minute player with her domestic franchise, Caitlin spends more time on the bench for the Diamonds. Coming on as an impact player has taken her some time to work out how to do well.
“It’s something that you don’t train for – how to be injected into a game, catch up to the pace of it, figure out the physicality and make an immediate impact.
“There is a bit of extra pressure on being a shooter in that situation. Being a shooter adds another layer of complexity, in terms of the mental pressure that comes with that. Defenders can come on and have that aggression, go really hard and expend all their energy. As a shooter, you can have that mentality, but then must also be composed enough to perform a specific closed skill with great accuracy. It’s hard to have that real energy, but also have the specific control to shoot a goal.”
While Caitlin Bassett often starts ahead of her, Thwaites believes her role is equally valuable to the team. While she doesn’t downplay her shooting ability, she modestly says, “Part of my role for the team is to push and put pressure on our number one shooter, so they have to lift their game. If they have to go to training and work harder, because I’m nipping at their heels and I’m also working harder, the team is better as a result and that is very positive.
“That is the way that Sharni (Layton) and I operate in the circle at training too. We are constantly giving each other feedback. ‘Sharnz, what you did there was bloody awesome!’ or, ‘How did you do that?’ or, ‘I feel like if you do this, it will be harder for me to do what I want to do.’ And she also tells me what she finds really hard, or ‘Caity, that was easy to cover, perhaps you should try this!’ It gives us insight into our own games as well as each other’s and we can turn weaknesses into strengths.”
While the shelf life of most elite athletes is limited, someone forgot to give Thwaites the memo. She’s been playing at her current level for 16 years and is still improving. In this year’s domestic season she was Australia’s most prolific goal shooter, nailing 594 goals at an astonishing 91.8% accuracy. Internationally she combined with a variety of goal attacks, bringing them seamlessly into the game. With her physical and mental toughness, ability to think her way through a game and a team-first mindset, she will undoubtedly be a vital cog in the Diamonds’ Commonwealth Games and World Cup campaigns over the next 18 months.
Thwaites is all too aware that mental health disorders can strike anyone, at any time. She was an elite athlete, in the middle of a premiership winning season, when she was debilitated by an illness later diagnosed as depression and anxiety. Nine years down the track, it is a dichotomy that still baffles her.
“It’s a strong message to put out there, that people who are dealing with mental health issues can still get out there, perform, and do their job really well.”
With time, treatment and support, Thwaites learned to manage her condition and along the way has become a powerful voice in helping others. She fronts campaigns for not only mental health, but multi-cultural inclusion, anti-violence and the empowerment of women. She passionately explains, “That is the bigger picture. If you talk about your legacy in sport, that to me is what’s important.
“There are eight teams out there flogging their guts out for the one (Suncorp Super Netball) trophy, so more often than not, you aren’t going to win it. It boils down to what is more important than the trophy at the end of the year. When you’ve been around for a few years, as I have, you do see the bigger picture. I think sport is an amazing vehicle to be able to deliver different messages around those issues. It’s a way of communicating with people in the community. I love being able to get out and deliver those messages and a lot of the time it’s netball or sport that gets me in the door to be able to do that.”
Thankfully, societal stigma around mental health is being steadily eroded. Attitudes are shifting, helped in large part by athletes who have publicly shared their experiences. Australians glorify our sporting heroes and when stars such as Lance Franklin and Barry Hall (AFL), Libby Trickett and Ian Thorpe (swimming), Greg Inglis (rugby), Matthew Mitcham (diving) and Thwaites speak up, we can’t help but listen. Their stories are our stories. While their life experiences might be different, they hurt like any of us. Their symptoms are recognisable and it’s heartening, and often eye-opening, to learn that treatment is effective.
Their messages are worth listening to, because the figures are significant. Around 45% of Australians will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime. Depression is the leading cause of non-fatal disability and has the third highest burden of any disease in Australia, in terms of morbidity, mortality and cost. Sadly, 54% of people affected don’t access treatment, largely due to issues around detection and diagnosis. On a brighter note, for those who do seek treatment, 75% will make notable improvement.
Based on statistical analysis, elite athletes don’t seem have a higher incidence of mental health disorders than their fellow citizens. However, there are some stresses which are unique to their subgroup. That includes dealing with injury, dealing with 24/7 media attention, voids after pinnacle events, self-worth and identity when their sporting career is finished and the loss of routine after transitioning into retirement.
Like many athletes, Thwaites believes that the traits that make her successful in sport have contributed to her condition. “I am really hard on myself, almost being a perfectionist, wanting to improve and play that elusive perfect game. You’re never happy with the games you do put out there. I think those characteristics have gotten people to where they are in terms of being successful in their sport.
“If they didn’t have that drive, or were happy with an average game, then they probably wouldn’t have made it to the top level in their sport. It’s a blessing in terms of constantly pushing you to get better, but then having too much of that can be quite hard to deal with. You have to stop and look at the positives and the good things that came out of a game. I’ve said to people before that I can walk away from a game and tell you about the exact three shots that I’ve missed throughout the entire game, but the 47 other shots that went in are just blurred. So, it’s a blessing and a curse. I wouldn’t be where I am without that harsh pushing of myself to be better.”
It’s particularly difficult for athletes when a pinnacle event is over, one that they’ve trained for months and years towards. Thwaites explained, “You have a flat, down time after you’ve worked your arse off for something so big and massive and there is a bit of a hole. What’s next?! It’s a tough thing to negotiate. That’s where I feel netball has come such a long way, even in the ten years I’ve been part of the Aussie system.”
Netball is one of the sports leading in the way in player welfare, placing education and support around its elite teams. That includes a range of measures, from extraordinary organisation by people such as Diamonds manager, Julie Richardson, so that players don’t walk into camps or tours feeling exhausted before they’ve started, to regular education and the introduction of well-being managers.
Angie Bain operates in that space for the Diamonds and is described by Thwaites as “amazing”.
“She is constantly lifting our own awareness of everyone’s wellbeing. The scale of where anyone falls on their own spectrum can always be shifted to a better place. We are constantly being educated about how we can improve, whether it’s around our diet or sleep routine. What might work well for one person may not work for another, but we give it a try.”
That message was hammered home recently, when Thwaites and her Collingwood teammates took part in an obstacle course. While it superficially appeared like a team building exercise, the goal shooter drew a deeper message from the experience.
“If you were going to line up who would be the best at an obstacle, the order in which people might struggle or not struggle would change according to the challenge. Some people might be scared of heights, or scared of falling off a log, or confined spaces. That’s the best thing about having the support of a team – you might be afraid of something and other people have to help you, but then the next challenge comes along and you might be one of the better people who stands up, leads the way, and assists others.
“That is what is so awesome – that new position or shift on any given day or any given challenge. So, you have teammates who help you when you are not feeling great, but you also provide that support for others when they are challenged.”
The combination of personal and professional support has been, Thwaites believes, a crucial element in meeting her own challenges. From the friends who didn’t give up on her when she was struggling with depression, to the interaction between the Diamonds players and staff. Of the latter, she said, “We all help each other and are one entire team. A small example is when we go out to dinner on tour – we don’t have a staff table and a player table, we have one team table.”
Thwaites receives enormous support from her partner Adam, who in turn isn’t left to flounder on his own.
“Adam has moved countries, moved states, left his job and family and relocated twice to be with me. That’s incredible and shows a lot of strength and character. So, it’s really nice that he and a lot of the partners get along well together. They have that camaraderie and support each other.
“For example, if it’s a heavy training block, as players we might be tired and bloody cranky. And while we help each other through that, our partners can also connect and know that everyone is feeling the same way, that they aren’t alone. The type of people we’ve got around us are really special and we couldn’t do it without them.”
Thwaites is also active in a variety of campaigns, including Australia Post’s OneNetball, which promotes multi-culturalism through sport; Play by the Rules, which promotes diversity in sport through safety and fairness; and Our Watch, an anti-violence voice. While she isn’t about to call time on her netball career, the psychology student hopes to have a future helping and empowering others. It seems an apt choice. She might be softly spoken, but Caitlin is already delivering her messages, loud and clear.
If you have any concerns about your mental health please contact your GP, or any of the following organisations:
Lifeline 13 11 14
24-hour support and suicide prevention services.
Kids Helpline 1800 551 800
Confidential counselling for children and young adults aged 5 – 25.
headspace 1800 650 890
Mental health support for people aged 12 to 25 years and their families.
QLife 1800 184 527
Supporting the LGBTI community.
PANDA 1300 726 306
Perinatal anxiety & depression support.
Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467
If you or someone you know is feeling suicidal.
Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service (VVCS) 1800 011 046
Mental health support for defence force families.
Photos: Simon Leonard and Marcela Massey