It’s a measure of Kelsey Browne’s newfound maturity that she now embraces, rather than fears, failure. It took a change of attitude and stepping out of her self-proclaimed comfort zone, but the results have been spectacular. After back to back premierships with Sunshine Coast Lightning and a seamless transition into the Diamonds, Kelsey has emerged as Australia’s newest netball star with a sparkling future ahead of her.
Kelsey has learned to confront challenges with gusto, rather than with hesitation. She explained, “I had to change my mindset about netball. Now I love failing, because there is always something positive to come from it. It means that there’s going to be feedback; I’m learning from it and always striving to be better.”
Growing up in Victorian pathways, Kelsey watched her older sister make a name for herself in netball circles. It was a route she also wanted to travel but wasn’t quite certain how to take. Kelsey said, “Madi started playing for Australia and I would have loved to know what it was like. When you start playing at elite level and getting a taste of professionalism you do start to wonder if you can make it one day. It’s there at the back of your mind. But you also know that it takes a lot of hard work and consistency, which I needed to work on.”
Called into the Vixens in 2015 as a temporary replacement, Kelsey liked her first taste of unfamiliar territory. While she gained a permanent contract the following year, road blocks made her long-term destination uncertain. Lack of court time, comparisons with her sister and a health issue all played on Kelsey’s mind.
In her younger years Kelsey felt she was expected to be like Madi, who was a rising star in the Diamonds. It was a mindset she needed to turn on its head. “I used to get a bit bogged down when unfavourable comparisons were made, and think it was the truth. Being able to be myself away from Victoria has made all the difference to me. I now know who I am, who Madi is, that we’re very different people and that we are absolutely fine with that. I no longer get caught up in what people say.”
Very close to her family, Kelsey knew that she needed to grow into her own identity but found it difficult to move away from home. Her family were her support network and her comfort zone, never more important than at a time when her mental health was a priority. Kelsey was struggling with depression, experiencing days when she found it difficult to get out of bed.
With time, treatment and support, Kelsey improved, finding netball to be a crucial part of her recovery. “It has been a big part of me being able to deal with my triggers. Getting onto a netball court is entering a different realm, a place that is second nature for me. I love that I’m not thinking, and everything is just happening,” she said.
“Netball and sport in general have built a place for me that is safe, and I always feel comfortable and can express myself.”
While Kelsey emerged into a better place health wise, her netball game was struggling. It was difficult to break into the starting seven at the Vixens, and she was given just five quarters of court time in 2016. It wasn’t enough for her to grow into the player she hoped she could be.
When recruiting for the new Suncorp Super Netball league dawned in 2016, Kelsey received an intriguing call from one of the new franchises. Sunshine Coast Lightning had signed inspirational New Zealand born coach Noeline Taurua, who’d heard enough about the wing attack to want her onboard. Kelsey said, “I knew Noeline was magic from the time I first spoke to her, and even now I get goose bumps talking about her. She’s one of those coaches you want to play for, get better for, and just absorb everything she has to offer.”
“It’s not just what she says, but her body language, her behaviours, the way she delivers feedback and gets the best out of you. It’s hard to put into words what makes her so special but it’s around the feeling of setting goals.”
Kelsey wanted to spread her wings and see how far and how high she could fly. Noeline offered a vision for that. “I think one of the most important things I learned from her was that it’s okay to go for something and fall a bit short, because that’s how you grow as an athlete and a person,” Kelsey said.
“Once I started to get that into my head, my attitude changed. Now I love trying new and different things, pushing my boundaries, because that’s the way that I get growth.”
2017 and 2018 would prove to be a massive learning curve for the wing attack. Her newly minted team was an environment where she could be herself after struggling to fit into previous teams. Kelsey explained, “I am a little bit quirky and left of centre. But at Lightning everyone was encouraged to have their own personality. We weren’t forced to conform, and everyone had a place. In turn, that meant we all had something to contribute in some manner, and as a result we had a really well-rounded team.”
Depending on her mood, Kelsey could be her usual extroverted self, or retreat into her music and alone time. While she enjoyed figuring out her new support network and getting to know her teammates – people she now describes as her ‘closest friends’ – the balance between netball and time away from it allowed her to grow as much off the court as on it.
The Lightning was a melting pot of nationalities, with players from four different nations. Included in the mix were Laura Langman, Geva Mentor and Caitlin Bassett, who’d all captained their respective countries at various times. Along with what she was learning from her coach, Kelsey soaked up their wisdom. “All three were very different leaders; some through their voice, others through the way they act or perform,” Kelsey described.
“I’ve picked up little pieces from each of them, and they made it such an awesome environment to learn in. I was very raw, but they backed me in and allowed me to be the person that I was. I learned so much through training alongside them, as well as being out on court.”
The final puzzle piece was the coaching team, who gave Kelsey plenty of opportunity to put her learnings into practice. They were always positive, while also giving her feedback on what she could tweak. Together, they set goals for Kelsey which saw her continually improve across the two years.
She said, “One of the main things I wanted to work on was being a ‘go-to’ person. The person that teammates know will be reliable and consistent, and they know what they will get every time. That is something that comes with constantly challenging yourself against new opponents.”
“Sometimes they might beat you, but you go back and look at what happened. So regardless of who I’m coming up against, where I’m playing or what I’m doing, still putting out a solid performance was a key for me to becoming more consistent. I know I can continue to consolidate that.”
In the second half of the 2018 domestic season Kelsey overran a number of experienced opponents, her form so compelling that it was impossible for selectors to ignore. On the Tuesday after the grand final she received a call from Diamonds’ head coach Lisa Alexander, telling her that she’d been elevated not only into the squad, but into the national team to contest the Quad Series and Constellation Cup.
After a few happy tears, Kelsey knuckled down to more work. In the short camp before the Diamonds headed to New Zealand, she continued to impress. Coaches were pleased with her work rate, her intensity and her willingness to take on the opportunity she’d earned.
Lisa Alexander said, “We could not ignore her form, her improvement and the ability to back up week in, week out. Kelsey hasn’t missed a beat since coming into the Diamonds’ environment. Seeing her at training vindicated that decision, she fitted straight in. I said to her that it’s like she’s been here ten years.”
While Kelsey is the Diamonds’ newest recruit, at 26 she is the oldest member of a youthful midcourt. Kelsey believes that her added maturity has been crucial in her route to the top. “I don’t think I would have been ready any earlier,” she reflected. “I’ve had some life experience now, which has given me the tools to help slot into the Diamonds and not feel too out of my depth as a newbie. I think this has been the path I was supposed to take.”
What also helped Kelsey to feel comfortable was being able to contribute to the Diamonds’ planning sessions. With her intimate knowledge of Taurua, Mentor, Langman and Karla Mostert, she provided key intel as the Diamonds studied opponents and their game plans.
Given solid court time during the Diamonds’ Quad Series matches, Kelsey more than proved that her selection was warranted. While she will continue to strive for a sixty minute performance, her speed, availability as an option on attack, ability to reach the circle edge and precision feeding played a key role in the Australian victories.
What has surprised some is Kelsey’s decision to leave Lightning after consecutive grand final wins, and head to the struggling Collingwood franchise. With multi-year contracts on the table, re-signing with the Lightning would have meant being there for the long term. It proved to be a tough decision, but her desire to go home outweighed other considerations.
“I know people think it doesn’t make sense, particularly because I’m not guaranteed court time. With contracting the way it is, if I didn’t take this opportunity to get back to my home state, it might not have come up again. For me the decision was around family and getting back to where I want to be. I hope that will make a difference to the longevity of my career and my future. And playing alongside people like Geva, who is one of my closest mates, and my sister, will make it an enjoyable place to be.”
Competition for the starting seven will be fierce, with Kelsey joining a star-studded midcourt of former and current Diamonds that includes Madi Robinson, Kim Ravaillion and Ash Brazill. Incoming coach Rob Wright has made it clear to Kelsey that she will have to earn her position.
She laughed, “He asked me if I was willing to fight, and I feel that’s how I’ve spent my whole career – fighting for court time. Putting in that intensity in training, and knowing that you have to perform or be replaced makes your whole group more formidable. I think it builds a really good culture and that will push me as an athlete.”
While Kelsey is leaving the Lightning behind, she will take the friendships and what she’s learned into a bright new future. In particular, the guidance she received from super coach Noeline Taurua has been invaluable. Kelsey said, “I would have loved more time with her because she has so much to teach.”
“Perhaps the most important thing I’ve taken from Noeline is the way she empowers the people around her. Everyone is accountable, everyone has a voice, and every individual is worthy.”
Having come such a long way in a short time, it’s obvious that Kelsey has taken those lessons to heart.
Words: Jenny Sinclair
Photos: May Bailey