NS EXCLUSIVE LEAH FOGARTY: VICTORIAN NETBALL LEAGUE PERFORMANCE PSYCHOLOGIST
This is part two of a two-part interview series that covers discussions with performance psychologists about peak performance and the impacts of Covid within Suncorp Super Netball and the Victorian Netball League.
There is no doubt that the last two years have called on great resilience and poise from athletes, coaches, and umpires and has also starkly reminded us of the vital role mindset plays in consistent peak performance.
Training to perform at the elite level of netball requires not only physical training and refinement but also mental. Helen Housby put it aptly in the 2021 Suncorp Super Netball grand final pre-game interview: “If we show up and bring our best game, we can beat anyone, it is more mindset than anything. It is nothing physical.
“It is how you show up on the day, trusting the processes and sticking to game plan, that is when we will win it”. But knowing how to get there can sometimes be difficult and requires drawing on many different resources.
While we understand that Suncorp Super Netball athletes engage in building a performance mindset, it is less well known that the Australian Netball League and the Victorian Netball League (VNL) also focus on mindset by working with performance psychologists.
Leah Fogarty is currently the Netball Victoria consultant performance psychologist, and is also working with several VNL clubs including Boroondara Express and Casey Demons. As the Director of Melbourne-based Performance Psychology business Between the Ears, she individually supports athletes, coaches, and umpires to be their best on and off court. Fogarty has previously worked with Victorian based Australian Netball League Teams and from 2003 to 2004 was the VIS contracted performance psychologist for the Melbourne Phoenix in the National Netball League. She has also been a performance psychology consultant for other sporting organisations, including Swimming Victoria and the Melbourne Golf Academy.
For players, umpires, and coaches to develop their craft, performance psychologists like Leah Fogarty can help to answer questions about which psychological resources to draw from and how these resources can be utilised, to ensure that they can achieve their goals and fulfil their potential.
Leah Fogarty likens the body to a high-performance machine.
“I encourage every athlete, coach and umpire to think of themselves as a high-performance machine, specifically a race car. They get to pick the car they want to be. Some might want to be a Lamborghini, others a Maserati. But then I pose to them that right now, they might only be a Mazda 2. So our job together is to figure out how do we get a Mazda 2 to perform like their desired race car? And I also highlight to them what is the driver of the car? That is, everything going on Between the Ears!”
Fogarty explains how other elements of training fit into crafting the machine. “While between the ears drives the car, the nutritionist is helping to fuel the system and the strength and conditioning coach is working on the aerodynamics of the car, for example.”
Human beings are complex systems that live in complex environments. Therefore, the environment or club culture is the first port of call for Fogarty, who believes that this acts like a Global Positioning System (GPS) for players. Having clarity in their common purpose and direction helps the team articulate the group ethos, values and therefore the desired behaviours and outcomes, which help players to step over obstacles with intention throughout the season.
“My role is to help VNL clubs intentionally create their own culture at the start of the season. In my program, I am asking teams WHAT is the destination we are putting in the GPS? Is that to win the premiership, to play finals or just win one game? Then I get them to explore WHY they want to achieve this. This ensures that the clarity of purpose is established and leads to the process question of – HOW are we going to get there?”
Fogarty drills down into the importance of team culture when she says, “The word culture in Latin means ‘to care’. To have a good culture, it means you must have good connections, heartfelt connections. Athletes have to feel inspired and buy into the culture and creating a heartfelt team culture through connection is paramount to this.”
Breaking it down to the fundamentals, Fogarty also encourages players in her program to tap into the person behind the athlete and provides resources for players to enrich their self-care and self-reflection.
“There are many well-being components that we need to take care of because we can have this beautiful road map or GPS, but if no one is able to function or perform because they have not taken care of those nuts and bolts, we have no team. Once areas like sleep and body awareness are prioritised, the players can have a solid foundation to reach their best performance.
“In some workshops we are performance focused and so athletes will be thinking and talking about themselves as an athlete, but in other workshops we address more personal areas where they are encouraged to reflect and share some of themselves in their life away from the court. After all, they are first and foremost a human being.”
One roadblock to confidence, consistency and focus that Fogarty has noticed in her time as a performance psychologist is players tendency and often obsession to compare themselves to other players or teams.
“The comparison game is the one game in life that you will always lose. There will always be someone or some team in the world better than you. So you should only be comparing yourself to your own club, your own team, or your own self in relation to who you were or what you did yesterday. We want to make sure players can be the best they can be and that the team or club can be the best it can be, and this requires consistency of self-focus and effort. Where your focus goes, energy flows, so the more you’re putting your energy out there, the more you lose inside of you. That means you are already giving over your power, gifts, and strengths. Going back to the race car analogy, you have to stay in your own lane.”
Sticking to your own lane enables the team to function well, as it allows players to stay focused on executing their role on and off the court.
“Everyone has a part to play and if you don’t play your part the machine doesn’t function. Accountability and responsibility are essential for a positive team culture.”
“I emphasise to those I work with that finger pointing and blaming looks back, much like looking in the rear-view mirror and if we keep doing that the car will probably crash. We want players and teams to be looking ahead, focusing their energy in being proactive in driving their car where they want to go.”
Performance mindset and focus.
Once the foundations of well-being and team culture have been set, performance mindset and focus can be cultivated. Fogarty divides this process for her VNL teams, getting out on the court and doing what you need to do, into two simple and catchy categories- The three Ps and the three As.
Purpose – what is your why?
“Every game, every performance needs to have a purpose. Questions players should be asking themselves are: Why am I going out there? What am I going to do? This gives the players something tangible to ground themselves. This is different for everyone and so it’s really important for players to personalise this process.”
Process- game plan
“Understanding the process, that is the game plan or quarter plan, is essential and is inextricably linked with the other two P’s”.
Present- staying in the now
“This ties back into the staying in your own lane. To be at their best, players need to be mindful and in the moment. I will get players to do a lot of mindfulness work before the game, whether that be while they are eating, while they are brushing your teeth, or even when they are talking to someone, so when they are on the court, they can bring their attention back to the here and now and the process, when they might be time travelling in their mind. This also involves pre-performance routines too.”
Attitude – energy and mindset
“Having catch phrases like ‘pressure is a privilege’ or ‘never give up’ on their phone or written on their hand, for example, helps players to anchor themselves when their attitude might be waning.”
Action- Just do it
“Action is quite self-explanatory. The players need to make sure that they act. You can draw a picture of the car but unless the engineer and others build the car, it is still just lines on a page.”
Adapt – In real time and post-game review
“When we do act, not everything goes the way that we want it too. That’s the adapt. Adapting is not just something we consider at the end of game, it is also after each quarter. At the end of each quarter, they need to be taking stock of what’s happening, what’s working and what is not and be open to change, to taking risks and seeing opportunities as they present. Plus, after the game players need to be accountable for the part they played and taking their learnings into trainings for the next week or two.”
Post Traumatic Growth and Personal Experience
As of late, Fogarty has developed a Post Traumatic Growth program to help athletes and coaches find meaning, learnings, and benefits from loss and pain, which bloomed from her own experience on the court.
“Seeing the gain in the pain is essential for players’ growth. If you get beaten by a team, it is important to reflect on what you did well as an individual and a team, but also what are some positive aspects that will come from it. For example, the loss may give you more of a desire to get better and ideas about what you could be working on at training.
Fogarty says her days as a former netballer for Western Australia has helped her understand that the work on yourself, before stepping the court, is a crucial investment, to ensure you can live up to your full potential.
“I never made it to the level I wanted to because I was a fiery defender. I was one of those players who would get angry on the court at myself, at the opposition and at the umpire. What I later realised was behind all that anger was years of unhealed grief, with my first encounter with death being at the age of nine.
“I have lost a lot of people in my life and throughout my teens and early 20s I was carrying all this residual grief, which would come out as anger. I needed to do more healing of my own traumas to shine and be free and achieve everything that I wanted to achieve.”
The transition from on the court to the sidelines has been an interesting and enriching process, allowing for Fogarty to impart her wisdom to other players.
“Due to my ties with Netball Victoria and having played against Victoria and the likes of Sharelle McMahon, my first job as a performance psychologist, after finishing my Masters and coming to Melbourne in 2001, was with the Melbourne Phoenix. I was then working with Sharelle and Ella (Boyle nee Southby). It was a really interesting transition from being that player to then being the professional on the side of the court who is working with them, not playing against them, which I was used to.”
As an embodiment of the process, Fogarty highlighted that while resilience is bouncing back, post traumatic growth is bouncing forward.
“I lost my dad to a heart attack in 2006, so more grief came into my world. Everyone, including athletes, face grief of some sort, whether that be through death, a relationship loss or moving house. But it wasn’t until 2018 when I went to a sports conference that focused on mental health awareness and well-being that I asked a panel of professionals from different Australian sporting codes how much support and funding there was around grief counselling and their answer was pretty much none. It was then I realised that this was what I needed to do – it was my calling.”
Fogarty has since created a program that aims to help umpires, players and coaches heal themselves, and to see the goodness that comes out of hardship. The psychologically defined Stages of Grief (shock and denial, bargaining, guilt, anger, sadness, acceptance) has more recently been modified with a final element – finding meaning. It is here that Fogarty’s Post Traumatic Growth principles stem.
Understanding your History of Pain
“You need to understand what traumas you have experienced. If you don’t, they are going to be behind the scenes and they are going to hold you back in life. We create stories in our minds about events that happen to make sense of them, such as like “I am not good enough” or “I don’t matter”. But like bedtime stories we heard in childhood these stories are not true, they aren’t facts and yet because we believe them, these stories can sabotage our life . So, I get people to write out their history of pain, particularly with netball, so we can see the story themes that emerge.
The issues are in the tissues!
“We then have to work on releasing the energy from the body because our body holds the emotional pain related to the story.”
A simple yet powerful exercise to clear this emotional pain is- name, feel and release. When we participate in naming or labelling the emotion, and focusing on feeling it in our body, and then allowing the energy to flow, our body and mind can align and file the memory away properly.
Emotional release and body and mind alignment are empowering processes, yet to get there we need to take personal accountability.
“What happened was meant to happen because it happened. However, at times we may want to blame another person, like a coach, but all this does is make you a victim. When you accept what happened and realise that you are the person who is creating the pain inside of you, through the stories and holding on the emotion, then all your healing is in your hands. And a big part of that healing process is to see both sides of the event – the good AND the bad – however as human beings, we tend to see things as good OR bad.”
The stories and the meaning– reframing to see gain in the pain
Having this understanding can help to empower individuals to reframe the painful event, which facilitates the creation of deeper transformational meaning.
“Focusing on the facts means that we can then reframe the stories that we tell ourselves. So that’s the thing – we focus on the facts first and then also find the meaning, that is the positive benefit around why you had to experience this pain. For example, what were the opportunities that presented because of that pain? Did someone come into your life because of that pain? This also leads to questions like “how are you going to make decisions differently in your life because of this event?”
These processes provide cognitive reprogramming opportunities by marrying together the painful event, which has now been processed through the body work, with the new ‘gain in the pain’ story. Fogarty highlights that this Post Traumatic Growth template can be used not only to help clear out past emotional issues but also issues that arise on and off the court on an ongoing basis.
By releasing what is holding individuals back, the focus can now be on the process, being present and acting in alignment with their purpose. Being emotionally clear can provide the space for athletes, coaches, and umpires to have the right attitude, take appropriate action, and adapt in a way that serves their goals and aspirations.
“This framework is applied to coaches and umpires in the same way as athletes. We go through the history of pain, name feel and release of emotions and then explore the stories that they are telling themselves about them, about others or about their career so they can then also balance them with the gain in the pain. The players, coaches and umpires drive it all, I just give them the template.”
Most importantly, this process empowers players, coaches, and umpires to create their own version of success.
“Having an ideal or goal to work towards also helps anchor this process for players, coaches and umpires. I ask them, what do you want your legacy to be? That is, when you hang up your whistle or decide to stop coaching, what do you want to be known and remembered for? So, from this they are able to create their own Ideal Umpire or Coach Profile, which may include elements from others that they admire as well as traits and strengths that are unique to them.”
“Because when you are anchored in your sense of self and have your connections around you, whatever happens out there, you know you will be fine.”
Covid and VNL
Accordingly, Fogarty views the pain of the last two years through the lens of gain.
“We are by nature social creatures. When we go through challenges, we need support. A sense of safety and peace is not just the absence of threat but the presence of connection. So with COVID, it has been the hardest thing for some people particularly because of this disconnection from each other. When I start helping clubs to define their culture, I emphasise that this is all about you as people, so we are going to get you heart connected so that no matter what you go through, you’re doing it together and you are going to heal and grow together.”
“Staying connected during Covid was the most critical way to help people through this time.”
With the move online, creativity around connecting players has been paramount. Fogarty has moved much of her work online and this has made it even more accessible to the netball community.
“When we went into Lockdown in 2020, I contacted the head coaches and asked them what their plan was regarding their training schedule going forward. I suggested they get creative with ideas for certain activities, for example providing Pilates sessions online, as one of the girls in the team had her own Pilates studio. So beside the normal training they were trying to do at home and receiving Club and team guidance with, they had these other formats where they could remain connected.”
“I also did Zoom workshops with them last year, which resulted in me this year not only working with two VNL teams but four. I established with each club that there was no conflict of interest considering I was providing educative workshops and not sharing confidential team or club information. At the end of the day, all I wanted to do was be of service to as many people that I could in the netball space”
Connecting players together was the main strategy to help maintain momentum, energy, and passion through a time when consistency in the VNL program was not possible.
“It’s been a back and forth dance, there hasn’t been the typical process of training, playing, and having downtime and then we go again. Teams haven’t had that rhythm, and everything in life has and needs a rhythm.”
Another example of connecting players is the buddy system.
“Most clubs adopted the buddy system, where you were assigned to another club member and given the responsibility to check in with them regularly on an individual level, in addition to the team and group forums.”
The impact of Covid over the last two years has been far reaching and some netballers may choose to move on.
“It has been a hard time for a lot of athletes. 2022 is surely not going to be like these last two years. However, because of the last two seasons there may be people who drift away from netball. Some will have been disheartened, or maybe enlightened that there is more to life that netball. Covid has shaken us all to reflect on what we really want. Some girls may say I have a different path to walk, and this could include jumping from netball to AFLW, as I have worked with a lot of netballers who have jumped codes in the past.”
Fogarty aptly puts the impacts of Covid into a metaphor about what’s in your “cup”.
“Imagine you are walking along with your coffee cup and someone bumps into you. What will spill out of your cup? Coffee. But now imagine that your cup is filled with the pain from your past that hasn’t been healed. So what is going to spill out when someone bumps you? All your pain. And finally consider that that someone is COVID – so all COVID did was bump into you and make all your unhealed pain spill out”
The future for VNL looks very different with the uncertainty of when teams can get back on court and how teams will be selected.
“VNL clubs are currently trying to look at how they will be able to select athletes for 2022 because they don’t know if they can have on court trials in the coming months. There were even whispers about video trials where athletes would video themselves doing specific skills. Furthermore, it is going to be interesting to see what sort of season it will be regarding performances. Either people will go out and shine and be happy to be back or, as there has been such a big gap, it might take a while for players to find their feet. Aside from the physicality of it all, their passion may have been lost.”
Fogarty, having worked with players aligned to SSN teams and Netball Victoria umpires who experienced the SSN Hub in 2020, shares how stressful this time was.
“A lot of them went to the hub in Brisbane. Working with these umpires and players revealed that this was a very challenging experience given that this group of people had been thrown together and then needed to co-habitat for a substantial period, away from the usual connections and sense of home. In such a situation, every emotion is amplified, and as a result people had meltdowns. Therefore this year, I have been working through Netball Victoria with these umpires and athletes to help them heal.”
Looking forward to implementing her programs with teams at the start of next season, Fogarty says that she is going to focus on heart connections with the girls, rather than jumping into the mechanics like she usually would.
“We will talk first about their general well-being – where are you at? And then talk about what they personally went through last year – what is still sticking with you? Considering some of the girls had not let go of things from the 2020 season this is also likely with this 2021 season. Therefore, the culture work at the start of next season won’t be about the mechanics as such, it will be about getting back to the heart connections, healing the pain from the past and then slowly putting the pieces of the “car” back together. The on-court stuff will then take care of itself.”
Although the last two years have reminded us of the importance of mindset, it has also shown us that netballers, umpires, coaches are human beings first and their role second.
“With a lot of the athletes I have worked with this year, it hasn’t been about netball. It has been about the bare basic human needs – Have you lost your income? Have you had to move house? There has been a lot of athletes that have been grieving the loss of their netball but also their basic needs of living have been taken away. Because we are human beings first and foremost and athletes or coaches or umpires second, this is where I will start with them. “
“I hope that next year we can get to the new Netball normal, where we can move around again, we are based in our own states and people get to have that rhythm of the natural life, where you are at home with loved ones and can go to training and games.”
As teams and officials emerge from 2021, Covid implores us to take time to reflect and be in stillness, to engage with what is between the ears and our body on a deeper level. The space for our inner pain to be processed, as Fogarty has so eloquently emphasised, is the essential groundwork for anyone wanting to achieve their ultimate potential.