Paige Hadley has always questioned herself – partly from doubt, but mainly through desire. “Will I get back?” after a devastatingly timed ACL injury. ‘Why should I check my emails?’ immediately following the heartbreak of a grand final loss. ‘What are my goals? Why am I doing this?’ ‘Have I done everything I can?’
It’s part of her process, an internal checklist. A way of making sure she’s checking every step of the relentless pathway she’s on. Of ameliorating the risks of elite sport, where there are no guarantees of fulfilment despite decades of hard work, and injury can be career-altering.
The approach has obviously worked – by every measure, Hadley is a resounding success. Co-captain of the NSW Swifts, the 2019 premiership, gold and silver medals at Netball World Cups, and a silver medal at the Netball World Youth Cup.
But Hadley has also experienced the tough times – grand final losses, the ACL injury that kept her out of the 2014 Commonwealth Games, non-selection for the 2018 event, a fractured wrist during a Constellation Cup match. Three times she’s been knocked back for Diamonds’ selection. But through the strategic use of questions, and a lot of hard work, she’s always been able to bounce back again.
Hadley said, “Netball has challenged me in so many ways – physically, emotionally, mentally, everything. But I love this sport. I have lots of goals, but one of the biggest is to leave netball in a better place than when I first came to it. A legacy of getting on with the job, working hard, and hopefully being one of the best players this club and league has had.
“To do what we do, day in, day out, is a blessing. You can get so caught up in it all, that you forget what you are doing, and it’s important to take a step back, question yourself, and understand why you are doing it. For me, that’s to be a better player and person.”
Playing elite netball has been a dream of Hadley’s for as long as she can remember. Starting with long Saturdays alongside her mum – a 7am to 5pm workload of playing, umpiring and coaching as a seven year old – to being mentored by Julie Fitzgerald and Anita Keelan at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), there’s been a logical progression through the ranks.
Hadley said, “The AIS was a clear pathway for me to get to the Swifts. At the time they had a really strong team, so having a year being a full-time athlete was incredible. Following on, 2013 was like a whirlwind. It was awesome, like riding a rollercoaster, just wow!”
Within the space of a year, Hadley received a full-time contract with the Swifts, won a silver medal with Australia’s Netball World Youth Cup team and was selected for the Diamonds to play Malawi. It was a stunning debut, and Hadley was named MVP in just her second test match.
If achievement had been relatively smooth to that point, the following year tested Hadley’s resolve. In the worst possible timing she ruptured an ACL at the start of the Swifts domestic season, and just a few months shy of the Commonwealth Games. “I thought my world was ending,” Hadley said. “There were a lot of tears, and I had so much to think about. ‘Will I get back? How much hard work is involved?’
“It was a massive learning experience about myself. I learned how much I wanted to play netball. It made me hungrier to succeed and want to do well. The 12 months was a really hard time, going through rehab and watching the team do well. It was our first finals series in a while.
“I had plenty of doubts. ‘Will I be back the same? Will I even get back to elite netball?’ While I’d never want to do it again, I managed to embrace the hurdles and realised how hard I’d have to work to achieve my goals.”
In 2015, Hadley was part of the Swifts’ team that had an epic encounter against the Queensland Firebirds in the ANZ Championships grand final. Leading by six goals at half time, the final result didn’t go the Swifts’ way, and they suffered a 57-56 loss. She said, “We lost with just six seconds to go, and I remember being absolutely shattered. Straight after the game I got a message to check my emails. I was like, ‘Why? I’ve just lost a grand final, I don’t want to go online.’
“I had to go straight to drug testing afterwards, and as I was sitting there, I read that I’d been elevated to the Australian squad. I was devastated by the game, but it was also really exciting.
“The next morning I got a phone call from Lisa (Alexander) saying I was going to the World Cup in Sydney. It was a dream come true to be part of that team, to play alongside Swifts’ teammates like Julie Corletto and Sharni Layton, and to be part of the win. And coming back from an ACL and having my family there to support me was one of the best ever experiences.”
While the international season ended on a high, Hadley had a challenging few years to follow. After another nail-biting loss to the Firebirds in the extra-time grand final, the ANZ Championship was dissolved, and a further three clubs were established in the newly formed Suncorp Super Netball league. Unfortunately it also meant an exodus of players from the Swifts, who lost five of their starting seven.
Hadley said, “It did surprise me – we’d been so successful as a team, and we wanted to keep those players and continue to build. But a lot of girls wanted to go home – Sharni Layton and Caity Thwaites to Victoria, while Susan Pettitt and Kim Green had started their careers with (GIANTS coach) Julie Fitzgerald, so we knew they were thinking of finishing their careers with her too.
“So on one hand it was disappointing, but on the other hand it was, ‘Where do we start?’ And for me personally, I was wondering if I stayed with the club or to seek new opportunities too. It was a tough time.”
Across the next few years, Hadley was in and out of the Diamonds, receiving the bad news on three occasions. She said, “They are some of the hardest times for an athlete. You’re told your phone call will be at a certain time, and you sit by the phone. You count down the minutes, wondering if the call will be positive or negative. You always hope for the best but expect the worst.
“When the call comes, you can hear it straight away in the coach’s voice, how the call’s going to go. You get off the phone, there are a lot of tears because you’ve worked so hard to make teams, and you want to be part of it.
“It hits your confidence, and you feel like you are starting again. But that’s sport. It’s what drives you to be better and strive for more growth.”
Hadley describes her omissions as a learning experience, that has helped her to develop resilience and coping strategies. “What has been thrown at me in terms of injuries, missed selections and disappointments, I had no other choice but to be resilient.
“For me, the key was knowing who I am, and what I want to achieve. What my goals were. I was so determined that whether I was faced with a big hurdle or a little one, I’d find a way to get over it.
“My mindset was also that it’s about what’s best for the team. So whether I was in, out, or a training partner, giving as much as I could.
“I wanted to prove to myself that I could be better, and prove to other people that they might be wrong as well.”
A key development in Hadley’s career started when Swifts’ coach Rob Wright walked away from the club in 2018, leaving a shattered group of players behind. Hadley explained, “That was a crazy day. I remember saying goodbye to my grandfather for the very last time, and when I left the hospital I had a missed call from our CEO. I wondered why she was calling me on a Sunday, but then I heard the news that Rob didn’t want to be head coach anymore.”
Fortunately for the Swifts, they took a punt on the homegrown talent of Briony Akle, a young coach from the Netball NSW pathways. Akle set about overhauling club values and driving new on and off court standards. Hadley said, “She’s brought so much belief into the team and also for our personal growth. She believes I have the tools needed to succeed, and it’s just about believing in myself and applying myself every game.
“Briony challenges me, cares for me, drives me, frustrates me. Everything. She’s brought her family into the hub to keep the season alive. She has so much determination for all of us to grow as people and players.”
Under Akle’s guidance, Hadley’s game has matured, becoming a go to player who can plug any of the three midcourt positions as needed, with immediate impact. Close checking and capable at wing defence, she’s at her best in centre or wing attack. Strong onto the circle edge, and a precision feeder, Hadley’s grown into an astute reader of the play, who has the flexibility to adjust to different shooting personnel in front of her.
“It’s about getting on with the job”, Hadley explained of her attitude towards changing positions. “The younger me would have wondered, ‘Why am I doing this? Why am I here?’ and questioned it. But now, if the team needs me for any position, I am prepared. I try to execute each position based on who I’m coming up against, and that takes a lot more work to be prepared for three positions.
“I need to be adaptable, I want to make an impact and not be just a player. So the more mature me is a bit more educated, does more research, and tries to execute what ever the team needs from me rather than worrying so much about my own game.
“Bec Bulley (Swifts defensive coach) has also given me a lot more confidence to play a defensive game when needed, and she was one of the best shut down defenders around, so that helps.”
The Swifts took home the ultimate prize – a championship – in 2019 after a huge victory over Sunshine Coast Lightning, and Hadley was reselected for the Diamonds’ World Cup campaign. Despite walking away from the tournament with a silver medal and later breaking her wrist in the Constellation Cup, the midcourter says it will always go down as one of her favourite years.
Now co-captain of the Swifts with Maddy Proud, Hadley said, “My leadership style is that I lead by example – I cross the ‘t’s and dot the ‘i’s. I’m pretty ruthless in terms of demanding a lot from our team, and wanting to be better. I hope to bring people along with me, challenge them to be better, get the best out of them, and that the Swifts can build another dynasty that reflects our success in the earlier years of the club.”
It’s a very team based approach, rather than a personal one, but to Hadley, that’s the point. “Our club is amazing. It gives us time to ourselves to be an athlete, a student, a parent, a partner, a daughter, all of those things. You can get consumed by netball, particularly in a hub, so while as athletes we have to be strict with ourselves to try and achieve that balance, the Swifts enable us to do it.”
In Hadley’s quest to be a better athlete, to win a premiership this weekend or to earn another Diamonds’ call-up, the questions won’t stop. She’ll continue to drive herself forward, reassess, then put her foot down again. But when it comes to whether the Swifts is the best club for her, Hadley already knows that the answer to that.
It’s a resounding yes.