A chat with Maddy Proud prior to the Netball World Cup revealed a captain who was down but certainly not out, who dreams of her beloved Swifts holding the Suncorp Super Netball trophy come season’s end, the coach who will get them there and some exciting news about a sequel to her first novel, Grace on Court.
When you meet Maddy Proud, it is impossible not to be impressed. She is an elite athlete playing in the best netball league in the world, and she is captain of the team that sits at the top of the ladder. Her team, the NSW Swifts, have been at the top since round one, and 11 rounds later, the other teams are still trying to knock them off.
When Proud was 16 she signed with the Adelaide Thunderbirds, and she took in as much knowledge as she could from her idol Nat van Bertouch and other stars of the game like Sharni Layton, Bec Bulley and Renae Hallinan. She would go on to play 44 games with the Thunderbirds, and while she may call Adelaide home, arguably, Proud’s best netball has been played in the red, white and blue colours for the NSW Swifts.
At only 25, she has been on the elite netball stage since 2011 and despite a workload that would make most people’s head spin, away from netball she managed to have her first novel published in 2018. Grace on Court is the story of a 13-year-old netballer in her first year of high school. She also has a podcast with team mate and house mate Sophie Garbin, a website and an insatiable appetite for life that seems simply infectious.
The netball world has seen Maddy Proud grow up before their eyes and while she is still bubbly and outgoing, there is a fierce maturity that has developed over the last few years; one that made her the perfect choice to captain the NSW Swifts this season, and that has allowed her game to flourish without losing herself in the process.
Having a blistering start to the 2019 season, Proud and the Swifts were looking unbeatable, but sport can be cruel, and in round seven against the Queensland Firebirds in Brisbane, Proud’s on-court season would come to an end. The landing was totally non-descript, Proud attacked the ball strongly in the air and landed as she’s done a thousand times before. In that moment, the damage to her right knee was season ending.
It definitely was emotional for a lot of reasons. I knew pretty much what I had done and they (the team) were aware as to what was going on. It was sad to see how upset they were, but it was also a nice feeling to know they care so much about me.
During half time, Proud says Swifts coach Briony Akle was quick to let the team know that this was not going to be the end of their season, that they would be able to move on and that they would need to keep working hard. The NSW Swifts powered on in that game and went on to find courage and strength for their fallen captain; they demolished the Firebirds by 22 goals and Proud who only played 38 minutes before her injury, amazingly, had done enough to be named wing attack of the round, such was the season she was having.
Post-surgery, Proud has been working hard to re-define her new role within the team, one that she had not envisaged at the start of the year.
I guess for me now it’s about having more of an off-court role. I’ve been pretty clear with the team about the fact that I still do want to be involved as much as I can, and I want to try and help in as many ways as I can. I didn’t want the girls treading on eggshells around me and worrying that they couldn’t ask me things or come to me like they normally would have.
We’ve had a lot of conversations around that and the plan is for me to be able to travel with the team, and obviously be at every home game as well.
Not one to shy away from personal development or growth and such is the leadership qualities and virtues Proud now wears as a badge of honour, she has identified that as hard as an injury like this is, it will give her an opportunity to continue to learn more about herself.
It’s going to be a big learning curve for me. I always thought I was a captain that would lead by example on the court. So, now it’s about being able to find the ways to be able to be a captain when I’m not playing a role on the court. I’ve chatted a lot to Briony and a few other people about the fact that it’s a good opportunity for me to develop those skills that I probably wouldn’t have had the chance to do otherwise. I will be working on everything that I can do from an off-court perspective, to help the girls as much as I can on the court.
People that I’ve spoken to have said that they are pretty confident that I’ll come back bigger and better and stronger not only as an athlete, but also as a person. I think it’s obviously a time where you learn a lot about yourself and how you deal with things, and your resilience. I’ve not spent too much time dwelling in self-pity. I’m sure that, there will be times when that happens, but for now, it’s just about getting on with the job and I think it’s almost been the best distraction that the season is still going. There will be opportunities to grow in a lot of other elements of life as well. I’m really excited to be able to do that over the next couple of months.
The Swifts have had a rough season with injuries, and despite Proud having a string of team mates in rehabilitation with her, they have been able to maintain their top spot on the ladder, which no doubt speaks to the confidence of a playing group who have an internal belief that they can go the whole way. It does not seem to matter who is in the squad in any given week, the culture and confidence within the team is palpable.
Team mate Lauren Moore has also been ruled out of the season with a shoulder injury, Natalie Haythornwaite has taken the court for the first time since a hamstring injury at a pre-season game in March, Kate Eddy has only recently been ruled out of the season with an ankle injury and star goal attack Helen Housby has an aggravated thigh issue, which saw her sit out round 11 game against the Sunshine Coast Lightning.
These injuries have seen Sophie Halpin elevated to the main squad for the remainder of the season along with two New Zealand internationals, defender Kayla Cullen, and fresh from a World Cup victory, Katrina Rore. Both are formidable and experienced players for Akle to have at her disposal.
Getting through the hard times with a season ending injury has been made a little easier for Proud as she lives with fellow team mates Sophie Garbin, Maddy Turner and Kate Eddy. They are not only incredibly close on court but off court as well, providing a lot of support for each other.
I honestly think it’s been the best thing for me. A lot of people asked whether I was going to go back to Adelaide, and I said no. I think the best environment is here because, they’re fun to be around. We always are able to have a laugh, and I’m always surrounded by good people. Once the girls go into off-season, I’ll be starting to get back into fitness which isn’t so bad to do by yourself, and then once I’m actually back being able to do some more on court work, the girls will start doing that as well.
The netball community is one that rallies when they need to and fans and ex-players alike reached out to Proud in one of the toughest moments of her career to offer their support and encouragement, to let her know that this was a battle that she would not face alone.
A ruptured ACL is an all too common injury within netball circles, and while Proud knows she is not the first and she certainly (sadly) will not be the last to suffer this injury, it was a comfort to her that so many people wanted to check in.
I spoke to Liz Ellis on the phone a couple of times after doing my injury and she’s obviously done her ACL as well and she talked a lot about having those little goals to help you get through it. So, you know, the running milestones and then getting back onto the court. Breaking it up with a few things like that, and then I’m also trying to plan a little holiday here or there just to give me something to look forward to.
It’s obviously horrible to do an injury, but it definitely makes you feel pretty good about yourself when you get people like that (Ellis) reaching out to you. I was honestly overwhelmed by the amount of people that did reach out, people that I never really thought would have like Tracy Neville, the coach of the English team and even Joe Ingles messaged me on Twitter.
Maddi Brown who’s going through a similar situation for the second time, she’s been really good and been reaching out a lot and Kim Green from the Giants, she is always there for anything, and obviously Paige in our own team as well who has been through this injury a couple of years ago. She had similar support staff that went through this with her so it’s really comforting for me to know that she’s come back to career best form after doing her ACL.
If I can get back to half as well as Paige is going, I’ll be doing all right.
The first two seasons of the Suncorp Super Netball were tough for the Swifts, their roster changed dramatically from the ANZ competition and their coach departed with little warning before the second season of the SSN. Though they showed a huge amount of potential, by their own admissions, they allowed themselves the excuse of being a team full of young and inexperienced players as the reason they were not able to contest for finals the first two seasons.
I was at the Swifts’ preseason game against the Giants, and what I saw excited me. There was certainly something different about the Swifts in that game. There was confidence, belief and most importantly, no fear. They won that preseason game against the Giants that day, and they have not looked back since.
The success they have enjoyed so far this season can perhaps be attributed to a few things. Firstly, with the exception of injuries, they are an unchanged playing group. While other teams in the competition have been working out their combinations on the fly, the Swifts have been blessed with a connection through court that only comes through time, experience and trust in your team mate.
The other is a new accountability and standard that as a playing group they hold themselves to. They no longer accept that they are there to make up the numbers in Suncorp Super Netball, they have hard conversations with each other, with honest feedback, in a safe space that has been created within the team environment. Lastly, their coach, Briony Akle can and should be acknowledged as part of the reason that these players are not only enjoying their netball together but excelling at it.
Akle came along and picked up the pieces of a team who felt abandoned when Rob Wright moved on to take up the role as a defensive coach for the Magpies in 2018. What Akle has been able to do with her squad is nothing short of amazing, and she is certainly a coach on the rise and one who knows how to get the most out of her team.
There’s been a lot of talk about the fact that we are such a tight knit team and that is definitely not a lie. It is not something you can really see from the outside, it is something on the inside.
Briony cares about us as athletes, but she cares about us as people first. Briony has four boys and Anita (assistant coach) has three grown up kids, and so they know what it’s like and they have a nurturing side that is reflected in the culture that we’ve built here.
We do say we are like a family and particularly because we do have a lot of girls that are from interstate and overseas. We do have to be each other’s family. Briony has created an environment where we go to her house to dinners and her four boys are like our brothers and the whole environment is so comfortable. From an on-court perspective as well, she’s a tough coach. She accepts nothing less than one hundred percent – one hundred percent of the time; and then on the other hand, she’s someone that I would call a friend.
A big focus for us this year is being able to have tough conversations with each other and identify that the only way that you can have those tough conversations is if you do build good relationships. I think that’s what Briony has done really well, and when she does speak, she commands respect. We do all respect and trust her so much. I think that’s been the key for us this year.
Our language also changed this year. I think in the past, we used to hide behind that idea that we were this young and inexperienced team and if we did win a few games, it was exciting.
But our language this year even just amongst each other was always that we are going to win this year, and it was as if we were not going to accept anything less. We decided in order to win, which was our goal, we had to make sure that we were keeping each other accountable upholding our values and our culture that we put together.
Firstly, we identified that will to win, and then also being able to be comfortable enough with each other that you can call each other out on anything. That’s been two real key things for us.
You also can’t deny the fact that we have had the majority of our team together for three years now. Time does make a lot of things really good. We’ve been able to develop connections on the court and off the court which have definitely been invaluable for us. Just being so familiar with each other and developing a culture over these last few years, has definitely helped to put us in this position that we are in now.
While being reflective about the in-house changes the Swifts have made this year that has seen them be the team to beat in 2019, sitting top of the ladder in the regular season is in no way the pinnacle of where the Swifts believe their season will end. Their goal is to go the whole way, not only do they have the finals in their sights, but the trophy, which has so far only ever been lifted by Sunshine Coast Lightning, and the Swifts are desperate to get their hands on it.
For me, one of the turning points was against the Giants. It was the first game after my injury. I thought that anyone watching that game probably thought that the Giants had it won at quarter time. We definitely by no means played our best at all, we were not even close to our best for probably 50 minutes of the game, but the way that the girls were able to dig deep in those last 10 minutes, they found something extra inside of themselves that had just been waiting to come out. In those last 10 minutes they showed determination and just that pure grit to win. Which is something I think we’d probably lacked in previous years.
We’re just going to keep having that belief within ourselves that we can win and we can beat any team in this competition. We’ve always been a team that said that we work hard, but we also have a lot of fun and so we play our best netball and we are enjoying ourselves, so we need to keep that going.
Being a leader seems like it comes naturally to Proud, she is engaging and genuine and has many likeable qualities. Just as she was exposed to strong leaders at the Thunderbirds as a young player, her time at the Swifts saw her under the leadership of Abbey McCulloch, who after a very respectable career has recently called time on her playing days.
Abbey is such a great leader. She’s the epitome of leading by example, she doesn’t ever take a step back on the court. She is someone you definitely want on your team. Whenever I used to play against Abbey, I dreaded it! So, I was very excited to be able to have her on my side. As a leader she’s just so selfless, always put the team before herself and was always doing those extra little things that just added so much to the team as well. I am sad to see her leave the game but I’m sure this isn’t the end of netball for her. She’s done so many great things with netball already, and I’m sure that there’s still plenty of plenty more good things to come.
Proud says she always wanted to be a famous actress or country music singer, despite the fact that she can’t sing or act, which is lucky for netball. Away from the court she has many passions and hobbies, one of them being writing. Quite incredibly, in 2018 Proud found the time to write and publish her first novel, Grace on Court.
Not content with just one book to her name, she has announced that not only she has finished the sequel, but that she intends for the book to be a series. Having some extra time on her hands with her knee injury may mean that she can start on the third book and these days Proud doesn’t mind a shameless book plug. At the beginning she said she was a bit embarrassed and did not tell many people when she was working through the process of her first book, but she now knows it is an achievement to embrace.
The idea was always for Grace on Court to be a series and the way the first one ends, it’s quite open ended for a second one, and even the second book does leads to a third as well. So, yeah, I’ve been loving writing. Young girls are reading it and more importantly enjoying it. It gives me so much is pride and I just love seeing little girls dress up as Grace for book week at school.
There is no doubt that for Maddy Proud the goal of 2019 is for the Swifts to be holding the trophy when the last whistle has been blown in the Suncorp Super Netball. Despite an injury that means she won’t be on court with her team as they battle it out, what she brings to this team, even from the sidelines is immeasurable. Before her injury, Proud was leading a team that had all the right ingredients to go the whole way. What they have now is a burning desire to win the whole thing for her. It is strong motivation for a team who broke down in tears together after the Firebirds game, quite inconsolable but strong in their resolve, that now they win for something greater than themselves, they win for their captain.
The competition itself has been so exciting this year. We always talk about every year how it gets a little bit better. It is no different this year, and it’s one of those competitions where everyone’s beating everyone, but key priority is the Swifts winning and being able to get that premiership.