Ariane Virgona talks to Maia Wilson, Silver Fern and Robinhood Stars goal shooter, about her early career and mindset around peak performance. This is part one of a two-part interview series.
Down to earth, tenacious, and inspiring, Maia Wilson has shown the world what looks to be only the beginning of what she is capable of as she crafts her mark in netball and off the court. Opening the eyes of players and fans alike with her honest and fierce attitude, Maia continues to rise to the challenge demonstrating what it means to be a strong and proud woman on the international stage. For anyone that has seen the short feature documentary interview with Maia on Silver Ferns TV filmed in April, there is no doubt that Maia’s journey has brought her the strength and wisdom to take her poised shot, to be a leader and a role model for those wanting to excel in their craft.
“…I’m really proud of the journey that I have had and the last five or six years, it has been a lot of ups and downs of being in the 12 of the Ferns and then getting dropped for pinnacle events. But I think what I’ve learned out of that is I’m really resilient…”
With humility and authenticity, Maia shares how the struggles and experiences of elite netball players are like any human’s, understanding how important her roles of advocacy and representation are.
“To give back, you know, to those young girls who, at the end of the day are going to be wearing this purple dress or are going to be wearing the Silver Fern on their chest and give it to them in a really good space where they feel like they can be their true authentic self. You know, your strengths are your strengths. And that’s what we [Maori netball players] want to bring out of you. So, I think it’s really important to a) be quite vocal and confident in who you are. And b) at the end of the day, also putting your hand up when you’re not okay, and you do need some help, because that takes massive bravery and courage and to show that we are just like anyone else, and we all have the same experiences”.
Maia was selected as a Silver Fern in her breakout season of 2016 in the ANZ Championship at 19 years of age and played a standout role in the Silver Ferns win at the 2020 Nations Cup held in the UK. With the mantra “the strength is in the unit”, the Silver Ferns took out the Constellation Cup in 2021, for the first time in nine years, assisted by the accuracy of Maia and her strong connection with Ameliaranne Ekenasio in the circle. Excellence is the consequence of years of training and development and Maia shared with us her experiences of how her netball career came to be.
Early life and career.
Taking a step back in time, netball was a conscious choice for Maia as she was also given a basketball scholarship to play at the University of Idaho. “I reckon at the start, I chose netball. But now as I’ve got older and things have really adapted, I’d like to think that netball has really chosen me.”
Maia first started playing netball when she was about 9 or 10 years old. “I remember I originally started playing soccer, my [older] brother was playing soccer at the time. Once the field got full size, I realised I don’t really want to run 100 meters, so I don’t think soccer is the sport for me. And my mum had played a lot of netball and basketball growing up. So, it was something naturally that she was like hey you’re tall and pretty strong, why don’t we give netball a go?”
“As I got older, I started playing rep level, through intermediate, and then once I hit high school, that’s when things started to get quite serious where I was, and I just haven’t left the game since.”
Maia summarised the journey of her career so far to have many trials and tribulations, focusing predominately on her fitness and dealing with being benched in her first years at the Silver Ferns.
“And particularly in the professional years of my career, I was a kid that was quite tall, was never fit but had a lot of talent. And I sort of got selected because of that talent. And it wasn’t until I hit the professional game that I was benched for the first time. I debuted at the Central Pulse in the last year of the ANZ Championship back in 2016. And I was supposed to be on the bench, the backup shooter. But at the time, Jodie Brown did her ACL at a preseason tournament in Sydney. After that I sort of got chucked the reins of being the starting GS. And it wasn’t until after that full season of the ANZ Championship that I ended up being selected for the Ferns, which was my first experience of being benched. I was definitely okay with being benched. We’re the creme de la crème. But it was a whole new experience of being able to deal with it”.
When asked to consider what she would have told her younger self, Maia comments that it would have been useful to focus on strength and conditioning. When reflecting on being dropped for critical events such as the 2019 Netball World Cup and the 2018 Commonwealth Games, Maia passionately and confidently explained
“I didn’t want the fitness aspect to be the reason for my non-selection. If I’m not going to get selected, … I wanted to have more tangible things to be able to work on so be more technical and tactical aspects of my game, but I just didn’t want that fitness to let me down. So, if I was able to work on that younger, that may have helped my journey”.
But the events of professional life in the Silver Ferns were not the only factors that were challenging Maia’s strength and focus.
“It has been quite a tough couple of years. I’ve had my dad pass away, when I was quite young, quite unexpectedly, I’ve also had my grandmother pass away six months before that. So, it’s been a lot of up and downs over the few years and being able to deal with it. And there’s some points where I’ve been in a game or in a training, and that’s where I find out straight after the game.”
Maia also reflects in her PURE AS interview about her feelings around caring for her mother with lung cancer in 2020. With assistance from team-mates and friends, Maia was able to still juggle her own commitments, using netball as an outlet and release at times.
“It’s a juggling act – at the end of the day, when you get to the netball courts, you leave all your baggage at the door and focus on the game and be able to pick that up at the end of the day. And that can be quite challenging. …. I found that netball has been my outlet sometimes when I’m just needing just a bit of a break. And it’s never easy. You never know what goes on behind closed doors. But what I have learned is I’m really resilient and it’s slowly paying off”.
Mindset and inspirations.
The ability to rise to the occasion and continuously refine your skills is made possible with self-motivation, self-belief, and passion. Building a mindset around being honest and real whilst always working to achieve your best is imperative for anyone aiming to excel in their craft and Maia Wilson demonstrates these qualities as a professional athlete.
“It’s definitely trying to find what you’re passionate about. I’m the type of person that I never wanted to concede. And I always wanted to be the best at whatever I did. So, if it came to the point that I don’t reach my goals, it would not have been because I’ve left some stone unturned to making sure that I’m doing everything that’s possible to excel and to enjoy it”.
Maia has also been inspired by her teammates as someone who is uplifted by the experiences and the realness of authentic connection.
“I think the effect of my netball journey is that I’ve been able to be on it with some of my best friends, where the relationships are built. So, if I’m able to create that work, if they can keep striving, there’s also some other aspects of trying to be the better person by the people you meet and the experiences that you have.”
Maia’s passion for excellence and learning to be confident in herself has come from watching (and training) with the likes of Cat Tuivaiti and Maria Folau and from her days training with her high school coach Te Aroha Keenan. Maia described,
“I think when I was young, they were the Mystics duo and growing up in Auckland, that was the team to support so it’s been quite cool to see growing up watching your idols and flipping that to them being able to train and play alongside them has been quite crazy. I think especially with Cat, someone that I found that looked like me and I was like, oh maybe I do have a future because I’m not your typical petite tall, shooter, I had some size. I knew I was strong. So that was something that I took to it, but I also attribute a lot of my success to my school coach of Te Aroha Keenan who was a former Silver Fern herself. And if it wasn’t for her, I would never be where I am today”.
Maia keeps in contact with Te Aroha and says she is the only one that she will ever consult when it comes to tweaking her shot.
“She went to coach in the UK, and she’s come back to New Zealand and is coaching a school team in Cambridge, which is probably about an hour and 15 from where I’m living now. I drove down to Cambridge on Tuesday to be like, ‘Hey, you’re going to look at my shot.’
“She’s the only person I will ever listen to in terms of my shot. She’ll be like, ‘you’re bending, you’re like you’re not snappy enough or you’re bringing your arms too low’ or anything like that. It’s quite cool to have someone so close to be able to have that relationship with”.
This connection with her high school coach also has seen Maia give back to the community where she spent her formative years, as she understands how important good foundations are.
“And it’s been quite interesting when I went down and she’s like, ‘Right, you’re coming into my school, my friend, and you’re going help them. So, it’s quite cute to see those correlations now and where I was back then and seeing kids that are in that same position is quite cool. And then she was like, ‘Yeah, you’re taking this part of training, I like this. I like what you’re doing in the Ferns… can you teach this?’ It’s like a whole flip the script on being able to give back to athletes when it wasn’t too long ago that I was in their position”.
On top of her training commitments, Maia also studies a Bachelor of Communications at Massey University in Wellington.
“I originally started studying a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in psychology. And that was sort of something that I was quite interested in. And then I started doing a few papers and thought maybe this isn’t for me. So, I thought, let’s give this communications a go. I found it’s my little side passion. So, at the moment, I’ve got two more papers left of my degree. It’s a three-year degree. And by the end of when I complete all my papers, that would have taken me six years. Something that I see a lot of is my friends graduating and working for the last two years. But I’ve got to realise and take it in that I’ve also been working full-time, as well as studying part time. And my job is really cool. It’s a dream come true sort of thing. So, it’s being able to take those learnings and even though my friends are finished, I’m still winning, because I’m on a scholarship, I’m going to come out of it debt free, and I’ve been able to work full time. So, there’s nothing better than that”.
To ensure that all areas of netball, study and family are tended to, Maia says that she organises her time very meticulously, as she also regularly travels between two different cities.
“I’m quite an organised person, I’m a bit of a control freak. So, in my bedroom, I have a massive year planner that has everything written out and very meticulous in the fact that a lot of days or weeks can get quite busy. And I want to make sure that I’ve got everything written down. I’m quite a visual person. So, I like seeing it colour coordinated. And so, I know what I’m doing and when, and knowing how to prioritise it. There may be times where study needs to be the focus. I also live in two different cities. It’s something like having to travel between Auckland where the Stars are and Wellington where I live for the second half of the year. It’s making sure that I’m ticking all those boxes on – Am I seeing family? All those types of things. It’s a juggling act but prioritising time management helps with that balance”.
When she does get some much-needed downtime, Maia’s favourite place to rest is in bed watching Netflix.
“I think it might sound really simple. But for someone who travels quite a lot and lives out of a suitcase there is nothing better than doing absolutely nothing. And so, yeah, you’ll probably find me if I’m at home in my bed doing nothing laying down watching some Netflix”.
Looking forward to the future, Maia’s attitude is growth orientated, highlighting how a flexible mindset and adaptability to game play is essential to retain the black dress.
“I’m excited that if I can stay injury free, I’ll make sure that I’m able to continue to grow. I think that’s the main thing over the span of a career – you need to add little things to your toolbox and to still be that player that is so adaptable and can change. And I feel like slowly I have got there. I originally was that person that will just hold, hold, hold, and wait for my goal attack to roll the circle. But now it’s about finding the happy medium of moving enough and reoffering if option one gets cut off and finding my next opportunity to keep on moving”.
“It’s about trying to add one little thing to adjust, and you know you want to be that all round player”.
“We’re only here temporarily, the dresses there for ever, hopefully. So, making sure that once we or once I go, that there is someone that can fill… that spot and be able to take it. Like I look at myself, I had to wait for Maria to leave to really be able to hone that position. And even though I was around I probably had to go through a long, lonely journey and have those ups and downs to finally get to where I am in a space now feeling really confident in my gameplay, building those connections with people and just being able to have fun”.