Tucked under a hat and sunnies, Courtney Bruce ambles through one of Perth’s busiest netball centres. It’s a golden Saturday morning, and thousands of tiny netballers are in action, dresses dangling around their knees. She stops to chat when ‘Hey Court’ rings out – to a teenage girl she coached years ago and still remembers, and a Shooting Star previously mentored. A few eagle-eyed fans, clutching steaming cups of coffee, notice Bruce drifting past, but she’s mostly just one of many fans sprouting along the sidelines.
If her supporter’s cap is more sun protection than disguise, it’s only one of Bruce’s alter egos. Other hats she wears include that of the uni student, the captain, a self-confessed introvert, and the superstar who is one of the world’s leading defenders.
Making the transition between roles is something that elite athletes have to learn, because of the profound differences between their everyday and sporting lives. It can be difficult at times, particularly for those who find the spotlight challenging.
Bruce explained, “I find it a bit tough, because people might know the Courtney who plays netball, but not the other versions of me. At times you go through it, and that’s happening a bit at the moment. I can be my really introverted, calm self off the court, have lots of empathy and really care about people, and that is who I am at my core.
“But when I step onto that court, I have to put a persona on. I am competitive, a little bit stubborn, I love to win, and I love the teams I play for. I will absolutely go to the nth degree to help us get across the line.
“It’s taken a while to become comfortable putting that performance hat on. It’s like a different person that coexists.”
Learning to understand that dichotomy took Bruce a while, despite a lengthy career that’s spanned 60 test caps and twice that number for Fever. Starting netball in her early primary school years, the young defender found being around a group of people ‘overwhelming’ at times. She took a few years off to compete in athletics at a national level – with high jump skills coming in handy now – but by high school she was back at netball, valuing its family-like environment.
Despite her passion for netball, Bruce can still put too much pressure on herself, and ‘get into her own head.’ She said, “Being introverted and having a tendency towards anxiety, I think my mind doesn’t stop. Thoughts constantly rolling around.
“I do overthink things, and I’ve found it’s quite common for elite athletes and for females. We want to be perfect, and there’s no such thing. That tendency to overthink makes my self-confidence waver, so I’ve had to learn to leave that alone.
“But I have great people around me in the Fever and the Diamonds’ environment, so it doesn’t really pop its head up too often. And when it does, I focus on three things which I believe are strengths – my footwork, my energy and my voice, and that brings me back to the present.”
While it’s common knowledge that there’s a lack of female specific sport research, what’s less known is that their emotional wellbeing is one of the most poorly investigated areas of all. A range of factors – including discrimination, financial hardship, body image and social media abuse – can have a profound influence on performance, injury risk, recovery and longevity in the game.
Facing such challenges and with limited research available, most female athletes go through a process of trial and error to find ways to support their emotional health. Bruce has developed a personalised range of strategies that she uses to take ownership of her wellbeing, and how it might impact her performance.
For example, her match day playlist is packed with relaxing, chilled out music, and she can often be found in the corner of the changerooms, headphones on, eyes closed and shutting down the outside world.
“I’ve learned that if I get hyped up with the girls too early, it’s a little bit too much for me, and it bites me in the arse during the game. I stay as calm as possible, and use the entry onto court when we warm up, to build into performance mode.”
Once Bruce hits the court, she switches on immediately – a sixty plus minute period in which she puts her ‘competitive hat’ on. The ultimate big game competitor, the goal keeper has developed a court presence that can be as intimidating to the opposition as it’s key for her own team. The last line of defence, Bruce will often come away with a gain when a match hangs in the balance.
She said, “I love the challenge, coming up against different shooters, different attacking ends, and having to work them out. Making them do things differently.”
However the sustained attention and hyperfocus needed to play out a match has a cost. Coming down from the adrenalin rush of a game – and the bigger the match, the higher an athlete flies - is Bruce’s current work in progress.
“I have put some processes in place … journaling after the game, avoiding looking at the numbers, because stats don’t necessarily tell you the most. I might not take any intercepts, but have I helped shut down an attacking game? You really need to have a balcony view of your performance, so that you aren’t overly hard on yourself.”
Wellness Wednesday has also become critical – the one day of the week that Bruce has a complete break from netball. She switches her phone off and gets away from the world, hitting the beach and her local cafes, catching up with friends or finding a good book to read. Anything that she enjoys and gives her some breathing room.
Facing criticism, and is it gendered?
While Bruce can be overly critical of her game, she is also harshly judged by fans at times. But how much of that judgement is conditioned? Because like many female athletes, and particularly those involved in defensive roles and contact sports, Bruce has to live within a damaging paradigm.
Any number of scientific papers have found that male athletes are still mainly described in terms of strength, athleticism and aggression, but women tend to be described in gentler, gendered terms or around their relationship to others, such as parents, siblings and partners. Male athletes are usually photographed in action, while almost 50 per cent of women are shown in static, smiling poses.
So when a female athlete does step outside what society deems ‘acceptable’ boundaries for women, she can be subjected to bullying and exclusion. Such illicit bias is an area that Bruce has both studied during her psychology degree and put a lot of thought into in recent times.
“One of my biggest learnings over the past year, is that we can be strong and empathetic, that we can have both what are seen as feminine and masculine traits. That they can coexist. Any woman who appears to be loud or aggressive can be seen as ‘different’, so we are really up against it, because society still has views on what ‘normal’ behaviour is for women. It’s one of the reasons why we have far less female leaders in all walks of life.”
So why is Bruce – often far more so than other athletes – heavily criticised at times? Has it started since her teams have made a habit of winning more often than not? Or is it her physical presence, energy levels and ultra-competitive nature?
Are we indeed subconsciously viewing this fierce warrior through a gendered lens? Ironically, some of Bruce’s harshest critics in Suncorp Super Netball become instant supporters when she plays for the Diamonds, suggesting that bias of some kind is in play.
Whatever the reasons, abuse can come thick and fast on social media and while Bruce doesn’t spend much time on it, when criticism seeps through, it stings.
“It does feel really personal at times, and having the sort of personality I do, makes it hurt all the more,” shared Bruce. “I do control what I can, switching off from social media, putting controls on my accounts, and not following others. Trying to keep some distance. Everyone is going to have an opinion, and that’s okay – that’s their right.”
“But I don’t apologise that netball is my job and that I have a role to play. I try to cope by thinking that if someone isn’t willing to pull a dress on and step into the arena with me, and play my role, then their opinion shouldn’t matter to me.
“And while I can say that with confidence, it does hurt when you accidentally see something or read something, but in the end, it is mainly said by people sitting at a keyboard. Would they say it to my face? If they do, it’s a conversation I’m happy to have.
“But the people that matter to me, the Diamonds and Fever coaches and athletes, it’s their opinion and feedback that really matters.”
Teams that build confidence
Clubs and the national setup put significant and often individually tailored work into supporting their athlete’s emotional wellbeing. At the Diamonds, Stacey Marinkovich has instilled a people-first mentality, and established values the athletes can live, train and play by – honesty, humility and hard work.
“Stacey really knows her players, what each individual needs, likes and dislikes. That takes a lot of effort and work, but it’s why everyone wants to turn up and play for her.
“It’s the most connected environment that I’ve ever been part of, especially with Liz (Watson) and Steph (Wood) fostering that approach. The environment is so open, and the communication is so good. There’s a lot of unknowns when you enter the international arena, but we are kept in the loop. That’s super important for the players, and keeps us calmer, connected and grounded. The Diamonds’ bubble is about us and what we are doing in there.”
It’s an environment that also exists at Fever. Having joined the club 10 years ago, and now its longest serving captain, Bruce has seen the cultural shift first hand. Driven by Marinkovich during her tenure, and now by current coach Dan Ryan, there’s been a move towards greater balance of personal and professional lives.
“If we are happy off court we are usually performing on court. Being organised – little things like knowing what our schedule is, and that things don’t change too much – that makes everything so much easier. Also, embracing each other’s unique qualities. We don’t try to be anyone else. Bringing those unique versions of ourselves into the team environment, means we are happy, which in turn makes great netballers and a great club.”
25 years in existence, Fever are finally experiencing some success after a long period in the wilderness. In the last five years they’ve appeared in three grand finals, won their first ever premiership in 2022, and this year’s Team Girls Cup. Early signs in 2023 are also promising. It’s partially thanks to the club’s new-found ability to mesh a highly diverse list of athletes, with a range of cultural backgrounds and interests.
Bruce said, “As a group we speak about how best to support each other. And then also, what does that look like when we are not thriving but just surviving. How we can help each other in those moments? So that when we have dips, the seven of us out on court aren’t all having dips together, it’s just one or two here or there.”
The Diamonds have also – almost – restocked their empty trophy cabinet. Having won everything within their reach in the last 12 months, the national team have their sights set on the next World Cup just a few months away. And while that will take focus, hard work, and a sprinkling of luck, Bruce believes it’s achievable.
“You do have to learn how to win. The teams I’ve been part of have the capacity to play good netball, but you have to be able to perform game in, game out. So we work hard individually and collectively on mindset.”
Each athlete in the Fever and Diamonds environment has their own personalised checklist to tick, including areas for growth, strengths to keep working on, and perspectives to contemplate.
A good preparation builds confidence and performance, and Bruce has worked hard on all aspects of her game. As a key member of Fever and the Diamonds, and with the 2021 Liz Ellis Diamond and 2022 joint International Player of the Year under her belt, she is an athlete whose presence can change the course of a game with a burst of energy or a critical intercept.
“I want the ball in the big moments,” Bruce said. “I want to make the attacking end’s life hard. Being comfortable in those big match moments, not overthinking the pressure, but rather being okay with it.
“Being able to achieve a flow state, where for me as a defender, the ball seems to be coming at me slowly and is easier to read. When you get seven on court in that frame of mind, a team becomes pretty unstoppable.”