She’s a crucial member of the English Roses now, but stardom didn’t happen overnight for Eleanor Cardwell.
Her rise in the netballing world came after a dramatic shift in playing position, plenty of hard work, and critically, finding her elusive ‘superstrength’. Cardwell learned to recognise her own unique abilities, rather than comparing herself to others. She said, “(It’s important to) give yourself some credit. You’ve got your own superstrength. Keep working that, keep trying to improve on it, and bettering it.”
It’s sage advice from the defender turned unstoppable shooter; the woman who for many years lacked confidence in herself, and the body she didn’t believe in. Cardwell had qualms about whether she fitted the mould of an elite athlete, explaining, “I always used to compare myself to everyone. And I’m in a high pressure environment where everyone wants to be a strong, athletic looking female, and I’ve always felt like I’m never that person.
“I would be quite open with people about how I’d feel, and sometimes I would get quite upset.
“Say in fitness testing, I’m really bad. I will compare myself with the centre, and seeing them sprint never-ending, and I’m just there sweating, blowing, horrible!
“I’ve learned to stop comparing myself to everyone around me, and only think about myself and where I’m at in my training. So I might be really weak in fitness, for example, but I know that’s a target of mine, so trying to beat my last score instead of saying to myself, ‘Ah, I’m the worst in the group!’ at this particular activity, as that can really beat you down. For me, I’m really good at holding, I’m really, really strong. This is my superstrength!”
The process of discovering those powers took Cardwell some time. Growing up, she was another promising young defender in the English pathways, playing club, county and underage national netball. Signed to Manchester Thunder in 2012 as a goal keeper and goal defence, Cardwell received limited court time. Life took a dramatic U-turn however, when long time coach and mentor Tracey Neville made her switch into the shooting circle.
“Laura Malcolm likes to tell me that when we were younger, during warm-ups, we’d play another game like basketball. And everyone wanted me on that team because I could defend and shoot, even though I wasn’t a shooter in netball.
“2015 was the year that I changed. I wasn’t playing much, filling in at training, playing centre – which really isn’t me at all! And one of our shooters had to go home from training and I filled in at goal attack. I scored a few goals and was okay even though I had zero experience at that position.
“Tracey rang me the next morning at 7am, and said, ‘El, you need to be a shooter!’ She saw the attacker in me, and I guess I had always been an attacking defender who was quite good at driving through court.
“I’ve always been thankful for that, because I don’t think I would be here today otherwise.”
‘Here’ is currently an English Rose, with 50 caps to her credit, and one of the key members of the national team. Cardwell has an incredibly accurate eye – she averaged 92% playing both shooting positions at the Commonwealth Games – combined with a level of strength and timing that sets her apart from most others.
The strength comes from taekwondo, Cardwell’s sport of choice for many a year. “I did it three nights a week, and would go to netball straight afterwards. I learned about self control, and I was very powerful, and very flexible. So it helped me with my inner strength and power, my core.”
Timing is also critical to Cardwell’s game. She’s not the nippy goal attack more commonly seen in netball, and so had to develop other attributes. Time spent with her coaches established that she needed to bring her own unique style to the court.
“When I was transitioning to goal attack, I didn’t want to lose what I already had as a shooter. I wanted to be quick, I wanted to be fast, but I wanted to bring something else as well. Some flair. So we thought, ‘El’s strength is holding, so how can we bring that into my goal attack game, and use it for the good of the team?
“It does mean some of my teammates have to adapt. The wing attacks have to change their pass and timing slightly, because if they are going to turn quickly and fire a ball into the circle, they probably have to wait a second until I get on the body.
“So we adapted that style, the speed of the ball, the pass I was looking for. And by only making slight changes to my game, it’s easier to switch between goal attack and goal shooter during a match.”
After having great success with Manchester Thunder in 2022 – the team went undefeated to lift the Vitality Netball Super League trophy – the home Commonwealth Games ended on a disappointing note for Cardwell. England were the reigning champions, but losses in the final’s series to Australia and then New Zealand saw them walk away empty handed.
“It was incredibly difficult,” said Cardwell. “We always go into any competition thinking we have the potential of winning. You’d be silly not to, because then you’ve failed before you’ve even begun. So we had expectations on ourselves, and felt we could win.
“I didn’t realise how difficult that period afterwards would be. There was a lot of crying, and I didn’t really want to do anything. I’d never had that before, and it was hard to take.
“From that point, it’s about us individually, and us as a team, as to how we process that loss and perhaps weirdly, what positives we could take from it – where we could improve.”
For Cardwell, the individual processing came in the form of a mandatory month off, spending time with family and friends. From there it was into the Roses camp ahead of the Uganda series, with a more structured approach. “We had psychologists to chat to, to get everything off our chests that we needed to, to have a little cry if we needed to, to get it all out, and they would help us process it.
“We also worked as a unit, with the girls who’d been at the Games. People had similar experiences, which made each of us feel better and less isolated.
“And the wider group, the young ones who didn’t go to the Games, they were amazing. Bringing us back to life, because we did hit a wall afterwards, and we needed to love netball again, to enjoy it, and to see how we could push on.”
While Cardwell is still going through the process of understanding the loss and how the team can improve ahead of the 2023 World Cup, she’s excited about what the next 12 months will bring. Along with competing at the pinnacle event, she’s making the big move down under to suit up for the Adelaide Thunderbirds.
Speaking earlier in 2022 to Off the Court’s Tamsin Greenway, Cardwell revealed that while she’d received previous offers to play overseas, the timing just hadn’t been right.
So why now?
“I think I’m more confident in my ability to perform,” she said.
“I only transitioned into being a shooter in 2015, and had half a season in 2016. I moved to the Severn Stars for 2017 and 2018, where I cemented my style, got court time, and then moved back to Thunder in 2019 and 20, but hardly played. I needed to cement a full season and then Covid hit and the league was cancelled.
“Then when I did get the opportunity, I wasn’t really certain in my own abilities and felt I needed a solid season to cement the way I play.
“The other thing that’s really important to me is now I can have a better support system in Australia. I’m a proper homegirl, and need that.”
The support system that Cardwell is talking about includes her boyfriend, who is making the move to Australia with her, and the recently announced signing of Tracey Neville as a specialist coach at the Thunderbirds. “When Tania (Obst, head coach) rang to tell me that Tracey was coming I was jumping up and down and screaming, I was so, so excited. It’s a great opportunity for her, and she’s also one of the best in the business so she’s going to bring a lot of value.
“But it also makes it less daunting for me going into a completely new environment, and having a familiar face around at training.”
What will be fascinating is how the incredibly talented shooter can build on her existing skills, as Cardwell plays with and against some of the world’s finest. She explained, “Being a professional athlete is every netballer’s dream, every sports person’s dream. Any little thing I want to improve on, I can dedicate the time to, and see how far I can progress.”
But it’s not just about her abilities. Cardwell is also looking forward to building wider connections in the netball world. “I love to do that. We have quite a young attacking side at Adelaide, so I’m looking forward to meeting the girls, seeing what we can do and where we can go. It’s so exciting, and I can’t wait to get over there and get started.”
For all Cardwell’s undoubted talent as a netballer, it’s her ability to connect with and support other women and girls that has taken centre stage in recent months. Reviewing sports bras on Instagram (see end of article) has not only provided valuable insights for larger chested athletes, but allowed her effervescent personality to shine through.
Getting her kit off so publicly didn’t come easily to Cardwell however.
She said, “It makes me sweat just thinking about it!
“I’m not a girl who enjoys getting her body out. All through my life I’ve felt like I’m one of the bigger girls. I’d run into the pool because I wouldn’t want to be seen. I’ve never been comfortable in my own skin, and so I’ve really, really shocked myself in this process!”
So how did it come about?
Athletes who have to marry performance with larger breast size is an issue that few people talk about, but the need to learn about supportive sports bras first crossed Cardwell’s mind a few years ago. She didn’t follow the idea up, but after coming back from the Commonwealth Games, her bras were shredded in the laundry process, and she was in pain. “I remember thinking, ‘Hang on, this is giving me no support in the slightest. During training I’d be holding on to myself in the warm up, because my breasts really hurt.
“This is a piece of equipment that women really, really need, so I should be doing some research to figure out what is best. When I looked online I didn’t know where to start, and it became pretty overwhelming.”
Cardwell asked what others were wearing on her Instagram feed, and after receiving hundreds of replies, thought, ‘Right, something needs to happen here! If I can be a voice in the netball community for bigger busted ladies, at least I can help women in a different way.’
“I remember all too well the experiences I went through as a younger girl with bigger breasts, who’d be too shy to get changed at school. So I’d either go into PE (wearing a regular bra) and be in pain, or sit in a sports bra all day and be really uncomfortable in it, as it was the wrong size.
“You can’t keep buying bras, it’s expensive. And helping to educate younger girls who give up sport because it’s painful – they might fall in love with sport because they can do it in comfort. Or we might get more talent coming through because they won’t stop playing sport so early. So that’s how it started.”
As Cardwell starting learning more about sports bras, she decided to use her platform to share her learnings with others. She made a video clip and first sent it to her inner circle – boyfriend, sister, cousins and a few friends, wondering if she had the courage to post it on Instagram. “I was really nervous, thinking I shouldn’t look this way, or that way. It was a wild thought process.
“I’m always going through that. It’s difficult to get past that barrier, and I have to do the little things like not being so harsh on myself.
“But the amount of support and positive conversations I’ve had from that has been amazing, and it’s made it a lot easier posting the next videos. Each and every single one I feel better and better. It’s been really enlightening and made me feel a lot more confident in myself.
“So, yay, after 27 years I finally feel a bit more confident in my own skin which is lovely.”
In the ongoing series against the Diamonds, Australian netball fans are witnessing Cardwell’s accuracy, strength and timing at first hand. And with advocacy a superpower that she’s added to her many talents, Cardwell is not only a formidable force out on court, but an important voice for women as well
What we all should know about Sports Bras
Is a good sports bra important?
Research has found that for women, breast size is the fourth greatest barrier to physical exercise. Researcher Deidre McGhee – senior lecturer at Breast Research Australia – stated that many women are in so much discomfort or embarrassment that they’d rather quit sport rather than discuss problems they may be having.
Breasts are made up of tissue without any muscle, and as a result they move independently of the body. A woman with a 38D cup can experience up to 15 centimetres of movement during exercise, either in an up and down, or in a figure eight pattern. And with D cup breasts weighing approximately one kilogram, and G cups more than double that amount, it’s a significant amount of stress added to the body.
Symptoms resulting from excessively moving and/or large breasts can include:
- Neck, back and shoulder pain and longer term degenerative issues
- Brachial plexus injuries and carpal tunnel syndrome
- Skin rashes
- Breast injuries
- Painful strap indentations
- Low self esteem
- Public humiliation
To cope with the symptoms some athletes go to extreme measures, including dietary restriction to the point of starvation, breast reduction surgery and quitting sport to cope with symptoms, none of which are recommended.
The most effective way to reduce issues is finding a well fitted sports bra that works best for you and is specific to the type of support you require.
Surprisingly, the first sports bra was made as recently as 1977, from two jockstraps stitched together. Technology has come a long way since then, and now acts to alter the body’s mechanics to minimise breast motion during exercise. The most recent technology includes overbands to reduce upward movement, as to date, most bras have focused on downwards movement.
There are three main types of sports bras currently on the market:
- compression bras, which pack all the breast tissue tightly together,
- encapsulation bras, which provide individual cup support,
- combination bras which both compress and encapsulate, and are the most commonly used for high impact sports such as netball.
The basics to look for in a good quality sports bra:
Chest band – wide elastic material to provide support, with multiple hooks at the back. Most of the support will come from this band, so it’s essential that it’s snug, but two fingers can fit beneath it.
Shoulder straps – wide and padded, allowing for two fingers to be placed underneath. Adjustable. Many people prefer the ability to convert to a racer back to wear less conspicuously under uniforms,
Cups – should completely cover the breasts to reduce movement, with moulding or padding as required,
Underwire – personal preference. If an underwire bra is chosen, the wire should sit flat on the ribs,
Fabric – needs to be breathable, but also have enough support to reduce up and down, and sideways movement.
How do you know if it’s the correct fit?
With over 80% of women wearing incorrectly sized bras, finding the correct fit is crucial.
Methods of making sure the bra is right for you may include:
- the three most common needs are support, comfort and coverage,
- when trying a sports bra on, make sure you include movement in your test,
- being personally fitted by a bra specialist,
- attending a virtual fitting online or over the phone,
- using a company such as Unstone where they base their recommendation on how the bras fit and how you feel.
Three of Eleanor Cardwell’s sports bra reviews
While Cardwell is trying a range of bras for Instagram, assessing them and sharing her results, she’s also doing the work behind the scenes. She said, “I’m really thankful for all the companies taking the time as well, a lot of them have been teaching me about the technology that goes into making a bra”.
Further reviews can be found on her Instagram and Tik Tok accounts.
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