NS EXCLUSIVE: The very real Helen Housby always stands up

NS EXCLUSIVE: The very real Helen Housby always stands up

If you’re a netball fan, the chances are you’ve heard of Helen Housby. Her winning goal, taken in the dying seconds of the 2018 Commonwealth Games’ final, was the stuff of fairy tales – and the first time the English Roses had ever won a major title. Her blue-tongued, jubilant face was captured for posterity at the bottom of a post-match pile-up, and became an Instagram hit liked by sporting giants such as David Beckham and Manchester United.

A study in contrasts, Helen is a huge presence on court, stalking the boards like St George’s flame breathing dragon, fired up, passionate, and with some of the best side-eyes in the business. But when the strapping tape’s off, and the uniform is in the wash, she’s altogether different. A country-bred girl – grounded, modest and straight-shooting, with an enormous love of nature and her families – both netball and blood related.

“I love going back home and being connected to the environment, to animals and the outdoors,” she said. “That’s super important.

“Another thing is family – staying in touch and having really good quality relationships. It can be difficult when you are so far away from home, but that is one of the true sources of happiness.”

 

Helen Housby at the bottom of the huddle – celebrating England’s Commonwealth Games gold medal, 2018. Image Simon Leonard

 

Embracing the pressure

Home for Helen is now split across two sides of the globe. Bustling, energetic Sydney, where she plays for the New South Wales Swifts, and the glorious countryside of the English Lakes District. “I grew up in the middle of nowhere, in a farmhouse on my grandparents farm. I remember being outside all the time, being around animals.

“I used to play every sport under the sun. I’d get home from school, and my mum wouldn’t see me until 10 o’clock when it was time to go to bed. I love that, the contrast of the peace and tranquillity of the country, and the city lifestyle I have at the moment.”

Talent spotted by Tracey Neville and Karen Greig as a 15 year old, Helen joined their Manchester Thunder training programme, committing to a five hour round trip to get to five training sessions per week. It was in the 2014 SuperLeague grand final that the world sat up and took notice  – during an MVP performance she sealed Thunder’s victory, sinking a long range shot in the last second of the game.

“I’ve always loved pressure,” said Helen. “I think it brings out the best or worst in you, and it stands to a person’s character, whether in life or in sport in general.

“But you can train for it. Whether I was at Manchester or in England processes, I had great coaches who would instil belief that you want the ball in pressure moments. You either back away from it, or you be the person that stands up and says, ‘I want this shot, and I want to do this for the team.’

“When you are training, it’s so important to run through that. If you turn up on match day, and have it happen out of the blue, it’s never going to work. So put yourself in the situation, take those shots. I’ve missed plenty of them, but practice is key.”

Helen has fond memories, and lots of funny stories, about how Tracey Neville, then English and Manchester Thunder coach, helped her shooters manage those expectations. “We’d be practising our shots, and she’d be shouting or screaming in our faces, or trying to make us laugh; anything she could to put us off.

“We’d have scenarios, counting down from 30 seconds, or 20 seconds to the end of the match, and she’d throw the ball into play. You’d have to play through the processes and what you’d do in that situation. She was always about putting you under pressure before you got into the game, so that when you were in that moment, it was familiar. She understood the importance of that.”

 

Helen enjoys the pressure of game day. Featured here playing for the NSW Swifts in 2020. Image Marcela Massey

 

A rising star

The same year, as a 19 year old, Helen made her first appearance for the English Roses, called up to replace the injured Pam Cookey at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. She still remembers the moment well. “We went to a camp in Bath, and we got letters to let us know if we’d been selected. I went to the bathroom and opened mine. I remember crying, and ringing my mum. She didn’t believe me and thought I was just joking around.

“I was so excited, but also a little shocked because I was so young. The closest person in age to me was about five years older, and I was in awe of all the players. Just a few years earlier I got a selfie with Jo Harten in the crowd when she was playing for England, and now I was sharing a room with her at the Commonwealth Games.

“I was on a real rollercoaster, and I think my career catapulted from that win we had with Manchester Thunder earlier in the year. It was surreal.”

Helen laughed remembering her first game, saying, “I was pretty terrible. We played Wales, and while I was getting a lot of the ball I was really nervous on my shot and a bit shaky. Tracey said I went like a bat out of hell, trying to do everything too fast. But the pressure wasn’t really on at that early stage of the tournament, and England could afford to blood its youngsters. I absolutely loved the experience, and improved from that point on.”

Further experience on the international stage drew a wider audience’s attention. Following a three match series against Australia in January, 2016, Helen received an email from the NSW Swifts. “I remember freaking out a little bit at the time, because I wanted to come out to Australia, and I’d seen girls like Jo Harten and Geva Mentor do it and improve so much.

“To be honest, the Swifts was always a dream because of the club, their history and location. I never really looked back once I got that contract offer.”

At just 21 Helen packed her bags and moved half way across the world. Whilst it was exciting, it was also a daunting prospect. Without any family or friends down under, and not knowing any of her coaches or fellow athletes, it was a brave new world. “However,” Helen said, “I’ve always been outgoing, so I find it enjoyable getting to know a new team and a new environment.”

She’d had a brief introduction to Paige Hadley at a Fast5 tournament a few months previously. The pair had been in a function room, eyeing each other off. “We kept looking at each other, then decided to go over to each other and say hello, because we knew we were going to be a huge part of each other’s lives. A lot of girls who play for the Swifts now are from out of country or out of state, and it’s nice to become part of each other’s support network in that way.”

Helen thrived in her new environment. On court she was a fierce competitor, while behind the scenes she was working on her conditioning and court fitness. Always lean, she set about adding muscle to her frame. “I had been doing a lot of sport and fitness based stuff, but not a lot in the gym. At the Swifts it became part of my day to day lifestyle. The league in Australia is so physical and fast, that if you don’t adapt you are going to get injured or not be good enough to play.

“So increasing my strength and power was a big focus when I arrived. I feel that I’ve got a good balance now between speed and strength, but there was a lot of hard work involved.”

An integral part of the NSW Swifts – Helen has embraced the family like atmosphere and the standards that coach Briony Akle has set. Suncorp Super Netball, 2020. Image Marcela Massey

 

Swift standards

The Swifts’ intangibles were also important to Helen. With such a diverse group of athletes, coach Briony Akle imprinted a family like atmosphere and a set of standards for them to live by. Excellence, discipline and paying attention to the one percenters have been hallmarks of her group. Helen explained, “Discipline is a really big one for me. The day to day things – are you going to the post, could you recover a little better, do you need to get in the ice baths, what can you do differently.

“Another one is honesty and loyalty in a team environment. With only ten contracted athletes, it’s really important that you can trust the girls around you. They’ve got your back on and off the court, and that’s particularly important for all of us who’ve come from so far away to feel supported. We’ve become a family as much as a team.

“It also helps when, heaven forbid, someone gets injured or changes have to be made. It is more seamless for girls coming into the environment if they know what standards have been set.”

One of Akle’s greatest strengths, according to Helen, is allowing the group to play with ‘freedom.’ “Our team plays it’s best netball when we are enjoying it, but when it also comes naturally. It’s when we overthink what we’re doing that things start to go wrong. Yes, we need to rely on our processes, our set plays and structures, but we also need to rely on our instincts.

“Thinking freely, seeing a situation and assessing the best thing to do while the game is in progress. Briony has been great saying that we need to recognise the moment, to change the game and do something different. You never really know how a team is going to perform against you, so being able to adapt is crucial, and not wait till a quarter or half time break.”

Having played almost 70 tests for her country, Helen’s star has burned brightly for many years, but never so strongly as at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. In previous tournaments the English Roses had been on the wrong end of some heart-breaking results, but in Queensland the years of effort were realised.

In the semi-final against Jamaica they snatched a one goal victory – ‘it was a much scarier match than the final’ – to advance to their first ever gold medal match. While the final was a collective team effort, few will ever forget Helen’s last second heroics in sinking the winning goal.

“In that final moment it’s really hard to romanticise the shot – you are panicking about missing and really wanting to get it in for the team. You stick to your processes, the moment goes by really fast, and then everything afterwards feels like a lifetime of celebration.” Helen laughed, “I do remember a feeling of total disbelief afterwards, not knowing how to celebrate. We all ran around looking at each other and not knowing what to do.”

 

Helen Housby – At the 2018 Commonwealth Games, England win a crucial semi-final against Jamaica to make it into the gold medal match. Image Simon Leonard.

 

Helen Housby – all her power and athleticism on display. 2019 Netball World Cup. Image Danny Dalton

 

A powerful platform

 

Not long before that night, Helen announced that she’d reached 30 000 Instagram followers. In the final’s wake, that number zoomed up to 84 000, making her the most followed netballer on social media. While Helen says that it’s important to stay authentic and grounded when posting, she also strongly believes in the power of the platform.

“A lot of people get their information from social media, and it’s a terrific way to inspire the next generation of netballers and also be a good role model for them. I think female athletes in particular are highly trusted by the public.

“Most girls have a high standard of education, because you have to. You’re not plucked out of school at an early age, abandoning your studies, because you’re not paid enough to do it.

“So a lot of the women speaking up are very intelligent, capable people, who are pretty hardy in life. I value the opinions of other women in sport, and it’s important for each of us to represent that in some way.

“When I was growing up, so many of my heroes and idols were men, because they were the only ones I’d see in the news. So many male sports still dominate the media coverage, but we are now seeing women face a lot of different challenges to men in sport, and they are often ones that people relate to – pregnancy, fertility, that kind of thing. So for those of us who are visible, it’s super important for us to be those female icons, and to speak up.”

Helen’s never been afraid of who she is on court – strong, athletic, passionate and vocal, a powerful presence. She loves being part of the women’s sporting wave of recent years – celebrating the gains, and being part of the momentum. “We train just as hard as the men, put in the same amount of hours, and a lot of our girls are also juggling second jobs, university or parenthood.

“We set the same standards for our training and games, for our recovery, and the things that go with the job.

“So it’s exciting being part of a very empowering system. I think netball is in a great position to capitalise on that, and be a leader in the space. Suncorp Super Netball has done a great job of promoting that, while we are also seeing competitions like the ANZ Championships (New Zealand) and the SuperLeague back home go from strength to strength.

“There are still some challenges that we’re facing – mainly around coverage of sport and how women are presented in the media. We’ve seen some pretty recent articles labelling some players WAGS, yet they’ve won World Championships and Commonwealth Games. That’s almost like schoolyard bullying – those people are thinking of women’s sport in such a different way, and it’s not reality.”

 

A long range shooting specialist – Helen Housby’s ability has helped Manchester Thunder and the English Roses to victory in the final seconds of games. Pictured here at the 2019 Netball World Cup. Image Danny Dalton

 

A picture of concentration at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. Image Simon Leonard

 

Team work makes the dream work

In earlier days, Helen’s individual goals were based around improving her strength, nailing a starting seven position and adding consistency to her game. However, she doesn’t even know how many caps she’s played for England, as team goals have always been her focus. She said, “It doesn’t matter what your achievements are, you’re never finished and there’s always more to give. So the targets I set are team oriented, letting individual accolades take care of themselves.

“As an England girl, at the moment the next World Cup is the big one – a huge motivator. And in the Suncorp league, no one wants just one title. You want to be the squad that wins multiple titles and creates a legacy for itself, which the Swifts has in the past. We’d love to be able to recreate that. So there’s never an end goal as such, it’s about getting better and better as a team, and as an individual, and I hope that we can continue that.”

It’s the perfectionist in her, Helen says, that makes her confront challenges head on. If she or the team falls short of their lofty standards, it’s important to address the problem. “I do find it hard after a loss or a game where I didn’t feel I was playing at my potential.

“In my early years if I’d miss a shot I’d be overthinking it, counting my shots in a game to try and work out my percentage. That’s not good for performance, and it’s hard to snap out of the moment. Bad performances can have a huge impact on a player, particularly in netball where the attackers are getting so much ball that you have to be in a great state of mind to perform well, because of the pressure on you. You work so hard to make each game a great game, and to not achieve that can be hard-hitting.

“Now, I will try and snap out of a bad moment immediately, and focus on the very next moment. For example, if I miss a shot and the defenders rebound it, it’s all about defence. The louder you are, the more active you are, helps switch your mind instantly. You don’t have time in netball to think about a missed shot and feel sorry for yourself.

“So stand up tall and be loud, try to be imposing and win the ball back.

“In the days after a loss it’s really important not to shy away from looking at the bad stuff. You’ve got to be really truthful in how you evaluate a game, and not change that between a bad game and a good game, just because it’s easier to look at the nice parts. Talk about any recurring themes. Keep it business-like and specific – that helps take any negativity and emotion out of it.”

Despite being just 26, Helen’s a highly experienced athlete, with a long career still ahead of her. As netball has moved into a more professional era, with a 12 month rolling calendar, she’s learned when to work, and just as importantly, when to rest. “Nobody gets the best out of themselves if they are overworked and in need of a break. It’s so important to know your body and know your mind, and being okay with taking a break when you need it.

“Take time for yourself, time to see your family, to travel. Having balance to your life is so very important.”

 

Helen Housby in action at the 2019 Netball World Cup. Image Danny Dalton

 

 

Helen Housby and Nat Haythornthwaite are teammates at the NSW Swifts and the English Roses. Netball World Cup, 2019. Image Danny Dalton

 

 

About the Author:

Physiotherapist, writer and netball enthusiast. Feature articles, editorials and co-author of "Shine: the making of the Australian Netball Diamonds". Everyone has a story to tell, and I'm privileged to put some of them on paper. Thank you to the phenomenal athletes, coaches and people in the netball world who open a door to their lives, and let me tiptoe in.