NS EXCLUSIVE: Where do you go to (my lovely)?

NS EXCLUSIVE: Where do you go to (my lovely)?

“Who am I?

“What do I want?

“Do I have any other value, and what do I have to offer?”

These are just a few of the questions that elite athletes ask themselves on retirement. Having given all of their adult lives, and much of their childhood, to sport, they are suddenly faced with stripping themselves back to the bone. Of facing a period of monumental change, in which physical and emotional wellbeing, careers, finances and even relationships can be altered. And for many athletes, it’s a time of vulnerability, uncertainty and even desperation that can be difficult to navigate.

Fortunately, the Australian Netball Players Association (ANPA) has long recognised what a significant period of transition athletes can face. They’ve previously advocated for wellbeing managers at Diamonds and Suncorp Super Netball club level, and have recently upped the ante, appointing Natalie von Bertouch as their inaugural Transition Manager.

The former Diamonds’ captain, and current Adelaide Thunderbirds’ Wellbeing Manager knows all too well the challenges that athletes can face. She said, “It’s a role that has been so lacking and it’s terrific that we are working in this space more. I’ve been through it, I’ve lived it, and now we can finally offer some support to the next generation.”

Von Bertouch’s role will be driven by the needs of the athletes, but the aim is to focus on supporting netballers in the first two years after exiting Suncorp Super Netball.  She said, “It is a moveable piece that is still coming together with player input. We have a long term goal of extending this time period, as any existing problems don’t just end after two years.

“For some athletes, the first year is the hardest, others might find it’s the tenth, or any point in between. So while we would never turn people away if they reach out for help, we need a focus point to start with.”

Support will vary depending on athlete’s individual needs. Von Bertouch said, “We need to look at the whole person. They might need help with their career and finances, with emotional and physical health, with maintaining connections.

“My initial thought is that we get a touch point in each area of their lives that we can offer, and then build out from there as we gain momentum. Offering tailored services that are high quality is so important as the ANPA starts on this journey.”

 

A perfect fit for the role

During the 12 years spent at the top of her game, von Bertouch played 76 games for Australia, captaining both her Adelaide Thunderbirds side and the national team. With a degree in nutrition and dietetics, von Bertouch studied and worked part time during her netball career, and has since stepped into coaching and wellbeing roles. She’s seen and done it all – from players who’ve stepped gently away from sport, to those that have hit the ground with a bang.

“When I retired, I had a period away from the game after feeling burnt out. Since finishing netball in 2013, I’ve worked as a dietitian whilst balancing raising my three kids. It was on returning to work after my third child that I came to my ‘what next’ moment, almost ten years later  – ‘What will I be doing for the rest of my life?’

“So the moments and emotions I have lived through, and have seen others live through, have given me good perspective on the wide range of challenges that come with transition. This knowledge has helped me understand the desperate need for support, and also the need to get the message out there in terms of the support that is already there.”

“In my role as Wellbeing Manager for the Thunderbirds, I know the support and care given to athletes will not only help them to be well balanced in their lives off the court, it will improve performance on the court.  We are looking at the athlete as a person which is a great shift in thinking, and something which needs to continue after retirement.”

 

Nat von Bertouch. Image: Michael Bradley

Nat von Bertouch in action at the 2011 Netball World Cup. Image:  Michael Bradley and Netball Singapore

 

The physical challenges

There are few careers with the framework of elite sport – where participants are told when and how to train, where to be and when, and what lifestyle measures can best support good performance. It can be a rigid way of life at times – some retiring athletes welcome the relief from structure, while others struggle with the loss of routine and emphasis on athletic performance.

Von Bertouch said, “It might not sound like a problem to people outside the sporting world, but an athlete’s training has always been managed by their club, during their work hours. Then they transition to a 9 to 5 workday, and all of a sudden they aren’t sure where exercise fits in.

“So if you take away prescriptive training during their working hours, it can require a big adjustment for some former athletes to establish where and how exercise is part of their new lifestyle.

“Not everyone will need support in this area, but some absolutely require an exercise plan to follow for a while.”

 

The emotional challenges

According to von Bertouch, loss of identity is one of the biggest issues for elite athletes on retirement. Some may welcome escaping the spotlight, while for others, it’s a whole new world. She explained, “We are talking about players who’ve given their heart and soul and life and almost unlimited hours to sport, since they were a junior. To not have that anymore can be difficult.

“Sport is fickle, and once you move on, it can be as if you don’t exist anymore. That can be very hard to navigate.”

Very few athletes go out on their own playing terms – a Liz Ellis-like fairy tale where they captain their country to a World Cup victory, and then gracefully exit the game. Senior players can find themselves unwanted, set aside for rising stars with long futures ahead of them, while younger athletes who aren’t offered new contracts, can feel like they’re on the scrapheap before they’ve really begun.

Von Bertouch said, “The elite athletes are the showcase of our sport and we hear their retirement stories, because they have a platform to speak if they want to. For younger players the impact of losing their dream isn’t lessened. Their hearts are still broken, perhaps in a different way because they haven’t made it to the extent that they wanted to. Sometimes it might be even more challenging – they might not have a voice, or have the courage to speak up.

“The great thing that former players like Caitlin Bassett and Nat Medhurst have done is said they needed help, and that makes people stand up and take notice. So full credit to them for shouting to the rafters that this is a gap that needs to be filled.”

The loss of being part of a team also can hit hard, said von Bertouch. “Other occupations can have teams, but it takes time to find your place in that team, and for some there isn’t a team at all.

“A lot of people miss the fun – training with your friends every day, sharing a common goal and passion. There is huge pressure within an elite sporting environment, but there is also a sense of community, a sharing of the highs and lows, and that is an adjustment to make.”

Maintaining connection is crucial to overcoming that void – letting former athletes know that they might be on their own, but they aren’t alone. Von Bertouch said, “I recently went to Melbourne for the Team Girls Cup.

“It was my first time in and around netball for some time, and to catch up with people like Norma Plummer, Marg Molina, Sharni Layton and Caitlin Bassett – all these fantastic people that had been such a huge part of my life.

“I hadn’t realised how much I’d missed them. It’s vital to keep that connection.

“We need to keep encouraging athletes to be self aware, to manage the blow, and prepare for what lies next. It is a shock, and can be really unpleasant if you aren’t ready to go.”

 

Nat von Bertouch and Nat Medhurst celebrate a Diamonds' win. Image: Michael Bradley and Netball Singapore

Nat von Bertouch and Nat Medhurst celebrate a Diamonds’ win at the 2011 Netball World Cup. Image: Michael Bradley and Netball Singapore

 

Career and finances

While some athletes can financially establish themselves, it’s rare in women’s sport. Along with gendered pay and sponsorship gaps, there are other common themes.

Having to start a new career at entry level, after a physically forced retirement that usually falls between the second and fourth decade of life. What can be dramatic changes to income, a career pathway that may be unclear, feelings of obsolescence and loss of confidence in what they have to offer the job market.

The stories are all too common. The former elite player who earned a good salary, has a mortgage, but now wonders where their next pay cheque is coming from. How to respond at a job interview when asked what ‘work’ they’ve done in the past 15 years. The university degree that’s taken 10 years to complete, but can they remember what they learned at the start? The difficulties of gaining other work experiences due to training and travel commitments.

All very real concerns, according to von Bertouch. “Some athletes do earn a good salary and have sponsorships, so there can be real stress and a shock to the system when they lose that income. At the other end of the scale, some athletes on a minimum contract will increase their earnings when they leave sport, but they’ve sacrificed years’ worth of income while they’ve been playing sport.

“To help with that transition, it’s important our athletes get some work experience or career development while playing. And it’s vital they understand they have transferrable skills that are valued by others. They mightn’t have been in the workforce in a desk job, but they have many unique qualities. Few people in life have been elite athletes – it’s a strength, and we need to speak about it in that way.

The ANPA has access to career practitioners, via Wellbeing Managers in each state. In the short term athletes might need a survival job once they retire, while a career practitioner can help them establish where their other interests and passions lie. “There can be training and volunteer opportunities,” said von Bertouch, “which can help prepare them for transition.

“Part of what we need to do is tap into connections with companies, former athletes and working relationships that our athletes have built. People do care, and might be able to offer work experience or internships, so that athletes can get lived experience while they are still playing.

“It’s far more difficult for athletes now. It was challenging when I was playing and trying to work, but I came out with a career pathway ready to go. As netball has become more professional, and the commitments have increased, players have less time available to work on what their life post-sport might be.

“Athletes will often question their abilities and not have great confidence in their work skills. We want them to finish and feel armed and ready to move into a different kind of work force. And if any career support is lacking, ANPA can offer services to ensure the transition out of netball and into a new career is supported.”

 

 

 

Nat Medhurst – Life out of the fast lane

 

Every elite athlete has their own unique story, and Nat Medhurst’s journey to retirement is one for the archives. Her elite career started in 2004 with the Adelaide Thunderbirds, and she went on to represent Australia on 86 occasions before being omitted from the 2017 national squad. After a struggle with infertility, she fell pregnant whilst still playing, then retired from all forms of the sport in 2020. Having also been involved with the ANPA since 2006, including two years as president, she’s seen transition from all angles.

Of the many challenges she faced in retirement, Medhurst said loss of identity was one of the toughest. “I knew what I was doing on a netball court. I’d done it for so long, I was confident in my ability, and whether you like it or not, people identify you as an athlete.

“All of a sudden, I felt, ‘Shit, what do I have to offer the world? Who am I? I no longer knew and I felt completely obsolete.

“Even relationships with people, a lot of them are built off your athletic ability, and I felt I didn’t have anything else to my name.

“There were some days I was fine about retirement, and other days and weeks that were really tough and I had no idea what I was doing. It was a rollercoaster.”

 

Nat Medhurst, with son Edison, after her retirement presentation from the Magpies. Image Aliesha Vicars.

 

There were three keys that unlocked Medhurst’s ability to navigate those early challenges – a new job, her personal relationship, and the support of other retired athletes.”

Throughout her lengthy playing career, Medhurst had studied and worked part time, but despite those experiences felt a sense of panic about what life post netball would look like. She said, “There was minimal personal development around to help players navigate that.

“I was incredibly fortunate, in a time of Covid job cutbacks, to be employed by Commonwealth Games Australia. It not only gave me a sense of purpose, but my manager, Dave Culbert, was exceptional. He was a former Olympian, an athlete, so to have him mentor me and help me find my feet in a very new life was important.”

Also crucial to Medhurst was her partner, Samuel Butler. A former AFL player with the West Coast Eagles, he knew just how difficult retirement could be. Medhurst said, “Samuel also had the full experience – he did a commerce degree while he was playing, he’d been injured, and had a relationship breakdown after he stopped playing.

“So he understood what it was like to step away, the challenges I was facing, and for him to be so incredibly supportive and help me navigate my path was amazing.”

Having built many relationships across a long player career, Medhurst also found the support of past players invaluable. “That was particularly helpful during the last couple of years of my career, and post retirement. I remember Bianca Chatfield was very insightful and supportive. One of the things she mentioned was looking at new opportunities that as an athlete we might have had to turn down, but are now manageable.

“So having a positive and open mindset is very important.”

Physically, Medhurst is as healthy as she’s ever been. Having recently given birth to her second child, she’s always loved exercise, and in the course of a long netball career, stepped outside it to run, box, do Pilates and a range of other exercise.

She said, “The hardest physical aspect for me was a lack of support after I had Edison. Post partum women that return to elite sport have quite different needs to an injured athlete. It was difficult for the club (Magpies) as their fitness staff were up in the Queensland hub, but I had no idea what to do about post natal training, and I struggled with that.

“Perhaps the biggest issue for most retired players is finding the balance of how much exercise to do, and when to do it, in a new career where being active is no longer your job, and your hours are very different. That can be difficult and you have to find what works for you.”

 

Nat Medhurst on court for the Diamonds against the Malawi Queens in 2013. Photo: Simon Leonard

 

The emotional fallout of retirement was more challenging for Medhurst to navigate. After being an athlete her entire adult life – 17 years – the sporting world quickly moved on and she was no longer part of it.

“That was my biggest touch point,” she said. “I felt like the club I’d been part of had wiped their hands of me, and that had a huge impact, even down to the day-to-day friendships that I could no longer be part of.

“The majority of athletes don’t get the fairy tale finish, a retirement they make on their own terms. I’d say that very few leave with everything intact, with good relationships, and many can be quite disgruntled about how that is managed.

“I understand that clubs are businesses and tough decisions need to be made, but there needs to be more thought in the way that it’s done. At the end of the day, being an elite athlete is a career, and they should be treated with the same amount of respect and dignity that any other career is given.”

While Medhurst is heartened that the ANPA now has a role to play in helping players move forwards in life, she hopes that responsibility isn’t left solely in their hands. “Clubs and Netball Australia need to nurture their athletes so they are leaving in the best possible position, irrespective of how they finished their careers or how long they played for.

“They have to be accountable for that during an athlete’s career. They need mentors for athletes who step away from the game, and they should be engaging with past player groups. The employment of Wellbeing Managers is a key component, but it’s still a work in progress and should never be treated as a tick of the box.”

Medhurst believes that sport – the clubs, fans, the systems and organisations – expect so much from its athletes, but it can’t be a one-way street. “Players are always challenging and pushing and trying to deliver as much as they possibly can. They constantly forego things, or work to a schedule that might not suit other commitments like study or part time work.

“So when we do speak up, we shouldn’t be seen as complaining or whinging, but rather as having a voice, and preferably one that is solution focused. We are the ones who have lived and breathed our sport, and we need to expect more from it in return.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.