!!! Spoiler Warning – the contents of Sharni Layton’s biography, No Apologies are discussed here. If you haven’t read it, and don’t want it ruined: stop now, bookmark this page, and come back after you’re done!!!
Have you ever started reading a biography and thought to yourself, “Yeah, XYZ did not write this themselves?” Well, there is none of that with No Apologies. From the very first line, “G’day legends, and thanks for buying my book!” you are plunged into the enigmatic mind of Sharni Layton.
Anyone who has ever spoken to Sharni, or watched her interact with fans, will know she loves to chat and laugh. And, she has always been candid and giving of her time to the media and fans and, seemingly, never taken herself too seriously. So, it’s not surprising that her book is much the same. You can’t help but read it with her loud, raspy voice playing in your head. Amongst the stories are sprinklings of humour and sage, personalised advice of when ‘you’ should apologise.
From the outset, the book looks to be an unapologetically, fun romp behind the mysterious veil of Netball Australia, an organisation which has maintained a tight, professional façade for years. So, we assumed, No Apologies would take us on a journey through the life of a country kid who discovers her love for netball, masters/owns her ‘giraffe gallop’ and establishes herself as a terror-inducing goalkeeper and fun-loving fan-favourite athlete. But the reality is a darker story which invokes a much-needed conversation that couldn’t have been delivered at a better time with mental health and women now at the forefront of media and political discussions.
No Apologies kicks off with a young Sharni explaining in vivid detail a moment of anger. Readers would naturally assume she’s describing yet another frustrating on-court battle with an arch-nemesis. Alas it’s an eight-year-old Sharni finding an outlet for an anxiety attack: an affliction she’s dealt with all of her life but rarely spoke of during her netball career.
Her anxiety crops up many times throughout her journey to athletic-stardom and in many different ways:
- Angry outbursts during horse shows;
- Self-doubt plagues her during her under-age trials where she fails, time and again, to make state league teams;
- Self-depreciation and low self-esteem appear during her early years with the Melbourne Kestrels, and get worse after an on-court battle against Cath Cox where the legend “kicked her arse” [p69].
It all comes to a head when Sharni makes the U21 Australian team.
“Finally, I stopped running, gasping for air, and bent over. What was happening? Was this an asthma attack? I was light-headed, my eyes were watering, and little black dots started to enter my vision. I wanted to scream, but all I could manage was a broken ‘I …can’t … breath!’”
It was at least six months before Sharni found out that such episodes as this weren’t asthma attacks but panic attacks. Unfortunately, at the time, Sharni chose to ignore the diagnosis not wanting to be labelled a ‘head case’.
Sharni’s story, and the vivid detail she tells it in, is not unlike many others. It seems to follow the natural track of the more success you gain, the more pressure you are under to put forth a perfect persona. But the pressure can lead to a mental health fracture. Throughout the various stages of her career, Sharni’s illness manifested in various ways:
- Eating disorders where she stopped eating carbs and sugar and was hiding her illness behind purging;
- Maintaining non-fulfilling relationships out of fear of being alone;
- Inappropriate outbursts;
- Bouts of depression.
Sharni was lucky that she eventually found the right people to help her. But it took stepping away from a netball environment that she found suppressive, for her to truly heal. While her netball journey came to an end while she was playing for Collingwood, it was also fortunately the place where she made the connections with AFL.
Overall, No Apologies, highlights the enormous strides netball has taken off and, on the court, to become the pinnacle of women’s professional sport in Australia. In the many years since Sharni first stepped onto court, there have been significant improvements supporting athlete wellbeing. Driven by the athletes themselves, and Netball Australia, netball strives to takes a more holistic approach to those within the system. Sharni’s story paints a strong picture of why these changes were needed:
- Her earlier career and teenage years were rife with a near unmanageable training schedules. But now the communication is much better between grassroots and development leagues and player load is being managed;
- Sports psychologists were never a ‘thing’ for professional netballers but now every team has access to one. Their stress loads, expectations and mental health are managed to ensure no one is left behind.
- Every athlete now has access to a nutritionist who helps them with meal plans and dietary requirements to ensure their bodies are fuelled correctly.
- The Australian Netball Players Association has been founded and provides for a voice for all athletes at various stages of their career. They provide assistance with wage negotiations, education, mental health and expectations, amongst other things.
- Netball Australia also launched the State of the Game review, which seeks input from all level of netball stakeholders across the country.
As a result of what she’s learned about herself, Sharni has founded the Sharni Layton Sports Academy for netball and women’s football. Her programs are designed to help young athletes, gain physical and mental strength which can assist them in and out of sport.
Sharni is undoubtably one of Australia’s most recognisable athletes, and voices. And her journey, as tough and scary as it was, has no doubt shaped her into someone who is a force to be reckoned with. This has made her a great role model for any young athlete. Her journey, and No Apologies, teaches us that there is a place for everyone and to never try to suppress who you are.
No Apologies is available now at all good bookstores and online.