Develop the person, not the athlete

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New Zealand’s Kelly Brazier, scoring the winning try in the 2018 Commonwealth Games sevens final against Australia.

Dan Mullan/Getty Images

New Zealand’s Kelly Brazier, scoring the winning try in the 2018 Commonwealth Games sevens final against Australia.

In the final part of LockerRoom’s athlete development series, Ashley Stanley looks at how professionalism and technology can help advance sportswomen and whether to focus on developing the person, rather than the athlete.

Before rugby sevens was an Olympic sport, it was a pastime most women did on top of everything else in their lives, purely because they loved playing the game.

Then along came full time professional sevens contracts in 2014, two years before the sport made its debut at the Rio Olympics.

Female players, and most likely rugby as a whole, wrestled with their newfound status. World Cup Sevens champion Kelly Brazier was one of the first included in the team and has witnessed the evolution of the rugby programme.

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“To be honest, it’s been crazy. We’ve gone from pretty much just having a nine-to-five job, and training 5am and 5pm, to now a fully professional sport, run alongside the men’s sevens here in Mount Maunganui,” says 31-year-old Brazier, who was in a social work role before turning fully professional.

“So it’s pretty black and white compared to what it used to be.”

Like any workplace, when you’ve been involved for a while, you start to see what’s working well and what can be improved. As an athlete, this trait can be heightened as the mentality of continuous improvement generally separates the good players from the great.

While still at Hamilton Girls' High, Jazmin Hotham got a development contract with the Black Ferns Sevens.

Michael Bradley/Getty Images

While still at Hamilton Girls’ High, Jazmin Hotham got a development contract with the Black Ferns Sevens.

One area that could improve the already successful Black Ferns sevens set-up is the transition for female athletes from secondary school into the professional sports environment.

“I think it’s still a bit foreign in the women’s space, because obviously in the men’s space they’ve got pretty much full-time programmes at high school throughout the country and there’s kind of nothing like that for the girls,” Brazier says. “So they come straight out of high school and are expected to fit into a full-time programme.

“Whereas when most of us started, we were all probably 22 or 23, so we had all worked full-time jobs. So we kind of knew how to balance things a lot more. Now you’ve got 17 to 18-year-old girls moving away from home and training like a professional athlete and they kind of have no training in that in their schools prior to coming in.”

One secondary school renowned for providing a steady flow of promising young women into the Black Ferns sevens programme is Hamilton Girls’ High School.

Shiray Kaka (nee Tane), Tenika Willison and Jazmin Hotham are a few past students and three current schoolgirls were named in Waikato’s Farah Palmer Cup squad this year – Manaia Nuku, Kiriana Nolan and Kelsey Teneti.

The school’s deputy principal is former Black Ferns sevens and 15s player Sharleen Nathan, who has a hand in the development of the young women, as she also heads the rugby programme. Nathan says in the secondary school space, the user generally pays for additional support or development programmes.

“We really rely on volunteers and we’ve been pretty lucky with both rugby and sevens, having some consistent people come in, like Jon Thiel, who’s over in Canada at the moment coaching the Canadian women’s team. We’ve also had Greg Smith, a former Fiji player and coach and his daughters are here so he’s going to come on board in term four,” says Nathan, who was recently appointed to the Sport Waikato board and served on the Chiefs Super Rugby board as a future director in 2018.

Strength and conditioning expert Shannon MacLachlan has created the TrainHer performance app.

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Strength and conditioning expert Shannon MacLachlan has created the TrainHer performance app.

The connections with unions and relationships with former players and researchers means all can benefit and learn from each other. And a pathway seems clearer to aspiring athletes.

“Just having those ties to the union and to be able to give the girls that experience at the next level so they can taste it, and they can see actually this is really doable. I can be one of the best sevens or rugby players in Hamilton or I can be one of the best rugby or sevens players in New Zealand,” Nathan says.

But it also means, if schools do not have connections, those students may not have access to resources. And playing numbers may be low so growth at the grassroots level is difficult.

Nathan admits the sevens programme has its own kaupapa – “and it’s about commitment, integrity, courage and resilience.” Most of the same values as the schools.

“If you’re doing well at school that’s really important because a lot of our Kiwi kids dream about being Black Ferns or All Blacks, but only a tiny percentage actually reach that dream,” she says. “So it’s important they learn their skills because sevens and rugby and sport really teach you a lot of these values and traits. It’s about that self-improvement and self-development.”

Can technology bolster development?

People are the lifeline of sporting communities. But technology could be another way to add to the development of female athletes.

Shannon MacLachlan has nearly 20 years of strength and conditioning experience having come through as a military physical training instructor in her early years. She’s also worked with Super Rugby teams in Australia and surf sports like Ironman.

Pre-Covid, McLachlan came up with the idea of an online platform to reach athletes wherever possible with tailor-made programmes, having spotted a gap in the way women are trained.

Last year she worked with the New Zealand Warriors, in particular the women’s NRLW team, and from there she created TrainHer Performance, an app which captures athlete data, including how they train and what they eat.

“We were getting athletes who were incredible at what they do on the field, but the majority had never trained to a proper periodised programme. And some of them had that mentality of ‘more is better’,” she says. “They were using bikini-body, cookie-cutter programmes or crossfit programmes, and while there’s nothing wrong with them, they’re not for them as athletes.”

MacLachlan wants to help young females coming through to get an idea of periodised training programmes, which take into account the different types of training needed at certain times of a season.

“A programme that has an off-season and an in-season and gives them some of what the men’s teams get. But on their own playing field,” MacLachlan says.

“If you’re a professional athlete in some sports, you have access to a gym because you get paid to play – that’s your job. But with these females, they’re mothers and wives, some of them are on shift work, and some couldn’t afford the petrol to come into training.

“That’s when I really noticed there needs to be change. The clubs are going to get a better athlete if they are coming into their selection criteria already fit.”

But in the current model in women’s sport, that’s seen as a cost exercise.

“It’s a dollars and cents game. If you don’t have enough money, you can’t hire a strength and conditioning coach all year round. So you’re only going to get what you put in,” says McLachlan.

If all grassroots teams had access to this type of technology, the development of women in sport could be a step closer to a game-changer.

Tall Ferns wunderkind Charlisse Leger-Walker started US college life this year at Washington State, joining sister Krystal.

Dave Rowland/Getty Images

Tall Ferns wunderkind Charlisse Leger-Walker started US college life this year at Washington State, joining sister Krystal.

When athletes go offshore

Basketball is a code where the known development pathway involves leaving New Zealand to play overseas.

How does a sport invest and develop players knowing they will leave the country to play? What if they do not return? And does that even matter?

Newly appointed WildCats head coach and Basketball New Zealand’s talent manager, Mel Downer, says it benefits both the national organisation and the player for them to go abroad.

“Generally, when players leave high school, they’re not ready to play senior basketball so there’s still a lot of skill development and a lot of playing that needs to happen before they’re able to play at a senior level,” she says.

“That’s the point of sending them to a US college, where they can study and get a degree, and they also get four to five years’ worth of development.

“So it’s really in their best interest and our best interest, instead of losing them, to send them to the States to develop and bring them back ready to play.

Similar to Netball New Zealand, the same values are taught and emphasised at all levels in basketball.

“So everything ties into our senior national programmes. We develop our style of play so it’s age and stage appropriate down through the junior ranks,” says Downer, who primarily looks after the junior national team athletes alongside the manager of high performance, Leonard King.

“As they’re coming through, they’re learning those key underpinning principles of play that will help them become senior national team athletes.”

With basketball having two playing pathway options – the traditional five-aside and the new Olympic 3×3 game – development is key to keeping players in the game.

“Our 3×3 women in particular are really successful,” Downer says. New Zealand won gold at the senior Asia Cup in 2018, with a team of four Tall Ferns, and silver at the U18 World Cup in Mongolia last year.

She says a good athlete development programme needs to be athlete-centred.

“It has to be a holistic approach to them as a person. We can’t just focus on basketball, we’re coaching humans. So we’ve got to make sure we’re treating them that way – their physical wellbeing, their mental wellbeing, their off-the-court goals, their academics, their strength and conditioning, and then their basketball skills on top of that,” she says.

Over the last two weeks of LockerRoom’s Athlete Development series, the idea of working with athletes as people has been echoed by all contributors – from researchers, former athletes, sport specialists and people working on the frontlines.

Perhaps it’s time to listen and set the standard in women’s sport by making some small, but bold, changes to athlete development.

Give away athlete development programmes all together. And refocus resources and investment into personal development programmes. Take out the one PD ‘pillar’ in programmes and make it the purpose – the foundation on which everything else is built on.

It could make a massive difference in preventing unnecessary impacts experienced by athletes – male and female – instead of pouring investment into fixing symptoms, like menstrual and fertility issues, training load, injuries and mental skills.

Let’s develop people, not athletes. And the rest will follow.

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