Just one week into the 2020 Waratah League, women’s head coach at the Basketball Australia Centre of Excellence (CoE), Kristen Veal recalls a challenging few days as the first impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic hit Australian shores.
With a game against Canberra scheduled, approximately nine scholarship holders across the men’s and women’s CoE program came down with the flu, forcing them into isolation in what was a daunting experience at the time.
The game was cancelled, and the athletes would eventually complete isolation and head home to their families. Like the rest of the country, the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra was on high alert, though Veal credits the players for their incredible attitude throughout the experience.
“These kids are so resilient. If they had time to think about things it could’ve been a lot tougher for them but because it all happened so quickly, and they were able to go home and be with their families, I think the initial impact was definitely softened for them,” Veal recalled.
“If they had of known what was ahead, they probably would have been a little more frustrated and upset. There was support and communication put around them and they still had things to focus on. They still had school and programming which helped them get through the isolation period.”
Returning to the CoE towards the back end of May, Veal is quick to remind that the two months away from an organised environment was a challenge, but pales in comparison to what the majority of the rest of world endured.
“It was pretty dynamic, we had to change the schedule on a daily basis. We couldn’t get the girls into the AIS facilities when they first came back so we were training at Basketball ACT and the University of Canberra on the 3×3 courts and using the fields for outdoor gym and running.”
“Even that was an improvement from where they had been. They were into it… they were excited. They were like puppies being taken outside for a walk, they were so grateful to be able to have that level of access to each other and opportunity to be training again. They came back with really good perspective on what they had versus what others didn’t.”
For many, the hiatus from on court action came at a critical time with professional contracts and college opportunities thrown into uncertainty. With so much on the line, Veal admits there were initial concerns and heightened awareness around the mental health of the athletes.
“Fortunately, a lot of concerns and issues were able to be communicated with their parents at home. The graduates and year 12’s were worried about visits, committing and even when or if it would be safe to travel but again, they were at home, so they had the immediate and ongoing support of their families to get through that.”
A star in her own right, Veal’s professional career as a player spanned two decades, giving her a unique perspective on some of the benefits the players may have found from being away from the spotlight for the period of time.
“We did deal with some confidence issues later in the year because the kids didn’t have anything to compare themselves to or any competition to test themselves in, so I think there was a common feeling that their development curve was going down. We spoke to the group a lot about the opportunities they did have, that they were in a very small group of athletes in Australia and probably the world that were improving during the pandemic.”
“I also think there was a sense of relief that they were able to focus on themselves for a bit without worrying about performance outcomes. For a good chunk of the second half of 2020, they were back at the CoE, they were focused, and as a result we saw good improvements in training availability, load robustness, strength and individual development. I don’t think we could survive in that space long term but for a short period of time they actually enjoyed not having the critical eye on them, and if anything, made them hungry for those challenges that had become a chore at times.”
While the variables of competition play cannot be replicated, Veal and the coaching staff found ways to get creative, including competing in Premier League games, simulated training camp scenarios and WNBL preseason games against the Canberra Capitals and Adelaide Lightning. Canberra based Opal Marianna Tolo and 3×3 representative Keely Froling also took the time to work out with the CoE women at stages ahead of the WNBL season.
Flipping a difficult situation into a positive, Veal has nothing but praise for the work ethic, personal growth and attention to detail the athletes have displayed over the last 12 months.
“The opportunity to get the girls robust and strong due to the lack of competition meant that a player like Jade Melbourne was able to go into the WNBL Hub with the physical tools to handle a competition like that, at age 18. Kelsey Rees was another athlete who benefited from a dedicated rehab and strength focus post shoulder surgery earlier in the year and departed in September to start her college career. The greatest accomplishment and reward for the group’s hard work and persistence was all 13 athletes being named in the under 19 Gems squad for the 2021 World Cup campaign.”
“People probably didn’t realise, while everyone else was itching to get out of lock down and out of their homes, we had the opposite issue, almost all of the girls couldn’t go home or see their families for close to six months, there was definitely a lot of home sickness.”
The BA CoE women’s program returns to competitive action this month with the resumption of the Basketball NSW Spalding Waratah Cup for 2021.
Written by Kane Pitman, freelance contributor for Basketball Australia
Image credit Floyd Mallon