Dealing with anxiety, getting uncomfortable and finding the silver lining has been key for Australian women’s sevens coach John Manenti and his side, as they prepare the delayed Tokyo Olympics, and the prospect of over a year without international competition.
Six months on since the side last took to the field at the Sydney 7s tournament, and just under 12 months until the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics, the Australian team are continuing to hit the training paddock as usual despite the uncertainty of when they’ll be playing professionally again.
The anxiety and unease the delay has produced amongst the players has been a critical issue for Manenti to deal with since the sport’s shutdown. While for some of the younger members of the group, the 12-month hiatus has made little impact, however for many of the senior players it’s meant post-Olympic life has been altered significantly.
“Everyone’s a bit different,” Manenti told ESPN. “The one’s that probably found it hardest were the girls that were targeting the Olympics as the goal before maybe moving on from rugby.
“Whether that be to have a break, have a child, get married – there were lots of different things in the team. For the eight girls from Rio, they’re working their life on a four-year window.
“To say it’s another 12 months, for some people it didn’t mean anything, but if you’ve put having a child on hold, or if you’ve planned on finishing university and moving on with your life, it is a significant delay.”
For some players, getting through this period of uncertainty has meant going home to family, returning to studying or even taking on outside work.
After years of delay, Emma Tonegato finally completed her five week practical component of her Occupational Therapy degree, while Ellia Green has taken on laboring work and her International Security degree which she had been delaying for eight years. It’s not a one-size fits all approach, according to Manenti.
“I’ve treated it very much as a case-by-case study. What player A needs to get through this may be totally different to what player B and player C needs. We’re not going to judge, we’re going to accept that if you tell me you need time off and you need to do something, I’m going to be understanding around that.
“We’re trying to be as practical as we can be in trying to keep the bus going forward, but also being able to say to people if you need a deviation and need to do what you need to do, we’re going to accept that.”
Following a return to fulltime training post lockdown, keeping the players motivated has been a challenge Manenti and his coaching team have embraced. Creating a Wednesday ‘variety day’, the girls are being challenged in ways that take them out of their comfort zone. So far the squad have taken on sand dunes, hill sprints and sparring in the boxing ring.
“It’s not easy staying motivated, but to their credit they’re doing a pretty good job of it,” Manenti said. “We’ve tried to change things up a little bit and we go somewhere or do something different. It’s still hard and tough, but it’s not just coming into here every day and just being groundhog day.
“For some of the girls [boxing] was really outside their comfort zone and were quite anxious about doing it. It was just to change it up, get them out of their comfort zones, see how they respond to different challenges.
“It was a shift in mood, shift in thought to keep them motivated. Not big things, but just simple things, it was just so nice to see them working together and picking each other up. It’s not rugby, but it’s an activity that helps them keep bonding and keep working together.”
According to Green, who happily admits she’s a one hit wonder in the boxing ring, keeping things interesting and getting uncomfortable is vital for the team.
“Our coaches have put in a lot of work to change things up and keep it interesting, we’ll train somewhere different, we’ll do something different,” Green told ESPN. “We’re really trying to mix things up to keep things interesting and exciting, we need to have that variety so it doesn’t become dull and repetitive.
“We’re definitely getting used to being uncomfortable, to be honest, that’s one of the most important pieces of advice I’ve been given. Anyone that asks me for advice I say, if you want to be great at something you have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
“It’s probably one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learnt while playing sevens; it’s an uncomfortable sport, you’re going to be in pain.”
Finding the positives in shutdown hasn’t been easy, but Green is all about finding the silver lining. Straight into surgery following the Sydney 7s, Green was scrambling to be fit in time for the Olympics, but the delay has given her the time to get her body sorted and the opportunity to return to grassroots rugby and learn more about herself and the game through the fifteen aside version.
“I had a foot injury, so I’ve been rehabbing it ever since, so throughout the whole pandemic I never really stopped training at all. I was really cutting it close to the Olympics, it was a pretty bad injury in my foot, so it actually ended up being a good thing for me, it kept me really focused and I didn’t have a moment to take a break, or worry.
“It’s devastating that we won’t play for a while, but the fact that we get to play grassroots rugby and promote fifteens and sevens and help grow the game at a grassroots level is an honour. Playing for the Warringah Rats is even more special, it was the first rugby team that I played for and it’s where it all started.
“I love the contact and it’s really helping me grow as a player in terms of tackles and just a different version of our game. I’m definitely learning.”
Many of her teammates have returned to grassroots, some joining Sydney women’s fifteen competition, while others have joined clubs in Sydney Sevens action. For players like Evania Pelite, who’s been sidelined for nine months, the return to play has been given her something to smile about, while Manenti has noticed an obvious uplift in spirits around the squad.
“It’s been really good for the girls to play club footy in fifteens and sevens, just to put themselves in with a different bunch of girls, different environment, actually play games.
“It’s been great, not just for the girls, but also for the competition standards, and it’s been so great to watch the Sydney competition improve remarkably. So it’s two-fold, we’re helping the competition and the competition’s helping us by giving us footy and exposure.
“At the end of the day, I have to keep in mind they’re professional athletes, but they’re competitors too and they just want to play and compete and do both what their job is, but also what their love is too. There’s definitely been a real change in their mood and a real uplift since they started playing over the last few weeks.”