Mikki Austin discusses facing a new normal and the intricacies of Vitality Netball Superleague
"It’s a really weird feeling when your whole life is the sport, you wonder what your identity is now? What is it that I do?"
By Hannah Wilkes and Emma Thurston
Last Updated: 05/06/20 11:53am
"This will be the longest time period that I’ve been out of netball since I started playing when I was 13-years-old, and I know I’m not the only one who is going to experience that..."
Mikki Austin is coming to terms with her immediate future not having competitive netball in it, something she's not experienced before in her adult life.
Surrey Storm's director of netball, head coach and mid-court player will not be taking to court with her franchise any time soon and instead must continue to process a significant part of her life not being present.
Austin is not alone in doing this, instead a league full of players, coaches and volunteers will be thinking about how they cope without the support of the sport they love.
Unless an autumn short-form competition is developed by England Netball, Austin and her fellow Superleague players will not be taking to an elite court for a competitive domestic match (which counts towards league standings) until 2021.
The final decision that the 2020 season was cancelled arrived on May 27 and like so many, Austin felt a range of emotions at seeing it spelled out in black and white.
"It's been a really weird feeling, Ever since the country went into lockdown, I felt like what was going to happen in terms of an actual outcome [to the season], was the really big elephant in the room," Austin said to Sky Sports.
"We always knew that [a full season cancellation] was an option, but to finally have it confirmed was a really sobering moment. You just thought 'gosh, what happens now?'
This will be the longest time period that I've been out of netball since I started playing when I was 13-years-old, and I know I'm not the only one who is going to experience that. It's a really weird feeling, when your whole life is the sport, you wonder what your identity is now. What is it that I do?
The VNSL was first paused on March 15, with Storm playing in one of the two matches which were completed of Round Four. It was initally paused until at least April 30 before the suspension was extended until May 31.
Throughout the pause, meetings were held between England Netball, the Vitality Netball Superleague board and all 10 franchises about the possible pathways forwards.
As a franchise, Storm "weren't pushing for a certain outcome" Austin said, instead were just looking for the "right thing to do" in the current climate.
"One of the biggest challenges in the last two months, when it came to what we do next, was due to the fact that all of the franchises operate independently and almost by different sets of rules," Austin shared.
"That means that they're implicated in completely different ways.
"It was an impossible decision for the governing bodies of netball to make in terms of England Netball and Vitality Netball Superleague, because there wasn't a one-size fits all solution to this.
"Everybody operates differently [currently] so what would be a great outcome for us as a franchise would negatively affect four others. Then, what would have been a positive outcome for them would have negatively affected others."
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The differences which Austin refers to, relate to all manner of areas and include the way in which franchises are funded and how they are supported.
The competition currently houses university-based franchises, standalone entities and those which are linked to other sporting organisations. Standardisation, per se, isn't something that's occured but it's something Austin believes could be useful in the future.
"I think going forwards it would absolutely help if there was some way to standardise franchises' operations to a degree, so that there was a little bit of a level playing field.
"Then, at least some of the factors which were up in the air, would have been easier because of things being standardised and we would have just had to decide on others.
"That would be 100 per cent the way to go, maybe because of [the season being cancelled], it will be more at the forefront of the conversation."
England Netball's CEO, Fran Connolly, said recently on Sky Sports' Off The Court that the VNSL will be the vehicle towards the professionalisation of netball in England.
Storm's director of netball believes that turning fully professional is on the cards for the sport in England, but that it might be further away than many might like it to be.
"To be honest before COVID-19, I'd have sat here and said that I think we're probably seven to 10 years away from [being full professionalised]," Austin reflected.
"I do think that it's in our playing future, or in the next generations' future and I don't think that it's a million miles away, but I do think it's potentially further away than a two-to-five-year timescale, which potentially people would hope for.
"Maybe, this will push the conversation along. Who knows? Out of something bad could come something amazingly good and this could be the catalyst which makes everybody take notice of our sport, and the number of followers and the amount of backing we have for it? Let's hope that is the case..."
For now, Austin is deciphering just how life is going to look for her, and for her playing group, without competitive netball in its immediate future.
On a personal level that means holding onto her own training in order to tackle a period of time without something,. that in many respects, helps to define her as a person.
"Training is the only thing that I have control over. Everything else is such an unknown and has question marks next to it; no one really knows what's going to happen here or there, or about timelines or specifics.
"So the training part of it, is the only thing that I can grab control of wholeheartedly and throw myself into," she said.
"Right now, in terms of mental health and the prevalence of that conversation, it's so important for me to keep training to give me some form of escapism from life and the wider implications of what's going on in the world.
"If you're an athlete and like me, I'm someone who is a very routine-orientated person. I love a schedule and I love knowing exactly where it needs to be and trying to keep my weeks as samey as possible.
"This time period can be demotivating, and it can seem like getting back to some form of normality is such a long time away… but there are so many netballers and athletes who are pushing out content in this time period. Content that people can get involved in, to not lose hope and faith.
"Netball will return at some point, in some capacity, and when it does it's our job to be ready for that moment and for everyone to get behind it as much as possible. We know that our netball community will because they're superb."