Lizzy Watson already knew she loved the team aspect of netball. She was even more certain about how much she has always adored simply playing the game.
But as season-killing foot surgery has left the champion Vixens’ midcourter at home enduring a first Melbourne winter without netball since she was an 11-year-old playing for Park Panthers, there is something she has been forced to learn.
“I’ve learnt that I’ve really got to trust that this is the right thing to do, and trust that my body’s healing, and give it the time and space it needs to do that,’’ says Watson.
“When I saw the surgeon (last week) he said ‘it’s still another eight weeks til you can run and jump’, I was like ‘what?’. I didn’t even think of that. Like, ‘I can’t run straight away?’.
“So I think it’s seeing the bigger picture. There’s so much netball happening next year and the year after and so much more I want to do, so I have to do this right - now. So I’ve learnt to slow down a little bit, and do all those little rehab exercises that I’ve always hated, which take forever. But that’s part of it.’’
Watson had her bags packed for the Vixens’ pre-season trip to Sydney in late March when, at around 8.30pm on the eve of the team’s departure, she received the call she had been dreading regarding the right foot injury that had deteriorated since she twisted her ankle in round 11 of Suncorp Super Netball in the Queensland hub last year.
It was from physiotherapist Steve Hawkins, who had just finished talking to Watson’s surgeon. Both health professionals agreed she would need to stay behind for an appointment the following day, when the need for an operation to repair a navicular bone that had snapped in two was likely to be confirmed.
“So for me it was a bit of a shock, because we didn’t think we’d be going down the surgery path - we’d been able to manage it for so long,'' she says. "But the surgeon was so clear. He said ‘you might be able to push on for a little bit, but there’s no point - you can’t even walk properly now, so forget playing netball for the year, let alone the next three or four years.
“But then he put it in perspective: you won’t be able to walk, the bone will die eventually, and then we’ve gotta fuse your whole ankle together’. So it was kind of a no-brainer.’’
It was also a huge setback for the Vixens, whose premiership defence was already starting with a new-look attack end, following the retirements of veteran shooters Tegan Philip and Caity Thwaites.
The good personal news is that not only is Watson’s recovery on schedule - not least due to daily sessions of three-hours-plus in the VIS gym - but she is happy to report that the rate of healing from a notoriously unpredictable condition has pleasantly surprised the medicos.
The 27-year-old has moved from two months on crutches, supplemented by a knee scooter she used to zip around the Vixens’ training court, to a moon boot she will discard within days. Being able to drive a car again will bring some welcome independence, and the next seven weeks before her final scan are all about building strength without impact.
So that’s the physical bit. The mental side of any recovery is critical, too, and hence her decision to zip up to Byron Bay for a short break - a decision backed by the VIS and Vixens’ physical preparation coach John Tascone.
“Everyone has big ups and downs when they rehab, and every rehab has setbacks that inevitably come, so one of the things Steve and myself spoke to Liz about was ‘find periods in the next 6-9 months where you go away, regardless of how your rehab’s going, and have a holiday’.
“It’s massively mentally draining, so for her to step away for her to have a bit of time to mentally reset is just as important as her doing the actual exercises in the gym. And I would say it to everyone but I very much mean it about Liz: she’s very much a professional when it comes to her training, and she has approached her rehab as professionally as anyone could.’’
Otherwise, a valued member of the leadership group is doing what she can from afar; in constant touch via “WhatsApp, Snapchat, Facebook, everything”, providing feedback for coach Simone McKinnis and trying not to feel too envious seeing photos of her teammates on Mooloolaba beach.
Watson admits a 1-6 record has made for painful viewing at times. “It has been tough. I think it’s more when I know that they are struggling a little bit, and with the uncertainty of leaving, and all those disruptions and things like that,’’ she says
“It’s been difficult feeling like I can’t contribute as much as I want to - which is on-court, really, but I have to get my head around that and contribute in other ways. So just communicating with the girls. Morale. Just checking in on them.
“I know Kate’s the type of person who loves to make sure everyone else is OK, so it's making sure she’s OK, as well, and the leadership group’s OK. Being part of conversations with Simone over the selection of the team, or the training, or whatever it is, but I think it is tricky when they’re away. It’s more those incidental conversations that we all have.’’
The current plan is for the Vixens to return home directly from Sunday’s game against the flag favourites, the Fever, in Perth, for an overdue reunion with their families as well as those not in the current travelling party of 11 players and seven staff left from the group that headed north in such a hurry on 26 May.
Watson has been using her unfamiliar spare time to continue her Deakin University teaching degree, doing some things around the house; forced to adjust to this odd new life without netball, while staying as close as she is able from afar.
“I feel weird on a Friday night, thinking ‘oh, I don’t actually have anything on this weekend, this is strange!’,’’ laughs Watson, who misses group training in the gym, chatting and joking with her friends/teammates. “But then I think overall I just miss playing the actual game. That’s always been my favourite part of netball is just playing the game. Game day. I love training, but games are just the best.’’
And if watching has been a wrench occasionally, when all Watson wants to do is get out there and help by doing what she does best, she has glimpsed a little blue sky on her team’s horizon.
“I know how Vixens hate losing... and especially coming off last year, they’re definitely not used to that experience. So I feel for them, and it is hard when you’re away from family and friends and you can’t really get that full escape or release from netball.’’ she says.
"Being in an environment when you’re not winning, you do pick on little things, and little things become bigger things, so I think the bye weekend has come at a good time for them, to really help them rest and then go again.’’
Written by Linda Pearce