Updated: Dec 20, 2020
Ama Agbeze is an English netball player who holds more than 100 caps for her country, she is also a MBE for her services to netball. She captained the England team to their historic Commonwealth Games gold medal in 2018, upsetting the traditional dominance of Australia and New Zealand. An event she highlights as her proudest achievement on the court.
I came to know Ama as I have been her strength and conditioning (S&C) coach this last year through my role as the lead S&C coach for the London Pulse netball team who play in the Vitality Netball Superleague.
While we trained we often talked about her experience of S&C, sports science and high performance training environments which she has experienced in 3 different countries. After finishing the season, which coincided with the launch of Performance Ready, I decided to interview her about some of these experiences as I thought these may be valuable for aspiring athletes and those with an interest in S&C, athletic development and performance related fields.
"It took me a quite long time to realise that I need to do more than just play the game"
Ama first started S&C when she was selected into the England U17 programme at 15 years old, but reflecting back to this time felt perhaps she needed to do more.
“It is difficult to be a young person who is naturally gifted because I just thought you can go around and do everything, but as I got older people started to be on par with me and it took me quite a long time to realise that I need to do more than just play the game. I need to get fit, actual proper fitness and eat the right things and all those things around it (netball).”
Ama’s reflections here are typical of many of the elite athletes I have worked with. During the early stages of their careers many have found themselves in performance environments because they are immensely talented, or have worked hard at the sport itself, but not necessarily their physical condition. This can leave athletes unable to handle the demands of training and competition at this new level. The risk is that this can lead to injury, poor performance, too long an apprenticeship in the senior team and dropping out of the sport. Reinforcing this point Ama said:
“I think its fortunate that I have managed to stay in the game and carry on, but I didn’t have the tools (early on) that I needed to succeed later on. So if you can learn those things early, you’ll have more opportunity and longevity in the game.”
Ama’s point about longevity is really key here. Most people appreciate S&C for its performance benefits. For example increasing your power to jump higher or improving your speed to out-run an opponent. However the principle benefit of an S&C programme is in how it builds an athlete's physical resilience to tolerate the overall demands of training and competition. Ama explains this really well:
“Training isn’t just about improving your speed it's more about getting your body to perform at the highest level. Its really difficult to batter your body day in day out. You are actually just training to make sure your body doesn’t break down when you push it to its limit.”
"I know I need to do it, so it’s just how can I make myself"
Despite Ama’s clear understanding of how S&C is critical for her overall preparation, it is interesting to understand the relationship she has with S&C which isn’t necessarily what you expect.
“People think that if you are an elite athlete, you love training and that’s all you want to do when you wake up in the morning and think oh my God how many times can I train today, and I’m not definitely not that type of person. I understand that I need to train but what I like to do is play netball.”
“My logical brain says that I need to train and do conditioning. It is almost more important than the netball. I think once you have your basic skills in the sport, it is everything else around it that gets you to be successful…. I know I need to do it, so it’s just how can I make myself.”
What Ama is saying here is again typical for many of the elite athletes I have worked with. Not everyone lives for the super hard conditioning sessions (although some do), but the most successful athletes always find a way to do what is required. Perhaps if you are an aspiring athlete who feels the same, it may be good to know there are many others like you at the top of their game. Ama highlights that the important thing is to recognise what is important for you, and then to make sure you get it done, whether you like it or not.
Something that has helped Ama are simple things like arranging to train with team mates, or with a coach, which for her meant she felt she had to turn up and couldn’t quit during the session as she didn’t want to let them down. “I feel a sense of responsibility to the person I am training with.”
Injury is an opportunity
Netballers compared to athletes in other sports suffer a relatively high number of serious ankle and knee injuries. This is in most part due to jump landings and the two step rule which involves abrupt decelerations. Ama has suffered several serious injuries herself and I asked her about these. The main thing she highlighted was the psychological side:
“I think being injured is a massive mental thing. It’s real difficult and isolating... you are on the side rehabbing while the team keeps training.
“You question if I am going to play again. If I can’t walk without pain, how am I going to play? Then at some point the pain hasn’t been there for a while and so hopefully you get there, but it’s not always a success story.”
As discussed previously the principal aim of S&C is to build the the athlete’s resilience to handle the demands of the sport. Unfortunately athletes often learn this the hard way and wait to get injured before really investing in their physical preparation. When I worked leading S&C for Team GB at their intensive rehabilitation centre we saw this all the time. Perhaps it is not surprising, since the reduction in injury risk through strength training can feel relatively intangible and there is a certain amount of trust you have to give to the process without seeing immediate results.
The positive in using injury to start your investment into strength training is summed up in a phrase we used when rehabilitating athletes on Team GB: “injury is an opportunity”. This meant that despite the downside of the injury, there was an opportunity to come back stronger and work on all the things you previously had not committed time to. Nevertheless, whilst this attitude represents a positive psychology around injury, I would certainly never advocate waiting for an injury before you start to strengthen your body.
"What you have done in training, leads to confidence in your play"
The last thing we discussed were Ama's thoughts on how physical preparation affects your performance on the court.
“What you have done in training, leads to confidence in your play. If I haven’t done fitness training... I play completely different to if I have done fitness training... its not about physically how I feel, its mentally. So I just know myself straight away. I don’t need to worry about that fitness because its sorted and I’m done. I’m just worrying about tactics and how I’m interacting with my teams mates.”
One of the important things to understand, is that your physical condition affects your decision-making. If you don’t feel fast enough to get the ball you won’t go for it. If you don't feel strong enough to change direction at speed, then your body won't let you. Like Ama said, if you are so tired all you can think about is staying on your feet, it will affect your tactical play and how you communicate with your team mates.
With all of Ama's experience there is loads more that I could have included in this article but perhaps I will save it for a follow up later on. Massive thanks to Ama for agreeing to do this and we both hope that if you are an aspiring young athlete or work in sport there is something here that you find useful.