ANZ Premiership: Aussie netball captain Caitlin Bassett reveals how she copes with pressures of international sport

Caitlin Bassett is known among her friends as the "crazy animal lady".

"For me, animals are massive therapy." 

The deposed Australian netball captain admits her love of furry critters has helped save her from the mental burnout befalling more and more topline - particularly female - athletes during this COVID-19 era of international sport.

Since taking up residence at Mount Maunganui for an ANZ Premiership stint with the Waikato-Bay of Plenty Magic, the towering (1.96m) shooter has found a very special friend to help her through the challenges of being away from home.  

"I've just got a little rabbit that’s seven weeks old and gorgeous," she tells Newshub's Big Wraps podcast. "I'll just come home, sit and pat him, and tell him about my day.

"He doesn't answer back or tell me that I'm stupid - he's a sounding board for me. I know that sounds really weird, but there's something about animals that is so pure.

"They're always happy to see you, regardless of how poorly or how well you've performed."

Many of Bassett's peers on this side of the Tasman could use that distraction.

Silver Ferns counterpart Ameliaranne Ekenasio has taken "extended medical leave" from the national netball competition, just two weeks after revealing her ongoing battle with mental health issues.

Last month, White Ferns cricket captain Sophie Devine left her team mid-series against Australia, citing fatigue, while world champion lightweight rower Zoe McBride quit her Olympic dream, rather than continue her battle against the scales. 

Earlier this week, Paralympic star Sophie Pascoe admitted she almost retired during last year's extended coronavirus lockdown, as she questioned her future in the pool.

As one of the most high-profile female athletes in her country, the 32-year-old has been through many of those same struggles and insists the pressure is real.  

"When I took over the captaincy, I had this feeling that I had to be Superwoman," she tells Big Wraps. "I had to do everything, I had to be perfect, I had to be available for everyone every time and I had to make all these decisions at the flick of a switch.

"It took me a few months to realise it was really important to use the other people around me and that’s why my leadership group is really important.

"My leadership style is probably quite different to what most people realise - I'm just about empowering others. If you want to talk in the team huddle, I'm for that, because the more input we have from different people, the better our team’s going to be.

"I'm happy to put my neck on the line and make the final decision, and if things don't go well, own up and take that on my own head, but mainly I just want other people to feel empowered."

A strong support network has been key to Bassett's survival, especially over recent months, with her abilities and place in the national team undermined by rule changes in the Australian Super League.

Under new coach Stacey Marinkovich, her Diamonds captaincy has given way to a "rotating" leadership that saw Bassett effectively replaced midway through the recent Constellation Cup defeat by New Zealand.

"I obviously have my family in Australia and a partner who understands enough about netball, but not too much, so he doesn't try and give me feedback - he gets that.

"Over the years I've played, I've come to understand I need different things. Using a sports psych is not a negative thing - having someone to discuss tools and mental resilience isn’t necessarily a bad thing.    

"Learning from experiences, looking at other people's experiences and learning from them, asking questions of other elite athletes - they've all helped me function over the years.

"But yes, every now and then, I will slip."

While Bassett's threshold for suffering appears higher than most, the pressure of her role hit home particularly hard after the Diamonds suffered a massive upset defeat to England at the 2018 Commonwealth Games - under her captaincy.

"After we won silver - I won’t say 'lost' - I came off the court and had a bit of a mental breakdown," she recalls. "I just started crying uncontrollably.

"One of my teammates asked what was wrong and I said I felt like it was my job, at our home Comm Games, to deliver a gold medal, because we’d done it previously. I felt I'd let the team down.

"Sometimes, it's about showing your teammates you're not perfect, and showing them that, just like everyone else, I have times when I'm exhausted or don't know what to do… showing them your real self, that you're authentic and vulnerable."

Bassett credits former Diamonds coach Lisa Alexander with spearheading Netball Australia's wellbeing programme, which now sees trained specialists embedded within each club.

"That's really smart," she says. "Teams now understand that to get the best out of their players, you don't just do the work in the gym or on the training track to build your muscles - you actually have to build that big muscle in your skull as well.

"We have seen incredible athletes come and go too soon from sport, because they haven't been supported or understood from that mental side of things.

"I like to think athletes now have more access to speak up and say 'hey, I am actually tired', but sports also recognise the importance of giving players mental breaks.

"As seasons become more condensed and we have more international games and games are getting more high pressure and we want more sport on TV, it is actually taking a toll on athletes to produce these things."

Listen to the full interview on Big Wraps podcast