Kathryn Turner: “I almost quit, but my netball family kept me going”
Sitting courtside, so close you can see the beads of sweat as the wing attack fires a feed into the shooter; you’re so close you can feel the sting of the fingers as the goal keeper swoops in and intercepts a pass to hand the momentum back to your team.
But you’re not a fan, you’re not enjoying every second of this pulsating goal-for-goal game. Because you’re a player watching on from the bench, desperate to be on court, thinking of shooting the winning goal, making that cross-court pass.
Kathryn Turner, Manchester Thunder’s starting goal attack, knows this feeling well.
Arguably the Superleague’s best player in her position for the last three seasons (an actual fact in 2017 as she was named in the league’s All Star IIV) it hasn’t exactly been easy street for the now 25-year-old to get to where she is now.
Her big breakthrough came 10 years ago, aged just 15, when she got the nod from her then-coach Mike Greenwood to be ready to play. It was a live Sky TV game, no biggy, then, especially for a player we now associate as composed, consistent and controlled.
“It was one of the most daunting scenarios it could have been as I just got thrown on,” says Turner as she thinks back to how it felt to make her Black and Yellows debut.
It’s impossible to ignore the significance of such an achievement. Being handed your first appearance at senior level just didn’t happen so young back then, it’s not even that common in 2018 for a player so inexperienced to play in the Superleague.
Tyically modest Turner continues: “I think it went alright, the commentators said some really nice things.
“I was still young though – you don’t really see it that much now, especially the way players develop.
“I was at Oldham when they started to take me a little bit more seriously.
“I won the title with the (Thunder) juniors so there was a crossover (to the seniors). I was lucky as Mike was willing to give me a chance.”
Watching from the sidelines
As a result, native Liverpudlian Turner got a good run in the side, but then things changed.
As quickly as the opportunity came and her dream was realised, Turner was soon watching from the sidelines, with no idea when her services would be called upon again.
Coupled with the tragic death of the coach who showed so much faith in her – Mike Greenwood – and the arrival of several talented players – Beth Cobden, Sara Bayman and, most notably, Helen Housby – competition for places at Thunder became much more intense.
“Everything was different when Mike died. Tracey Neville was a great coach, she came in and she saw something in Helen and wanted to push her on,” Turner explains.
“She always knew in the back of her mind that even though I was in the England set-up at the time, that I never really wanted to do that long term, as my heart wasn’t in it.
“I knew if I wanted to go down that path of netball being more of a career, that it’s not a long-term thing and there’s no future after it – well, I didn’t believe there was for me.
“I’ve always been focused on going to university and getting a career and a job.
“Maybe I’ve been punished for that, but it is what it is. Look where England are now.”
‘Why am I not playing?’
Despite losing her place to the player, who turned out to be the nation’s hero after scoring the winning goal to secure a first-ever Commonwealth Games gold for the Roses, Turner was never bitter – or jealous.
“We were still friends, it was nothing personal,” she says of Housby, who now plays for NSW Swifts in the Australian Suncorp Super Netball league.
“People could think that but it wasn’t like that.
“I’ve always said I don’t mind sitting on the bench if someone on court deserves to be there, or if they are playing well.
“It’s only if they were on court and not playing as well, that’s when it was frustrating as I’d be thinking ‘why am I not getting the playing time?’”
Left out of the starting seven and court time seriously limited for three seasons, give or take, it started to take its toll and frustration was difficult to suppress for Turner.
This was especially the case, as with any squad member in any sport, as Turner was still expected at training, to travel the 10-hour round trip to an away game, with the knowledge she probably won’t play at all.
Unlike football Premier League squad players, Turner was not still getting paid hundreds of thousands to turn up to training and not play at the weekend. She was spending hours on the m62 travelling to weights sessions, valuable time away from family and friends.
She said: “That was really getting to me and I had Tom (her husband and childhood sweetheart) at home and I had to sacrifice my time with him.
“He was supportive and never put pressure on. He just wanted me to be happy.”
Turner could have, quite understandably, walked away.
But netball was more than just a game to Turner, it was her extended family and she wasn’t done yet.
It had been a stuttering start, but that’s not how she wanted her Thunder journey to end.
“It didn’t turn out how I wanted it to, those two or three seasons. I always really felt the pressure when I got a chance to play,” she explains.
“I kept saying to myself ‘just bide your time, you’ll get an opportunity and when you do, show what I can do’.”
Yet she was still finding herself in tears on the way home from training, was it really worth it?
“There were a few times I almost quit – it was mainly due to not playing and not understanding why,” Turner admits.
“I’d go on and play well and then the next game it would revert back to how it was before.
“And that was difficult. I felt like if you play well, you should get rewarded for it.
“It was really hard, doing the coach journeys for hours and knowing I wasn’t going to play.”
Dr Josephine Perry, a Sport Psychology consultant, has done extensive research on how a player can stay motivated, while injured or not playing, and she counts remaining socially engaged with club activities as a key component.
But Turner was not injured, she was fully fit and shooting well in practice.
However, this theory is still relevant to Turner’s plight, and she positively glows when she addresses the unbreakable bond she has formed with her team-mates, some of them she has known for over a decade.
“All of my friends are there (at Thunder) and that was a massive reason for me to stay around,” she smiles.
“I was still enjoying it, even though I wasn’t getting on court.
“We have to have that bond – those girls, they’re my best friends, friends for life.
“We see each other so often we’ll never lose that connection
“I tried to take a step back and think, ‘I’ve been doing this for so long do I really want to just walk away from it all?’ It’s become a big part of my life.”
Jason Simmons, who specialises in hypnosis to help people with a range of issues from PTSD, quitting smoking, gaining confidence & motivation to mentally getting over a sports injury says Turner has a natural ‘winning formula’ as an athlete.
He says that Turner’s ability to remain motivated is due to her possessing the five ‘Cs’ – concentration, confidence, commitment, courage and control.
Simmons said: “It’s clear from Kathryn’s success that she possesses all of these qualities which have formed her winning formula.”
So, clearly having fun off court and keeping fit, was all well and good, but it wasn’t enough and Turner still needed to play.
Then Housby’s unexpected departure Down Under left Turner as the only specialised goal attack in the squad.
Her patience and persistence was about to pay off, and she was to blossom into one of the most valuable – and undroppable – members of the squad.
“I wasn’t expecting Helen to leave,” she remembers.
“But I’m glad I stuck it out and came through the other side, all those years of hard work have paid off and showed what I can do and I have the experience now from playing every game.”
Then comes the most remarkable admission, which shows the level of Turner’s maturity, self-awareness and mental strength.
“I am a better player for having that time out.”
Instead of wallowing in her misfortune, Turner has used it to fuel her performances.
Turner is settled and happy and playing for a coach in Karen Greig, who knows how to get the best out of her game.
“I do think last couple of years I have the added confidence, so my form is the best it’s ever been.
“It brought back the belief in me and I’ve been playing my best netball because I’m happy.”
“Karen knows what motivates me and she’s very understanding, so that makes me want to perform for her as well.”
Not having direct competition for her starting place comes with added pressure.
Turner is expected to perform for all four quarters, a full 60 minutes of top-quality netball.
“It is mentally tiring knowing I have to perform for a full game, knowing that people do rely on me,” she admits
“There are definitely times where can feel myself in a game where I’m having a dip and it’s all about how you get out of it.”
Turner’s shooting partner Joyce Mvula has ‘stepped up her game’ this season, and as a result the pair have ‘clicked’ on court, freeing the former up to move outside of the circle and also release her signature long-shots.
She adds: “Joyce was on top form this year and I know if I have a little dip, she will have my back and pick it up.
“I have great support from Liana Leota, who is so experienced, and Caroline O’Hanlon, too.”
So Turner is settled. She’s all good for the starting seven, for now. But her experience in the sport has taught her not to be complacent and it also makes her the perfect candidate to understand – acutely – how young netballers coming through the pathway ranks feel.
Turner is content with the possibility of losing her place as she’s married now and at a stage in her life where she has a job and other priorities.
“There’s players on the team now that aren’t getting court time and feeling how I did a couple of years ago and I’ve said to them I know how they feel and you’ve just got to keep going,” she explains.
“I’ll always be there for people because I know how horrible it feels.”
“It’s harder in this country (not getting paid) it’s a massive commitment and you have to make a lot of sacrifices. Your heart has got to be in it. You’ve got to want to be here
“We’re a squad of 12 and with the training partners, too, they all play their part. It’s not just about the seven on court.”
So, if you’re a 12-year-old netballer shooting 100s of shots a night in your back garden to perfect your technique, dreaming of scoring the winning goal in the World Cup final. Keep dreaming, keep scoring and keep going.
Kathryn Turner was you. She is the epitome of an athlete who had it all, had it taken away and then battled to get it back. Now she is at the top of her game; and loving it.