Libby Birch

The Switch

Libby Birch
The Switch

Photo courtesy of Liz Vagg Photos

Growing up all I ever dreamed of was playing Netball for the Australian Diamonds. From the age of 14 through 17, while captaining Victorian state sides and Australian teams to gold medals, everything was 100 % on track. Netball is a harsh sport with so few opportunities. While still working relentlessly day after day on and off the court and feeling like I was getting closer to living the dream suddenly and without any notice, I hit a couple of major selection road blocks. Ones that opened my eyes a hell of a lot. At the 2015 Nationals, as captain, we won silver in a double extra time classic and from this tournament eight, not one or two, but eight of my team mates were picked in the Australian squad. That non selection also cost me my prestigious VIS scholarship and was one of the worst disappointments I’d ever had to deal with in my sporting career. During my reflection time I decided to overcome the devastating blow by training even harder than I had ever trained before, but my goal was to do this secretly and behind the scenes while no one was watching me. During that special fight back period of my life my netball grew and my club team won the Victorian netball league championship. Simultaneously I was age elevated to the under 21 state team where we won silver again in the closest of grand finals. Yet again the Australian team selection was unkind and this time I was truly heartbroken, beyond belief.

Photo courtesy of Maribyrnong College

Photo courtesy of Maribyrnong College

Early 2016, by chance and completely out of the blue during Victoria’s netball national's campaign, I had been contacted by football legend Daisy Pearce. She, on behalf of the AFL, was searching for cross code athletes and asked me to give footy a crack. At the time of her call I still had my sights set on the Diamonds dream and while flattered by the professional approach I put it firmly on the back burner to prioritise netball. Now looking back this special call eventually proved pivotal and after giving the 2016 national championships everything and playing in every game in the under 21 tournament I returned from Tasmania a broken  18 year old. Missing the cut for the second year in succession was a fate worse than death.

I could barely speak the first week, I was devastated. I knew I had to find a way forward and inch by inch I found the strength to re plot my elite pathway and my life. My first phone call was to Daisy. It was time to regain my fighting spirit again and trying something new and different was going to be the catalyst for that reset button.

Photo courtesy of Maribyrnong College

Photo courtesy of Maribyrnong College

In some way I needed a refresher. To this day I don't know how Daisy got my number but I feel extremely grateful and looking back it almost seems like fate played its part and now I just couldn't be happier. After reconnecting with Daisy she invited me along to one of VFL Powerhouse clubs Darebin's training sessions and I absolutely loved it. The players all made me feel very welcome and although I had never ever played AFL before I relished the opportunity to learn and enjoyed the challenge. I'll always remember that first session because I couldn't kick or bounce and I could barely handball. However I could quickly see that this was potentially my chance to be a dual athlete and so this is where my football journey began.

Netball was so ingrained in my brain that I had to retrain it from scratch. I had to work out what is best to keep and what is best to let go for the time being while I flooded my frontal
lobe with thousands of new biomechanical duties and pathways. This was not easy as the skill sets are so very different but after hours and hours of hard work I found that playing netball had provided me with some skills that crossed over. Uniquely over the pre-season and in the early stages of my AFLW career I've become quite accustomed to the similarities and differences across the two codes. One thing that has always set me apart is my fitness and conditioning.

Photo courtesy of Liz Vagg Photos

Photo courtesy of Liz Vagg Photos

I found out quite quickly that netball is mostly arms whereas in footy kicking accurately is everything. Kicking is the hardest skill I've ever had to learn. I have found it extremely challenging. I worked and worked and worked night and day during the VFL season and the AFLW pre-season to perfect the art. I've always been someone who loves a challenge so I made it my goal to improve on my kicking ability come week one of AFLW. Before I got drafted to the mighty bulldogs I had a mentor, Rob Carroll my old principal from Maribyrnong sports academy, who helped me hone my skills an hour a day. I'd also get to practice two hours early at the Bulldogs to work on my kicking. The girls would laugh at me. I was clocking five hours of footy a day. I needed that extra time to catch up to women who had been playing all of their lives and so I challenged myself to do it fast, smart and hard. When I first began I couldn't kick to a target to save my life but now I feel confident in hitting my team mate on the chest 9 out of 10 times. I still have a lot of work to do but spending hours every day kicking a ball until my hammy's feel like they are going to snap in half has done wonders. There is so much still to learn but I am up past the 75th percentile now and while it's always a juggling act between mental and physical exhaustion I am well on my way. Sometimes it's just a mind game. I have my strengths and I have to use those along with my new found skills. It’s easy to learn when being surrounded by very experienced footballers daily.

I recall my first training session leaping to catch the ball like I would in netball. There's a kind of netball hop and stop thing that you do on the court and I felt myself doing it in this instance but this time on grass. The Netball brain tells you to STOP and survey the options, and the rules of the game protect that, while the Football brain tells you to KEEP MOVING or you’re going to get tackled hard. In the early sessions I would constantly have to remind myself that once I caught the ball and remembered it was not netball that I had to quickly choose to run with this oval shaped pill or give it off otherwise I would be caught holding the ball. Even though the ball is completely different and can bounce in every direction, my catching and marking ball skills have been nicely transferred from Netball to Football.

So now when I've got the ball it's time to quickly look around. Netball brain LOOK SIDE AND FORWARD, football brain LOOK EVERYWHERE. It took me a while, and a couple of hits, to get used to the fact that I had the option to pass the ball behind me and that more often than not a teammate would be there. I'm training that part of my brain daily to become more '360'. This has involved constantly thinking you're being attacked from all angles and using the vision and instinctive wisdom to find the correct option.


You are NOT in any way protected when having the ball in footy which is the complete opposite to Netball. My Netball brain was always waiting for the CONTACT whistle in the early days while now my Football brain screams EVADE. This is where I feel I've carried across 4 core strengths from Netball. My leg speed has been really effective as I can get to many contests and more stoppages. I'm running 8.5km games at the moment. It allows me to evade opponents when I have the ball. My agility helps me jump up and spoil the ball in contests and again dodge opponents with or without the ball. I've had to adjust my fitness levels but netball has given me an incredible endurance base for the hard sprint work that I'm being put through in football. I'm definitely more of a running player on the footy field. I don't have the skills of a footy veteran so being able to use these skills effectively is essential in providing what I can for the team. Most importantly my hand skills are very sharp from netball and for that reason you will see me get the ball away fast with a lot of handballs to my teammates in tight situations.

When I first joined training at Darebin with Daisy the VFL season was already well under way and their team was so strong. They had not lost a game in years let alone a grand final. I was always concerned it would be difficult to break into the team but in order to improve you must challenge yourself against the best. After two weeks of training for the VFL season with Daisy it was time to play my first game in the VFL. I was thrilled to be selected but nobody had taught me how to tackle. I remember thinking 'yes, now this is a skill you don't get to practise much of on the netball court.' I had been through 7 years of 'non-contact' sport before being able to pull the pin on physical contact and do whatever I liked within the rules on the football field so it was incredibly exciting. It's now one part of the game I absolutely love. There were many times on the netball court I would've loved to tackle or bump someone but sadly I couldn't within the rules. I also remember my first time being tackled. I caught the ball and thought 'wow they are going to run at me, oh my god they are running at me, it's ok the umpire will call contact, oh wait no they won't.' I didn't know what to do. The first few minutes in my first qtr of that game I froze with the ball. It was so unusual for someone to come at me as I wasn't conditioned for that. My Netball brain was thinking what on earth is going on, while my football brain was yelling get rid of the ball. Every time I got tackled was a new experience.  On the other hand, it was quite satisfying to run and tackle someone to the ground. I went on to score a goal in that game and get the votes for best on ground. It was a massive buzz and that really gave me the taste for AFL. We went on to win the VFL premiership.

I've come to realise that Netball has a set culture, which is great, but the AFL Women's Competition is still developing and exploring in every way. It's new and has room to celebrate the exciting people we have in this brand new sport. I've felt really embraced by footy. It's been the best year. I've gotten back to loving playing sport. The list of opportunities that exist within this game are endless. The Darebin and Bulldogs team culture is strong and the professionalism within the AFL is incredible. It feels like players and administrators hold a lot of respect for everything that matters.

Photo courtesy of Liz Vagg Photos

Photo courtesy of Liz Vagg Photos

I am absolutely on top, riding this wave and couldn't be happier with this journey. Who knows where it will take me and I can't wait to find out! It's really special for me, our team and indeed all players but probably even more special for every little boy and girl following in our tracks ......stay tuned for the next episode. Go Doggies!

Dual sport athlete ✖️Western Bulldog #18 ✖️ANL Victorian Fury Squad🏐 Physiotherapy Latrobe📚 #anythingispossible

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