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On mental health, bullying and diversity: Q&A with WNBA star Liz Cambage
Liz Cambage's selection as an WNBA All-Star this year, reaffirmed her position in the top echelon of Australian women’s basketball talent.
Other than Lauren Jackson, Cambage is nearly peerless in the impact she has had on the game down under. Her achievements at the highest level reads like a shopping list.
She’s appeared in three WNBA All-Star games. In 2018, she led the league in scoring, and was selected on to the All-WNBA First Team. In 2011, she was the league MVP. In July last year, she set the WNBA single-game scoring record with a 53-point performance against the New York Liberty. Representing Australia, the 6-foot 8-inch centre has won an Olympic bronze, a World Cup silver, and a Commonwealth Games gold.
But for Cambage, an elite athlete who has been subjected to more scrutiny both on and off the court than most, life isn’t as glamorous as it may seem.
Mental health, happiness, and keeping things in check
Cambage has been open and upfront with the mental demons she has had to face throughout her years as a professional.
“I wasn’t very comfortable in primary school or high school,” Cambage shared. “That’s why I got into basketball, because I was being bullied and I was struggling to make friends, and I would come home crying every day, hating myself because people would treat me differently and I just couldn’t fit in.”
“I think, especially when I was younger and living overseas all alone, my mental health really did struggle.
“It’s been really tough growing up and learning to love myself, but I’ve finally got it now and I am very lucky to be me – I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Thankfully, awareness has grown around the severe impact that mental health can have on individuals, especially in elite sport. The avenues for getting help and speaking openly, have never been so accessible. She says that the advice of a coach she had when she was younger, was often what she leant on when times did get tough.
“When I was a teenager, I had a coach who would always tell us ‘happy healthy, healthy happy,” Cambage said. “If you’re feeling good, you’re happy, and when you’re happy and pretty healthy you feel good.”
“It’s all about looking after both your mental and physical health because they’re both a balance. If one’s lacking, it’s going to bring you down, so balance is everything.”
Having been through the darkest of times, she is now able to pass on advice to anyone who may be feeling the same, regardless of whether they play basketball or not.
“I think it’s important to find friends, or even a counsellor, someone you connect with and you can talk to,” Cambage believes.
“You need to find someone that can check on you to make sure you’re okay, it really helped me. But at the end of the day, if you’re feeling bad the best thing you can do is get professional help and see a counsellor.”
Cambage is a firm believer in the intimate relationship between physical and mental health.
"I’m a big believer that mental and physical health come hand in hand and affect each other. If you’re feeling down mentally, it’s going to show up on you physically and if you’re injured or struggling with something physically it’s going to weigh on your mind so taking care of your body mind and spirit has always been such a big part of my life and something I don’t take lightly.
"It’s hard as an athlete you can’t really take sick days, you can’t really be like “I need a mental health day” because you’ve probably got a game tomorrow so it’s about having the right support and the right people around you all the time."
Update: Liz Cambage released a piece earlier today on The Players' Tribune, titled: DNP - Mental Health.
I’d just competed in the Olympics with the Australian national team. We won bronze, but by our standards we’d failed. I’d failed. I’d failed my country, and everyone who was counting on me. I was only 20. Having to then carry that with me to the WNBA, into this new season when I wasn’t happy and didn’t feel supported….. with anxious feelings from my first season now rushing back to me all at once….. I panicked.
Literally — I had a panic attack on the plane.
On bullying and diversity
In every sense of the word, Cambage bucks the trend of the professional sportsperson. Rather than give delicately curated answers in press conferences, she is outspoken, fiercely defensive of those in her inner circle, and will actively call out that that she sees as wrong, unjust, or unfair.
"We live in a world where everyone is different in their own way and for such a long time society, especially in Australian society, has been projected as this very white-washed, very blonde hair, blue eyes and Bondi beach tan. I think I’m very lucky to be working with Bonds, especially in campaign that celebrates individuality and is so diverse."
Cambage spoke about how being different was a difficult process for her, growing up at home.
"I was bullied for a lot of things. Being coloured, being a head and shoulders above the rest always and for being different. It’s pretty hard but I feel like now the world is changing and we’re really embracing people for being different because we live in a world where what’s the point of looking like everyone else? I think it’s amazing to be different and diverse because that’s what life is. We see on social media all the clothes and it’s getting scary how girls all look the same and all want to be each other, so I love that we’re living in a world today where there are a lot of people trying to be diverse."
Her outspokenness has seen her attract criticism from groups who oppose someone that speaks their mind in a public setting, but perhaps more significantly, it’s a character trait that has thrust her firmly into the position as an icon in Australian basketball, particularly for young women.
"I still think Australia has a very whitewashed culture for a country that tries to claim to be multicultural. You turn on the tv and open a magazine, you don’t even need to open a magazine you just look at the cover of a magazine and there’s just no diversity whatsoever."
Her stand for equality goes beyond just being an athlete.
"At the end of the day, it’s not even about being an athlete. I stand for equality for everyone. There comes a limit, at the end of the day I don’t think I should be paid the same as LeBron James but there are things we can do better to look after female athletes.
"I always make a stand if its gay and lesbian rights, if it’s male-female equality, if it’s trans visibility, or able-bodied issues I’ll make a stand for everybody."
This fact saw her appear as the face of the Bonds ‘Get Real’ Campaign, encouraging a diversity of opinion, looks, feelings and life pursuits. Cambage says one of the most important things in life is to embrace being different from the norm.
“Bonds is a brand I grew up wearing, so being part of it now, in a campaign that’s so diverse, means a lot to me.
“I think I’m very lucky to be working with Bonds, especially in a campaign that celebrates individuality and encourages diversity.”
On healing and Mean Girls
Away from the basketball court, and the rigours that come with being an elite athlete, Cambage says reverting to the relative normality of life is key to the healing process.
"Eating good, sleeping in, getting vitamin D," Cambage says. "I’m living in Vegas in the desert right now but it’s just too hot to be sitting out all day. There’s just so much good vegan and plant-based food in Bali, it’s a very spiritual healing place when it comes to religion and the energy of the islands and the ocean.
"I’ve always grown up by the ocean. I lived in Coffs Harbour for my childhood and then on the Mornington Peninsula for my teenage years so being by the water is so important to me.
"It’s so special to grow up by the ocean, it’s the best way to grow up. I’m so lucky that I’ve spent my whole life by the ocean."
She also lauds one of the greatest movies ever made as her go-to favourite, when she needs a laugh.
“I love Mean Girls," Cambage said of the Tina Fey screenplay that spawned a sequel and Broadway musical production. "It is my go-to. It’s the best (movie) ever. I went through HBO the other night and Mean Girls was there and it’s all I can focus on, Mean Girls all the time,” Cambage said.
The teen comedy, which was released in 2004 and became a box office hit, revolves around high school life, especially the social politics around female cliques that exist.
Growth of the women’s game
There are currently more than 330,000 women basketballers registered in Australia.
With the hype around the NBL season reaching fever pitch, the launch of the newly-minted 3x3 format, and the highly successful WNBL season last year – that number is only going to grow at an exponential rate.
Indeed, one need only look at the highly popular ‘NBA 2K’ video game series as a means of illustrating this point.
In the NBA 2k20 iteration of the game, the WNBA is now totally playable as a format, with WNBA players given in-game player ratings and career modes. Whilst Cambage’s rating hasn’t yet been released, you’d be a brave punter to tip that she wouldn’t be at least within sneezing distance of stars Breanna Stewart (95 overall) and Candace Parker (93).
In any sport, icons are needed. People that the next generation can look up to, and aspire to become.
Cambage is as good as any to be the face of a movement. A basketball movement that will continue to grip Australia, and the many, many fans (even those yet to be discovered) that live within its shores.