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'I struggle with performance anxiety. I've had to face my fears': Katelyn Vahaakolo on her breakthrough season

By Rikki Swannell
DUNEDIN, NEW ZEALAND - OCTOBER 28: Katelyn Vaha'akolo of New Zealand performs the haka during the WXV1 match between New Zealand Black Ferns and Wales at Forsyth Barr Stadium on October 28, 2023 in Dunedin, New Zealand. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

There’s an unapologetic energy to Katelyn Vahaakolo. She is who she is, and doesn’t mind you knowing it.

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She describes herself as crazy and passionate but also empathetic and encouraging. She’s a social media star with an exuberant personality….and as it turns out, she’s one heck of a rugby player.

Just try telling Vahaakolo. herself that last part.

“When I was told I was breakthrough player of the year I was genuinely really shocked because I didn’t think I did that amazing, so it shows how hard I am on myself.”

That’s World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year, awarded to Vahaakolo. in November after her first year in the Black Ferns and just three years after she first started dabbling in the game.

After playing netball right through high school, Vahaakolo. was convinced to give rugby league and, shortly after, rugby union a go in 2020. She picked up a contract with the Newcastle Knights in the NRLW in 2021, turned out for the Auckland Storm in rugby’s Farah Palmer Cup, played for the Maori All Stars and then Kiwi Ferns at the 2022 Rugby League World Cup before the Blues, New Zealand Rugby and a fulltime contract came calling.

She took the 2023 season in New Zealand by storm, standing out in a Blues team which had a disappointing Super Rugby Aupiki competition before earning her first Black Ferns selection on the wing in the 50-nil win over Australia in Brisbane. Vaha’akolo went on to play another five tests in 2023 including all three matches in WXV and scored five tries in her debut season.

Despite her whirlwind success, Vahaakolo says she’s grappled with a lot of self-doubt, hence her total shock at winning the World Rugby award.

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“I’ve been trying to work on my confidence because I feel like I am capable of performing to a level that’s really amazing but I personally didn’t think that I got to that level. I think I’m very hard on myself and put a lot of pressure on myself when no one else, not coaches or team-mates, was putting any pressure on me.”

Vahaakolo has talked openly about the mental health struggles she’s had throughout her teenage years and into adulthood. Rather than having specific steps in place to deal with it, she believes simply playing, training and being in environments like the Black Ferns, Blues or Auckland performance hub helps to stay on top of things. That said, the step up into top-level international sport has meant delving into the mental side of high performance.

“I’ve had to have a lot of uncomfortable sit downs with our mental skills coach to go over things because I really struggle with performance anxiety. I’ve had to honestly face a lot of my fears and face a lot of the feelings I probably was trying to avoid because I didn’t believe in myself, so I’ve had to learn to be really uncomfortable and be okay with being uncomfortable feeling those things.”

As well as battling performance anxiety she’s also had to learn the intricacies of what can at times be an extremely complicated game, despite having her brother Freedom, who’s played Super Rugby, to call upon. Black Ferns stars Portia Woodman and Kayla Ahki (nee McAlister) are two of the most famous netball players who’ve made a successful switch while many other New Zealand women have a similar background to Vahaakolo. Netball players bring great agility and fabulous handling ability to rugby but she’s had to learn quickly.

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“Having good game awareness and game vision is such an important skill in rugby, something that I’m still learning. Especially when you’re talking about the top level, like best in the world level you have to be aware and have really good knowledge around the game, it’s not just about tackling and running fast,” she laughs. “I think before I joined the Black Ferns I just got to run with the ball but there’s so much more to it.”

Vahaakolo, who is of Maori and Tongan descent and a proud Te Reo speaker, is part of a strong group of young Maori and Pacific Island players coming through the Auckland performance hub headed by the great Anna Richards. Vaha’akolo says players like Maiakawanakaulani Roos, Patricia Maliepo and Liana Mikaele-Tu’u have been huge supporters in helping her adapt so quickly while she’s also figured out that keeping things simple is what works best.

“If I practice the skill or the thing that we’re doing that’s putting me under pressure so many times during training, when it comes to a game, I already consciously know what I’m going to do in that pressure situation. Practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect but it does make permanent, so that repetition and what I practice is what I’m going to do,” she says.

She laughs that it has been suggested to her that she’s a little more careful about what she says in interviews, the 23-year-old Vahaakolo is refreshingly honest and thoughtful, taking time to ponder questions and what she wants to say without overthinking any of it.

“I think there’s a stigma around female sport where we have to be humble but I think it’s actually okay to be really confident. I think in the women’s game at the best level you need to have an arrogance when you play.”

2023 may have been a rapid ascent, but with eyes set firmly on being part of the Black Ferns squad for the 2025 World Cup, Vahaakolo goes into this year with a clearer understanding of what makes her tick as a rugby player and how to get the best out of herself.

“The biggest thing that I’ve learned is that everyone around me can believe in me but if I don’t believe in myself I’m not going to be able to perform the way I want, to be able to play freely the way that I would like to,” she reflects.

There’s an innate drive to Vahaakolo. that belies the fun-filled personality. Don’t be fooled by the quirky, often hilarious persona she presents. Although that is exactly who she is, underneath it there’s a drive to be the best.

“I’m really competitive,” she says “I want to say something inspirational, but I just want to be better than everyone. I’m so hungry and I genuinely believe that one day I can be the best.”

If what we’ve seen so far from Katelyn Vahaakolo is anything to go by, she won’t need to come up with inspirational words. She’s a force of nature with the ability to back it up and the drive to reach her goal of being the best. You wouldn’t bet against her.

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Pecos 178 days ago

Yes, looked like fish out of water in her early tests. Increasing her rugby IQ is a priority or she’ll just get eaten alive. Has all the goods to be a legend.

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