Phoenix rises from tough blow to lead the Mystics
After four long weeks stuck court-side with concussion, Northern Mystics captain Phoenix Karaka is back on the netball court.
At first, Karaka’s collision during a match against the Magic didn’t seem alarming.
She managed to get back up after hitting her head on the wooden court, and carried on playing through the last quarter. At the time, 25-year-old Karaka felt like being sick but it wasn’t enough to raise concern with her coaches.
It wasn’t until after the game, when a migraine started, that the former Silver Ferns defender thought something could be wrong.
It then became obvious the damage was more severe when she couldn’t recollect the game correctly the following day.
“The doctor confirmed I was having signs of concussion. It’s quite scary because it’s a slow process and I felt relatively normal after falling,” Karaka says.
Concussion in rugby and league is well-known and covered extensively. Concussion in a supposed non-contact sport like netball, not so much.
In 2018, concussion accounted for 0.6 percent of netball’s ACC injury claims (compared to 42 percent for ankle injuries, and 20 percent knees).
With Silver Fern shooter Ameliaranne Ekenasio also spending time on the side-line on concussion watch earlier this year, is it time to look at how the game can be safer?
It’s something that Netball New Zealand are, in fact, doing. They’re currently developing a strategy called Be NetballSmart around concussion.
Netball administrators do not need to look very far for a decent model. The rugby codes immediately remove players from the field to undertake tests and implement a compulsory stand-down period as part of their concussion protocol.
As frustrating as the last month has been, Karaka says her first season captaining the young Auckland side has been rewarding. The extra responsibility has felt seamless.
“I was really excited when it was announced because it’s my first time captaining a side,” she says. “Despite the results, the team have made my role a lot easier.”
After 14 games this season, the Mystics have had just three wins. But they have shown improvement as the season has gone on.
“We’re trying to build an environment where it’s a collective effort to keep the team running, so I’m fortunate they are supportive and able to motivate each other,” Karaka says.
“I feel like a sign of good leadership is when people are confident enough to step up when you’re not around.”
That’s certainly been the case with the Mystics, as the team continued to improve while Karaka was out.
Off the court, Karaka is surrounded by sporting heroes to bounce her ideas off. Her long-time partner is All Black lock and Auckland Blues co-captain Patrick Tuipulotu.
“Pat’s leadership style is calming. He usually only speaks when he needs to,” Karaka says. “Whereas I’m a little more vocal, in terms of making sure the team are all on the same page.
“My mum, Christine Papali’i, also played rugby and was part of the very first Black Ferns team, which is really cool and something I’m super proud of.”
As an only child, Karaka understands there is a fine line between doing everything for the team and encouraging them to take opportunities to learn for themselves.
"I feel like people learn new skills and grow when they're given the space to practise them. So I'm conscious of how I communicate that to the team without sounding like I don't care," she says.
“The most important thing for me as captain is making sure I help grow the people around me. It’s making sure I’m connected with the players, especially the younger ones, constantly letting them know they’re good enough to be here and always trying to share insights from my own experiences.”
Karaka has experienced a fair bit on and off the court since coming into the elite netball environment straight out of high school at Auckland Girls Grammar - snapped up by the Steel in 2013. They are experiences that have shaped her into the person she is today.
“I wasn’t always this confident in myself,” she admits. “I’m still learning, but my confidence has definitely grown through my career. I’m not scared anymore to ask questions or have difficult conversations when I need to, so I feel like I’ve grown in that sense.”
Her self-belief is not the only area of growth.
“I think being in a leadership role has helped my game, too. Having to be the person people turn to has made me think more about how I can add to the team. I’ve always thought like that, but when you’re the captain, it’s at the forefront even more - it’s just different.”
Karaka understands she’s not the only one who has something to offer - it’s a two-way street. She firmly believes the team can learn as much from the younger players as they can from the senior players.
“Seeing the young girls in the gym is amazing. Their energy and professionalism is infectious and reminds me to keep developing my game,” she says.
“They’ve taught me to push limits and embrace my failures. Instead of shying away from them, I’m now picking them apart and seeing how I can be better next time so I reach and exceed my goals.”
So, is a return to the Silver Ferns a goal for Karaka?
She says she would definitely welcome the opportunity to represent New Zealand again, after playing 19 tests from her debut in 2014. She was dropped from the Ferns before last year's Commonwealth Games.
“I feel like I’m at a different place. I have confidence in what I’m capable of doing and controlling,” Karaka says.
“But, first and foremost, I’m focused on the franchise. If I contribute to the team here and work on my whole game, then I’ll be putting my best foot forward for higher honours.”
Her caring nature and willingness to help others are ideal traits for coaching.
“I’ve coached kids’ teams before, but it’s not really an area I’ve thought about pursuing after my playing days,” she says.
For now though, Karaka is happy to be back on court, leading her team for the last game of the ANZ Premiership season – a home game next Monday against league leaders, the Pulse.
Beyond netball, her future looks bright. Transferring her skills into a new part-time role as a psychiatric assessor at the Mason Clinic is fitting - as she’ll be able to continue helping others around her.