Super Netball star Tilly McDonell on her positive body image

strong women

Super Netball star Tilly McDonell on her positive body image

Published May 2023 | 5 min read
Words by Lucy E Cousins

This dynamic defender is all about training for strength and speed, and keeping her mental discipline as sharp as her ball skills.

The most common theme on Super Netball player Matilda Tilly McDonell’s report card at school was “talks too much”.  She was taller, stronger and louder than her friends, she says, and that impacted how she acted around them.

“When I was at school, I would try and dial myself down,” she remembers. “All my friends were so much smaller than me, or just not as gregarious and loud, and I had this big personality.”

It wasn’t until she was around 16 at the end of high school that Tilly says she started to feel comfortable and confident in herself, despite playing all types of sport, including netball, for as long as she can remember.

“As I got older and more comfortable within myself, I got to this place where I felt, ‘Okay, it's really cool to be strong and tall, and be comfortable in my own skin’,” she says.

Training for a strong body image

A lot of that confident attitude, Tilly adds, has come from playing against and alongside so many amazing women in her sporting career so far. Though, she admits that when she first joined the GIANTS for the 2019 season, when she was just 18-years-old, she had a lot to learn.

“At the start, I felt very unsure of myself because I was an underdeveloped, awkward, gangly teenager, who’d never done a gym set in her life!” she remembers. “I was coming into that environment with these women who were so strong.”

Her first thought? “I've got work to do!” she recalls, laughing. And it’s that work ethic and eagerness to learn that has seen Tilly become one of the most dynamic defence players in Super Netball.

This year marks her five-year anniversary playing professional netball and, as a seasoned 23-year-old, she now feels protective over new players.

“We've got a lot of babies in our group as training partners and so I try to be in their corner [when it comes to body image], reminding them that everyone develops at different phases,” she says. “And also just trying to make them improve because they'll be playing next to me in a year or two, so that when we’re [on the court] together, it’ll be a great combo.”

If anyone knows what that kind of encouragement means, it’s Tilly. She still recalls the end of her first GIANTS match when veteran Melbourne Vixens and Australian Diamonds defender Jo Weston told her she’d played well. It filled her with confidence.

“That’s something I’ll always remember,” says Tilly. “I was like, ‘I'm this newbie in this huge netball system, and this legend knows my name!’ Awareness and appreciation for each other is really cool.”

Managing body image as an athlete

Another thing Tilly wished she had at age 18 was confidence in the way her body looks. Body image for her is something she says is “ever evolving”, but the changing face of netball has helped.

“The best thing about playing netball, and particularly as I've gotten older, is you literally do see every body type – tall, short, diverse – and even more so as the game matures,” she says. “It feels like there's a place for everyone. There's no one archetype to have to mould yourself into.”

And that’s a good thing, she says, as team training is all about performance, not aesthetics, something she's passionate about. 

“It's more about what gains you're making and how much better you're getting on the court, not about how you look,” she explains. “In our training, there’s an emphasis on being stronger, faster and fitter.”

Which is essential, Tilly says, to keep up with how the game and the players are progressing.

“You've just got to constantly be upping your ante, finding a physical or mental edge,” she says. “We've got a good mindset around it.”

One of the ways she keeps the focus on body strength and ability is having a limit on how much time she spends on social media. “You see other athletes or other women my age [on Instagram]. And I will start to think, why don't I have what they have? It’s so easy to do and also people who seemingly have it all, they also struggle with stuff like this. And they also compare. So I have a time limit on it, and a discipline of being aware of what serves me and what makes me feel good.”

While staying mentally disciplined and fierce helps Tilly on court, she says it’s the community kindness of the netball world that’s the real highlight for her.

“It's quite funny – on the court, everyone’s on there to win,” she explains. “But then after the game, you’re best mates again. Everyone just wants the best for everyone.”

Tilly and her teammate, Matisse Letherbarrow.

The importance of failure

Today, Tilly is well on her way to being considered a legend herself, having been described by her team as ‘one of the most exciting and passionate players in the game’. She’s been named UNSW Female Athlete of the Year twice, represented New South Wales and Australia as a teen, and has scored a starring role in the Super Netball league. Somehow, between training and games, she also finds time to study a degree in law and psychology.

“I just find ways to just make it work. We've got a really good wellbeing officer, Danielle Spitty, she's so supportive with my training. And with uni I just ask for an extension [if I’m pushed for time] and 99% of the time you can get that. That gives an extra week to get up to speed with the assignments. Also, I'm very conscious of the fact that getting good grades is enough. I felt like if I had to get a distinction average, I couldn't do it full-time.”

Not bad for the Sydneysider who gave up netball at age 16 when she wasn’t picked for the national junior team. Instead of seeing it as a setback, she would eventually use the time to her advantage with impressive results.

“That was probably my first real setback in netball and in life; I was the only one who didn't get picked from my team and I was so gutted,” she remembers. “But it was actually really good for me because it helped me focus more on school so I could take the pressure off my netball training.”

And it worked. Tilly was able to really enjoy her final two years in high school without the intensity of playing netball at a national level. As a result, she says, her netball game naturally improved. At the end of year 12, she was selected to play for the GIANTS. Now, she’s philosophical about the experience.

“I think life just goes on and you go with it,” she reflects. “You work hard and sometimes you get results and sometimes you don't. I just wish I had that kind of perspective and reflection at the time.”

Your team behind the team

As proud partners of netball, we want to thank the Team Behind the Team – the coaches, managers, club volunteers and parents – for going above and beyond each week to support the netball community. We also want you to feel supported in your health journey. That’s why we’ve created our women’s health hub – arm yourself with up-to-date health insights, information and inspiration for a strong body and mind. Guided by our network of trusted health partners and experts, we explore topics like endometriosis, fertility, mental health, fitness, pregnancy and menopause so you can find the support that's right for you.



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