ONE OF OUR ‘GREATEST’S
Written by Jennifer Hoar
She’s one of the biggest names in Australian ultimate.
Cat Phillips began playing way back in 2007 after being recruited by her older sister – and fellow legend – Michelle, who had just started playing at university.
“She loved it and she though that I would find it really fun too,” Cat recalls.
“From the first time I played it, I loved it.”
Cat, then in year 11, began training with the Melbourne University team, and before too long she found herself representing Australia, playing for Southern Terra in the under 19s.
She loves the “big, wide, open space that you can run around in”, but more than that, it was the community that hooked Cat Phillips.
Ultimate is self-refereed, even at international level, with players required to have a sound understanding of the rules and to resolve any violations between themselves.
Cat says she has learned a lot from the sport that applies to her life off the field, as well, including how to negotiate with people who have a different perspective.
Ultimate has also taught Cat to trust people’s intentions – even when they have a different perspective – and she says the world could take a lesson.
“It’s completely off-topic but looking at the way people argue about their political viewpoints, or about what they think about topics that are kind of relevant at the moment … the way people kind of go at it like us verse them all the time … ultimate is very much not like that,” she says.
“You’re appreciating people have different perspectives and then you’re working to get the best outcome for everyone.”
Not always easy
Cat Phillips has spent a long time in the upper echelons of our game, having first captained her country at under 19s level back in 2010.
But that doesn’t mean she hasn’t had her share of struggles.
Cat considers herself pretty lucky on the injury front and has never been out of action for more than five months.
But in the times she has been unable to play or train – she’s suffered a fractured sternum, torn ankle ligaments and broken fingers through AFLW – Cat found her mental wellbeing took a hit.
“I love training to get better but I also find training and being physically active really important to how I feel day-to-day,” she says.
“When I’ve had periods when I’ve had an injury, not only have I been isolated from the people that I love training with and my friends and teammates, but I also lose that part of my life that I just love, going running, and I love training.
“Being stressed or worried or, you know, ‘what if I can’t get back to where I was before? What if I keep getting injured?’ Negative thoughts like that and that’s one part of it.
“Although most of my motivation I think does come internally, there’s an element of knowing, you know, how other people view me as well and defining myself as an athlete I think is part of it, that that’s a core part of me and if I can’t do that then it’s something I have to kind of work through.”
Finding “other things to kind of fill that gap” when she can’t train has been a learning curve for Cat. It’s also made her a better leader and teammate.
“Experiencing that, kind of isolation to an extent, when I’ve gotten injured, and you kind of have to step back from your network, it’s made me a lot more empathetic when that happens to other people,” Cat says.
“So realising when someone else is injured for 3 or 4 months, really making an effort to keep them engaged and keep them involved with the community and with the team, even if they can’t train fully.”
It takes a lot of hard work to reach the top of any sport, and even more hard work to stay there.
With a career spanning more than 12 years – despite her relative youth – it’s no surprise Cat has sometimes struggled to motivate herself.
And she knows she’s not alone.
“One [thing] that I think would be common to a lot of players that have played for a long time is kind of the self-motivation to keep being disciplined in the way I train,” Cat says.
“Particularly playing in Australia … being able to maintain my drive to keep pushing myself to get better when I’m only competing against the other countries every 2 or 3 or 4 years, so I’ve found that’s something that I’ve had to constantly work on.”
It’s a lesson Cat has had to learn for herself across her playing career, and she says it still takes some effort.
But she’s keen to help other players, offering some simple advice: instead of focusing only on the results, learn to love the process.
“It’s difficult when you feel like you’re putting in a lot of effort and, or you’re training really hard and you’re not getting the reward that you kind of expect … and I think that’s completely natural,”Cat says.
“A lot of players that come into the sport and get good very quickly, that can be difficult for them when they start to slow down and their improvement starts to taper off.
“My one piece of advice around that, which took me a long time to learn myself, is around developing good habits that you can rely on, and to just like keep chipping away at things.
“I’m very much all about the process now, recognising that I’m not going to see big improvements every day that I’m training, but I trust the process that I’m going through and I trust that if I keep doing that consistently, then the improvements will come.”
Creating the AUL
The most empowered Cat has ever felt playing ultimate was during her two World Games campaigns in 2013 and 2017.
There each national team is restricted to 14 players: 7 men and 7 women.
Never before had the eight-time Australian representative – who has captained her country twice – felt more “respected and valued as an athlete”.
“I wanted to create that for other people,” Cat says.
“It was such an equal environment.”
Cat was determined to replicate that environment, where it’s accepted that men and women bring different things to the table, but neither is valued more or less than any other.
“I think a lot of ultimate payers in Australia, and particularly women, would really struggle to label themselves or identify with themselves as being an elite athlete, and I think they are,” Cat says.
“I think a lot of the women that play ultimate are incredible athletes and if you put them into any other sport they would be really elite, but they don’t view themselves like that.
“I wanted to create a product where we treat them like professional athletes and so then they can start to view themselves like that as well.”
Soon the three friends – Cat, Matt Hill and Brendan Ashcroft – got talking, and the AUL was born.
All three have World Games experience. They all share a passion for gender equity. And they all saw a need for an elite, professional mixed competition in Australia.
After year 1 – and with many other people coming on board to support the league’s growth – the three friends “gave each other a bit of a pat on the back”. They learned a lot, Cat says, but are determined to keep building the AUL.
“The way that uni level players have been getting around the league has been really positive and we think that will only keep growing the more we can build the brand kind of keep pushing the high level product,” she says.
“It’s really great that we’re putting in a lot of work to help build this product but what I’m most proud about is the other people in the community that have got on board.
“The number of people we’ve had reaching out to volunteer, or people who feel really strongly about what we’re doing and they want to help make it grow, for me that’s the biggest thing: being able to create something that other people want to help build.”