In a softball match, the pitcher stands alone, staring down the opposition and searching for weaknesses. Of all the positions in the team, pitching is the most important. It comes, therefore, with a ton of pressure and is a role that requires even more mental strength than it does physical prowess. That’s the environment Vanessa Stokes, the 26-year-old pitcher for the Australian national women’s softball team, thrives in.
Originally from Alice Springs, Vanessa grew up in Darwin and was also a talented basketballer, playing at State level. Her mum was a skilled soccer player and softballer and became Vanessa’s first coach.
“Mum taught me to pitch in the back yard of my Nan’s house in Darwin,” recollects Vanessa, “and my nana used to think we were crazy. She was from Alice Springs and spoke about four languages, she used to say stuff to us in language and think it was hilarious, and she’d steal all of our balls, basketballs, softballs – we never found them until we moved to Adelaide and we had to clean out the closet and we found all this equipment. It was pretty funny.”
In the end it was Vanessa’s selection in the U19 Australian team at just 13 years of age that inspired her to pursue softball over basketball, and at 14, she moved to Adelaide to pursue her goals in the sport.
“At that young age you’re a teenager and you want to do teenage things,” she says, talking about the big move. “It was really hard because at the time I didn’t know what everything was about. It’s not that I didn’t take it seriously, I just didn’t know about it, and my mum was really passionate about me playing and going to school, so I did the best I could to make her happy.
“Also, I found it a bit different because I went from being around Indigenous people all the time to living in the city where there weren’t many around, so you struggle and the only thing you have is talent and your immediate family, but I just stuck it out, I finally liked it in the end.”
Not only did Vanessa earn national selection at a young age, at 14 she also journeyed with her mother to the US where she played for a Texas team at an U15 carnival, involving more than 80 American teams.
The US experience prepared Vanessa for more big tournaments ahead. In 2006, she was playing for the AIS and watching the Olympic team prepare for the Beijing Games, and seemed to be on track to garner further success in the domestic competition and, potentially, selection in the senior national team. However, three years ago, due to personal issues, Vanessa decided she needed a break from the sport. She was living in Melbourne at the time and had just come out of the U19 competition where she had won the national championship with South Australia, and was now entering the opens comp.
“I think I just psyched myself out a bit, which was a little bit sad,” she says. “I think I let that get to me because we were playing against people who were my idols and I was nervous about that, I still didn’t know at that time what it was all about either.
“I had some personal stuff going on in my life and that really hurt my confidence a bit, too, so I think coming back home was the best thing I could have done. It took me three years to actually find my way back again.” The catalyst for that return came when Vanessa watched one of her good friends in the sport playing for Australia: “I was watching on the net and I just thought ‘I can do that’.”
“I think that was a real eye opener because I never realised how special it was when I was there before. If I had stuck it out, I could have gone to Beijing. I might not have, I don’t know, but like everyone says, you learn from your past and you get stronger.”
Knowing the World Championships were coming up, Vanessa threw herself headlong back into the sport with the goal of playing for the senior national team, and in 2012 she achieved that goal and put the finishing touches on a stirring comeback by earning selection in the Australian team.
Since then, Vanessa has enjoyed even more success. Riding a wave of confidence, she has now inked a deal to join fellow Indigenous Australian team member Stacey Porter to play professionally in Japan for Sagawa, a club based in Kyoto. The initial contract is for a five-month stay, with the possibility of an extended contract beyond that.
“I’m feeling exited,” says Vanessa. “I’m nervous, too, I’ve never been to Japan but I’ve heard all about it from some teammates, so I’m going to go over there to have a shot. I think Stacey and I will be alright together, us two sister girls. I think the way we play together is awesome and both of us being Indigenous just makes it more special.”
When you’re young and talented, things aren’t always as easy as some might think. Talent is one thing, but Vanessa Stokes is living proof that it takes a whole lot more than just talent to be a success. Self belief, confidence, and a strong mental attitude are all equally important. They are also the qualities Vanessa brings to the pitching mound in spades.
“Being a pitcher is the most important position on the field because it starts with you and the way you present yourself. When you run out you set the tone for your team,” says Vanessa.
“I think you’ve got to be a bit cluey in the middle. I’ve had a few times where I haven’t been, but you can turn it around. You can be playing the worst game and turn it around just like that, so it’s about feeling comfortable, staying composed and controlling your emotions.”
Naturally, Vanessa’s words of advice to Deadly Vibe readers is all about self belief.
“Just stay confident and don’t let anyone tell you any different, and surround yourself with people who are motivated and will keep you motivated and support you in your goals and your dreams.”