How Basketball Star Antonia Delaere Found Positivity In Adversity

The countdown to the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup 2022 in Sydney is on. In this new WH series, Through Her Eyes, we ask players from each of the 12 competing nations – from Canada to Korea and Australia – to share their career journeys, what basketball means to them and how they approach training and mental wellbeing.

Antonia Delaere was just four-years-old when she first stepped foot on a basketball court, neck craned skyward as she gazed upwards at the hoop. At that time, basketball barely registered on Belgium’s sporting stage, with the nation more preoccupied with the likes of the Tour de France and football. It meant that for a young Delaere, her role models were significantly harder to come by, and those harbour aspirations of turning professional that much harder to say aloud with a tone of conviction. But in a testament to the tenacity and relentless drive of the now 28-year-old, Delaere forged a path in the sport and has been a pivotal player in its burgeoning popularity back home.

If the Belgium national team were discounted in the past, today theirs is a team of players to watch. Their rise is one even Hollywood would have struggled to script, after being unranked in the FIBA world standing just six years ago. It wasn’t until the 2017 European Championships that their hard work shone through, with the national team – otherwise affectionately known as the Belgian Cats – winning bronze after beating Greece by 33 points. Much like Delaere, theirs is a team spirit which sees each player dedicated to improving their craft and athletic prowess, understanding that while individually such marginal gains can lift one’s own performance, as a team these are the incremental changes that win championships.

Antonia Delaere

It’s this shared commitment that has made the Belgium team a formidable force in recent years. Now, having climbed the ranks with consistent results, the team is ranked sixth in the world and has been tipped as one of the favourites in the European championships. For Delaere though, it was their Olympic debut at Tokyo in 2021 that cemented the fact that they had arrived, not simply as a wildcard, but as genuine contenders on the international stage. “As a kid, you always see it but I never believed we could go with the Belgium basketball team to it [the Olympics]. When we were getting better and better results, we really started to believe it and to do it was like a dream come true,” she explains. “The first time we were in the Olympic village, we were just like little kids, walking around, looking at athletes.”

Though they lost the quarter-finals by one point against Japan, knowing they have the potential to win championships on a world stage is something that has only driving Delaere and her teammates to work harder in the lead up to the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup, set to take place in Sydney from September 22 to October 1. While some players might find such an occasion daunting, given the high pressure that surrounds performances at the elite sporting level, Delaere has navigated enough adversity to know hers is a mindset that can achieve anything.

In her playing career, she’s suffered two torn ACLs, the kind of injury that for most would see them hanging up the shoes and stepping away from the sport entirely. But for Delaere, these periods of injury only strengthened her resolve to focus on other elements of her game. Rather than threaten her identity as a sportswoman and athlete, they taught her that hers is a mental toughness that can weather any storm and it’s in these lived experiences that she has emerged a stronger player.

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“I learned that an injury doesn’t have to stop you but is also a moment where you can work on other aspects as an athlete,” she says.

“I made a big board with all my goals, like in nine months I want to be back playing. But I also had goals like, ‘Ok, in three weeks I want to walk again, after five weeks I want to be able to do this.’ These short-term goals helped me a lot so I didn’t have to think all the time about those nine months.”

Antonia Delaere

We sat down with the Belgium basketball star to hear more about how she came back from injury to find success on the court, the importance of short-term goals and why her teammates are a driving force behind her relentless work ethic.

Women’s Health: Who introduced you to basketball and how did you first get started?

Antonia Delaere: I actually started because I had asthma as a child – now I don’t have it anymore – but the doctors told me that it’s good to play sports. That’s how I got started, and I remember a picture where I had my hand gloves on with my basketball uniform and I think I was only four years old.

How popular is basketball in Belgium?

Of course we have soccer and cycling which are the biggest sports in Belgium, but I think as far as team sports, basketball is growing more and more popular. Our results with the national team have helped us a lot and you can see, 10 years ago the national team maybe played in front of 200 people and now our stadiums are sold out immediately. It’s a big change, and you can see with the youth generation that they’re playing it more and more.

Antonia Delaere Euro Basketball

For you growing up, were there female role models in the sport you could look up to or were they hard to come by?

When I was growing up, we had Ann Wauters. She was one of the best of Europe and also played in the WNBA. She’s a centre player, so she wasn’t my position but she was someone I looked up to because she made it to the WNBA which is amazing. Later on, we started to play together in the national team so it was a special moment as all of us looked up to her, and then there was a moment where we played together with her and that was really nice to be able to do that.

Given that you started playing at four years old, when was the moment that you thought you could do this professionally?

I used to write in these little books we gave each other when we were seven years old, and we’d say, ‘I’m Antonia, I want to become this.’ And I always used to write that I want to be a basketball player, but I don’t think I really knew it or knew you could be it. When I was around 16 years old, I saw other girls living abroad and saw that it was a possibility and I think from that moment I started to believe that I could do it too.

In the time that you’ve been playing professionally, what can you identify as being the biggest improvements in your game, both physically and mentally?

Mentally I made big steps because I used to be really introverted and I think I played a little bit too much for the team. Now, in high pressure situations, I start to take the ball and make the actions whereas in the past, I used to pass it in high-pressure situations. Physically, in my 20s I tore my ACL twice and was super thin. When I had these ACL tears, I really focused on becoming physically stronger and I think that’s helped me so much in my career.

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You tore your ACL twice?

Yes, two times! I was back and then maybe six months after I tore it again.

Being sidelined for so long, how did you get through that period of injury?

I learned that an injury doesn’t have to stop you but is also a moment where you can work on other aspects as an athlete; you can work less with your basketball but can work on your physicality and this stuff. I made a big board with all my goals, like: in nine months I want to be back playing. But I also had goals like, ‘ok in three weeks I want to walk again, after five weeks I want to be able to do this.’ These short-term goals helped me a lot so I didn’t have to think all the time about those nine months.

That’s such good advice on the short-term goals in terms of staying positive during a time of great adversity. Given that mental strength is so important in elite sport, what are some of the tools you’ve learned over the years to overcome self-doubt?

For sure, experience helps. I try during the weekends when we have a game, I tell myself during the week that I’m going to play a good game so that I really believe it during the game. I think it also gives me a lot of rest during the game, even if I don’t start the game well, I know in my head that I’ll play a good game. It’s already helped me to change my mindset during a game as in the past, if I didn’t play well within the first five minutes, it would be all over. Now, I know I can change it. It doesn’t work all the time, but it’s a tool that really helps me.

When it comes to competition, do you have any rituals or a pre-game routine?

I’m not that crazy but I like to always wear the same headband for my games. I always wear the same one my boyfriend gave me, and now it’s almost in need of repair. For the rest, I like to take my power-nap during the day, have a good meal and then we always warm-up before the team-warm-up and I have my routines where I do some dribbling, shooting and it all allows me to stay focused.

Is there a particular song or music you listen to before getting into the headspace for a game or training?

Some teams, right before the game, they play ‘Believer’ by Imagine Dragons and as soon as I hear it, I’m like, ‘Ok, let’s go.’ But I also love Coldplay, Imagine Dragons and in Belgium we have Stromae. He’s French but his music is amazing and for the rest, I also love the old music with a good rhythm where you can sing as well, like ABBA and Queen. It just gives me positive vibes and you really become happy from it.

Antonia Delaere World Cup 2018

When it comes to your pre-game meal, what is your go to?

I think I’m pretty typical. In the morning, I try to eat some oatmeal and maybe some eggs, and then before a game it’s mostly pasta with some sauce. After a game, it depends. If we have a big schedule, we have a protein shake and then a light meal if it’s late. Nothing too special.

It’s interesting, I remember reading that in the NBA, their go-to meal is peanut butter and jam sandwiches.

Yeah! Sometimes we have a small snack before a game and there I also eat peanut butter, but I’m more into the jam.

Can you take me through what a week of training looks like for you?

It depends a lot on when our games are. Sometimes we have two games, other times we have one. Now with the national team it will be a lot. In here, this week because Belgium is pretty small and we can sometimes go home, this week is a little bit different but on Monday we’ll have it free to be able to go home, then on Tuesday we go into the hotel and have mostly two practices a day. One can be more fitness and conditioning and some shooting, the other can be two hours of hard basketball. It all depends on when the games are. On game day, we’ll do some shooting and then the game at night and maybe the day before won’t be so hard, too. But it all depends on where the games are and it changes when there’s a championship, too.

On those days where you are allowed to go home and have a rest day, what’s your favourite way to spend it and what do you enjoy doing away from the basketball court?

First of all, I like to sleep – during the week it’s not really possible. When I play abroad – this year I was in Spain – I like to go visit new places and to go to nature and walk a little bit. But I love to travel and see new places. If I’m home, I like being with my family, my boyfriend and my friends.

And when it comes to recovery, what does your routine look like?

Here with the national team, we have these recovery boots – they swell up and deflate. I love them. We can also take an ice bath and have two physiotherapists so can get a massage. In the club, you’re more on your own but depending on how my body feels, I use these kind of strategies.

I want to ask about the Tokyo Olympics, too. It’s incredible to represent your country on the international stage at the world’s biggest sporting competition, what did that experience mean to you?

It was amazing. It was the first time for Belgium basketball team that we could go to the Olympics. As a kid, you always see it but I never believed we could go with the Belgium basketball team to it. When we were getting better and better results, we really started to believe it and to do it was like a dream come true. The first time we were in the Olympic village, we were just like little kids, walking around, looking at athletes.

Of course, with Covid, it was different but the Japanese people did an amazing job and I think they made the best out of the situation. The experience was amazing. We lost the quarter-finals by one point against Japan which was a hard one to take, but the experience overall was amazing and I would so love to do it all again in Paris.

Was it hard not having a crowd there? As a player that’s used to feeding off the energy a crowd brings, was that a hard adjustment?

We were used to playing like that because for most of the year we weren’t allowed crowds, but the first time when we were running on the court in Japan the gym was so big, and we were like, ‘Wow, how amazing would it have been with a full crowd?’ I love to play with a crowd because it gives you so much more energy, but also these emotions, you know? You try to do it as a team but the fans can really bring these emotions like ten times harder. We were used to it, but when you look back I think it would be ten times better with a crowd.

With the upcoming Women’s Basketball World Cup, what are you most excited about? And as a player, does training change at all in the lead up to a world cup?

With the national team, if we have a championship we always have six weeks of preparation before. They’re very fastidious and it needs to be the same. We have a lot of young players coming in, we already know them but for them it will be the first experience of a big championship so I think this championship we really need to use as an experience to get better as a team and then we’ll see where we get. For the championship to be in Australia, I’m really looking forward to it.

Will this be your first time in Australia?

Yes. It’s always been on my list to go to Australia, so I’m really looking forward to it! And looking forward to your culture, how the fans will be and how they’ll react to basketball in general, and if we can win the hearts of neutral fans, too. I’m really looking forward to get to know the Australian people and the country also.

What advice would you give to young girls looking to get into the sport?

I think for sure never stop believing in yourself. It’s easier said than done, but I also think it’s really important to live in the moment. With all this social media, it can be hard to stay present and focus on your own journey.

“As an athlete, I think it’s super important to keep working hard because if you stop working hard, someone will pass you.”

Antonia Delaere

And look at basketball, look at the athletes within it, because you can learn so much from other players in the game. I think as well it’s important to remember it’s a team sport and to play together. I think a lot of young boys and girls are seeing it as an individual sport, but as a team you can achieve so much more.

Given your illustrious career, what sporting moment stands out to you as being particularly special?

The first time we won a medal at a European championship, I think in 2017. We came out of nowhere and hadn’t been at a European championship for ten years and then we took the bronze medal. It was like living through a dream and such a big moment for Belgium basketball. But I think the moment when I was most happy was when we qualified for the Olympics. In Belgium we were playing and it was a historic moment; the crowd was amazing and really made us win this game. The Olympics were amazing too, but we had mixed feelings because we lost the quarter-final. But this moment in Belgium when we qualified for the Olympics, to do it with our fans watching was one of the best moments for sure.

For more information and to purchase tickets for the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup 2022, visit the official website here. You can also follow the journey on the event’s social media accounts – @FIBAWWC on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

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