April Ieremia may be best known to many, still, as a highly successful Cantabrian and Silver Fern who represented New Zealand at netball in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Or she may be familiar as the voice of Choice TV and Home and Garden TV; or as a tour host with World Journeys. Locally, she’s fast carving a reputation as one of two Westlake Girls’ High School’s Sports Managers, responsible for a portfolio of 10 different sports codes and as coach of the Westlake Girls’ Premier netball team and the Year 10 netball sports academy team.
April joined Westlake Girls’ High School (WGHS) this time last year – the “first time I walked back into a school since 1992 when I was a PE teacher at Avonside Girls High School in Christchurch,” she laughs. “It’s my first time back full -time – and it’s been so much fun!”
This statement – and the fact that she continues to juggle her role at Westlake with voiceover work, and leading tours overseas – reflects April’s positive approach to life and the tenor of our conversation. We’d approached her expecting some practical advice for teenagers and parents about wellbeing in those difficult teenage years, perhaps even with a specific emphasis on sport. What we got was a much broader philosophical discussion on all-round wellbeing, much of which reflected her personal approach to getting the most out of life.
While she has never been far from some form of involvement in sport, whether growing up or as a broadcaster (when it was about “any sport and every sport”), she is now less actively involved, except as a parent and a coach – particularly as a netball coach. But she remains an advocate for participation in any sports, for people of any age and any ability.
“When I was at Olympic Games and Commonwealth Games [for TVNZ] it was like a paid Disneyland!’ she laughs. “Now I’ve spent a number of years in lifestyle [tv] and I’ve come back to sport. At the Olympics and world championships, you see the best in the world. At Westlake Girls I’m really privileged because I work with athletes who are the best in the country at secondary school level and if they’re not, they’re in playoffs or top eights so you’re at nationals watching the best in the country, as far as female sport is concerned. There is an obvious focus on high performance athletes and students, but there is also for me a huge emphasis on participation.”
Her own two teenagers, one at St Peters in Cambridge and the other at Westlake Boys High School, are both, as she was, heavily into sport. But not pressured by their mother, she says. She has always advocated that they should do whatever they want to do, as long as they do it to the best of their ability. That same philosophy applies now to the students at WGHS: “Whatever I do to my children, I extend now to the girls at Westlake Girls. I help promote them to do the best that they can in whatever area and understand not just the performance side, but also the home life side. And for those kids who are not big on sport, I really promote the fact that they just do something, a summer sport and a winter sport, or if you’re really good at a particular winter sport, just have fun with your friends in summer. Our volley ball programme, for example, is massive. We’re not only the national senior volleyball champs as well as the junior North Island volleyball champs, but we had more than 100 teams last year, and the majority are just fun – girls getting a group together and playing in the local North Harbour competition.
“Another sport that’s quite popular is table tennis. Its’ an easy way to just go and have a go. Those are just two sports that I deal with…. The challenge is to see if we can make someone who doesn’t do sport just have a go.” To this end, the sports team puts together “tasting platters” where girls can try a sport for four weeks, for example, lacrosse, the basics of volleyball or netball, or newer sports like turbo-touch or handball.
April’s personal wellbeing regime is a balance of body and mind, and enables her to juggle the multiple calls – parent, coach, manager, tour leader and voiceover artist – on her time and energy.
“Healthy living stems from physical health as well as mental health and the two avenues I move in quite comfortably are meditation and mindfulness, as well as active sport.” Her active sport these days is largely centred around early morning (5am) walks around Lake Pupuke. Her knees, she explains without a hint of regret; knees no doubt overworked in her competitive netball years.
Self-taught in meditation and mindfulness, she goes “deep within and I stay there for as long as I can”. It’s all about stillness and calmness, she says. “Bringing the mind down, that runs at 100 miles an hour, is really tricky because people tend to get bored and flick out."
April began her practice as a result of a tour to China in the early ’90s, where she observed older people doing Tai Chi. “I loved the calmness of it all. And they talked about the stillness of mind and the different methods to get into that, and into the flow of life.”
She talks of reaching into the stillness and calmness to seek that space between worlds. “I firmly believe that you have all the knowledge within you if only you can tap into it. One of the direct paths to tap into it is clarity. It makes life easier and helps you with decision-making. I tend to trust my instinct much more than I did before.
“I made the commitment two years ago, when I turned 50, to do it every day, and I’ve been pretty good. You find places like the beach, trees, or outdoors anywhere, and that just amplifies it.”
April has begun mindfulness work with the WGHS Premier netball team, starting with visualisation, rather than plunging straight into meditation. “When you get on the court,” she explains, “you need to find that calmness to be able to make good decisions, especially under pressure. You’re able to find your own centre of balance.”
When it comes to advising the teenagers she works with about health and wellbeing, this is largely restricted to technical coaching support. But she also knows when someone needs a boost or a different conversation. Empathy and compassion allow her to filter through the issues and energy and work out what might need to happen next.
This leads to one of April’s key philosophies: “If we could have more self-love we would be much happier people,” she says. “What would that self-love look like?” She answers her own question, applying it not to teenage girls, but to “women in general, probably older ones like me”. For her, it would be an hour to yourself. Mine looks like an hour’s walk and my meditation space, and if I can do those sorts of things, or take time out with a movie, or a book…. It’s just something that treats you. An hour a day for yourself would be a really good rule. And also movement!”
Self-love, she says, is “whatever makes you feel happy, rejuvenated; whatever makes you feel like you”. If that means an uninterrupted teenage hour on social media, so be it. “Basically the theme is, give to yourself. If you are energised, you have a lot more to give.”
April’s wellbeing advice for teenagers not into sport, or any physical activity? “I don’t see those kids because we’re the sports department as opposed to the PE department,” she laughs. “But looking at it holistically, I would cheerlead the whole idea of happiness” – and physical activity. “Because when you’re physical, you have greater clarity of mind, you feel better about yourself. Rather than doing it in the gym, I would totally recommend they do something outdoors, even if it’s to go for a swim at the beach.”
And diet? “My attitude has changed a lot. Because I work with a lot of athletic kids, when they’re empty they’ve got to fill up the tanks. It’s good to have a balanced diet, but these young people will expend it immediately and if it’s mixed with a bit of rubbish, I’m not going to sweat it. If I had an ideal diet for me, I’d be a fruitarian. I love the sweetness of fruit.”
April acknowledges that many teenage girls grapple with the issue of self-image, driven by the “mindset of old where women were rated for their [physical] beauty, regardless of what kind of brain they have. Whereas I view it as beauty within. How kind is the person, their giving factor, their integrity? Beauty comes from within. If you are feeling good on the inside, irrespective of your physical side, you will radiate it. The whole idea is just love being you.
“Self-doubt will damage and weaken you,” she believes. There is no merit in comparing yourself to others and finding weaknesses. “That’s why it’s easier when you use measures like happiness. Ask, what makes me happy? You can’t compare that to anyone else. Start with yourself, move to the group, extend it to the community and before you know it, it’s global!” she says.
On a more practical note, April advises all young sportspeople to cherish the moment. “You have the physicality to do it now, and I’d say by 30 you won’t be doing it.” She speaks, of course, with the voice of experience. “Respect yourself. And when you commit, complete.” This happens naturally she suggests, when young people love what they are doing, and are doing it with their friends. “Whatever happens,” she adds, “if you take a positive, optimistic enthusiastic outlook on life, good will come.”
As April is the parent of two teenagers, it seemed logical to ask her for advice for parents of teenagers – how can parents (or indeed coaches) positively encourage their teens to reach their potential without applying undue pressure. “As a parent,” she replies bluntly, “you have to remember you’ve lived your life and get off the stage – kids will do it themselves, and what they want is a supportive bed to land on when they fall and if parents are able to stay positive, encouraging and promote their teen’s attributes rather than blame the world, and allow them to be accountable and to analyse…. Kids have to be able to deal with the fact that they miss out. It’s about bouncing back as quickly as they can, though it’s hard not to take it personally. It’s knowing there are other options, and it’s how they view the world.”
“I want to highlight the fact that beauty really does come from within,” says April in conclusion. “Anyone who doesn’t feel that way is obviously an old fossil!”
More seriously, “It’s being optimistic and available and open. My whole movement is towards unconditional love, where you live without judgement or expectation. It’s really hard. But isn’t it a great goal? Imagine if we all lived like that. How happy we would be.”