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Former Black Ferns Sevens and Blues rugby union player Niall Williams represented New Zealand at an international level, at the 2016 Rio Olympics and winning gold medals in the 2018 Commonwealth games.

In her heart she says she would like to be a professional athlete her whole life, but she knows that’s just not possible and will have to retire eventually.

At 36, Niall, now a semi professional athlete, shows no signs of slowing down. Niall plays for the Titans NRLW rugby league woman’s team on The Gold Coast, while also lending her expertise and experience to the Keebra Park Girls Sports Academy team in her role as specialist coach.  She is also busy Mum to two young girls. And, on top of this, Niall has found time to complete a Youth Work apprenticeship with work-based training provider Careerforce.

Youth Work graduate Niall Williams (centre) with Personal Development Manager, Tiffany Holden (left) and Careerforce Apprenticeship Advisor, Jo Gresley (right)

Three days a week Niall helps to run the Girls Sports Academy Programme, working alongside the coaches with trainings and also running workshops for nutrition, goal setting, character building and what being a great teammate looks like. 

“Some of these kids think all you need to do is be good at sports and you’re going to make it in the big time, but there is so much more than that,” says Niall. 

“Once you get to the top, everybody’s talented. It’s who you are outside that, the person you are, how you train, what kind of teammate you are, and what you are like as a professional athlete are some of the important qualities it takes to make it on the big stage.”

After completing the school shift from 8.45am to 2.45pm, Niall rushes home, gets changed into her training gear for her other job as a semi pro athlete at GC Titans NRLW and then trains hard from 4pm to 8pm.

For a pro-athlete it’s important to think what’s coming next

There were some great Professional Development Officers during her time with the women’s sevens programme, says Niall. Nikita Hall and Tiffany Holden often reminded the players that moving on from the field can be daunting, but it can also be a gateway to exciting opportunities.

“They talked to you about your life, what you’ve got planned outside work, what’s coming next.  It opens up your thoughts to that,” says Niall.

“For myself, being a bit older and also having had surgery on my neck, I knew that there was a possibility that I may not be able to play again, so your mind is naturally going to think about life past rugby.”

Knowing that she would have to retire eventually, Niall looked into the opportunities, and the Youth Work Apprenticeship came up through The New Zealand Rugby Players Association (NZRPA).

“I’m very passionate about working with youth, and kids and I’ve done it my whole life, running coaching clinics. Also, I think with having children myself, it has really opened my eyes, as to why and how much I want to help youth. This is close to my heart.

“Most kids love sports. They’re interested in what you’ve done in the sporting circles, so it has been a great opening into working with youth. It’s a great stepping-stone and chance to have a positive impact in some way.

The Youth Work Apprenticeship is a work-based learning programme, where learners are assigned an Apprenticeship Advisor who provides pastoral care and support.  Careerforce Apprenticeship Advisor Jo Gresley was assigned to Niall.

The apprenticeship is adaptable to your situation

“What’s really great is having people like Jo who come out and help you one-on-one. For me, it was great when I didn’t quite understand the assessment questions and she was able to sit down with me and talk me through it to give me get a better understanding.

“I love that it’s so adaptable to your situation. Being a pro athlete, having a family, I was able to log in during times that I wanted to get on and get the work done.

“I’ve always had a massive passion for working with youth and I never thought that my passion and that mix of sports and what I do naturally everyday with kids could actually be put into a certificate and getting a Level 4.”

“When you leave sports and look at the next part in your career, you probably already have all the skills and everything necessary to do the job. But it’s also about getting the paperwork behind your name.

“I really loved the journey. It’s taken me a few years to get it done, but I never felt pressured. And I’m really grateful now to have my certificate and the time I shared with Jo at Careerforce.

“I highly recommend it. Trust me, by the time you finish it, what you get in return is so worth it. Everyone who wants to take up the journey, I can’t recommend it highly enough.”

Coming from a family that had excelled at sports, but not necessarily shined in the academic arena, Niall says this has been a massive accomplishment for her.

“Just to be able to complete this is massive, not only for me but for my family as well. Also, for my kids to see me doing study has been a big accomplishment for me.”

Niall says the apprenticeship took a long time, (taking a break from studies at one point to have surgery on her neck). 

“But it’s nice to have that paper under my belt.  You can have all the life experience which I think is truly the real piece of paper but now it’s nice to have something actually behind my name to that I can show and back me up. I feel like it’s completed the package.

“We should prepare ourselves to make sure we play the best game of our lives”

Niall says she feel lucky to have had the opportunity through NZRPA to complete the Careerforce programme. She also credits her husband for being very supportive in her journey. With two daughters aged 6 and 8 when she began, travelling the world in a world series, he worked full time, looked after the kids and still allowed her space to do her studies when she came home.

“There is always that question, what would you tell your younger self if you had the chance?” says Niall.

“We talk about preparation being key on field.  But, also for off field as well.  We can take that same mindset and prepare ourselves to make sure we play the best game of our lives.  We need to put that same energy into preparing ourselves for our actual life outside of footy, so that we have the best game of our life in life.”

More information

For more information about the Youth Work Apprenticeship, contact work-based training provider Careerforce. Workplaces may qualify for Apprenticeship Boost payments.