E62 - Jennifer Tait, The International Volleyball Player
E62 - Jennifer Tait, The International Volleyball Player

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Jenny Tait is an Australian volleyball player, earning 66 caps for the Volleyroos indoor team as well as playing for Campbell University in the NCAA and at the top level in Europe. Jenny retired in 2020 and is now studying theology at Moore College in Sydney.

Danno caught up with Jenny to talk about her career in elite sport and her passion to continue working alongside Christian elite athletes now she's retired.

0:00 Intro
2:20 How do you connect your sport and faith?
2:55 What were your career highlights?
4:05 How did you get into volleyball?
5:19 How long did it take to start performing at an elite level?
9:20 How did you become a Christian?
13:11 What was church like as a new Christian and when you went home?
14:50 How did faith in Christ change your sport?
16:54 Identity, imposter syndrome, and the pressure of elite sport.
23:48 Retiring and working to support athletes' mental health
25:37 How has it been sharing faith in your sport?
27:40 Moving on to theological college, and hopes for future ministry


Graham Daniels: Good. So I've got Jenny Tait. Of course we're a few hours apart because she's in Sydney and I'm in Cambridge. Let me give you a biog. Is class 66 Cups as a middle blocker for the Australian women's indoor volleyball team.

The volley was in that period in 2017. The Fivb Beach Volleyball World Cup Grand Prix 2018, the Fivb Volleyball Women's Challenge Cup. She traveled in the USA Fox University in the NCAA to play for three or four years. Four years in the States, played in Europe and in Belgium, played in European volleyball, played in the Belgian Cup final.

She retired in 2020. I know she doesn't look like she's old enough, but she did. And now she's studying theology at Moore College in Sydney. So, Jenny, that is a full sporting life. You know, the first question always the same one. Yeah, it is. In your sporting life, how have your sport and faith been connected? And it's a great question and my faith and sport have been like tied together more than I think maybe most have.

Jenny Tait: I became a Christian through sport. And so I think from the get go they are tied together. And so it's quite interesting and trying to leave sport as well and making sure that they're still tied together but also separate. And so I think as Christians especially live all of life as Christians and so faith and sport are glued together always

Graham Daniels: Let's start with sport then. Yeah, I do pin you down in your career highlights. I think I've chosen the cup. I've left out the Olympic qualifiers, as you can see.

Okay, What would you say now in hindsight?

Jenny Tait: Well, highlights, of course, they don't have to be picked. I think I think that's two of the Olympic qualifiers is one. But the first one in history was the one you mentioned of the five Grand Prix in 2017. We that was my first big international tournament. So my first stop, we had a massive win, the first one in 19 years in a stadium where we'd sung the national anthem with no backing, just squeaky Australian voices in a mexican stadium who had no idea what we were singing.

But I think that was a big turning point for our team. And so that's a huge memory. And just like enjoying the sport to the max and then obviously Olympic qualifiers as well, we qualified for them by beating our arch nemesis New Zealand, the ones just across the ditch. So, so as a fun win. And I think again, just seeing the sport move forward in Australia made such a great highlight as well.

Graham Daniels: How did you get into volleyball in the first place? How did that was? You must have been a good athlete in all sorts of ways obviously?

Jenny Tait: But I was not a good athlete in all sorts of ways. It was just quite a fun part of my story as well. You can't tell when I'm sitting down, but I'm six foot two, six foot three, quite tall.

And so at high school they said, Come a long travel volleyball, you've got the height for it. So I had been thrown in, my parents had thrown off and everything. So I went along and tried it out. And I absolutely love the sport and the teamwork behind it. I think my is quite a sacrificial sport. You need each member of the team to make anything work.

And so I was tall and so I got given a few chances. And so I kind of started out of that as this long giraffe who didn't know where the buildings were but kind of worked hard and was persistent to kind of make it better.

Graham Daniels: So help other people in other sports because of course, people from across sports listen, we all know in competitive and certainly in high level elite sport, you've got to stay in your lane, you've got to know your job. Really got a job? Yeah. Did you did you how long did it take you to really, really get the role of the middle blocker to take?

Jenny Tait: I thankfully was thrown into that position pretty early on. I kept people kept trying to throw you back out, but then when put me back in that position, but it was from when I started and to maybe ten years later until things clicked in about 2014, 2015, that's when things clicked.

And when they click, they really clicked. Everything that ten years of hard work kind of all fell into place then.

Graham Daniels: So yeah, I'm thinking about younger viewers and listeners now. Yeah. Because when a woman who's played top, top level global level in a sport says it took me ten years to really nail down my position, Yeah, you don't often think of that when you're younger, right?

Jenny Tait: You think you should. Yeah. Give me give us give us a real treat and give us one once. When you thought, gosh, why didn't I realize that I have to do that as a manager, can you think one of those? I think one of them was as a middle blocker. It's very specific to the sport, but you have two hands to block, not just one that works together.

So knowing that I could use them independently to be more aggressive in the defense was something I wish I'd understood way earlier. Because you just talk to kind of swing them both together and move them up together. But I think that wasn't something that clicked until they are independent. We all know that as human beings in all sports, but they actually can work together, but independently, even as you're one unit.

But I think that was something I didn't expect. I also don't think I've ever been asked how long until things clicked before reflecting on the ten years of the first time ever. Yeah, it's a it's a really helpful thing for people as careers develop, isn't it? Were you in the national team at that point? No, I wasn't. I made the national team in 2017.

I didn't I wasn't really on the scene either. I was on the very, very skirts of the broader scene in the national team and junior development stuff, but wasn't on the topic scene as a junior either. Like, I think that's something for juniors in that working. You don't know when it's going to click some click early, but you don't always know.

So there is an element of persistence and waiting for things to click well. What happened then was great for all of us to get you what you want to do. Just went straight away and I don't know what happened. I think one of them was I went to college in America and I had a chance to train more hours and I'd ever had before.

We did back for 4 hours of some sort of training every day. And there was an element also where this is where my faith comes in and I need people to hear this clearly. I became a Christian, and so my identity was no longer tied to volleyball. It was still really important part of me. But I had a bigger identity, so I was freed up to play volleyball and just enjoy it rather than be perfect at it.

And so in that enjoyment, I actually became better. It was less pressure and I got to enjoy figuring out all the nitty bit, nitty gritty parts of the technique and what other teams did and how to think in this sport.

Graham Daniels: Okay, So, so let's break that down. AJ That's really helpful. Let's not lose part two of this question. Part one is how did you become a Christian in the States? A couple did remind me and the listener viewer that we want to talk about how you learned that lesson about fulfillment and security and what speed you learned that. So let's go first. How did you come to Christian faith and at Campbell Yeah. #

Jenny Tait: Yes. So one of my coaches and teammates did a Bible study.

And there are elements where I don't remember fully, but there are elements where I do, and I think I was searching for something bigger. I'd heard of Christianity and Jesus before, but nothing had really clicked. I'm sure people had shared things before, but nothing had clicked and I was eager to learn. I was in a new place, a fresh start.

And so there was this first Bible study. I went along with teammates. They gave me a nice large Bible, and I remember opening it and she told me after we read something different, what we read, but we read something and she told me I needed to highlight what stood out to me. And my question was, Wait, you want me to figure this out myself?

You're not going to tell me? And then unfolded lots of questions of about how I needed to have a personal relationship with Jesus, who I needed to know my rebellion against God and who Jesus was in fixing that through that. So somewhere in February to March of 2014 is when I became a Christian. So yeah.

Graham Daniels: Was it a teammate who read the Bible with you?

Jenny Tait: It was a both, probably a coach and a teammate. Coaches two of them, yeah. So yeah. And how long do you think that process of a knowing they were a Christian? Because obviously beforehand and actually looking at the Bible and working some things out for yourself with the help of that person, four or five months, they were new Christians as well and they just wanted everyone to know about Jesus, so they lived fully.

There was not a moment you didn't think that they were Christian, and so that was really intriguing. I think seeing them live it out with all of their life and be like, you really believe in this. You've changed your whole life, Do this, tell me more about it. Do you think that's why your ring, the way they behaved, did you behave like that became a Christian?

Graham Daniels: Is it personality? Is it wiring? What do you make of that? As in when you become a Christian? Is it how you how you talk, how you talk? yeah. Is that a why?

Jenny Tait: Yeah. What is the I think it's part of trusting Jesus more than trusting on the faith. So I think it takes time. I think some people it's really quick because it's something that's quick.

So for me life looked pretty different pretty quickly, but I was in a very easy place to do that in the south of America, where lots of people are Christians. So it didn't I didn't stand out as different in that, so it was quite easy click. But for others it's not necessarily quick, easy, quick. We don't know how our growth moves across our life, even things now we're slowly growing, you know, changing, know, helpful.

Graham Daniels: And I think we'll come back to that when we talk about how it was when you got home and started playing at the very highest level at home. Interesting about meeting Christians when you're at college in the States. Tell us about coming to church there because it wasn't common for you. Were that in any way? And what happened when you came home to.

Jenny Tait: Yes, my church in America. I don't know how to answer it, but that God's kindness, the pastor's wife, minister's wife was Australian. And so in a middle of nowhere, country town, it was wonderful to have two Australians.

And so they sent me out ready to keep supporting me as I didn't know where I was headed. The plan was to come back to Australia, but we had that. I lived in Europe as well and so they helped me find a church back in Australia. They did all sorts of call outs to everyone I knew. I landed back in the church in Australia and the thing was, is that they didn't know who I was.

They didn't know that I was committed as a Christian. And so it took a while and I had to be slow with them in letting them know how to love me and letting them know how I could serve them. So that meant joining the Mum's Bible study, even though I was not a mum and rocking out to church in my field because I had to run straight to training or getting a call, I had to leave church halfway through and being okay with that because that was how I could get to church that day and letting them slowly learn.

I think Australia has a long way to go in this in learning how to love athletes well and shift work as well, like lots of different categories, but athletes well in their commitment to Jesus and that community in that way.

Graham Daniels: Let's go back to that opening point you made then. So you come to faith in Christ through coach, teammate. Your instinct immediately was there was a security and an identity that you would received. Did that take away the pressure of performance, the the tension, the tensions of sport?

Jenny Tait: It took about a year for the tension of sport to change. I think. I think there was still there was an identity shift, but the tension of sport and seeing them as being a Christian and how that can help me play and be a better volleyball player in I can be better in all of my identities by living freely in them because I have an identity that's never going to change. So it took it about a year before it. The tension and the pressure to I think I lived in a life of on I'm Christian now. I have to be a really good volleyball player. I have to be even better. And to realizing actually know this identity meant I could be more free and this identity of a volleyball player.

Graham Daniels: Unpack the identity point for us. What do you mean by identity and liberation for your identity? What does that mean? Why is it consuming? Why was it considered you to be a volleyball?

Jenny Tait:

Yeah, I think I think it's a big thing for me and it continues to be a big thing for me. My identity is a struggle. I still continue it, but I think as as someone who is tall, someone who's got red hair, you can kind of see my Scottish roots here and someone who is living in a country where I wasn't my home. I kind of stood out. My identity was what people saw. And so being freed from that, being freed from an identity of what others put on me and then what I put on myself was really freeing.

Graham Daniels: Yeah, very good Jenny. I'm going to probe that a bit because you're pretty confident person because you're not then. So, I'll put it bluntly. Are you saying because you became an international level 66 cap player for your country that gave you security in front of people once they knew you played for Australia, that was pretty safe?

Jenny Tait: I did need to put on stage anywhere and it kind of covered up anything else that you didn't necessarily want to be judged by? I think so at times, but I think it also I think more I felt a pressure to live up to that. I don't think I thought I should live up to that. I wasn't good enough to live up to that. And so when I did let that identity down, sometimes it was a cover up, but a lot of time I didn't think I was good enough for that identity.

Graham Daniels: We'll watch our time. Yeah, but you speak to anybody who's played at the highest level like you, nearly everybody has imposter syndrome. Yeah. One or two don't, Right. Because, you know, that's But when you know your place in the first 11 to the first 15 to the international team when you know only two board games away from somebody that's three total insecurity and no one outside. Yeah I'm talking rather than asking. Yeah but but no one side sees that they just see Jenny Tait A for Australia. Yeah. But the insecurities are deep aren't they. For top level. I think they are, yeah.

Jenny Tait: No job in your career can be gone in minutes. Your, your framework for life can be gone in three bad shots. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Worth us commenting commentating on that right now and people are listening it might pause and not think so I suppose when you're hearing Jenny was saying listen, don't be fooled by somebody who's really, really high level international player. They're frightened of injury, they're frightened of a bad game. They know that some 20 people want their chops and they'll be a nobody because that's how it feels. Right. So how did this change it to pin it down then? How does Jesus do this? Yeah, I think the big part is in what you just said there. The nobody like I'm always somebody to Jesus. We are always somebody to Jesus. He has He has come. He died and he rose again so that we can know him, so that God can know us mentally. We're still in the image of God, whether we trust in Jesus or not. But we are. There's a different relationship shaped when we choose to trust in God and trust in Jesus as the one who saved us and forgives us so that was that was really huge. I think also as an athlete, you are trying to achieve this status and the bar keeps being moved higher and higher. But in scripture it says that Jesus is going to continue to transform us until he returns. I can still see it's my it was my first verse that I memorized ever, and it says, I am sure of this, that he who began a good lesson will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.

And as an athlete who's always trying to improve, always trying to get better, knowing that someone else is on your team in that and that they're going to do the bigger work than you could ever do is just incredibly frank, better than any sporting moment you can ever think of. And it's hard to show it, but it's true.

Graham Daniels: Yeah. Okay. So, so this in turn, so often in our conversation in this podcast, we'll talk about two separate ideas, but deeply linked, I think, in the way you've just said it, when an athlete, coach or athlete meets Jesus Christ, there's a new safety, you're safe, you're not scared, you know who you are and you know your love independently and that's safety.

And not being scared is a really attractive thing when people are watching. I think I like to move onto this with you because if you're safe, not scared, you can serve, not just survive. Yeah, you've got space, you've got emotional space, and you begin, begins the good work and you carries it through. It seems to me, by the way, he liberates you to be safe.

So there's a new freedom to serve your team, which is it's authentic, it's not perfect, but there's an authenticity. Now, I read your head coach, the Australian head coach comments, and when you retired and he said something like, Yes, we see her for a professional excellence and expertise and huge contribution to our national team at major championships. But what nobody ever saw was the way that she would welcome new players to the squad, right to them before they arrived, make sure that even the details of the kit were exactly right. If somebody didn't quite have the right stuff, she'd give it away. Talk about this liberation to serve your team, which is of Christ.

Jenny Tait: Yeah. And it's completely of Christ. He denied himself to serve us. And that's what as a Christian, I'm trying to do as well, trying to imitate him in that. And I will never do it perfectly. I can do it authentically and I can apologize when I do it really poorly. But I think in in a team environment, in life where credit for a relationship created to relate to one another and so serving one another is free, and you take the identity of your self and you get to love others. And so, yeah, it's really cool that that's what he can remember of me because that's what I hope as a Christian, as a as a Christian in any environment that I'm more known for than just what I can do, but how I love and serve because of how Christ loved and served us really sacrificially.

Graham Daniels: So you would known your head coach and therefore by everybody in the squad. Obviously, if the way you conducted yourself and your servant Christ servant heartedness, not just surviving

Jenny Tait: and sometimes surviving with no sleep, but yes, still surviving.

Graham Daniels: So yeah, but that's quite important. Is that because you've you've said it and I can reaffirm it, That of course, isn't it? There's no perfection here that's yet to come. There's a presence that makes it possible by God's spirit. You've made a very clinical decision, and again, your head coach said when you left the Australian team and you retired in 2020, having told him you were retiring to his disappointment, you then said, But there's one thing I will carry on with the Australian Institute of Sport Project talk for teenagers in high school mental illness. And he said, Well, Jenny, she's retiring, but she's certainly staying involved in the world around her to make a difference. You with a 20 or 27. I think major Australian athletes have been involved in this project. Tell us why you're involved.

Jenny Tait: Yeah. So in 2020, the Black Dog Institute, which is a mental health organization, partnered with, I guess the first time.

It's been really cool to see them continue that. So just actually announced their 2023 lot of athletes, but it meant we were going into schools which in 2020 looked online instead. So reporting online to a school full of kids, but talking through how mental health, how it can be mentally fit, so how it can be aware of thoughts and feelings that are probably not so true and put things in place to make them more true.

I'm really passionate about it because I have struggled with mental health and so it is really key in understanding better how our mind can fail us, how emotions compel us, but also how there's still so much to learn from it. And it doesn't mean you're down and broken, but this is hoping that as well.

Graham Daniels: So yeah, you describe elegantly a combination here of Christ Christ giving you a an internal, an existential degree, fulfillment and security that we've talked about how because Christ is in you, there's a North, he gives you a degree of authenticity amongst your peers and colleagues. And I'm assuming this inevitably has led to numerous conversations which we might call saying or speaking of Christ, driven by people asking you why, why, why not? Is that a normative experience as a result of being a Christian?

Jenny Tait: Yeah, I think so. And I think it was I think I was, especially in my national team career, hopefully, really, hopefully my teammates say this, but hopefully they always felt like they could bring whatever question they had about my faith. So when we went on tour and we shared a room, I didn't do anything differently to what I would have done at home. I read my Bible in the morning and I prayed before the games and I saw a different in my actions in different ways. And so I think it was always up for any conversation that we're going to talk about as my own never shied away from things and was ready to answer the questions, which did turn into a Bible study at one point with them, which was really cool.

And we wait. I said they could ask any question I want, and this list of questions they brought down, I was huge. I didn't realize what I was putting myself in for, but if I didn't know we went back, I looked up. I asked that wise counsel, so wisdom from others and came back with a bigger answer. Things that I hadn't thought through either.

Graham Daniels: So yeah, well, I'm imagining that's precisely what you did to your coach and to you. Probably. Yeah. I'm sure you did the same to your red team. Yeah. Yeah, definitely. Yeah, yeah. We can't know if we don't ask it precisely now. It's delightful and really delightful hearing your story. Let's come to where you are today then. So as I said at the beginning, it's evening, Sydney. It's morning in London. You're Europe, more college. Sydney, a renowned esteemed theological training institute. Well, why the decision to go there? And then let's talk finally about your hopes for developing the relationship between the gospel of Christ and sport in your own country.

Jenny Tait: Yeah, so I left the label in 2020. I began a ministry apprenticeship, so I'd taken two years to kind of begin preparing to to Christianity more fully, to image, to be in ministry. It takes time. There's you can have faith on just the littlest thing, but to be able to answer people's questions and work alongside them, it takes a lot to be equipped to be tested. If you're if you can go do that, say between that and then coming to college here, I think is preparing that to know the Bible, to know it well, know Jesus better now, God even more better.

And my hope in that is that I can then go and support Christian athletes. Athletes athletic world is taken away from the people who believe often you might have another Christian on your team. So being ready to go support Christian athletes as they're away from other Christians and in some hard times, but also in ready to tell more people about Jesus.

If I think he's the best thing in the world, I want everyone to know about the best thing in the world. So being equipped to go do that craft a journey has been a real privilege.

Graham Daniels: Real privilege. Chatting to you today, right?

Jenny Tait: Thanks for having me.

Graham Daniels: For what I. I know many people would be hugely encouraged by the way you humility and your clarity on the Christian message and your ability to buy a strength to live it out. And he's certainly done the work and he's continuing it. Jenny Tait, thank you very much indeed.

Jenny Tait: Thanks

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