GOLD COAST'S "people first, players second" culture has unlocked a new level of football for midfielder Claudia Whitfort.
Arriving at the club in 2022 with her confidence ravaged by two difficult seasons at St Kilda, Whitfort found the Suns' mantra to develop footballers into strong individuals and make them even stronger teammates was the perfect approach.
“I think coming to the club I had next to no confidence in my body and my ability,” Whitfort said of her arrival.
Managing just four games in two years with her first club Melbourne, she sought opportunity with the Saints, but the window never opened and she was traded north in exchange for pick no.36 ahead of the first 2022 season.
It was the seachange Whitfort didn’t know she needed.
“I'm a full beach gal now, it's been incredible,” she said.
“It's definitely something I needed to help power my game - that lifestyle change. I couldn't believe how different and happier I was coming up here and living in Queensland.”
Using the move to reflect on what the game means to her and her role in it, paired with a strong affinity for coach Cameron Joyce and midfield coach Sam Iles highlighted the importance of balance and more importantly, self-worth.
“The coaches were a really big help in me understanding what I'm worth and how I can actually play,” she said.
“Obviously this year has come leaps and bounds but that also comes from how far we've grown as an infield group as well.
“The development of everyone enables me to use my strengths, and we can all work to our strengths for each other.”
'For each other' has come to be the underwriting that’s ensured the consistent headway the club has made since entering the AFLW in 2020.
Both Whitfort and the Suns’ head of women’s football Fiona Sessarago believe the club’s family culture is one of the greatest advantages of being a team in a non-footy state. It's what Sessarago has dubbed a "people first, players second" culture.
“We have the homegrown talent that has come through our academy, and then we've obviously got the girls from the other states that don't have their families here and it's like the club becomes family,” Sessarago said.
“We can act as each other's family, which is I think one of the best parts of playing on the coast,” Whitfort said.
“Everyone’s got each other's backs off the field which means more on it.”
It was one of the more unexpected benefits of Whitfort's contract with the Gold Coast but the culture wasn’t evident from the outset, with the team coming off a winless 2021 season when she joined.
“The culture has definitely grown,” she said.
“Having a winless season coming in meant it culture wasn't amazing when I came in. I think a new coach, a lot of new coaches came in and we were able to really get a great group of girls together.
“Now we all just have that drive to win and play for each other because of how we’ve grown off-field.”
With so little time on-field at the Saints, Sessarago and the Suns’ football department had to look as much at Whitfort’s character on the sidelines as her skill on field.
“Over the last couple of years we’ve really focused on the quality of person coming into the environment and we can see something really special building internally through that,” Sessarago said.
“Claudia is a perfect example of it. She had been on two other lists before she came here, but since she's come in, she's just taking every opportunity and we really strive to provide the players with every opportunity to learn and develop.
“She’s spending time with coaches one-on-one during skills watching vision. Even during the season, players were going to the men's games and sitting with Cam Joyce and watching what they were doing during their game.
“Claudia just wanted to embrace every opportunity with the coaches on the football IQ side of it, but even in the strength and conditioning space as well. Obviously, she's pretty quick and strong which is super helpful!”
For Whitfort, the additional attention has also meant personal development opportunities and challenges, like taking on a leadership role in the team and midfield group this year.
“It makes your job as a leader easier with the girls you have around you and how they're all developing and wanting to play for each other,” Whitfort said.
She also pointed to the expanded midfield sessions which has increased her and mids partner Charlie Rowbottom’s familiarity with each other through the middle.
“We put a real emphasis on everyone learning the role,” Whitfort said.
“We have a lot of depth at the moment but that comes through extra training and bringing a lot of people in through the midfield group for extra trainings.
“It's worked in our favour this week as [Rowbottom] is a big out, so we know that anyone can come in and can play that role.
“We started our extra stoppage stuff last year, but it was quite a small select group so this season our midfield coach Sam Iles selected a few girls who do have that potential to run through the midfield at some point and inviting them to come. Everyone's really keen to get in.”
It’s made a marked difference to Gold Coast’s on-field efforts.
Improvements in the Suns' work rate from stoppages, contested possessions and metres gained all significant factors in their stronger brand of transition footy.
Now, Whitfort and her team are staring down their first finals berth since 2020 and are approaching Essendon with confidence, despite last year’s best-and-fairest ruled out of the game.
“[Rowbottom’s] a hard one to replace but we've got good depth this year, which we haven't in our in our past," she said.
“Pretty confident of anyone who's going to come into that role and plug the hole.”