I won my very first game as the head coach of the Adelaide Thunderbirds.
Then I lost the next 27 games in a row.
That’s right, 27 consecutive games. Ouch! I didn’t even get the chance to truly enjoy that single win. I wish I did, because winning is precious. But I couldn’t, because I was just so exhausted.
I was 32 years old, a rookie coach and full of hope, enthusiasm and ambition. I was tasked with the responsibility of turning around the fortunes of a once formidable club. From the outside, I was living the dream, but on the inside, the harsh reality of the experience was something else.
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The world of high performance sport is ruthless and uncompromising. As coaches, at any level in any sport, we will always be judged on our win-loss records. That’s just how it goes. We must take responsibility for our team’s results, because that’s our job, whether we like it or not. It’s a results-driven industry.
I think it’s important as coaches that we evaluate our own performances as often as possible. It’s also really important to have a very clear idea of what success actually looks like.
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I’ve learned a lot about keeping things in perspective over the past two years, and particularly the past 12 months. Personally, success isn’t just measured by simply winning and losing; it’s far more complex than that. If you are willing to look a little bit deeper beyond results and outcomes, you’ll realize that success and small wins are taking place all the time in your environment. You just need to be willing to take the time to stop, reflect and acknowledge. The ‘process’ is what matters because without it, you can’t achieve the results.
I’m often asked about my time at the Thunderbirds and my response is always the same. It was the hardest, most confronting two years of my life, but I’m full of gratitude for what the experience has taught me so early on in my career, and how much I have grown professionally and personally in some really challenging circumstances.
The truth is, what I experienced on and off the court in those two years is more than what a lot of coaches would experience over their entire career. I’m not sure what else could have been thrown at us but we got through it as a team and that’s where the gratitude comes from. What we all learned about ourselves, each other and life was incredibly powerful and valuable. That’s coaching and sport at its finest: the constant and continual learning.
ENJOY THE WINS. LEARN FROM THE LOSSES
One of the most powerful lessons I can share from my time leading the Thunderbirds is that winning and losing should be respected equally. Sometimes we forget how hard winning can be, and therefore it should be appreciated and savoured. Take a second to acknowledge the effort that has gone into making that result possible. Don’t take it for granted. Celebrate it. The same can be said for when we lose. Never should we get comfortable with losing, but we should appreciate it for what it is and always maintain perspective. Losing actually provides us with our greatest opportunity to learn and grow.
Imagine losing 27 games in a row. That’s a lot of growing, and the perfect platform to build resilience.
I’m incredibly fortunate that I’ve always been able to respond pretty well from setbacks or failure. Don’t get me wrong, it hurts like hell and it can take you to some pretty dark places, but you just have to keep fighting. If you can find the courage to find meaning in your hardships or struggles, and embrace them for what they are – HARD – you allow yourself the chance to begin the process of moving forward positively.
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You’ll come to realise that each moment can teach you something. These learnings or lessons give you the confidence to rise again, armed with a new level of strength and wisdom.
Don’t let your challenges consume or define you. Let them be the catalyst that kicks you so far forward, you begin to fly again. There’s a lot of power in growth. It should never be underestimated.
THE JOURNEY TO ADELAIDE
My passion for netball was born at an early age. I vividly remember sitting on the side of a court watching my mum play. Saturday afternoons were spent in front of the TV watching the Mobile Superleague on the ABC together. I would tape every game and watch it over and over. That’s how a learned to play. I was a student of the game from day one. I actually still have all of those VHS tapes.
In 1992, as an eight-year-old, I played my first game at the Corio Netball Association in Geelong. My coach was a young woman called Dion Allison. You never forget your first coach. By age 15, I was representing Victoria and three years later, I lived my childhood dream and made my debut for Australia against New Zealand. I spent 13 years playing at the elite level. Captaining my state and country will forever be some of the most memorable moments of my life.
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Coaching started out as a casual job during my final years of high school. I got knocked back at Hungry Jacks, so it made sense to coach netball. I coached a few school teams before getting involved in the football-netball leagues in Geelong. Around this time, I entered the coaching pathway with Netball Victoria, working though the accreditation system, coaching in Zone Academy programs and State League competitions.
In late 2011, I was somewhat fast-tracked through the pathway when Jane Woodlands-Thompson (the head coach of the Adelaide Thunderbirds) approached me, asking if I’d be interested in joining the club as an assistant coach. At this point, coaching was more a hobby than a career prospect, as my focus was firmly on my broadcasting and media career with Network Ten. But after a bit of negotiating I was able to balance both roles, and so began my journey into the world of high performance coaching.
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I spent four great years working under Jane, including the incredible 2013 premiership season. She was a great mentor and is now a cherished friend and one of the most important women in my life. It was quite cool that we got to reverse roles this season, with her working as my assistant coach. She’s always had my back and always believed in me.
When Jane stood down at the end of the 2015 ANZ Championship season after eight years at the helm (an unbelievable innings that included two titles), I applied for the head coach position, but missed out. Even though I was gutted at the time, it was the best thing that could have happened to me. I accepted a job as the Director of Netball and head coach at Manchester Thunder in the English Superleague. It was a really successful stint, as I took the team to the minor premiership before falling short in the final by just two goals. It was a heartbreaking result, but it was my time to show people what I could do. It was one of the best years – a life-changing experience in many ways.
Then the Thunderbirds job came up again. When the offer was presented to me, making the decision to leave Manchester was one of the hardest I’ve ever had to make.
I loved the Thunder franchise; it was seriously like an extended family. I was also working with Tracey Neville doing some technical coaching with the England Senior Squad and my future looked really positive and exciting. But in the end, my deep passion for the Thunderbirds drew me back. A brand new competition was starting and how could I pass up the opportunity to head coach in the best netball league in the world?
BEHIND THE SCENES
But as life often shows us, sometimes things aren’t quite what they seem from the outside. That was certainly a good way to describe the past two years of Suncorp Super Netball for me.
Many people still think that being a full-time coach involves planning and delivering training sessions and coaching on match day. While that is true, there are also the hours of video analysis, administration, endless emails, athlete and program management, countless meetings with athletes and staff, organisational responsibilities, media commitments, stakeholder and community engagements, and more meetings. Not to mention the constant pressure, criticism and scrutiny that comes with the territory. Did I mention lots of meetings?
This is the reality of being a head coach now. It’s full on. I always say it’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle – an all-consuming 24/7 lifestyle. It’s a job that you can’t fully prepare for until you are living it.
I’ll be honest – there were times when it hit me for six. It can be so intense and demanding that you can’t even think straight and your head is completely full, mostly of noise. You can easily forget to take care of yourself, and you find yourself in survival mode. I’ve become really passionate about the importance of physical and mental health and general wellbeing, because quite often you don’t realise how important these things are until you feel yourself going to places you don’t wish to visit.
It just reinforces the importance of a having a strong support network around you in a role like this. You cannot do it alone. I didn’t have any family or many close friends in Adelaide initially, so feelings of loneliness and isolation were pretty common. I also spent 18 months in the job without a High Performance Manager (a critical role that most other Super Netball clubs/state bodies have) and that was tough.
But it toughened me, too. You need to be able share the load and surround yourself with people you trust; people that will challenge you, support you, bring out your best and always have your back. As coaches, we also need to be disciplined to make time for ourselves and the other things in our lives that make us happy and keep us balanced.
It is hard yakka, but when you win (big wins or little wins) and achieve what you work so hard for, I reckon it’s worth every single minute of the stress and relentlessness! As tough as it is, you can’t help but love it and be addicted to it.
AS TOUGH AS IT GETS
When you make the decision to work in professional sport, you do so knowing it’s an unpredictable landscape and that job security is not one of the main features. As a coach, you never want to hear that your contract won’t be extended, but it’s bound to happen one day. It’s part of the business and you have to accept that.
Coaching out the second half of the 2018 season, knowing I wasn’t coming back, was one of the hardest things I’ve ever been through. It was incredibly draining and it took a lot out of all of us. I’m a strong believer in finishing what you start, and so were my athletes. Even though beneath the surface most of our worlds were in chaos, we all made a commitment to each other that we were going to stay the course, together.
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I’m really proud of everyone involved for being able to do that. It certainly wasn’t easy.
Once the season had finished and the dust had settled, reality set in. What’s next? Here I was at only 34, coaching at the highest level, and then left with nothing. It was quite scary realising that I worked in an industry that had the potential to chew you up and spit you out. BUT ONLY IF YOU LET IT.
It was in that very moment that I decided I would not be one of those coaches. I’d come too far, worked too hard and grown too much to walk away now. So I made a commitment to myself that I would get back out there, continue doing what I love and chase the dream all over again.
I’m really excited about what’s next in my coaching journey and am looking forward to sharing that news with you all in the next few weeks. Everything happens for a reason and sometimes you just have to step back and let the universe do its thing. I believe in that, but that’s just me.
In the meantime, I’m thrilled to be joining thenetballcoach.com and helping passionate coaches, from the grassroots to elite, take their coaching to the next level. I’m sure you can tell by now that I’m very passionate about coaching and I’m very passionate about supporting other coaches. Coaching is a tough job and often a thankless one, so I believe we should support each other as much as we can. The better we coach, the better our athletes become and that’s what it’s all about.
If you are a coach that wins all the time or loses 27 games in row, the message is the same: stay passionate, be open to learning and growing, be resilient and remember to always back yourself.