Wrong place, wrong time.
Three years on from the end of a coaching tenure in Adelaide that culminated in 27 consecutive losses, Dan Ryan is pointedly philosophical about what was the most difficult and confronting period of his life.
As he prepares to re-enter the Suncorp Super Netball fray early next year, the memories and lessons learned through that tumultuous period continue to shape his approach to the job.
But, he says, they don’t define him.
Only those closest to the 37-year-old know just how significant and challenging the physical and mental toll of being the public face of that tumultuous period in Thunderbirds history was for the first-time Super Netball coach.
And after returning to Australia to take the reins of 2022 premiership fancies the West Coast Fever, Ryan says time, distance and a heavy dose of personal development have helped him appreciate how much those two years prepared him for a second crack.
“In hindsight, it was too soon in my career and even though I had great confidence in my ability, I really didn’t have enough robust experience under my belt to be ready for the complexities of the job at that level,” Ryan says from his new home, about an hour out of Perth.
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“The club was going through some pretty tough times at that point too, so it’s fair to say it probably wasn’t the most suitable or supportive place for a rookie coach.”
“But I’m actually really grateful that that was my rookie experience, because as hard and confronting as it was, you learn very quickly what it takes to be successful and what you’re made of when your back is against the wall.”
“I’ve always been a resilient and glass half full person, so once I was able to properly reflect on the experience and accept it for what it was, I was able to take away so many positives, and continue to.”
“Seeing how I’ve attacked my career since then and how much I’ve grown as a coach, leader and person has been really satisfying, so it makes the struggles incredibly valuable and absolutely worth it if you are willing to persist.”
There’s plenty of reading between the lines to be done when Ryan reflects on his time in Adelaide and his early experiences at West Coast.
He speaks glowingly of the collaborative approach the Fever high performance team have taken on everything from player recruitment, season planning and buying into his vision and plan for the team moving forward.
While it’s only early days, internally at the club he’s yet to feel that its fortunes rest solely on his shoulders.
“It’s really important as coaches that we don’t feel that we have to be the decision maker all the time or that we have to control or do everything,” he said.
“One thing that’s really evolved in my coaching philosophy is that I choose to see my role as the head coach as just one piece of the puzzle within the team unit.
“Yes, it’s an important piece with more responsibly and accountabilities than others, but if you can create an environment where everyone contributes to share the load and constant collaboration is commonplace, you can alleviate a lot of pressure and as a result, create a culture where you and others are genuinely thriving.”
“One of the reasons I applied for the Fever job was that I wanted to be fully immersed in an interdisciplinary high-performance team that was genuinely collaborative and was going to challenge me as much as possible.
“Three months in and I’m thoroughly enjoying my time here. The organisation understands high performance and I’m already seeing the benefits of having a well-resourced program with great expertise and a culture where everyone has a seat at the table and is supported.”
While Ryan’s departure at the end of the 2018 season came as no surprise to most observers after the Thunderbirds endured the last of that record run of losses, his next move was the subject of much interest and discussion.
But after taking time to reflect, and with very few coaching opportunities in Australia, Ryan says he was comfortable playing the long game, and seeking opportunities overseas as he set about gaining more experience.
“Up until that point, I had spent six years with Adelaide and hadn’t experienced many other environments, so when I finished up, I was determined to add more depth and diversity to my overall experience because nothing beats lived experiences in coaching.”
“It’s a tough industry and I knew I was going to have to do it the hard way, so I packed up my life again and moved back to the UK.”
“It certainly came at a cost financially having to live off savings for most of 2019 to keep my dream alive but I knew it was important and it was what I wanted to do to be better prepared if an opportunity back home came up in the future,” he says.
After returning to England and re-joining the Manchester Thunder as an assistant coach and winning the 2019 Superleague title, and then leading Northern Ireland to a top 10 finish at the Netball World Cup, Ryan was approached by Leeds Rhinos and took on what many consider one of coaching’s most difficult challenges: building a new franchise from the ground up.
Despite starting with an empty playing list and facing the monumental task of pulling together a squad that could be competitive against seasoned and established teams, all amid the background of the growing COVID pandemic, Ryan says he could not look back on that time more fondly and proudly.
“It was one of the best experiences that I’ve ever had in netball and so unique that you get to be a part of something historic like that,” he says.
“Everything that we built, the team, the first ever full-time high performance program, the culture, the relationships, the playing style, it was really organic and authentic, and everything that we achieved, developed or evolved together was through the contribution that every single one of us made.
“Not just me as the head coach and director of netball, it was the youngest player in the team, it was the most experienced player, the training partner, it was the assistant coach, the strength and conditioning coach and PHD student, it was the fans. Everyone played a part in creating and developing what we built.”
“We took it to every team in the league and at our best we were dangerous. We built a playing style that suited the strengths and weapons of the individuals, and we created a culture that was inclusive and empowering and brought out the best in everybody. We shook the hell out of the competition when we really had no right to.”
Having achieved what many might have considered impossible – taking the fledgling squad to fourth place and a maiden finals appearance in its first season – Ryan says the pull to come home was always destined to win out at some point.
Now he faces another significant challenge: taking a stacked Fever team to what Western Australian hopes will be the state’s first ever Super Netball title, after the departure of long time Fever head coach and new Diamonds boss Stacey Marinkovich.
But Ryan insists those expectations and comparisons aren’t something he’s worried about, particularly given the support he’s received from Marinkovich herself.
“Going into any head coaching role, you accept pressure is part of the deal but I love a challenge so I can’t wait,” he says.
“Before I started this role, I was fascinated to see how open minded or resistant everyone would be with a new head coach coming in after they’ve been with Stacey for a long time, and probably more to the point the success that they have achieved under Stacey’s tutelage over that time,” he says.
“It’s quite a unique position for a new head coach to be picking something up in such a healthy position and I’m so thankful for that. Stace and I have had a thorough handover and she’s been really generous with her time and insight into the team and program. She’s been a great support to me and really encouraged me to make it my own as well.”
“I have felt really embraced here and so inspired by everyone’s growth mindset and drive to keep pushing forward. I feel very privileged to be able to lead this team on this journey and I can’t wait to see where it takes us all.”