By Heath Brown
It’s hard not to jump on board the NSW Swifts juggernaut this year. The team that Rob Wright recruited three years back and Briony Akle has moulded into pacesetters and the competition benchmark is electric to watch on and off court.
But what is the secret sauce and cultural recipe that has them almost two games clear on top of the Suncorp Super Netball ladder?
Some pennies dropped for me as I watched captain Maddie Proud win my ‘best on court’ this week … from the sidelines. Despite being on the bench after injuring her ACL a week earlier, she was in every contest. Then as I looked around her and reflected on the girls in red, I started to study why the Swifts have everyone gripped.
As an outside observer, let’s take a look at what us coaches can learn from the competition’s favourite smiling assassins.
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A captain, more so than a coach, influences the personality of a team.
Maddy Proud has always been a character. She charms the pants off fans in media outings and she’s known as the team joker amongst the girls. But when she switches into game mode, she is a gutsy warrior.
This mix of traits – the light and shade – is what makes amazing leaders. They create environments that everyone wants to be a part of, and not leave, because they are not just playing netball, they’re making life memories, building lifetime friendships and a second family.
If there is one quality that sets apart a true captain from a wannabe, it’s selflessness and altruism. You can’t fake putting your team before yourself. To see Maddy, just a handful of days after a season-ending knee injury, in tears screaming her team to victory, it was clear her heart and soul was the eighth player on court. We all would’ve understood if she was on the emergency bench, head down, feeling sorry for herself. But she was as big as the win for me.
Some teams domestically and internationally quite clearly have performance issues linked to culture, and I think if you line up Maddy next to those captains you might see where some of the improvements could be made.
The important note for us coaches? Choose your captain wisely. It’s not always your best player, your oldest player or most capped. It’s who possesses the traits that you want the character of your team to reflect, as that will become your culture and that’s what wins you the tight matches.
While only one of the Swifts’ usual starting seven players is a NSW pathway girl, five are young Aussie pathway products who bleed Swifts red. The coaches are backing local talent over international.
Second-placed Lightning have four starting internationals. Thunderbirds have five. It’s hard not to see a Diamonds side in the future without Klau, Turner, Eddy, Proud and Hadley in it, and even Garbin as she develops. Lisa Alexander should be thanking Briony Akle for building the future of the Diamonds, closely followed by Simone McKinnis at Vixens.
How many times this year have we seen replacement players filled with mid-tier internationals over Aussie talent?
Don’t get me wrong, if a ‘game changer’ is available and you have zero similar stocks available in Australia, then it makes sense to take an international. But if I was a South Australian local watching a South African midcourter replace an Englishwoman in a starting seven that has more international flavour than a Dubai airport waiting lounge, I’d be feeling pretty disillusioned with their pathway.
Or seeing two South Africans come into a Queensland side as replacements that has so proudly chanted “Queenslander” in their huddles for many years. Local and Aussie girls play for their state, and that builds culture. Swifts have blooded two of their Waratahs already this season, this week throwing Elle Bennetts into the deep end to see what she is made of. And she thrived. This is what Aussie fans want to see: an Aussie girl out there creating the news.
Every team needs a Sophie. Whether it’s Garbin or Halpin, both get on the court and can change a match in seconds. Impact players are known for their uncanny ability to enter a game with specific instructions from a coach on how to change the course of a match, and do it consistently.
Garbin’s injury this year means we have seen less of that, compared to her heroics last year, but Halpin has been a true game turner. Both girls could start in any team in the coming years and will probably need to, but for now as they grow they know their role and are creating waves.
There are times when us coaches cop it for reasons beyond our control. But when underperformance is the issue, coaches should very well cop it fair and square. When you have a team that should be performing better than what they are, and consistently underperform, the coaching staff has to be first port of call in questioning where the issues might lie. The coaches recruit the talent and build the list to start with, so it’s their own ingredients they need to turn into a delicious dish of netball.
It’s their game plan come game day. It’s their environment they build around the players and the staff they assemble. In previous seasons the Swifts weren’t under-performers, they were youngsters on the rise and Akle and her coaching staff coached to this. The 2019 season has been years in the making. The back half of this season and the next few will be the true test, but to date the Swifts coaching crew have played to the perfect script.
In a previous article I’ve said there’s something about teachers that makes them amazing coaches – mainly their exquisite communication skills. I’m going to one-up this and pay tribute to mothers. Their ability to nurture talent in an instinctual, natural and humanistic way is second to none. They become the mothers of their tribes and their girls look to them as their role model in what it means to be a powerful women. They bring the necessary softness to a team including vulnerability and hope, whilst summoning the power of woman building toughness and relentless pursuit of goals. It creates families, not teams.
The Swifts clearly have unmatched respect for their lady leaders, even down to the level of parents of the younger girls, who openly talk about how secure they are in having their daughters’ future in the hands of such great humans, not just coaches. Noelene Taurua has won two flags on the Sunshine Coast with this kind of leadership, and Akle is Australia’s version. Her sideline manner is the perfect example.
That warm smile when she knows the girls have locked a win away. That nervous ‘hands on face’ pose when she can’t watch a tight moment, so she stands in the coaching zone and just becomes one of the fans, showing us how real she is. We are so used to tight-lipped, frowning and weary-faced coaches who’ve worn the stress of the game for so long, that we forget how much our sideline etiquette impacts player confidence. Akle makes a player realise their enjoyment for the game, excitement in the pressure and regardless of the outcome there’s always going to be a smile and a hug at the end of a game with some tough words had in between when needed.
Heath Brown is a former Australian men’s team captain, and has coached at the elite level in both Victoria and New South Wales. He is also heavily involved in corporate leadership.