When did you first get into netball? As a player?
I must have been 5 or 6, when I was at Primary School at St Peters and Pauls, we played in the yard with the “nettie” – a toilet outside acted as a barrier in the middle of the yard.
How does playing today differ from when you played – fitness/playing standard/skills/time commitments etc?
We played on concrete and our better matches on tarmac, if that was available. At school, we played in a small gymnasium. If we went to fixtures, we traveled on public transport and the teacher had to buy all of the tickets for five teams so we could all travel on the bus!
There’s no difference in terms of commitment – I had a ball out at every break time and we played various games around the netball post. We often went onto the sports field to train by running round the track by ourselves. Fitness was a priority for me, as I loved to run and jump and was very involved in all sorts of PE activities and competitions. I was a county 800m runner and high jumper as well as county singles badminton champion, and also played table tennis and did cross country for the county. I enjoyed hockey, rounders and swimming and taught myself to play tennis from a book I got out of the library!
As far as netball’s concerned, I saved my dinner money to get enough bus fare to go to club training – we played most nights or attended the Catholic youth club where we did Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme.
The main difference now is that players have all sorts of other input from all sorts of coaches from strength and conditioning, or specialist skills. I never went to training camps or anything like that. It seems incredible now, but a senior player would pick me up, or I got the bus, to go to an unknown town to attend county training and matches. Often we had to borrow kit for matches.
Even though they hold down full time jobs or study full time, our top level athletes are professional sportspeople – albeit without the financial benefits. The standard at the top level has definitely improved with the support of the English Institute of Sport, and the support staff and players have had to be increasingly professional as a result. At the top level, the demands on players’ fitness are extremely high and they have to be able to manage all the demands on their time really efficiently.
What made you move into coaching?
When I was at Endsleigh College, a lecturer called Janet Andrews was England’s Coaching Director and she invited me to attend some coaching courses. When I started teaching, she kept in touch and eventually, I achieved my advanced coaching award at the very young age of only 28.
When I left college, Lily McGurk encouraged me to play and coach county netball, and I coached my county U21 side. I started a teaching job at the same time, at the same school which I teach at now, St Anthony’s – and I’ve been here 29 years and counting!
What are your big coaching successes?
I have coached numerous teams to honours, both nationally and internationally. St Anthony’s have won national schools championships many times at all age groups – U14, U16 and U19, and many of my pupils and players have gone on to achieve England representative honours at U17, U19 and senior levels.
Internationally, I have coached England to a gold at the Netball Europe Championships, to two World Championships bronze medals and a Commonwealth Games bronze medal. In addition, I coached England U21 to a Bronze medal at the World Youth Championships. And this year, I have been thrilled to be involved in England’s campaign moving towards the World Championships in New Zealand, coaching to significant wins over reigning champions New Zealand and our close rivals Jamaica.
What do you believe are the attributes that make a great coach?
A really good coach needs to have the ability to assist players to reach their fullest potential. You need excellent communication, questioning and empowerment skills so that success can be achieved both for the individual and for the team. A great coach needs to have the ability to lead and be able to consider each individual as unique, offering assistance and guidance when necessary. Everyone is different, and you need to be able to adapt your approach according to the player involved.
You are head coach for TeamNorthumbria in the Netball Superleague and Assistant Coach for the England Open squad. How do the two roles differ?
As a head coach, you are the manager of the system - you have the ultimate cut/decision and have to take on board all the opinions and needs of the experts around you as you manage the programme with them.
Working as assistant means you are the sounding board, being able to discuss/agree/disagree and give any input when needed.
How do you juggle the two roles, with a full time job as well?
Every hour not in my full time job is spent doing the other two – I have excellent help in my assistant coach Anita Navin of Team Northumbria who takes on the role of Head coach when I am at England
I am incredibly fortunate that the staff at St Anthony’s have recognized that the priority at the moment for me has to be the England role in the build up to the World Championships. They have been incredibly understanding and have given me a timetable to allow me the time away from the school to work with the England squad as assistant coach.
You stepped down from the role of England’s Development squad coaching role in 2002, after the Commonwealth Games - why?
I had to make a decision to take time out to consolidate, having increased my responsibilities at school. That was where my priorities had to be.
What made you take up the post again for this World Championships campaign?
I was ready to embark on competitive coaching again at a national level, and felt that I was better equipped to take on this role now.
Do you have a specific coaching responsibility for the England team?
My nicknames for myself are Ever Ready or Polyfiller – I’ll do what’s needed! Ha ha!
However, I mainly do defending input during matches, training specifics at centre passes and doing specialist work with all players as needed. I also work on training for on-court speed and agility and am responsible for liaison with the EIS on strength and conditioning, nutrition and other specifics.
With so much going on during a match, how do you decide what to focus on at time outs/injury intervals/quarter and half times?
During the game, I discuss what needs to be said, and what players need in the way of advice, without giving them too much. We pick out the relevant or key issues that we need to continue to do what we are doing well, as well as looking at areas we need to focus on and improve.
England defeated New Zealand for the first time in 32 years in May. What do you think made the difference between this English team taking on the Silver Ferns and other sides?
There were loads of different elements – the speed of our ball movement, the team’s communication, and our low error rate were all vitally important. The high conversion rate of our centre pass and our team turnover to conversions in the first quarter was fab.
Most importantly we did not buckle mentally when they got within one goal of us. We were relentless and ruthless in our execution, and we kept our simple skills simple and effective.
Playing in the Netball Superleague on a weekly basis had toughened the players mentally, and a pre-competition phase after our Fijian tour had ensured that our players had improved fitness levels which really made the difference.
How are the preparations for the World Championships going?
Everything is on target. We have only lost to Australia this year and we know what we have to do to improve that result.
We have had a long lead in to the World Championships, which has been very different, but the players have responded fantastically, handling all the changes to peaking extremely well, after the season was extended as a result of the coup. Many sacrifices have been made by all the players and personnel involved, and it really has been an excellent team effort.
What are the prospects for England’s campaign?
We can only look at winning one match at a time and then, if all goes well, we will be in the final!
The Co-operative Netball Superleague has started up agan – how have your preparations been at Northumbria?
Preparations have been great – we started in July in the pre-phase for our conditioning to give us an edge. We can definitely change the expected order – our challenge is to win not draw against the top four, and, as we showed against Brunel last Saturday, we can do just that.
We have recruited two Australian players as well as a New Zealander who have added to the experience and expertise that we need to make the squad compete against the top four, and their influence has already been immense both at training and in matches.
You got very close last year. What do you think your imports bring to the squad?
They bring so much. They have great athleticism, defensive accument and high percentage shooting, as well as excellent centre court speed and agility. Most importantly, they have great leadership qualities and belief which is infectious. They all have a great abilities to help the entire squad to succeed while enjoying their netball, and prospects are looking good for the season.
Who are the names to look out for this season in your side?
Our Australians Lara McLeod and Elissa McLeod, our Kiwi GK Megan Hutton, and former England U21 star Victoria Burgess are all key to our success.
How will you manage the team while you’re in New Zealand with England for the World Championships?
I’m really lucky. There are two other coaches that have been working with me, and they will coach the side, along with our senior players, for the two matches that I will be away.
Why do you think womens’ sports are so poorly represented in this country?
It’s to do with the historical attitudes towards sport in England – culturally, we are constantly bombarded by football, cricket and rugby and we need to change the way we think about sport. We need to develop our sport so that men enjoy it as well – I played national league basketball for many years and the spectator base was mixed, which meant that the sport was more highly rated.
We need more women in sport who are winning – the public notices winners! If more teams and individuals win, then the public will take notice – we also need to help to develop a culture that is proud of and gets behind its sportswomen, because they put in just as much work as their male counterparts, and are equally deserving of the accolades when they succeed.
What do you think the prospects are for netball in this country – will it ever get as big as it is in Australia and New Zealand, in your opinion?
With the input of Sky Sports and increased media coverage, as well as winning medals, we will eventually grow and be regarded in a better light, but it takes time. We have a very large population in this country, very diverse in its nature, interests and hobbies and we need to change a lot of perceptions – but it can and will happen.
In New Zealand, there is a huge interest in indoor netball, and we would do well to introduce that, to increase the playing base in this country. Numbers of people playing are rising steadily, and if we can encourage even more to play for social, health or fitness reasons, perceptions of the game will continue to change.
Who are the names to look out for in the future from Team Northumbria?
We have a great base of young talent coming through in our ranks, and it’s hard to pick - however, look out for Helen Turner, Jenny Montgomery, Rachel Bird, Emma Lonsdale, Kim Duncan, Melissa Playfor and our new South African junior Isobel Bekker. All of them are talented and prepared to put in the hard work – the future at Team Northumbria is looking good!
FRANK UIJLENBROEK WORLDSPORTPICS