Head, heart and gut.
They are the three ‘senses’ that sporting coaches rely on – an essential blend of knowledge, care and feel. Across an elite coaching career spanning 20 years, England’s Director of Netball Jess Thirlby has honed hers to a fine degree. She’s built her tactical and technical craft, gained a keen understanding of athletes, and just as importantly, learned to listen to her instincts. Combining all three successfully will drive Thirlby, together with her talented and hardworking Roses squad, into the pinnacle events of the next two years.
Thirlby was just 26 when she stepped away from an elite playing career to focus on coaching. A considered move, it was thought to be brave by some, and premature by others who’d glimpsed her potential as an English Rose.
“Many people thought it was far too young,” explained Thirlby, “but it came about in the right way. I’d been fortunate enough to represent England from about the age of 14 to 24, from age group pathways, to the English Under 21s, then a few years in the senior group.
“But I was never a starting seven player, never first on the team sheet. I’d done the best I could in an England dress, I didn’t believe that I could break in any further. I don’t do anything half-heartedly, and while I didn’t feel I could get any better as a player, I could commit to coaching and see where I could go. It felt natural.”
“I would have loved to have had a long playing career like a Jade Clarke or Geva Mentor, but I have no regrets, and I now feel I’m five to ten years ahead of other people my age because I made that decision.”
By the time she’d stopped playing, Thirlby had already laid solid foundations to her coaching career. She’d been the first player signed to Team Bath’s full time programme, a visionary and immersive experience run by Lyn Gunson, and at just 19 added coaching to her repertoire.
“I think Lyn guided a few of us down that pathway without us realising it – in my case, I was the sort of player who always asked her why, and how, and where does that fit! Lyn brought up a generation of players and coaches that have spread around the world, and are still contributing to netball.”
Over the next two decades, Thirlby dedicated herself to the art and craft of coaching, working in a number of roles, completing a Masters in Coaching Science, and crucially, breathing the rare air of UK Sport’s ‘Elite Programme’.
Selected into the three year, full time, funded position, Thirlby gained a rich variety of experiences, including working alongside elite coaches from other sports, an understanding of complementary industries, and overseas placements at the Queensland Firebirds and Southern Steel.
“The programme was designed to fast track elite coaches, and I was so lucky to gain a place at the infancy of my coaching journey. It was a great opportunity to be mentored through the coaching programme, to have diverse thinkers around me that challenged and tested me, and also to create a support network that’s still invaluable to this day.”
When Thirlby embarked on the UK Sport programme, the only other full time netball coach in England looked after the Roses. It was also an era, Thirlby believed, when most of the Superleague coaches were “significantly more experienced, and at a much later stage of their lives than me. We did need to develop a new generation of coaches coming through.”
English netball proved ripe for the overhaul, and with Thirlby leading the charge, other Gunson-mentored young coaches including Anna Stembridge, Tamsin Greenway, Kat Ratnapala and Sara Francis-Bayman entered the fray. Joining them were a number of equally exciting young coaches from other regions.
Following the 2019 Netball World Cup, Thirlby was appointed to manage the Roses. After an historic 2018 Commonwealth Games victory, and the disappointment of missing the gold medal match in Liverpool, it was an interesting time to step into the role.
“You walk in off the back of that and wonder where you start. And in other sports there will often be a clean out, but in netball, you inherit a staff and player group that were in place before you take over.”
The initial driver for Thirlby was establishing where she could make a difference, based on her observations from a position that was slightly removed, but had enough proximity to be familiar with the system. She said, “I wasn’t coming in to be Tracey Neville, who’d just stepped down, to keep status quo, or to make changes just for the sake of it. What I did need to understand was what I felt strongly and passionately about, and where were our points of growth.”
Bonding with the Roses staff – who Thirlby said she’s immensely lucky to have – and players was one of her first steps. With the Roses’ athletes spread across three countries, Thirlby had to think laterally. “I do think it’s (having players in Australia and New Zealand) one of a few reasons that’s led to England’s current success, so we can’t be too stubborn about that.
“In the future, of course we’d like to think we attract our best players and other internationals to stay in England, but we do have to be honest about what it’s achieving at the moment.
“There are challenges though – as a group, we are always going to spend more time apart than together, and waiting for the few camps before a competition isn’t good enough. So where are the gaps? How do we get better while we are apart?
“So keeping a strong connection between all the groups and players is important, and I can’t compliment the girls enough for how they go about that.
“Working with them is also very individual. For example, what does Geva (Mentor) need from me during her Australian season, what do I need from her, and what does the group need? Some players want more feedback on what they are doing, others just want to touch base when it feels right for them.
“It’s okay for that to look a little bit different from player to player, but there is still a bottom line that we have to uphold in remaining connected. So it’s light touch, heavy touch, and also celebrating that we do have Roses programmes in different parts of the world. I consider that part of our strength.”
Another conundrum was developing a more balanced playing group. For a number of years, England relied heavily on a handful of highly capped and experienced players, who were the first picked for any team. “We had a group that had been building for a decade – the likes of Jo Harten, Eboni Usoro-Brown and Serena Guthrie, who’d been an under 21s group together. Combined with more senior players like Geva Mentor and Jade Clarke, they were ripe for success.
“But the layer underneath needed more work, needed their moment, and needed to put upward pressure on the starting seven.
“That’s been a work in progress, but two years on, we now have upwards pressure, breadth across the group, and tactical diversity among player positions.
“England doesn’t want 2018 to be just one mark in a history book, but to have a period of sustained success. That doesn’t mean we will win everything, but I do believe we have a place at the table and we need to live up to that. We are not going to fall back into the period of finishing 3rd or 4th that we’ve sat in for so long.
“We’re restless and not happy with that anymore, and the difference is that after 2018 we believe we can do it.”
Covid19, while making netball at any level difficult, has created one small blessing in disguise for the Roses. With seven of their number based overseas, and travel well-nigh impossible, Thirlby’s ‘next layer’ have been thrust into the spotlight whenever international competition has been available. Now, all but one of the 25 person squad are capped, with players that would usually sit outside the starting seven gaining valuable court time.
“Our last tour to New Zealand was a good example of that,” said Thirlby. “We didn’t have some of the household names, but my job was to help the players I did have to be the best they could possibly be – they deserve my attention, and it’s about succession planning. As long as players like Jo, Geva, Serena and Jade are good enough, they’ll be in the team, but they won’t be there forever.
“What is important is that we have to be robust enough to ignore the outside noise. People are results focused, and that’s how we are ultimately judged. It’s easy to say that we didn’t win a game in that New Zealand series, but with eight players out of our team, we still tracked well.”
With so many players now in the mix for the Commonwealth Games team of 12, narrowing them down will be difficult, but as Thirlby points out, it’s a good problem to have. “We are funnelling down, and will have to make clearer decisions based on match day performance, and what combinations can uphold the standards and style of play that we want. It will come down to connections.
“You have to be clear about how many specialists you can afford to take across a group of 12, and what utilities you can take who offer more than one or two playing positions. So someone that is included might not be the number one person in their position, but they might be number two across three positions, which then enables us to take our first choice specialist in another area of the court.”
Thirlby will give her squad every opportunity to showcase their skills on the current tour. She’s travelled with a group of 15 to New Zealand, and will be joined by a further four players for the Australian leg. She said, “The 12 will become clearer, but I don’t want that just yet, because we are at the point where the wider group are all still legitimate options. We have to place a microscope over the combinations that are starting to shine, look at who has a point of difference, and is there room for them in the 12?
“We need to have each of the 12 person Commonwealth Games team a genuine option to take the court and win the game. We’re not quite there yet, but I believe we soon will be.”
Tactically, England have also upped their off court game with a series of astute coaching appointments, including Sonia Mkoloma (assistant coach) and Olivia Murphy and Liana Leota (technical coaches). Each of the three bring unique qualities to the group – Murphy has a wealth of knowledge of the English system, Mkoloma has been based in Australia for the last 14 years, while Leota’s knowledge of current VNSL players and the New Zealand game has it’s own rewards.
“I’m like a kid in a sweet shop, with their collective experience of those styles of play,” laughed Thirlby.
“I’ve worked with Sonia before, and while she is very different to me, I absolutely trust her. She has great experience of the systems in Australia – she’s played against them, coached among them, and has very current knowledge. I’ve also worked with Liv before – we led an English A team a number of years ago.
“Liana is still playing and is in touch with the current group, but also has wonderful experience and knowledge of the New Zealand style. While we aren’t overly focused on them, England did fall short during a five minute period against their style of play at the World Cup. So to have her insight combined with what I already know is a great reinforcement, as she sees what happens through quite a different lens.
“Working with such a diverse group feels natural and right, but will come with it’s challenges. We all think a bit differently, but I invite being challenged, and don’t want ‘yes’ people that just agree with what I say.”
The other significant piece of Thirlby’s puzzle lies at the beating heart of the Roses – their team culture. She has strong opinions on a variety of moving parts including leadership, atmosphere, and communication within the group.
When Chelsea Pitman experienced a miscarriage during her last tour with the Roses, her coach, who she’d only just met, was the first person she turned to for emotional and practical support. Thirlby said, “A lot of us talk about the care factor, but until you experience it you don’t really know what you will be like. So it was one thing for me to do what I considered my job, but when Chelsea shared something that was so very cruel, it was a good reminder about the impact that you have on people first, and netball becomes quite secondary at that point.
“It’s a testament to Chelsea, and very humbling, that she felt she could share that with me, and feel safe and protected.
“Does having that care factor mean that I can’t make tough decisions or get walked over in other situations? No, it doesn’t. But it does mean that you can do it in a way that people come with you, and there is mutual respect between you.”
All teams experience cultural speedbumps, and while the Roses weren’t struggling when she started as head coach, Thirlby still believed small improvements could be made. “When I first came into this group I sat with it for about six months. I wanted to marry up my observations with realities, and slowly but surely add a few things that I believed could add value.
“For example, this group thrives by working hard with a smile on their faces. In sport, we can sometimes be led down the path of thinking that if people are laughing or having fun, they aren’t working hard or serious about what they do.
“For this group, it’s the complete opposite. If they aren’t enjoying themselves, we don’t get the best out of them. So we’ve owned that, we’re okay with that, and we plan for it. You only have to look at Serena. She models it every day, but it should never be questioned as anything other than a sheer driving commitment to netball.”
The other aspect of team culture that Thirlby has tapped into revolves around the Roses’ leadership structure. On the current tour, Guthrie has been named as captain, and will be supported by an additional group of three rather than the more traditional vice-captain. It’s a way forwards that Thirlby is passionate about.
“I’ve always sensed that a group will lean into the more experienced players, and that creates a dependency which I don’t believe is helpful. Everyone has to lead and contribute in some way, and while that might look or feel different for each person, they can’t afford to be passive or dependent. The collective is the strength of the group and that comes to the fore under adversity.
“Captaincy is an acknowledgement of what that person already does. It should be a celebration and a liberty to be who they already are, not something that adds weight. Because then you risk not getting the performance that person was initially rewarded for.
“Using a leadership group I’m seeing the rewards. Players are more autonomous, they can lead themselves, or run a session, and have mature conversations.
“Serena has been appointed our official captain – the system demands that we have one – but she just needs to do what she’s always done. I don’t want her to do anymore, or to be different. I don’t want her to feel the weight or burden, but rather the knowledge that many people around her are also taking on those roles.
“And it’s particularly important in a match situation – the team shouldn’t be thinking it’s up to Serena to save the day. Each person has to step up into their role. We are fortunate to have an abundance of leaders, and in the process we are creating future leaders too.”
With just 10 months until the 2022 Commonwealth Games, Thirlby continues to make the most of her rapidly dwindling time. While her squad is split across the globe, she’s upskilled some of her less experienced players, given the Roses more match practice than any other nation, astutely appointed a diverse coaching team, strengthened team culture, touches base regularly with mentors including Lyn Gunson and Australia’s Norma Plummer, parents a young family, and somehow continues to keep evolving herself.
“The role of head coach is so different to what it used to be. While I think many people have the tactical and technical knowledge to coach, it’s the other duties – managing people and the environment, creating culture – that you need to be world class. That’s what you have to work on.
“I know my strengths and weaknesses, and I seek out people that are going to challenge me and help me to stretch and grow.
“I’m not the done deal. I believe in myself, and that I can do this job, but do I want to keep learning and growing – absolutely!”