Sisters in Arms – The Secret Behind the Netball Diamonds’ Success
By Jenny Sinclair and Megan Maurice
Exclusive extract from “Shine: The Making of the Australian Netball Diamonds”
The Australian team had been branded the Diamonds a few years earlier, but Lisa felt the need to address their cultural identity – what it meant to be part of the group, their beliefs and what they were trying to achieve. To lead the process, she looked to Ray McLean of Leading Teams. He had worked closely with a range of rugby league and AFL clubs, and was a key figure in developing the famous Sydney Swans ‘Bloods’ culture. Ray’s vision was to improve players’ performance by empowering them, and his results had impressed Lisa since they first met ten years earlier.
Ray’s vision was to improve players’ performance by empowering them
She explained, ‘Ray always puts it beautifully. He says, “You have to work on the dynamics and the mechanics at the same time.” For me, I had to have the dynamics in place, and that preceded what we did with the mechanics, that is, the physical conditioning, the technical and tactical work.’
Ray first went into camp with the Diamonds late in 2011. He started by working through the doubts that some of the other management had. Assistant Coach, Michelle den Dekker, was just one of a number of people who originally struggled to see how Ray’s work would apply to the team.
‘I know Lisa was very passionate about it,’ she said, ‘but I was pretty sceptical to start with. We had some unique individuals in the team that were pretty dominant characters. But I think Ray did a really good job of facilitating it, and we had really good leadership from the top and from Netball Australia.’
Ray held some frank discussions with staff members and players, explaining, ‘We couldn’t just walk in and force people into it. They had to be able to see the merit of what we were doing and buy into it. It was important to reassure people that if at any stage we weren’t adding value or moving towards better performance levels, I was happy to call it quits.’
Part of the ethos that Lisa wanted to instil in her playing group was that she valued them all equally. To her, it made tactical sense to be able to use her whole team of twelve players, rather than have a starting seven and five permanently fixed on the bench.
‘It is essential for success!’ says Lisa. ‘Coaching Victorian teams, you are very lucky because you’ve got a lot of strong players. One of our strengths is that our coaches are never afraid to go to the bench. As a coach you can get quite lazy about just putting the seven out there, but I don’t see the point in players doing all the training and not playing.’
As a coach you can get quite lazy about just putting the seven out there, but I don’t see the point in players doing all the training and not playing
In some of his earliest discussions with players, Ray found that that hadn’t always been the case.
‘Players were aware that there had been a pecking order when they came into the team. While it didn’t happen deliberately, sometimes they were left to feel a bit like they were on the outside of some strong friendships, especially if they were a squad member or training partner. Building those strong professional relationships between the players was important early on.’
The players didn’t have to be best friends, but they did need to respect and value each other’s contribution to the team.
The next task was to work with the players on developing a trademark for the team. A set of behaviours that the players identified with, and took responsibility for. According to Lisa, they started by ‘stripping it all back.’ She said, ‘Ray really challenged them to think about what it meant to represent their country.’
They talked about how the players felt the opposition perceived them, how they wanted to be seen, and what kind of behaviours in the group would be productive or counterproductive, and then taking responsibility for that.
The players had broken into small groups to talk about their trademark, but hadn’t been able to really define how they felt. Rather than make a slapdash decision, they chose to get together again the next day for more discussion, something that Ray saw as a very positive sign of commitment to what they were trying to achieve.
It was while wrestling with that question of identity that Laura Geitz, then one of the younger team members, came up with the goods. During an early breakfast meeting, Laura commented that before the start of the game the players stood on the transverse line and put their arms around each other for the national anthem. When that happened, she felt like they were sisters.
Ray said, ‘You could just sense in the room that that was going to be it. It only took a moment for the combative element of Sisters in Arms to surface. The players started to talk about that, and what their behaviours needed to look like.’
The trademark also provided a strong link to a wider group of people, giving current and past players an emotional connection that described how they felt playing for Australia.
Nat Medhurst summed it up by saying, ‘Sisters in Arms embraces not just the team as it is now, but every single team that’s gone before, every single person that has played for Australia and the future Diamonds who are yet to play.’
Sisters in Arms embraces not just the team as it is now, but every single team that’s gone before, every single person that has played for Australia and the future Diamonds who are yet to play
‘Lisa is incredibly passionate about never forgetting who we represent. She reminds us every single time at team meetings before we go out to play. As great as it is to be part of this team, we want to be so much bigger, and growing and healthy. It is special to be part of this sisterhood.’
Striving for respect:
With the trademark in place, Ray wanted the players to be able to use it meaningfully, so he started using a simple ratings system to get his point across. The group started exploring the idea of being Sisters in Arms by looking at a range of team behaviours, such as supporting each other on court and providing leadership to their teammates.
To illustrate his thoughts Ray said, ‘I asked who was our best at using their voice on court. They said, “Cath Cox is very good at it!” So I said, “Okay Cath, can you come and stand up here. Cath is number one for us; she operates in that space at elite level. So who’s our next best?” And they gave me another name. I then asked if they had an inkling where this was going, and they said that at some point we were going to have to talk about who doesn’t do it well.
‘I said, “Absolutely! So if Cath is somewhere up here and the other end of the room is 0 or 1, we want everyone to be at an acceptable level.”
We always talked about a benchmark of 7 out of 10. That got the players used to having acceptable levels of behaviour. It also led into them having strong enough relationships within the team that they could have honest conversations with each other.’
After talking about the ratings system, players learned a quick and simple way to review their training sessions and their performances in matches. In the earlier sessions they sometimes got caught up in a few trivialities, but gradually learned to focus on what was important to the team. Ray believed it was ‘a tool for the higher- level stuff – how we are preparing, how we are training, playing and reviewing. It has to stay in that space, rather than who hasn’t picked up their strapping tape after a game or cleaned up the locker room.
‘We continue to remind people that the conversations are about our trademark and performance; it’s not about whether we like one another or not. We’re striving to be respected by our peers. That’s the environment we’re buying into.’
We’re striving to be respected by our peers. That’s the environment we’re buying into
After the Holden Test Series match held in Sydney in October 2012, players formally rated their own games for the first time. Again, a benchmark of 7 out of 10 was established, and players were asked to think about what their performance looked like for their position, even if they’d only been on court for a quarter. A seven meant they’d beaten their opponent and won their position.
The premise behind the benchmark is to be reliable and consistent. Ray explained that ‘if a player goes into a match aiming at a 7 with good basic moves, things can turn their way and they might have a better game. But if they go into a match anxious about trying to perform at a 10 and things don’t go their way, they can get into a bind. If players think they are a more important part of the process than others, and they have more responsibility to play well, it can be overwhelming and affect their performance. They’ve been coached to understand that they all have an important contribution to make.’
To Lisa, having the benchmark is a way of being honest about a performance while removing the feeling of being personally criticised.
‘I think it is very logical,’ she said. ‘It is based on, “We know what our game plan is, you know what your role is, you know what you have to do and if you don’t do it, I’m going to let you know and so are your teammates.”
I think it is the most successful way forward. You are honest about performances, and you immediately address whatever comes out of it.’