Remote control: England Netball’s Jess Thirlby on how she coached her team during New Zealand series from 10,000 miles away due to Covid-19
It’s one thing as coach trying to get your message out to the team standing just yards away on the court, quite another when armed with a laptop and an earpiece 10,000 miles away.
But that was the challenge facing England netball head coach Jess Thirlby as her team contested their first international since January in New Zealand while she was stuck back in Bath, grounded by coronavirus.
She received a positive test result three days before the squad were set to fly out to Hamilton last month, which is when Thirlby went into what she calls ‘solution mode’ to figure out how everything was going to play out.
The team played three games in three days and, despite it being a challenging time for the squad and staff, Thirlby believes many positives can be taken from the experience.
The 40 year-old, who is a former England international, told Newschain: "I felt there were some advantages of me being at home, you know my environment is pretty calm, I get a birdseye view of the match, which most coaches love, but you don’t really get it until after the match because you are obviously ground level and watching the game.
“If anything, I liked to think there is a strength in that so I could jump in with maybe a few minutes to go before the end of a quarter, make one comment on the attack and the other on the defence and maybe any changes.”
She also believes it could add a new creative angle to how they handle communication in the future during international fixtures.
"Actually, I think this is a bit of an innovation for netball. It didn’t come around the way we wanted it to, but actually it’s given me some real food for thought around how we could actually be a little bit more creative around modes of communication in the future and not be so scared to try something a bit different.
"So yeah, who knows, I might have an earpiece in and have people from all over the world all connected to me for the next international series.
“But yeah it might be seen as a bit different for netball but it’s the norm in so many other sports and actually let's not be too scared to innovate moving forward. I will always see the positive out of anything, even though it’s been incredibly demanding on everybody.”
The Silver Ferns had come off the back of a Cadbury Series competition and a full domestic season in the ANZ Premiership, while the Vitality Netball Superleague and England duties were cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
And while The Roses lost all three games in New Zealand, Thirlby says she can’t ‘speak highly enough’ of their overall performance and added that they ‘probably surpassed people’s expectations'.
As for her own situation, she says things were a bit of ‘blur’ following her diagnosis.
The coach, who was asymptomatic, said: "I was devastated, it was an emotional few days. It wasn’t something I had expected although I respect the processes we were going through and the testing procedures.
"I guess because we had been in camp for so long following such strict protocols and then when you go home, my interactions with other people apart from my direct family were very limited for that reason.
"Those first three or four days were quite a blur if I’m honest because things needed to work quite quickly.
"I got that result on a Sunday and we needed to be back in Loughborough on Tuesday and flying on Wednesday evening. There was a lot that needed to be addressed but I guess I just went into solution mode really.
"I kind of turned my attention to that the team have to be front and centre of everything, how to support the staff and the team and in what way can I still lead from a distance.
"I still felt very duty-bound to do that while massively acknowledging that this group, staff and players are more than capable of leading themselves.
“It was understanding the role I couldn’t play because I wasn't on the ground, I can’t read the room, I can’t sense check and that’s something you really rely on as a coach and everyone kind of becomes my eyes."
Saracens Mavericks’ head coach Kat Ratnapala, who has been Thirlby’s assistant coach for the last 12 months, led the side in New Zealand.
Thirlby said: “It was the first for all of us and nobody really had the answers to start with, we were still navigating our way through the first week once the guys landed.
“We tested a lot of things and therefore we arrived in a good place of how things could work logistically and on the ground. It will make a good chapter in a book in the future, it’s definitely been an interesting learning curve.”
Thirlby has been having four hours of sleep and has been working around the clock to attend both duties for the New Zealand series as well as focusing on her work at home.
She spent time watching the training sessions live and having regular meetings with the staff and players.
“You know I wasn’t in her (Ratnapala’s) ear all the time, we are talking maybe once in a quarter where we might just be confirming things we spoke of in readiness for the game,” she added.
"It’s not very reactive, it’s more kind of ‘this is what we are expecting and are we thinking of any changes’.
"It’s been really challenging but I think we really struck a good balance there and ultimately what I wanted to do was at least make sure there was a connection if needed.
"I worked a normal day and I kind of worked most of the night. I wasn’t sleeping all day and then just working New Zealand time because there’s so much that is still happening around planning even beyond New Zealand which I have to very much be a part of.
"It’s quite interesting actually because once you are away on a tour or a test series, you’re almost, forgive the pun, in your own bubble, and so the day stuff job gets put to one side and you know you're not being asked to contribute to anything really apart from focusing on the competition.
“I had to be really open to Kat and Colette (Thomson) to throw something at me because they can feel it from the side of the court.
“I like to think that I showed the confidence of when they suggested things that I was like 'yeah go for it if that's what it feels like,' you have to trust your gut."
She added: "Everyone in this team contributes and I love this about this group and I have no doubt that we are now stronger having gone through this experience.
"I think this will be some of the defining moments when we are hopefully on the podium in a couple of years time, we’ll look back and think these are really pivotal moments.
“It’s these things that shape the team we will become and ultimately how we will play out of court. Even from this distance, I can sense how connected the group were and how supportive they were of each other.”
The England squad are the reigning Commonwealth Games champions, but Thirlby is determined to push for more from her team.
She added that it’s a ‘privilege’ to enter the next Commonwealth Games on home soil in 2022 in Birmingham.
Despite being hungry to defend their title, Thirlby is also aiming to get her squad on the podium at the World Cup in Cape Town, South Africa in 2023.
She said: "I’m going to put it out there, we haven’t gone into a world cup final before and that for me is the outstanding piece of the jigsaw, and aside from that we have a huge challenge on our hands and also a huge privilege to enter the next home Commonwealth Games in Birmingham as reigning gold medalists.
"That’s an honour to walk out in that environment but we’re not that team, the team would have changed by that point, but to be able to sustain and repeat that success and better it is a huge undertaking.
“If anything we are all excited by that as opposed to fearful of it.
"We’ve got more depth in this squad than we’ve had in the four or five years arguably, so I think that will create some really great internal competition and I think we will get the best out of each other.”
But she made clear that she wasn’t going to achieve this by trying to adopt the Silver Ferns’ highly successful winning culture.
She said: "I’ve always been quite curious about how they play. It’s not necessarily a case of trying to copy New Zealand at all.
“They’ve got a very distinct defensive style which everyone knows, so actually unpicking that is really enjoyable because when it pays off it’s really satisfying.”
She added: "We’ve got a great responsibility to keep netball visible and that's why I feel so proud over the last week because we’ve done more than just go out and try and win a game. It's a win for netball and it's a win for netball across the globe.
“It’s a huge achievement what we've done in New Zealand but we can't stop there."