Salute to a coach

Kapi-Mana News - - SPORT -

Is Ruth Aitken the best coach the New Zealand net­ball team has ever had? Aitken, who is step­ping down af­ter the forth­com­ing test se­ries against Aus­tralia, has been at the helm 10 years. She has won one world ti­tle and been run­ner-up twice, and has won two Com­mon­wealth Games gold medals, and been run­ner-up once.

I take more no­tice of net­ball at the Com­mon­wealth Games than of most other sports be­cause – un­like gym­nas­tics, swim­ming, weightlift­ing, box­ing, archery and so on – it is a vir­tual world cham­pi­onship.

Only Lois Muir, who guided the na­tional team from 1974 to 1988, jos­tles with Aitken on the top rung of the New Zealand net­ball coach­ing lad­der.

Muir had one dis­as­trous world tour­na­ment, in 1975, was run­ner-up in an­other, in 1983, shared a world ti­tle, in 1979, and won one out­right, in 1987.

I tend to start this dis­cus­sion with Muir be­cause be­fore her time the New Zealand team played so in­fre­quently. For ex­am­ple, Taini Jami­son of Ro­torua coached New Zealand to the world ti­tle in 1967 and to run­ner-up in 1971.

She was ob­vi­ously a coach much ad­mired by her play­ers, and in 1967, with tal­ent such as Joan Har­nett, Judy Blair, Tilly Ver­coe and Bil­lie Ir­win in her ranks, she built a fine team. But be­tween world tour­na­ments her team al­most never played.

Muir im­proved as a coach as she learned to place more re­spon­si­bil­ity on her play­ers.

This came to fruition in Glas­gow in 1987, when Leigh Gibbs, Tracey Fear, Mar­garet Forsyth and oth­ers fairly much took over the train­ing and Muir fine-tuned tac­tics. The re­sult: a world ti­tle won with­out any team get­ting within 10 goals.

An­other trib­ute to Muir is that so many of her play­ers, in­clud­ing Lyn Gun­son ( Parker), Yvonne Wil­ler­ing, Gibbs, Wai Tau­maunu, Ruth Fa­thers (Aitken), Rita Fa­tialofa and Marghie Matenga went on to be­come in­flu­en­tial coaches at in­ter­na­tional level.

Aitken has coached dur­ing an era in which net­ball has gone semi-pro­fes­sional. The de­mands on her have been greater, but she has never showed any sign of stress.

Her pre­de­ces­sors, Gun­son, Gibbs and Wil­ler­ing, had plenty of net­ball knowl­edge, but also ob­vi­ous weak­nesses.

Aitken, by con­trast, has had most bases cov­ered. Her will­ing­ness to call on oth­ers for help and lack of ob­vi­ous ego have been as­sets.

Af­ter a slightly dodgy start, when her play­ers asked her to take more com­mand, she has been in con­trol, but in an un­der­stated man­ner. She’s not some­one who stalks up and down a side­line dur­ing a game, or al­lows her play­ers to see her in mo­ments of de­spair.

She hasn’t won ev­ery­thing – who could with Aus­tralian net­ball so strong? How­ever, she has ush­ered in an era in which the Sil­ver Ferns take the court gen­uinely know­ing they can beat ma­jor ri­vals Aus­tralia. Af­ter the bleak ‘‘sil­ver syn­drome’’ days of the 1990s, that’s been a blessed re­lief.

If her suc­ces­sor, who at this stage looks likely to be Tau­maunu, is as suc­cess­ful and han­dles her re­spon­si­bil­i­ties (in­clud­ing the me­dia) as well, New Zealand net­ball will in­deed be for­tu­nate.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from New Zealand

© PressReader. All rights reserved.