Southby finds her smile

After riding her own emotional rollercoaster, the Silver Ferns coach is now toughening up her players with a little help from an Olympic champion coach in Minnesota.

Janine Southby isn’t afraid to expose her very human side. For two weeks after the Silver Ferns were demoralised by the Australian Diamonds in four straight tests, the defeated netball coach did not smile.

Southby’s husband, Roger – a lecturer in sports management at Otago Polytechnic, and former manager of the national badminton team – tried in vain to make her laugh by taking the mickey out of her. “But I was just a misery guts,” she admits.

“I work really hard not to ride the highs too high, and the lows too low. But I’m human; it’s tough. You lose sleep, you go into the victim mindset, and get a little angry. But I know the girls are always trying out on court, they’re never not trying.

“My poor kids,” she says of daughters Grace, 14, and Ella, 12. “They just let me go for a little bit, and I eventually came round and started smiling, engaging and being Mum again.”

Like her players, Southby took the losses hard and delved into some “pretty deep soul-searching” in the weeks following. She was trying to fathom why, having triumphed over the Diamonds by 10 goals in Invercargill, the Ferns unravelled in the Constellation Cup a month later – losing by three goals, then eight, 12 and finally 16.

But there was more than a hint of a smile on Southby’s face this week, during a break from the Silver Ferns’ annual Christmas camp on Auckland’s North Shore.

The squad came together with a new sense of commitment, a relaxed Southby says. “There’s a real willingness in the group to address the wrongs and make them right.”

And they are physically fit. Southby and her assistant coach Yvette McCausland-Durie encouraged the players to enjoy their six-week break after the toughest international season yet, with 15 tests, but urged them to keep training. “Some of them have really done the hard yards,” Southby says.

Her influence on their fitness is obvious. When she first took on the job late in 2015, Southby arrived at the December camp, to be horrified by what she saw. “They’d come off a six-week break and done nothing. Their netball was terrible; their fitness levels were awful. We’ve definitely made progress.”

But what they now must work on, and perhaps make their main focus leading up to the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in April, is their mental stamina. Mental exhaustion is ultimately what led to their end-of-season collapse.

“That victory in Invercargill; the comebacks we staged against England in the Taini Jamieson series; it showed that we are there. It’s just having the consistency and belief all the time,” she says.

A proud daughter of Otago and grand-daughter of an All Black (wing Joe Procter in 1932), Southby can now see those defeats weren’t fruitless.

“If we’d been closer to the Australians, it would have covered over stuff that we knew wasn’t right,” she says. “We’ve been taught a lesson, and these girls needed that. The young ones needed to experience it first-hand so they can learn how to cope with it.”

Two years down the track in her journey as Silver Ferns coach, Southby has a record of 14 wins and 11 losses. And she still refers to her international team as “green”. In fairness, they’ve lost five of their most senior players – Casey Kopua, Leana de Bruin, Anna Harrison, Jodi Brown and Laura Langman – in that time.

Southby knows it may sound like an excuse, but as a squad they still lack the connections and combinations she wants to see.

“We’ve narrowed it down to a lack of connection, and time and understanding and trust in each other. There was also a lack of resilience, the ability to cope with what was thrown at us. So we’ve chosen to focus on these two big things,” she says.

“We absolutely know we have the best players in the country. What we need to do is get them working together a whole lot better than what they currently are.”

And they may do so with wisdom gleaned from the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

Southby and McCausland-Durie are just back from spending their Prime Minister’s Scholarships at the University of Minnesota, home of the Golden Gophers women’s volleyball team, who are coached by Kiwi Hugh McCutcheon.

McCutcheon, who guided the US men’s volleyball team to Olympic gold in 2008, let the two Ferns coaches in on his training techniques, in the hope they could adapt them to netball.

“It was a great experience, understanding the way Hugh introduced a culture change and the time that it took him,” Southby says. “The energy that the group brought to training was incredible, and a lot of it came from the work he’s done over last two years.

“They also had full-wall screens at either end of the court, with live video on time delay, so the players would do a drill, then look up and watch themselves. They could see what they’d done wrong; the screen doesn’t lie. Imagine if we had that?”

Back at home, the Ferns coaching staff have impressed on their players the need to be “24/7 Silver Ferns - when you’re not in eyesight of the coaching staff or each other, you still have to work your butt off, because that’s what it takes.”

“We know that what’s ahead of us is massive,” Southby says. “But I believe there’s a real desire amongst these players to get there. You certainly can’t fault their determination.”

Janine Southby

Southby has been trying to make mental skills “less airy-fairy” and more measurable. She’s been working with Renzie Hanham, a mental skills coach who has helped the All Blacks, English rugby players and Dutch triathletes (he’s also a graphic designer and martial arts expert).

“I’ve challenged him to change the way he delivers the model to the girls. They can’t be a passive audience - they need to step up, and do 10 minutes at the start of each training.”

Maria Tutaia, eyeing up her fourth Commonwealth Games, has also come up with mental strengthening ideas which have been integrated into the programme. “It’s great that Maria is really keen to have a voice in this space and take some ownership,” Southby says. “It’s growing her skillset too.”

In the wake of the Constellation Cup trouncing, Southby’s role as coach was questioned by armchair critics and even former Ferns, who reckoned she was out of her depth. Her mother was most hurt by the social media insults; Southby swears she doesn’t read them, and tries to shield her daughters from the barrage too.

She’s also copped criticism for not breaching Netball NZ rules to bring Langman back into the Ferns. “Like everyone else in the country, I was really disappointed when Laura chose to play in Australia. But I respected her decision, and we had some good conversations about it,” she says.

“We’ve had lots of chats with her over the last couple of weeks. But Laura has made a call to take time out. No one needs to know the reasons why; it’s personal. We’re open to having more discussions as we move into next year, and as she is as well. No doors are closed there, but we respect her choice that she wants time out.”

Southby recognises she’s fortunate to have a strong network of family near her in Dunedin, and people who she can trust and listen to.

“They are the people who know what it’s about, who I have good debrief discussions with, and vent to. I learned a long time ago that all people have opinions, but you don’t get involved in what they are,” she says.

She turns to former Silver Ferns coaches Lyn Gunson, Wai Taumaunu and Ruth Aitken for advice. Leigh Gibbs came to the Ferns’ pre-test training in Brisbane. But her closest mentor is Dame Lois Muir, now 82, who Southby first played for as a 17-year-old, then learned the ropes of coaching from her at the Otago Rebels, before guiding the Southern Steel.

“I use Lois as a sounding board. She’ll love that I used one of her quotes with the team today: ‘Dust off your little magic box of tricks; open it up, pull them out, and start using them on court’,” Southby laughs.

“My husband is so level-headed, and my girls are mini-coaches, who tell me ‘Mum, you didn’t coach hard enough tonight!’ I have to have those strong support systems around me, so I can sleep at night, knowing that I am honest to myself and to those around me. That’s the biggest thing to me.”

By the end of the training week in Auckland, Southby is hanging out to go on holiday. “I really want to celebrate Christmas and enjoy the things that make you grounded” – like camping near Twizel, where she goes water-skiing and biscuiting with the kids. “I love mountain biking, but last year I accidentally knocked myself out,” she laughs.

Rest and recreation will be fleeting. In January, the Ferns play in London, then Johannesburg, for the first half of the Quad Series against Australia, South Africa and England. There are three five-day camps around the country, where the Ferns will play against ANZ Premiership teams, before the Taini Jamieson series in March with Jamaica, Malawi and Fiji as the final preparation for the Commonwealth Games.

“We know that what’s ahead of us is massive,” Southby says. “But I believe there’s a real desire amongst these players to get there. You certainly can’t fault their determination.”

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