Teresa Tairi is never far from a goal post, nor from the squeak and scuff of shoes on wooden boards. She has the same piercing gaze of concentration that unnerved so many goal keepers in the 1990s when she played netball for North Harbour and the Silver Ferns, but her focus has shifted in many ways. She’s not handling the ball with trademark sizzling flair, but instead she is teaching elite players her champion tricks and tactics.
Thousands of kilometres from her beloved Auckland, Tairi has called Sydney home for a good eight years, and in the biggest alteration of all, her weeks are spent involved with mens netball.
“This is my first year as coach of the New South Wales Open Mens netball team, and while it’s the first time I’ve directed a men’s team, I’ve been an avid follower of mens netball for years, through friends who’ve played. Valance Horne, the current captain of NSW, also an Auckland import, was hoping a few years ago that I’d be interested in coming on board in some way, but I was too busy with my son. But in 2016 the position was open and my son is 11 years old now, so the time was right.
“Men are definitely different to women. You have to tackle personalities and behaviours differently. Being a women’s sport, women know our routines and processes well, but men have less pathways, less numbers, and less commitment. The environment of mens and mixed is also quite different. The first thing was the different selection process. I was impressed with the number of players that came to trials. I wasn’t the only one choosing players, but I felt I had the respect of the other selectors who allowed me to pick my team – that’s an important criterion of my coaching, I need to select my team.
“Setting the ground rules from the start was important, I wasn’t going to take any nonsense, and they knew my expectations. We had a meeting and I also asked what their expectations were of themselves. We built our value system from there. If we were going to do this, we were going to do it all the way. We weren’t going to have any slackers, and if there were issues we would deal with them straight away. If you weren’t on board, you were out. I don’t get paid to do this, and I love netball, but my time is too precious.
“I’m so happy to say that I haven’t had too many issues. There are always challenges that pop up here and there (laughs). Just a couple have had to drop out due to injury, but overall I’m highly impressed by where the team has moved from in October to now. We’re a close-knit bunch. They knew nothing about me, just knowing I played netball, and I knew nothing about them. I had to earn their respect from a blank slate. It’s important to draw the line of coach and player – where each sees what the other is about.
“All the coaches I had over the years made it certain what was expected of you as a player. I was very respectful of their time, as they were teaching me. In certain men’s netball squads, there have been big problems with the commitment not being there, and I’ve heard there have been bribes to get positions. To keep them interested and keep them coming to training can be an effort. It’s quite an achievement, something that I’m proud of, that I have full training sessions and no last minute excuses. When I was playing, this sort of challenge to the coach would never be tolerated. In men’s netball there simply isn’t that threat of someone ready to take your place immediately.”
Two key foundations of Tairi’s world are her reliance on her team manager to create the efficient battalion she needs, and her closeness to family. In her current arrangement she is able to fuse both, with her sister, Liann, at her side for all sessions leading up to the Australian Mens and Mixed Netball Championships on the Gold Coast this month.
“I couldn’t do without my manager – it just so happens that at the moment it’s Liann and I’m teaching her along the way. She’s finding it really difficult, even though she as a past-player knows what’s going on, she needs to learn planning, preparation and programming, all the back-end stuff that can go unappreciated. They’re hugely vital.”
Tairi knows all too well about the injuries players can face. In 1994 she tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee playing against Australia. Four years later, almost to the day, she ripped the same ligament in her left knee, also against Australia, and missed out on a place in the inaugural Silver Ferns team for the Commonwealth Games. That’s two knee reconstructions before she had celebrated her 25th birthday. Her NSW captain Horne suffered his own knee injury on the eve of last years’ Australian Championships and has been keeping a watchful eye over his progress.
“I have strong empathy for the rehab process for my players. I straight up ask Valance to tell me how he’s feeling. I trust him to tell me what he can and can’t do. I’m so happy that, since November, he’s been near full capacity. We monitor his workload, so when we have heavy sessions we have the ice ready. He’s an amazing ambassador for men’s netball, and not only has to deal with his rehab, but act as a great mentor to younger players, leading by example.”
Coaching a veteran like Horne, a wing defence and centre specialist, is not the lingua franca for a former shooter like Tairi, but like all coaches she has become an expert in all the positions on court through different framing.
“To advise the midcourt and defenders, I just go to the flip side, like I always did as a player – if I’m an attacking player, then I think about and watch the defense during training. When I learnt the defensive side of the game, I could work out what to do as an attacker. This was the way I personally learnt to play the game, sometimes even watching the defenders more than they would watch each other and themselves. I put these ideas into my own players, and put them into different positions occasionally to help understand their opponent’s play. I don’t do it to put them out of their comfort zone, it’s to develop understanding of different timing, lines, roles, and teamwork.”
As for the state of mens netball, Tairi is happy to have a hand in where it’s headed. For it to take the next big step, she believes it needs strong backing from the International Netball Federation (INF).
“I see the potential for mens netball. I see it in players, future coaches, developers of the sport. Mens netball has a real opportunity to keep growing and maybe help to get the sport to the Olympics. That’s the dream, isn’t it? It’s the only thing holding netball back, achieving a balance between male and female sports. Molly Rhone (INF president) has finally acknowledged men’s netball. If they want to grow the sport, they’ve got to include the mens game. Give them support networks and work together with them more. I see the passion in players in mens netball today, and I think it’ll get there.”