NS EXCLUSIVE: Delicate, deliberate, and downright difficult – Annie Sargeant, on the role of being a national netball selector

NS EXCLUSIVE: Delicate, deliberate, and downright difficult – Annie Sargeant, on the role of being a national netball selector

“Being a selector is both a pressure and a privilege. I don’t mind the pressure, I am respectful of the massive responsibility, and the privilege I am thankful for.”

If you want a road map of Australian netball, Annie Sargeant is the person to ask. As an athlete, coach, commentator, advocate, fan and selector, she knows the highways of elite sport and the byways of grassroots netball. It’s a landscape that she’s as familiar with as her own back yard, making Sargeant the perfect person to assess each new crop of potential Diamonds.

As an athlete, Sargeant’s proudest moments ranged from representing Australia on 52 occasions, to competing for her club and state. She said, “I still remember being a junior at Manly Warringah, and having their badge on my box pleated skirt and the thrill of earning the NSW Waratah. I have a very strong belief that you are most valuable to the Diamonds when you also value your club and your state, your heritage and breeding ground. Having the ethic of returning to support them as if you’d never left.”

Sargeant said it took quite some time to crack the NSW Open team, but ironically Australian selection came following her first appearance at nationals. Marg Molina withdrew with pregnancy, and Wilma Shakespeare elevated Sargeant from the Reserves’ list. She remembers being ‘scared to death’ in the first couple of years that the coaches would realise she shouldn’t be there!

However, wasn’t long before Sargeant cemented her place in the team. She still laughs at the first phone call she received from Deirdre Hyland, President of Netball Australia. “I had a call asking me to replace Marg, and I was so excited I dropped the phone and ran into the lounge room to tell my parents. They asked how I knew, and I said, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve left Diedre on the floor!’”

During an exceptional international career that spanned 11 consecutive years – including six as captain, Anne won two gold and one silver medal at Netball World Cups, along with a plethora of personal awards. She was inducted into Sport Australia’s Hall of Fame in 1987, and became the first netballer to be elevated to Legend status. Capping it off was Sargeant’s elevation to Netball Australia Legend status alongside Joyce Brown and Marg Pewtress, although she feels ‘humbled and embarrassed’ to sit alongside two women who are her personal heroes.

Once her playing career was finished, Sargeant continued investing in netball’s development, coaching and running clinics, working as a commentator and for the past 12 years as a national selector. She’s operated alongside three national coaches – Norma Plummer, Lisa Alexander and now Stacey Marinkovich – all of whom she said are ‘amazing’. “They are completely different personalities, but all share great knowledge, intelligence and passion for the game. They have a burning desire to see Australia as number one in the world.”

Together with her playing career, it is Sargeant’s advocacy for netball that makes her regarded as one of the greats. Playing in an era when there was minimal media coverage of women’s sport, as national captain Sargeant knocked on doors, entered boardrooms and appeared in the media, tirelessly promoting the game and the women that had come before her. She said, “I have always tried to be respectful that we stand on their shoulders, women who aren’t household names but were world class athletes in a sport that has also been consistently world class.

“We need to acknowledge what they’ve built, and how significant their role in netball has been.”

 

An overview of being a selector

Australian netball currently has three selectors: the Diamonds’ head coach, Stacey Marinkovich, former international and current head coach of the Netball Centre of Excellence, Michelle Wilkins, and former international and coach, Annie Sargeant.

While Sargeant and Marinkovich have been on our television screens over a number of years, Wilkins is less known by fans. Sargeant has the utmost respect for her fellow selector, saying that Wilkins is, “An unsung hero. I have high praise for her read of the game and her work ethic.”

It’s a position that Sargeant has held for the past 12 years, after a phone call from Norma Plummer – Diamonds’ head coach at the time – encouraging her to apply for the role. She said, “I was overwhelmed at the compliment, and discussed it with my long-suffering husband, Warwick. His reaction was, as always, to support me. That if I wanted to contribute in that way, and felt that it was important, to go for it.”

A selector, as Sargeant understands, has a very different viewpoint to a spectator. “Most people watch netball with a passion, with a fan’s eyes or love of a club, and it’s rare they can be divorced from that. Commentators call the game to create theatre and entertainment, and that’s another lens, as is looking through the match statistics.

“Our role is wanting to select athletes, rather than trying not to select them. But the stats, a fan favourite, or player of the moment, is not always enough for a team to be successful. There has to be a synergy within the Diamonds group.

“It’s at selection and training camps that synergy begins to develop, and it’s the only way to clarify who should be in a team or a squad. Nobody sees those performances other than the coaches and selectors, and I guarantee that it makes or breaks selection.

“In that environment, we see their ability to operate session after session, whether it be on court, in a classroom, or a team building exercise. Their ability to switch on, and turn up day after day, is monitored, and their work in a group is assessed.

“They are also receiving the same messaging from the national coach, and the Diamonds’ context that the coach wants them to play in. That’s an important piece of the puzzle, because they all have different club coaches who might have them playing a different role, or under a different vision of game play.

“Unfortunately some of the most mercurial or exciting players just don’t rise in that environment. Each player is playing with and against the best of the best, combinations start to click, and the cream rises to the top.”

 

One of the first Australian female athletes to have her career covered in print, Annie Sargeant is also respectful of those world class netballers who have gone before her. Image supplied by Annie Sargeant

 

How the selection process works

Selection is a never-ending continuum, or as Sargeant said, “How long is a piece of string?” as they work towards choosing the Diamonds team, wider squad, the development group, and tap down into the age groups.

A statistician constantly provides data for the selectors to look at, while they also have access to information on injuries, illnesses and athlete wellbeing, plus details of previous international match play. When the Constellation Cup team travelled to New Zealand earlier this year, selectors had a range of vision to look at. In addition to the four matches, they viewed every other session including two matches against the Tactix, trainings, and team meetings.

Throughout the domestic netball season, selectors work well into the small hours, viewing every game the athletes are playing in, and usually two or three times. Sargeant explained, “We go over and over the vision, divorced of any agenda, pinpointing what we are looking at. You might want to look at an athlete in isolation, compare them to another athlete, or look at how combinations are working.

“Statistics will only give us so much, so viewing gives us information about less tangible things, such as repeat efforts and the ability to shut down an opponent. We also need to be fair to those athletes who are playing in their own coach’s context and game plan, which might be quite different from what the national team needs from them. So we need to recognise the role they play within their club.”

“We talk regularly on Zoom, and at the moment constantly, because it is such a difficult landscape. The three of us always meet together, where we will refer to our notes, discuss athletes, pull up statistical observations, consider how players are running comparatively, and which athletes are fitting into game plans that the coach has in mind. We weigh up past performances, consider how players are tracking in a development sense, review current performances, and discuss predicted future performance success.

“You think you have a measure on how a team is performing, but as Covid has made the competition so unpredictable, it’s crucial to see which athlete can step up into difficult circumstances.

“We have to keep in mind that we are selecting a group for whom there will be no down time at a major tournament. Athletes have to be able to step up, day after day. They can’t be rested or have light training sessions, so you can’t carry players who can’t sustain a full game of netball or the rigours of back to back matches.”

As the season progresses, selectors also rewatch matches from earlier in the year, refreshing their memories of athletes under consideration. By the back end of the domestic season, they’ve ranked all the athletes under their watch, on a constantly evolving scale. They will also note effective combinations who perform well on court together, while also running theoretical models of lines that opposition countries might run, and how their athletes can best be covered.

 

The game plan

What comes first – the game plan, athlete selection, or a combination of both?

According to Sargeant, there are some athletes, in any sport, who demand their place in a team, whose names are first on the page. They are pencilled in, as selectors look at who best fits what the team needs. “It’s fair to say that a coach will always know the style of netball that she wants the team to play, together with the ability to change it up, either by her own design or in reaction to what is happening on court.

“From that point, we will then look at combinations and versatility, how we can cover the positions out on court. So while our Australian coaches love ball speed and a hard, physical style of netball, we must be able to change that up.

“The introduction of the tall shooter has demanded that recently, and different nations also play different styles of game, or have differently built athletes. So there is a strong need for versatility. For example, our midcourt do a lot of legwork, and we have to be able to manage player load and still cover those positions.

“You also need athletes that can change the style of how they play, work in a different combination or simply create impact. If it’s a one goal game, you need athletes with the ability to respond to that if they come off the bench, without losing time settling into play.”

“You could write a book about the complexity of choosing a team. You might want one style of player for a particular way you want your team to operate, but a different player on a specific member of the opposition. We try to choose a team that gives us strength, versatility, danger for the opposition, and the ability to cover their key players. It’s the beauty and headache of crafting a team.”

 

A commentators perspective is very different to that of a selector. Annie Sargeant with Cath Cox on Channel 9 duties. Image supplied by Annie Sargeant

 

Competition and review

Once a team departs for competition, the relationship between the three selectors shifts. The head coach works more closely with her coaching staff to craft the game day starting seven, and make substitutions during the match. The other two selectors aren’t closely involved in this process, but will remain in touch during the leadup and between games throughout the tournament.

Sargeant explained, “When the team is on the road, the coaches will use their team and coaching staff for most of their decisions. Their time is so scheduled that we are respectful of the demands on that. The national coach usually takes the lead regarding timing discussions. So I tend to send them a little comment or emoji, and leave it at that until they want a selection meeting.”

“We do communicate across a tournament. For example, we will see footage of training sessions if we aren’t there in person, and after match play we will usually discuss the team’s performance with the coach.”

After every major campaign, Netball Australia do a thorough appraisal of the series, to which the selectors have input. “We might put up little flags – what our focus needs to be moving forwards, what did we get right, and where we can do better. As well as reviewing the team we’ve put in place, we are assessing our own performance.”

 

Exciting times

While Sargeant never loses sight of how privileged she feels to be a selector, some of her best moments come when young athletes step into the spotlight, their irresistible form making them impossible to overlook. “I think we’ve been pretty good over the years at spotting rising talent, and we are certainly seeing young players pushing for selection at the moment. They threaten, they challenge, they play with joy, and say to the selectors, ‘Look at me!’ It’s heavenly to watch them taking shape.

“So when you’ve had an instinct, you back them, and watch them come to fruition, it’s tremendously exciting.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Sargeant said it’s equally important to be open to re-selecting athletes who have previously missed a team or taken a leave of absence. Athletes who’ve added more skills to their repertoire, made a return to form that’s been impossible to overlook, or are returning from maternity leave and injury remain on the selector’s radar.

To Sargeant, it’s also been rewarding building a relationship with each of the three head coaches that she’s worked with. She said, “I have massive respect for them all, and their achievements have been phenomenal. I’m still getting to know Stacey, but she appears unflappable under an onerous workload. On one hand she’s very calm and collected, but equally she’s also excited by what she’s doing. So I always get a smile to see a coach’s enthusiasm and ability to shine on the world’s stage.”

 

Annie Sargeant believes in supporting grassroots netball as well as the elite level. Featured here coaching juniors. Image supplied by Annie Sargeant

 

The challenges of being a selector

Sargeant describes the role of selector as ‘haunting’ at times. Injured athletes, those who’ve walked the fine line of selection for major campaigns, but narrowly missed out, and the senior athletes coming towards the end of their careers, give her sleepless nights.

“Knowing how close an athlete came to making a team is a real sadness for me, particularly around Comm Games and World Cup teams, because they are the pinnacle, the dream, and so infrequent. It’s a four year preparation and a major milestone.” said Sargeant.

“It’s also heart breaking to be predictive about ending someone’s career. There’s always a real desire to give a career Diamond an opportunity to fight for their place in the team, but equally, it’s our responsibility to make a hard decision when we are no longer getting improvement from them.

Sargeant is also caught by tournaments that end in the narrowest of losses. “You are part of the campaign and you feel it. An example is the one goal margins that saw Australia take silver at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, and the 2019 Netball World Cup. They were great squads, beautifully prepared, but as happens in sport, they didn’t quite get there.

“There was a lot of rhetoric after those events, and one goal the other way, it would have completely different.”

 

The position that creates the most discussion

In tournaments such as the Commonwealth Games or Netball World Cup, there’s a need to rotate players to keep them fresh, minimise overuse injuries, change tactics or match up against a specific opposition. When selecting a team of just 12, it’s usually broken down into four players per section of the court – defence, centre court and shooting circle. It’s therefore unsurprising that the midcourt presents the most challenges as three positions need to be covered, and versatility becomes essential. So how do selectors manage?

“Wing defence seems to be the position most debated by fans, and it’s a position where we’ve historically produced amazing champions,” said Sargeant. “It’s such an important position, because it frames the ability of the circle defence to do their job. Are they so good that they are selected as a wing defence specialist? Do they back up to work midcourt as a second position, or can they swing in to work the circle.

“And when they need to be rested, sometimes our best option to cover their role is to slide a goal defence across. People shouldn’t assume that the wing defence is being devalued in that case. It is an ongoing discussion!”

 

Annie Sargeant’s netball clinics are always in high demand. Image supplied by Annie Sargeant

 

The impact of Suncorp Super Netball rules on the Diamonds

While the super shot has been the most controversial rule change in Suncorp Super Netball, Sargeant believes that the use of rolling subs and time outs has had a greater impact on the Australian team. They alter momentum within a game, and also allow coaches more opportunity to give athletes feedback.

“It absolutely has – you could see that in internationals earlier this season,” said Sargeant. “Players go from having a certain level of support even within a quarter, to having to work their way through challenges by themselves.

“The Constellation Cup was a big adjustment for our players, with a short lead in time, quarantine, and playing under international rules. They did that very well, particularly on the back of limited training. Having said that, I think World Netball could continue to explore aspects of the game such as rolling subs and injury timeouts, continuing to evolve the game at international level.”

 

Skills that a selector needs

The selectors are choosing a team they believe will win gold, and are also shaping athlete’s dreams and their years of hard work. So in putting together a national team, a detailed understanding of elite netball and a good coaching brain is just the starting point, while international experience is a bonus.

Sargeant said “Selectors also must be absolutely open-minded, beyond fair, have complete integrity, and be very transparent and respectful in their discussions. We should challenge thinking, play devil’s advocate, and debate rigorously but with respect. We consider all the athletes in what is an exhaustive process.

“And with the amount of work that’s involved, a selector also needs to be dedicated, relentless and motivated to succeed. You aren’t just selecting a team, but you are answering to and serving the Australian coach, Netball Australia, the public, and the athletes themselves.”

 

The subtle changes of selection policy

The nitty gritty of selection hasn’t changed, according to Sargeant, with on court performance and training camps still playing the most crucial role. A shift has occurred, however, in other areas. “Sports science has certainly altered some aspects, as we have a wider range of data being assessed, and more statistics included.

“There is also far more emphasis on athlete wellbeing and collaboration. Through the involvement of the Australian Netball Players Association, athletes now have a far greater voice in aspects such as camp length, the process in which teams are announced, feedback given, and our duty of care towards them. That’s all for the better.”

Unfortunately, Covid19 has also had a significant impact on selection, with timelines for camps, match play, the need for quarantine and downtime, combined with player wellbeing, all moving pieces of the puzzle.

 

Where to next

The Australian selectors have almost completed choosing the Diamonds’ squad for the 2022 Commonwealth games, together with a development group. The announcements will be made soon.

 

Thank you to Annie Sargeant and Netball Australia.

 

 

About the Author:

Physiotherapist, writer and netball enthusiast. Feature articles, editorials and co-author of "Shine: the making of the Australian Netball Diamonds". Everyone has a story to tell, and I'm privileged to put some of them on paper. Thank you to the phenomenal athletes, coaches and people in the netball world who open a door to their lives, and let me tiptoe in.