Roselee Jencke understands balance. Yin and yang. Individual and team. The knowledge has served her well, across a forty year career as an elite athlete and coach. It’s underpinned her 43 test caps for Australia, and a record as one of netball’s most successful franchise coaches.
It’s been a current running through Jencke’s life from the outset. Beneath her professional exterior is a woman of fire and ice. One who’s faced some of the toughest challenges imaginable, but can still smile. Who combines integrity with flexibility, passion with compassion, and who can lead but still listen.
Learning about balance started early. School and sport, work and play, dominated her childhood on the outskirts of Melbourne. She lived in a vibrant rural community with friendly neighbours, billowing orchards, whickering horses and a very active life. Children didn’t tend to specialise in that era, but played it all, changing codes with the seasons and developing complimentary sets of skills and muscles.
However, netball ran deep in young Rose’s veins. Her mother had competed, while her father’s sisters – all five of them – almost made up a team of their own. As a newly minted teenager Jencke was tall and showing some promise as a goal keeper. A teacher handed her a note one day, encouraging her to trial for a school girls team.
With a dearth of women’s sport on TV and few visible elite role models, Jencke wasn’t quite sure if it was a pathway worth following. “Luckily Norma Plummer lived about 100 metres away from us,” Jencke remembered. “I didn’t know her well, but her daughter and my younger sister went to preschool together, so I took the note around to her house.
“Norma said, ‘Gee, I didn’t realise you were so tall’, because she’d only seen me sitting in the car. She’d never seen me play netball before, but she took me to the try-outs. We went, and she said, ‘I don’t think we’ll worry about school girls, we will try for the Under 16 Victorian team.’ There was only one selection left, I did okay and got named in the team.”
As part of the powerful Victorian system, Jencke had some outstanding coaching. Combined with her burgeoning skills and profound work ethic, she was on a steep trajectory to the top. Jencke played with the Melbourne Netball Club, before receiving a two year scholarship to the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) in 1982 and 83. In her final year there, she was awarded the Gweneth Benzie Scholarship, for the netballer most likely to play for the national team.
Higher honours came quickly – the prodigious young talent was selected in the open Australian squad as a 17 year old, captained the national Under 21s, and played her first match for the senior team at just 19. She became known for her meticulous preparation, and on court, for using a combination of body control and skilful footwork to shut down opponents while still coming up with gains.
Two tournaments stand out in Jencke’s memory, for very different reasons. The first was the 1987 Glasgow Netball World Championships. She said, “Our team was ravished by injury. We’d probably overtrained beforehand, and lots of us had niggling injuries. Michelle Fielke had been ruled out through injury before we even left, and Keeley Devery did her ACL (anterior cruciate ligament, knee) while we were there. We were playing outside, the court surface was horrendous – we really suffered – and apart from Annie Sargeant and Chris Harris, the rest of us were babies – very young and inexperienced.
“For all those reasons we didn’t perform at our best in the round robin format, and the Kiwis were very experienced at that particular time. Many of them were part of the 1983 team that had lost to Australia, so they had a point to prove, and on average they were five years older, and five years more experienced than us. So it didn’t end well, and we tied with Trinidad and Tobago for silver.”
The result drove home the message that the stars had to align for a good outcome, and four years later, before a 10 000 strong crowd in Sydney, Australia got it right. Jencke said, “It was a similar team, and we’d grown up. We were more experienced, more hardened and far more resilient. That really counted when we played New Zealand in the final.”
Both teams had been undefeated to that point, and while Australia had a narrow win over Jamaica in the semis, New Zealand had cruised past England by 20 goals and were brimming with confidence. The final was a see-sawing game, with the crowd enthralled by multiple lead changes. After watching from the bench for the first thirty minutes, Jencke took the court in the second half. In the dying moments of the game, with the prime minister cheering from the sidelines, Jencke pulled off a match-winning intercept. Australia narrowly won, in a 53-52 goal victory.
“I just happened to be in the right place at the right time,” was Jencke’s humble recollection of her final touch of the ball. “There was no count down clock back then, and as a defender you had to be squeaky clean with your body work. You couldn’t breathe on your opponent or the umpires would pull you up.
“But that match put netball on the front and back pages of the country’s newspapers, and was a great spectacle for netball in Australia at the time.”
Keeley Devery, Michelle Fielke, Sharon Finnan, Simone McKinnis and Jencke – one of the best defensive units Australia ever produced – were part of a formidable line that looked set to continue long into the future. For Jencke however, it wasn’t to be.
After the highs of winning the world championship in 1991, the following year Jencke lost her father to suicide. It was a crippling blow for the family.
“Suicide wasn’t spoken about back in those days,” said Jencke. “No one would come near you or talk to you, because they didn’t know how to approach it. I’m really thankful that we’re more comfortable discussing it these days, even though we’re still nowhere near where we need to be as a society, but it was very isolating at the time and I didn’t have a lot of support mechanisms in place.”
Jencke managed to get through a netball final two evenings later, and that weekend, the Hawthorn Football Club flew the family to Perth to watch her brother Ray play in his finals match. It was a level of emotional support rarely given in that era, and Jencke has remained a life-long fan of the Hawks.
After nationals and a tour to the Caribbean Jencke suddenly retired from international netball, citing a niggling back injury. It was just a few short months after her father’s death, and with maturity, Jencke now understands her reasoning better.
“Losing Dad was devastating. I was really shocked, I was grieving, and it changed how I felt about life. In hindsight we needed more time to process it and be together as a family. I remember that I had a break over summer, and then when training resumed, I was sore in the back. I just thought, ‘I’ve had enough of this’, and told Joyce (Brown) I was retiring. I was young and inexperienced with how the world operates, and it was easier to believe that at the time.
“It wasn’t until years later when I reflected and saw the bigger picture that I thought, ‘Yeah, there’s a number of factors that came into play around that decision.’ I don’t regret it though. I had a great playing career, was coached by some of the best coaches in the sport – Plummer, Brown, Caldow, Shakespear, Teade, Hornweg, Simper and Carroll – all legends of the game – and was fortunate to have some great success. So I’ve been lucky. Very, very lucky.”
Jencke went back to domestic netball for a few years, finishing in 1997 as an assistant playing coach at the Melbourne Kestrels under Lisa Alexander. It was her first taste of elite coaching, and Jencke went on to work with luminaries that she’d previously played under, including Joyce Browne, Norma Plummer, Marg Caldow, while also serving a term at the AIS.
“I was still drawn to netball, and started my coaching at the bottom as a hobby,” she said. “I’ve been lucky that it’s always come to me, and I haven’t had to chase it.”
She was snowboarding at Mt Hotham when the next opportunity came knocking. Jencke was told of the head coaching vacancy at the Queensland Firebirds, applied without expecting much, and was surprised to be appointed. She said, “It was a hard decision to accept and leave Melbourne, because my life was in a good place. I had a job that I loved, I was coaching locally, Macy and her two brothers were at school, and we’d just moved into a new house.
“I said, ‘We’ll give it one year. One year.’ It was the hardest of times, besides this year, being away from home and a job that I loved, being homesick, and trying to create a new life for our family.
“At the end of 2010 I questioned whether I would stay or go. But we had a pretty good team, strong foundations, and with a couple of tweaks I believed that anything was possible. So in the end I said I’d stay.”
It was the start of a giant-killing period for the Firebirds. Undefeated in 2011, they took out the premiership that season, won again in 2015 and 2016, and were runner’s up in 2013 and 2014.
Jencke believes that the team’s sustained success was all about ‘balance’. “We had good systems in place, we recruited a couple of pivotal people, and we also had great people within the programme which enabled the playing group to get the best out of themselves.
“People around the system are important, and everyone has to be on the same page to make it work – it is that critical. How they talked, how they messaged, how they’d treat, all working together allowing the athletes to be cohesive and perform at their best.
“The players were also exceptionally motivated. They’d never tasted success in Queensland before, and wanted to achieve something special. They worked exceptionally hard, their high performance behaviours were second to none. We had some different personalities in there that were really driven, but we just formed a really good team.
“We had Elissa McLeod, Lauren Nourse, and Nat Medhurst, who was absolutely pivotal because Romelda (Aiken) hadn’t hit her prime, and she was able to discover and maximise her talent through that combination with Nat. Then there was Chelsea Pitman, Laura Geitz, Clare McMeniman, Kierra Trompf and Amy Steele. We also had younger players like Ameliaranne Wells and Jacqui Russell – they were just babies at the time so they didn’t get out on court much, but they got a taste of what elite netball was like.”
Crucial to the team’s success was also Jencke’s holistic approach to sport. She’d learned what worked, and just as importantly, what didn’t work, through her previous experiences as an athlete and coach. To her, netball was about equilibrium – where off-court support improved on-court performances.
“You need to understand athletes as people, what their interests are and know a little bit about their life. While it’s important that our sport is professional, we must allow athletes the opportunity to continue with their work or study, give them some balance and a programme that can provide that,” Jencke explained.
“I think it’s something we struggle with across the board these days as we move into a more fully professional era. Ten years ago we could be a little bit more flexible. Lauren Nourse needed to finish training a little earlier so that she could still teach. And Kierra wanted to live at home in Noosa, which was a two and half hour trip each way. Previously they’d trained at a ridiculous time of the morning, and she had to be on the road at 4 am to get there. That clearly wasn’t suitable, so we changed the programme to allow more flexible starting times.”
As Jencke matured as a coach, her principles crystallised and still guide her decision-making to this day. She said, “Athletes aren’t always going to like what you tell them, but as long as they know you are coming from an area of understanding and care, they will process it better.
“There will be decisions that one, they won’t like; two, that as a coach you won’t always like; and three, you will make with the best interests of the team at heart, regardless of the situation. The team always comes first. Then around that you balance the holistic side of coaching, the care, the communication and the understanding.”
Along with her netball nous, it was Jencke’s care for her athletes that impressed them. Nat Medhurst, one of Australia’s most capped players, moved to Queensland at the same time as Jencke, spending four years in the Firebirds’ programme. She said, “I’d left my family and partner in Adelaide, which was hard.
“I remember Rose being incredibly caring and nurturing. That stuck out. It wasn’t just a tick in the box, it was genuine. She took a real interest in where I was staying, and making sure that I was set up okay. She gave me the support that I needed and that meant a hell of a lot. My netball was better as a result.
“She was one of my first coaches who really engaged with the athlete, who gave us input around culture and training. While ultimately some of those decisions were hers, allowing players to be part of the process got real buy in from all of us.”
“Rose also had a quietly funny side – I remember that if we had a winning formula, her nail colour would stay the same! But her netball brain, particularly as a defensive coach, was phenomenal.”
That sentiment was shared by Lisa Alexander, former head coach of the Diamonds. “Rose was one of my assistant coaches between 2015 and 2018. I always felt stronger with her by my side.
“She’s very decisive and I trusted her instincts implicitly. She’s very creative, empowers her athletes, and is a great teacher. Rose might be softly spoken, but people listen to her. I remember Sharni (Layton), who has the energy of a jack in the box, would always listen to her intently. Rose showed her how to do things as well as telling her, and that respect for the athlete impressed me. She didn’t mind how people needed the message delivered.
“There is a lot more visual learning these days, so Rose would spend heaps of time going through footage with defenders. When she was part of the Australian programme we had a lot of very young defenders. Athletes like Jo Weston and Courtney Bruce really took on board her lessons about the different opponents they were up against, and how to craft a game against them.”
Alexander and Jencke bonded over a mutual love of AFL – the Hawthorn Football Club in particular – while they’d also share funny tour stories over a quiet, and often, celebratory drink. Alexander said, “Rose can appear almost stern when she’s coaching, but it’s actually a sense of calmness. Behind that is a really good bird. She’s incredibly warm, and has a dry sense of humour.”
While Jencke generally feels nervous before a game, the ability to be composed, she believes, is a crucial skill for a coach. “It’s part of leadership and demonstrating emotional control. If you can’t, you are wasting energy and taking concentration away from what you need to do really well, particularly around decision making. That’s true for an athlete or a coach. You can only make good decisions when you are calm.
“So once the game starts, I’m so busy concentrating on the players, on what’s happening on court, on making decisions, that I don’t show a hell of a lot of emotion. I keep it fairly neutral, stay composed for the players. Occasionally I’ll get frustrated by things that I can’t control, or that we could have executed better, but most people won’t see that other than those alongside me on the bench.”
One of Jencke’s great passions is development across all levels of netball – athletes, coaches, support staff and officials. With a wry chuckle she said, “I was probably quite tough to umpire as a player, because I felt if something wasn’t quite right, I would question it. And you’re not allowed to do that.
“As I’ve matured, I’ve understood better the right processes. So I’ve really enjoyed speaking to some of the umpires – people like Michelle Phippard, Jono Bredin, Josh Bowring and Marc Henning – to clarify rules in order to help my athletes play better. We do need to understand where umpires come from, their interpretations, and that’s critical in allowing our players to adjust particularly between domestic and international competitions.”
Netball Australia used to have a coaching development officer, but with no one currently in that role – something that Jencke describes as a ‘great loss’ – coaches have to self direct their learning. For Jencke, that included using sources outside her own sport. She said, “I was lucky to have Bo Hansen, a former Olympic rower, as a mentor, and I bounced a lot of things off him. I’ve worked with the Brisbane Broncos, the Brisbane Lions, and been to America for a course with other female coaches.
“It’s so important to speak to people about different ideas, philosophies, directions, and things that might stimulate and challenge you, so that you can think differently and perhaps use it in your own programme.”
What Jencke loves most is working with developing athletes. When the Firebirds lost many of their senior players to retirement a few years ago, she could have filled the void with internationals, but chose from the Australian pathway. It meant a lean couple of years for the Firebirds while young players were gaining experience – and consequently trouble with stake holders who were used to winning – but Jencke held her ground.
“We’ve had a lot of success at the Firebirds, and when you’ve been at the top for so long, there will always be a time, in any code, when you flatten out a bit. This was our time. You need to be patient with young players, and that’s not always possible when you are working with boards, fans and sponsors.
“The last two years have been challenging, there’s no doubt about that. But what we’ve done is give the young ones an opportunity. We’ve put a good framework in place to give them time and experience to develop their craft and their game.
“Tara (Hinchliffe), Kim (Jenner) and Tippah (Dwan) are perfect examples of that. It would have been easy to leave them in the ANL and use internationals. But they’ve played at this level for a few years now, they’ve blossomed, we’ve seen their growth, and they are still only 21 and 22 with a bright future ahead of them if they continue to get court time under the new coach.
“I’m very passionate about giving Australian players opportunities. We have to, as coaches, believe that we have the ability to develop younger players. At the moment, the back and front ends of most franchises have internationals stacked in those positions, and it’s a quagmire for younger players looking for opportunities. What motivation does that give them?”
As a result, Jencke firmly believes that a cap needs to be placed on internationals in the Suncorp Super Netball, but it wasn’t until this year that her policy of developing youth raised any eyebrows. It coincided with her daughter Macy’s appointment to the Firebirds’ roster.
An Australian Under 21 squad member who is described by Lisa Alexander as one of the brightest teenage midcourt talents in the country, her call-up wasn’t an easy transition for Macy, Jencke or the team.
Jencke said, “When it comes to athletes who have parents that coach that team, across any code, it doesn’t matter how transparent you are about the processes or mechanisms you put in place around selection, people will feel threatened, insecure or will see unfairness. We spoke about it very openly at the beginning of the year, to try and make it as fair as possible, and we worked really hard on that. But it wasn’t always comfortable for any of us.
“Macy is a talented athlete, and she will earn her position on court when the time is right. However, like everyone else she needs to be treated fairly and squarely based on her own ability, and not treated differently because her mother played and coached at the highest level.
“I’m really proud of how Macy carried herself, and how she supports her teammates. She works hard, she’s done well at underage level, and I hope that it might be better for her now that I’m out of the system.”
More controversial this season was the lack of court time that Jemma Mi Mi, currently the league’s only publicly acknowledged Aboriginal athlete, received during Indigenous Round. As her head coach, Jencke copped the brunt of public ire about the decision.
While she can’t give further details, Jencke said, “There was a whole bigger picture than what the public understood. What I can say is that Jemma is talented, a really important part of the team and needed support from all of netball to share the role of acknowledging Indigenous Round.
“Unfortunately, as a team we were vilified, and there wasn’t much support out there. Some people were more interested in attacking us despite not knowing all the facts, than thinking that everyone has a responsibility towards inclusion. It was a very emotional and upsetting time, and I ended up having to get off social media because some of the commentary was vile.
“I do believe that Suncorp Super Netball, Netball Australia, and all the member organisations have a lot more work to do in this space. As a sport we need to do better.”
While it’s another story that may never be fully revealed, Jencke signed a contract extension in July but then resigned from the Firebirds shortly after the season ended. She said, “I came here for 12 months, and ended up staying 11 years. That’s a long time to be coaching at the elite level.
“So I’m enjoying some family time, catching up with friends for coffee, reading and exercise. And rest. I’m really enjoying having a rest. I’ll go to the netball and enjoy being a spectator and a fan.”
While Jencke is uncertain what her future holds, it won’t include a head coaching role again. She’d be comfortable working in a supporting role at elite level, but is more likely to work with younger athletes. Jencke explained, “It’s really important to have some experienced coaches at that level, to maximise the athletes’ growth.
“I remember how pivotal it was to me and my era having quality, and for the future of Australian netball we need coaches who are prepared to step into that role.
“We are now seeing people like Susan Meaney, Eloise Southby, Elissa Kent, Clare Ferguson, Megan Anderson, Katie Walker, Bec Bulley and Sharelle McMahon doing some great work, and it’s terrific to see these former players starting to come through to the elite level.”
Having given forty years to elite sport, Jencke has learned much about herself across the journey. She’s become more adaptable and resilient, and will step out of her comfort zone to get the best out of people and players around her.
“When I first came to the Firebirds, I had my P Plates on as a coach”, she said. “If it wasn’t for the support of significant people at Netball Queensland, I would have packed my bags after a year and left. They really backed me and supported me.
“So when I look backwards, even after this very difficult year, I’m really proud of what we achieved, and what we had around us. I think we all got the best out of ourselves with what we had at the time.
“I’ve been very fortunate, both as an athlete and a coach. Now it’s time for me to reflect, to appreciate what I’ve learned, the people that I’ve met, the players that I’ve coached, the memories, the stories, the funny times that I’ve experienced and been part of.”
And while Jencke is currently enjoying a break, it’s a novelty that is unlikely to last too long. Her affinity for netball hasn’t waned, she has a wealth of knowledge to share, and just as importantly, equilibrium to achieve once again.
If you, a family member or friend is experiencing emotional distress, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, or Beyond Blue on 1800 512 348 on their 24 hour help lines.