Songwright Tracey Chapman would be proud of the quiet revolution taking place in English netball. Of a particular generation of athletes – some at the tail end of their playing careers, others who’ve stepped into the world of coaching, punditry, and social activism.
They’re the ones who’ve been dealt 30 to 40 goal floggings by Australia and New Zealand, a light year’s gap with no bridge in sight at that time.
They’re also the women who demanded improvement, drove new standards, and worked tirelessly to build better outcomes for the Roses. And it’s worked – they now compete on equal terms with other top ranked nations. In 2018 England triumphed over the Diamonds to become Commonwealth Games champions, and dominated New Zealand and Jamaica in recent test series.
One of those visionaries is Sara Francis-Bayman, credentialled with 84 test caps for England, four SuperLeague titles as a player, and one as a coach. However, it’s rare she said, that she and her peers reflect on their achievements.
“I guess it’s because we see each other so infrequently now, particularly during Covid. But with my recent hen’s do and wedding, we’ve sat around and chatted about days gone by. Reflected on the people in this one room that have done a huge amount in the past ten years for English netball.”
Improvement has been a slow burn, largely starting at Team Bath under the auspices of the innovative Lyn Gunson. In charge of an immersion programme, she attracted players such as Francis-Bayman, Geva Mentor, Jess Thirlby, Anna Stembridge, Tamsin Greenway, and Rachel Dunn, all of whom later circulated into the wider world of netball.
“That was the aim,” said Francis-Bayman. “To develop players but not to keep them. Allow them to go around the country and make the competition stronger. So we did that as players.
“Standards slowly started to rise across the league, and you are now seeing that coming through the coaching ranks as well. People like Jess and Sonia Mkoloma in the English set up, Kat Ratnapala, Karen Atkinson, Anna, and Tamsin.
“It makes me proud of what we’ve achieved, and I think it gives a blueprint – if you can get people into solid programmes with good environments, then we don’t have to look abroad for our coaches, and our players don’t have to play overseas.
“We have enough talent in this country to develop our own players and coaches.”
The Early Years
Francis-Bayman was almost lost to netball, preferring cold, muddy football pitches as a youngster. Representing England in both sports as a junior, she decided to focus on soccer at university.
“When I first got to Bath I didn’t go near a netball court, and at the end of freshers week, one of the netball girls came running up to me and said, ‘Lyn Gunson said you’ve got to come to netball training tomorrow morning at 7am!’
“I hadn’t seen 7am for a long time, but I got up and went, then called mum afterwards to have a good whinge – ‘It’s too much, I’m not getting up this early all the time!’
“Mum told me just to stick it out for a week, and then decide. So I did, and by the end of the week I loved it. The girls, the programme, the environment; and that was how I fell into choosing netball.”
After captaining the English Under 21s at the 2005 Netball World Youth Cup, Francis-Bayman went to New Zealand for a year’s worth of industry experience in sports science. She worked at Sport Waikato, roomed and trained with Laura Langman, travelled the breadth of the country – and was punished for it. Omission from the senior England squad resulted.
“A good few years later having time out has been normalised, but back then England were frustrated with me taking 12 months off. I didn’t need it – I wasn’t burned out or over netball, I wasn’t starting a family, I just wanted to see a little bit of the world. Their attitude was, ‘We’re not going to pick you unless we absolutely have to, because you left.’
“I found that frustrating, but ultimately I was happy to work for my place in the squad.”
Francis-Bayman forced her way back into the team, representing her country at a number of pinnacle events, but blew a knee just before the 2011 World Championships. “My biggest disappointment was that I was in the shape of my life. I was really excited for the event, because I’d just cemented my place as starting centre, and was the most comfortable I’d ever been going into selection – usually I was one of the nervous camp attendees.
“As soon as it happened, I just knew. I was inconsolable. People thought I was in so much pain, and I was, but it was more the realisation of what it meant. I wasn’t going to that World Cup, and the next major tournament was three years away. The timing of that injury was hard to take.”
Fearless on court, the dynamic midcourter moved clubs a few times in her career, also representing Manchester Thunder, New Zealand’s Central Pulse, and the UWS Sirens. “I’ve always tried to go places where I felt I could make a difference, and had something to give,” she said.
Off the court however, Francis-Bayman was dealing with a far more complex situation. The choice to compartmentalise her playing career and personal life had become incredibly difficult. “At the time I felt I was doing the best thing, as I was afraid of being pigeonholed by my sexuality rather than my playing ability. I believed I should be focused on my netball, judged only on that, and keep everything else separate.
“Only by being much more open about my sexuality now, have I realised how harmful that was for my mental health.
“I was trying to keep secrets, not opening up to people and shutting down any conversation that I couldn’t put into the box I wanted it in.”
It wasn’t until Francis-Bayman came to realise that netball wasn’t the most important thing in her world, that she resolved the dichotomy.
“It took some time, but I grew to understand that my family, and looking after myself and those I cared about, were far more important. I became more comfortable in my sexuality, it became more natural to talk to people, and that lightened the load on me considerably.
“I was extremely harsh on myself as a player, and that wore me down. So if you don’t let people in to support you, life can become really tough. I’d definitely do things differently if I had my time again, but it now gives me a broader scope to understand what people are going through, to help and guide them if I possibly can, so that they have the freedom to be themselves.”
Retirement beckoned in 2017 – Francis-Bayman said she no longer wanted to drag her ‘creaking body’ to training. While she loved to play and could push through a lot of physical pain, she wanted to mentally check out of everything else. “I didn’t want to get up on Monday mornings, I didn’t want a fitness test, or an ice bath, or any of the tough stuff. And as soon as your mind is elsewhere, it’s time to go.
“I just stopped wanting it badly enough.”
Drily funny – or sarcastic according to Francis-Bayman – the straight talker admits she still doesn’t know quite why she went straight into coaching. Signed as Director of Netball by Loughborough Lightning immediately after finishing as a player, Francis-Bayman rates it as the biggest challenge of her sporting career.
“It was incredibly difficult, and I’m not sure if I’d recommend it! You think you know a lot as a player, but you don’t. What it takes to put a programme together, to run a team, plan a season and lead the staff. Then add in trying to look after 12 players who are all individuals with different needs and demands.
“For a lot of my first year in coaching I was just trying to stay above water.”
England had found themselves in a cycle of employing foreign coaches, due to a lack of investment in their own talent. It was the visibility of Thirlby, one of the earliest to turn to coaching at a young age, and other trailblazers such as Greenway, Stembridge and Tracey Neville, that convinced Francis-Bayman to give it a crack.
“They were more than capable, and it opened the door for more of us. We looked around, and thought that we could perhaps do that.
“That was the change. We didn’t see others doing it before then, so we didn’t think it was possible.
“Now we’ve got people at all levels of the elite pathway who’ve either transitioned from playing to coaching, or gone straight into the coaching pathway. It’s important that people see that.”
Perhaps the first country to support a wave of youthful coaches, England now has a plethora of them. However, player management still isn’t addressed properly in the coaching courses, according to Francis-Bayman.
“It doesn’t enter your thinking to start with, and that was the biggest shock to me. I remember worrying about planning all these nerdy sessions, with progressions, aims and blocks of training, but once I got into the job, more than 50% of my time was spent on player management. It wasn’t what I expected.
“We learn about the tactical and technical elements, but if your team is unhappy it’s going to show much more than if you’re not doing the best possible session on a training night.
“I quickly had to switch where I focused my attention, time and effort, and sometimes that can be frustrating for coaches.”
The loneliest job
When she first dipped her toe into the coaching waters, Francis-Bayman found it impossible to avoid upsetting people – something she said is one of the most difficult aspects of the job. “That’s hard to take initially. Whatever decision you make, someone’s going to love it, and someone’s going to hate it. You won’t get approval all the time, and you can’t search for it.
“It asks a lot of tough questions of yourself, and as a new coach you don’t know the answers, you don’t know if you’re capable of doing it, or if you’ve made the right decision on any given day.
“From somewhere, you have to find that belief in yourself and your decision making, that trust that you’re in the role for a reason. Otherwise, there’s no point in being there.
“I had to shake it off, to pull myself together and just make the decisions. And whether it was right or wrong, it was my responsibility.”
It’s the sum of her varied experiences – injury, non-selection, and emotionally difficult times – that’s helped Francis-Bayman’s successful foray into coaching. Together with a keen tactical brain, she has a strong appreciation of what her athletes are going through, how they are feeling, and the support they might need.
“Sometimes I will be pretty blunt – almost like ripping a bandaid off – when I have conversations with players. Sometimes I’ll take my time, put an arm around them, but understanding that I can’t make it better.
“Being in those situations myself has helped me to understand both what they are going through, but also that I’m often the person now inflicting the pain, and therefore I can’t be the person that consoles them as well.
“Players have a lot going on in their lives, and unfortunately as a coach, sometimes you are the bad guy.”
Coaching is one of the loneliest jobs in the sporting world, and unlike players, and to a lesser extent the umpires, there’s no formal body of support. “It’s hard to get a collective voice, because there’s always a level of reluctance to share information about our programmes,” said Francis-Bayman. “But we all have the same battles, the same problems with schedules and leagues and players.
“That’s starting to change. Here in the SuperLeague, there’s a coaching group that are pretty open and happy to help each other, with the understanding that netball is bigger than an individual club or person. But other than what comes from each franchise – and I’ve been fortunate but it can be very different – a lot more needs to be done around supporting coaches.
“An independent body or an extension of the players association would be really helpful, as we can’t just leave one group without support.”
Having led Loughborough Lightning to the 2021 Vitality SuperLeague title, and signed as Assistant Coach of the Scottish Thistles – ‘It was impossible to say no to Tamsin, and I think Scotland is so exciting. They’ve a huge amount of potential, the Sirens are well run, and they have enormous support and room for improvement’ – Francis-Bayman surprised the netball world by electing to take an 18 month sabbatical.
Although unexpected, the move was widely supported. Recently married, her wife Stacey Francis-Bayman has had an Australian based netball career for the past six years. The pair had hoped to commute between countries in their respective off-seasons, but Covid made that impossible. Long held plans for Stacey to move home to the UK in late 2021 changed, almost at the last minute.
“I realised that I was being pretty selfish wanting Stacey to come home, when the best place for her is at West Coast Fever. If she’s only got a couple of years left in her career, she’ll never get that time back. So why wouldn’t she stay, and if I’m not going to go out there now to support her, when am I ever going to do it?”
“It was a really tough decision for me to go, particularly to leave this team, after such a successful year. But there’s times when you have other priorities, and I can’t sacrifice all my life to netball.
“I don’t think people realise how hard it’s been for Stacey to be so far from home without her support network. I’m very excited to move to Perth and I think that will make a big difference for her.”
Francis-Bayman isn’t sure what life in Western Australia will look like yet. She doesn’t want to completely immerse herself in another coaching role, but is keen to keep her hand in and ‘contribute.’ It would be no surprise if she continues to inspire and motivate others in some way, as the couple are known for their thoughtful, thought-provoking comments on a range of issues that matter to them.
Value added athletes
Stacey – who is currently the most vocal – is England’s recently established Netball Players’ Association Vice Chair of the Player Representatives, and also an ambassador for Pride House and Rainbow Laces. Sara has been an Active Communities Ambassador, and is also active for Rainbow Laces.
“It’s important that people see that you don’t do everything for yourself. I’m immensely proud of Stacey – she’s at the end of her career, and she’s not going to feel the impact of what she’s doing with the Players Association. She can advocate and negotiate for herself, but what she does now will help the rights of the 16 to 24 year olds coming through.
“The players that need it the least are the ones doing the most – Serena Guthrie is another who is making a difference – and that’s a key message.
“I believe that netballers are finally understanding their worth in terms of their value to teams, to sporting landscapes and as humans. They’ve realised they don’t just have to talk to their family and friends, but keep quiet as a netballer.
“It’s great that they’re being themselves in all walks of life, and deciding what’s important to them, whether that’s standing against racism or homophobia, or raising awareness about topics like mental health and diabetes. They’re not issues that are important to all netballers, but having made a stand, teammates have said, ‘I’ve never actually thought about this, but I’m onboard, I support what you’re saying.’
“It’s been eye-opening, it’s been inspirational and for the next generation, they are realising that they can have a personality, an opinion, they can be a character, and they can be on social media without it being a distraction.”
Having experienced the highs and lows of an elite playing and coaching career, well-being is a topic that’s particularly close to Francis-Bayman’s heart. She said, “Sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for. Professionalising our game doesn’t necessarily mean you copy a male game, and some of their codes are a mess.
“We are a different sport, with different athletes, and it’s important that the governing bodies, the leagues and the players associations are all part of the conversation around understanding what our sport should look like.
“People need balance in their lives, and within this industry we have to work out how we best look after everyone involved, and how we support them. As netball continues to grow, it’s crucial that we don’t forget about well-being, so that we can thrive in other areas of our life too.”
Like many English netballers, Francis-Bayman didn’t achieve a gold medal at a Commonwealth Games or World Cup, having to settle for bronze. But she’s been part of a generation that’s driven improvement, and set the Roses on the pathway to their current success. Offcourt, she’s standing up, speaking out, and doesn’t shy away from some challenging but necessary conversations.
And like Tracey Chapman, inspiring a revolution is enough to make her heart sing.