It was a chilly July evening, and Stacey Marinkovich thrust her hands into her pockets. The West Coast Fever’s head coach was getting ready to face a mixed team of All Stars but found a momentary distraction at her fingertips – a Chupa-Chup and a fairy-dust-like sprinkling of crumbs, two subtle reminders of 2019 and an uncomfortable pregnancy that complicated the season.
Multiple allergic reactions and nine months of vomiting that only stopped on the day she delivered, were just some of the symptoms that Marinkovich endured. She said, “I’d be sitting on the bench at games, and all I wanted to do was throw up. I had crackers under my chair, and jellybeans in my pockets. I remember one game when I was holding Jatz biscuits in my pocket but because the game was so intense, I kept clenching my fists. There were just crumbs left by the end of the match.”
Trying to keep life as “normal” as she could for the Fever, Marinkovich went to extraordinary lengths to reduce any distractions that her pregnancy might cause. Her nausea peaked during the rounds, and Marinkovich occasionally hopped on a separate plane to the team, so that they could focus on the upcoming game rather than their coach’s distress.
“I was doing my best to hide how I was actually feeling, and that was challenging. The players were actually elated when I told them I was pregnant, because they knew I was struggling and thought something was seriously wrong.”
Despite being so unwell, Marinkovich missed just one training across the season, and was back on the job just a short week after giving birth. It is this ability to focus, and commitment to the job, that Marinkovich will take into her new role as the Australian Netball Diamonds’ head coach.
Marinkovich is known for her meticulous preparation of individual athletes, her team, for games and the season, and a laser-like attention to detail. If she sets high standards for her teams, she expects nothing less of herself. Athletes she’s coached are prepared to do the hard yards, the work and the grind, because they know that she’s right there with them.
They were qualities formed during her playing years with the Queensland Firebirds, Perth Orioles, West Coast Fever and the Australian Under 21 team. From an early stage, Marinkovich had a keen interest in the strategies of the game. She said, “I really analysed that as a player. Balancing that and learning from the leadership roles that I held in different teams, really gave me an appetite for coaching.”
In the latter stages of her playing career, Marinkovich was mentored by Glenn Stewart, who worked for the AFL club West Coast Eagles. “That added another layer. He gave me a really good understanding of high performance systems and structures. That, combined with knowledge of the game was a good preparation to step into the coaching arena.”
Marinkovich had originally moved to Perth to be coached by Gaye Teede, a midcourt specialist, and she, together with Norma Plummer and Carol Byers, were particularly influential in developing her netball nous. Marinkovich explained, “I’ve had a lot of coaches across the journey , and because they were so different it’s given me a really holistic perspective about how to interact with athletes and how to get the best out of people.”
But it’s her work with other specialists that has given her a broad-brushed perspective, Marinkovich believes. “Glenn, Gary Dawson – the performance analyst at West Coast Fever, and strength and conditioning coaches. They’ve given me a different way of seeing the game. How do you measure it? How do you test the group? Being unafraid of knowing what the programme is doing so that you can continue to enhance it. Learning how hard you can push players, and how to put a plan together with medical staff.
“So I think my biggest growth has come from working with experts within a programme rather than just learning the fundamentals of skills and strategies.”
At the senior level, Marinkovich has had nine years with the Fever as coach (2015-2020) and assistant coach (2012-2014), and stints at the Australian Institute of Sport, as a specialist coach with the Australian Development Squad, and head coach of the national Fast5 team. Those experiences, her understanding of the high performance pathway, and her ability to connect with people saw her recent appointment as the 15th head coach of the Diamonds.
Now that the initial whirlwind of publicity has settled, Marinkovich’s priority will be working with selectors to put a new Australian squad together. Due to be announced at the end of Suncorp Super Netball rounds, whittling down the wide range of talent on display will be challenging. Marinkovich said, “We’ve got incredible depth and skill sets, so I really need to get to know the players, bring them together and work out what the best way is to get cohesion amongst the group.”
“I think we need to reset what the elite mindset is, and to keep driving forwards that standard of representing the nation. If I can understand how people function, then we’ve got a better chance of implementing a game plan so that under the most intense pressure the team can stay connected and get the execution right.”
Scrutinising the other powerhouses of world netball will be important to gain a winning edge. Marinkovich said, “You do need to understand them, as they play differently. We need to look at the strengths of our Australian players, and what that is going to look like against specific body types and strategies.
“For me, the biggest part is, you have to look at what combinations are working in Suncorp Super Netball, but also give players the opportunity to be able to create new ones that we don’t necessarily see but could actually be something that could be exciting and game changing.”
Marinkovich can’t outline game plans until she knows the makeup of her squad. However, she said that that it’s important to work with Australia’s strengths. “Our netballers have tremendous athleticism. The way in which we run and defend hard, enables us to play a really direct style of game that includes that repetitive effort.
“But we can add some versatility into the systems that we put out on court, so we will need to work through that. But the first point of call is to get a really good handle on the skill sets of players, what comes naturally and in combination, and then build from there.”
After narrow losses at recent pinnacle events, decision making under pressure will be an early focus. “Players learn to be connected and cohesive in the training environment. That’s where we have to get the performance right. If you don’t do it in that environment, then it’s highly unlikely that you can reach for it in the marquee events.
“The way we train should be a really good reflection of how we play when we step out on court, and that prepares the body physically and mentally. It gives you role clarity, an understanding of the limitations of what we can do, and then there are no surprises out in the heat of battle.”
Marinkovich plans to build on, rather than tear down, what national coaches have brought to the Diamonds’ programme before her. One of the keys to success, she believes, will be continuing to increase collaboration between athletes, clubs and the national programme, particularly given the recent difficulties that Covid has created. The pressure cooker of hub life and the condensed season, while tough, have presented the national programme with a real opportunity.
“There is already good communication between club land and Diamonds, but we have to be more creative and connected than ever before,” Marinkovich said.
“The athletes are living and breathing it at the moment. They’ve had to do isolation, hotel quarantine, have short breaks between games, and travel at different points. It’s intense pressure, which also challenges coaches and staff, and I believe that could lay a strong foundation for the Diamonds.
“We need to be able to share those learnings. I think the players will bring a wealth of knowledge, and it’s been a benefit for me being in the experience at the same time. I can add what I’ve seen and observed. Particularly over the next few weeks it’s going to get even more fierce and ferocious and competitive, and it’s how the players handle that with the added element of fatigue.”
Marinkovich is keen to work closely with Suncorp Super Netball coaches so that the transition between club and country is seamless. She already has a strong working relationship with some, including current Sunshine Coast Lighting and Australian Under 21 coach, Kylee Byrne, who describes her as “One of the best coaches that I’ve ever worked with.”
The pair have known each other since club and representative days back in Brisbane, and Byrne notes, “Every conversation I’ve ever had with her, I’ve always walked away impressed with how tactically smart she is, how she loves to be challenged, how innovative she is. I went with her to that New Zealand tour last year with the Australia A programme, and left thinking, ‘Yep, you’re one of the best that we’ve got.’” The pair plan to work closely together in aligning the senior and Under 21 programmes.
Of interest to fans is selection of the Diamonds’ new assistant coaches, but that will wait until the national squad is in place. Marinkovich explained, “I’ve always been a coach that brings in people to challenge those within the group, and who have other skills that makes the programme more holistic. So as the squad starts to take shape, we will see where we need experience and expertise.”
When she applied for the national job, Marinkovich was well aware that combining coaching with new parenthood could throw up some challenges. She’s covered her bases, and has a wide-ranging support network that includes her husband and family, friends, staff and now even the players.
She said, “Originally I didn’t want to disrupt the (Fever) team’s preparation, or sidetrack them. I’m the sort of coach that you leave things at the door, and when you walk through you are the coach and the professional.
“However, it’s actually been very positive so I’ve had to change my mindset on that. The (Fever) players have embraced having Matthew around, and he brings a real sense of joy and family to the team. I do think that sometimes you can get so single minded about being a professional and doing all the right things, and forget that sport is also about family and the support they give you.”
There are maternity provisions – similar to what players receive – built into Marinkovich’s contract with the Fever, and it’s probable that will extend to the Diamonds. They will help her to care for Matthew while holding down her job, and are crucial to keeping women in sport, Marinkovich believes. “For netball, it’s such a highly participated women’s sport, so if you want the best coaches doing the job, you need to allow for that opportunity. So whether it’s for players or coaches, our organisation needs to continue support being a family.”
Beneath Marinkovich’s measured approach and dry sense of humour, there is a steely resolve. She knows that her coaching ability will ultimately be judged by the Diamonds’ results across the four year cycle, but has an innate belief that she is up for the challenge.
“There’s hard work to be done, and there is always an expectation of success. Everyone has an opinion, but for me, the stronger your internal focus, the stronger your team, the better you can understand the performance and block out background noise.”