NS EXCLUSIVE: Tamsin Greenway –  Fearless

NS EXCLUSIVE: Tamsin Greenway –  Fearless

Words tumble end over end down the phone. They’re a riptide of energy and ideas, flowing so quickly that Tamsin Greenway barely pauses for breath, before her next thought unfolds. But she’s always been a person in a hurry. As an athlete, coach, commentator and mother – and sometimes all four at once –Tamsin has packed a lot into her 38 years.

She hurtles fearlessly into life’s challenges, fazed by little other than the recent terrors of Covid created home-schooling. Since her earliest English age-group trials – buying her first tracksuit just the day before – Tamsin has won seven domestic league titles, three bronze medals with the English Roses, become a highly respected analyst on SkySport, and been headhunted to coach the Scottish Thistles.  

Netball almost wasn’t on her radar at all. The self-confessed tomboy originally wanted to be a footballer, but was talked out of it by her mother – “You can’t! You won’t be taken seriously”. It’s a ‘ridiculous’ concept now, said Tamsin, given the increasing range of sport available to women, but at the time such opportunities didn’t exist.

Instead, the ten year old found netball, and announced to her startled parents, “You know what? If I can’t play football, I’m going to be an English netballer!

“That was pretty crazy at the time, because netball wasn’t visible at all. There was nothing on TV, nothing in the press – I wouldn’t have even known what an elite team looked like. But I loved the sport, and getting to play alongside my girl mates was a definite pull for me.”

Pathways to the top were limited at the time. Tamsin said, “In Leicester we didn’t have a junior team, so I was playing with the women when I was 14. They loved it, because I was the one running around in the middle, but it was different not playing alongside my friends.”

While it was isolating at times, the experience gave her courage when it came to trial for national under age teams. Tamsin said, “I was the only kid there from my area, while other clubs sent their whole team along, and they used to play together on court. So athletes really stood out in their own structure. 

“It’s very different now – you come through the club system, schools are interlinked, and pathways flow into the SuperLeague.”

 

Domestic success

As a 16 year old, Tamsin went on a life-changing visit to Team Bath. She said, “Lyn Gunson created a netball programme where you could be a full-time netballer and also study. I remember being shown around, and I could see Jess Thirlby on court with Ama Agbeze, and a very young Geva Mentor. They were only doing a training session, but I immediately knew it was where I wanted to be.

“I was adamant that I wanted to move there and then – go to a different school, and live with a host family.

“But Mum was, ‘Mmm, no! Wait till you go to uni.’”

Gunson – a former Silver Ferns captain who coached both New Zealand and the English Roses – would become the biggest influence on Tamsin’s netball career. “We owe her a lot. She changed the whole way we saw the game.

“Lyn believed in bringing through youngsters, and from a team that used to get smashed, Bath became untouchable for a few years. Now the spread of the athletes she worked with is right across the SuperLeague – coaches like Sara Bayman at Lightning, Kat Ratnapala at Mavericks, Anna Stembridge at Bath, and Jess Thirlby who is now the English national coach. Plus there are plenty of her athletes still in the game.

“She didn’t take any nonsense – I’ve never cried so much as I did under Lyn, but in a good way. The way she saw the game, the way she got us to do things, and the culture that she created. We all bought into the big picture, and used to bleed blue and gold for her.”

It was Gunson’s belief in youth that helped Tamsin past a rocky start to her career. She said, “Pam Cookey had been injured and I was promoted into the lineup. I was horrific, shooting at 26% in my first game. 

“I remember the centre and wing attack standing on the circle yelling at me to score the goals, and all I could say was, ‘I’m TRYING!’ I had a frank conversation with Lyn after the game, and she said, ‘You can shoot, and you are better than that. Get out there and do it again.’

“I was always a very determined person, but Lyn’s backing and support was crucial, and she gave me further opportunities.” 

Tamsin was selected for the Roses’ senior team in 2004, and remembers her first game with a mixture of pride and disbelief that she got through it. “I played against South Africa in a match in Birmingham. I was absolutely blowing when we had a time out shortly after I got on. Our captain, Olivia Murphy looked at me and said, ‘Are you alright?’ and I said, ‘No, I can’t do this!’

“She just laughed, and said, ‘Welcome to professional netball, you’ll be fine!’ And I was. But when you finally achieve your ultimate goal and dream, it’s very special.”

Former national teammate and current Technical Director of the Strathclyde Sirens, Karen Atkinson, said, “She came into the Roses squad when I was the starting wing attack, so it was a battle for court time between us, but we went on to form a really good relationship.”

“What was apparent early was that she was very creative – a smart player, who understood the game and had a particular strength in feeding the circle. She wore her heart on her sleeve, and was incredibly competitive. She always wanted to win.” 

Describing herself as a ‘Marmite’ player – one who is either loved or loathed – Tamsin originally withdrew from England’s 2007 World Cup campaign, but when injury struck the team took her place in the twelve. 

It was a tough tournament for the Roses, who were defeated by Jamaica in the bronze medal game. Nevertheless, the late call-up was a sliding doors moment for Tamsin. With limited opportunities at goal attack, she moved out to wing attack, and her courtcraft was noticed by Vicki Wilson, the Queensland Firebirds’ coach.

“I went back to my hotel room after the game, and like the rest of the team, was absolutely gutted,” said Tamsin. “There was a note under my door from Vicki, who said she’d been watching me, had I heard about the new league being formed in Australia and New Zealand, and would I be interested?

“There’d been loads of chat about it at the World Cup, and as an English athlete, your goal is always to go and play in Australia. 

“There were players that we knew would get asked – Geva (Mentor) and Sonia (Mkoloma) for example – but I think I was a very unexpected choice. So I thought that I had to work twice as hard to prove that I deserved to be there. I snapped up the opportunity, and couldn’t wait to get out there.”

 

Tamsin Greenway, pictured with Laura Geitz and Kierra Trompf, joined the Queensland Firebirds in 2008 and 2009. Image Simon Leonard

 

National controversy

On a previous tour down under, Tamsin had learned how formidable netball in Australia could be. Sitting in a bus, on her way to play a friendly against a local side, Tamsin was convinced the Roses would have a comfortable win. “Some of the older players said it wouldn’t be as straight forward as that. I said, ‘They’re only a State League team, of course we’ll beat them!’ 

“Well, we did, but only just. It was the first time that I realised how tough netball could be at this level, and no matter how prepared you are, you have to face it to really understand. I’d experienced that kind of intensity before, but only at training, not in competition.

“So to play week in and week out at that level with the Firebirds – it taught me everything I needed to know about the international game, and I became a better player and coach because of it. 

“You can’t shy away from the fact that England have improved because of the opportunities our athletes have had out in Australia and New Zealand.”

Under the two import rule the Firebirds were allowed, Tamsin shared the court with Jamaican Romelda Aiken. The number of imports was reduced in the third year – Tamsin laughed, “Shockingly, I know, Romelda was a bit more valuable than I was! I would have stayed in Australia as long as I could, but I had to be cut from the team.

“It did end up being the right time for me to go home. I wasn’t the starting choice in the English squad, and it gave me more of a chance to challenge for a position on court.”

It was a timely move, as the Rose’s management introduced a policy that athletes had to be playing domestic netball at home to be considered for the national team. England’s powerful back end of Sonia Mkoloma and Geva Mentor stayed in Australia and were barred from international duties.

Tamsin remembered it as a time when the athletes made a stand. “Why on earth would England want to compete without their two best players? They weren’t having a jolly-up, they were choosing to play in the best league in the world.

“And it was really important for the youngsters coming through – athletes like Jo (Harten) and Serena (Guthrie). Our league at home wasn’t professional, and wasn’t going to give us the same opportunities. We needed them to have those opportunities too – that was important and I still believe it’s the main reason England was able to close the gap with Australia and New Zealand.

“I’ve always been quite vocal and not easily intimidated, and that’s important. Never to challenge out of disrespect, but to stand up for what I believe is right. So supporting Geva and Sonia, and our athletes’ right to choose where to play, was a no-brainer for me and most players in the squad. We fought hard for them.”

 

Coaching calls

On her return to England, Tamsin went in search of a new challenge, and moved to play with Surrey Storm. Two years later she approached management about the coach’s role. “I remember umming and arghing over it. I had no qualifications, but I’d become quite a vocal part in the team, and I was leading some sessions when the coach wasn’t there.

“Anybody who does rate my game, knows that I read it fairly well. It’s one of my strengths. I had started coaching junior teams earlier on, and this seemed a natural progression. Management believed in me, and gave me the opportunity.”

Overnight, Tamsin went from being a 28 year old athlete, to being a teammate and coach. She said, “Coaching was never an issue, but player management was, and when you suddenly take over a group of your mates, it’s an interesting experience. 

“I didn’t realise how important off-court behaviours were at the time. From the very little things, right through to how do you pick players or drop players, including myself, from the starting seven. There’s got to be a level of respect and understanding to get through it.

“I joke about it now, but when I was a playing coach, I wasn’t on the players’ WhatsApp group, because they needed an opportunity for me not to be watching every single thing they did.

“I remember Rachel Dunn, who is one of my oldest friends, said, ‘T, why don’t you wear team kit on the bench?’

“I was, ‘I like to wear my leather jacket, I don’t want to wear team kit!’ 

“And she replied, ‘Mmm, it doesn’t really strike team unity.’ It bothered her.

“All those aspects took a while to deal with and get right, and luckily my mates were patient with me, because it wasn’t always plain sailing.”

It was a successful period for the Storm. Appearing in five grand finals in a six year period, they won in 2015 and 2016. Tamsin then moved to the start up club, Wasps Netball.

She said, “It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, but it almost broke me – how much I threw into it, and how much it impacted every aspect of my life. At Storm I’d just been bobbling along, learning on the job, but at Wasps, I was expected to be the expert.

“When I was offered the job, I put my head down on the board room table, thinking, ‘You’ve just offered me my dream!’ But reality hit when I got there. To set something up, to change the game, to push on commercially, and pay players properly.

“I also got a lot of stick for taking the players that I did. Luckily the CEO at the time, a genius named David Armstrong, and the athletes, really bought into it. I had a great relationship with them all, and we made it work.”

Having retired two seasons earlier, Tamsin made a comeback when an athlete was injured. She laughed, “David turned to me, and said, ‘You know whatever happens, you can’t be shit!’

“I thought, ‘Jesus Christ, no expectations here!’ So there was that pressure as well, and a lot of outside noise that we were going to blow other teams out of the water. I felt if I failed, everyone would have thought, ‘Ha, ha!’

“It was us against the world in the first year, and while it’s rare that you get the cherry on top, we did, we won the final, and repeated it the following year.”

 

 

Motherhood and netball

It was an exhausting five year period – as well as being an athlete and coach, Tamsin was also working as a television commentator, all while mothering her first child. Whilst she laughingly refers to the time as ‘carnage’, there’s an element of truth in the joke.

“Looking back now, I don’t know how we muddled through. My daughter Jamie, who was born in 2013, was at the side of the netball court a lot, which was almost unheard of at the time. At that point, players in England finished their careers and then had kids.”

Tamsin had known that despite being a mum, she wasn’t finished as an athlete. As the mother of a newborn, she didn’t play in the 2014 Commonwealth Games, an event that she says England ‘blew’ after they were relegated to fourth.

“Sonia (Mkoloma) and I came back into the squad, and there was a group of us with real belief that we could win the 2015 Netball World Cup.” 

It was a tough time for Tamsin. There were no maternity provisions in place for English netballers, and no other mothers in the squad that really understood her struggles.

She said, “There were a lot of issues, but we somehow made it work. I wasn’t with Jamie’s dad, and so my parents stepped in while I was in training camp. It was at Loughborough, and they were only 10 minutes away. So I would drop Jamie off, drive to camp, then get leave that evening to bath her, put her to bed and head back in. The captain was great in shifting meetings so I could do those things, and they were as understanding as they could be.”

The Roses flew to Australia for the four week World Cup leadup and tournament, while Jamie had to remain at home. Tamsin said, “I remember when we first arrived in Brisbane. The internet wasn’t great when everyone was on it, and I had a little meltdown – ‘I need to speak to my child!’ I went into that period with my eyes wide open, but it was still a challenge.

“Netball is such a family environment, and I’m glad that parenthood is now being looked at in more professional ways, rather than, ‘We just look out for each other because we’re women, and we get it!’”

After a rollercoaster campaign England walked away with a bronze. Off the court, coach Tracey Neville had lost her father shortly after his arrival in Australia, while on the court there was an unsettling lack of a regular starting seven. 

“It was quite tough”, reflected Tamsin. “We didn’t know who was going to play, and how we were going to play. While we were originally hopeful of gold, with everything that went on, I guess we were lucky to get the bronze in the end.

“It was sad though – it was the end of the road for a number of us, and you don’t go into a national squad thinking, ‘I hope I win lots of bronze medals.’ I’m a competitor and I will never get that chance again. 

“But that’s the completely selfish athlete in me talking. What that competition and the previous one did was a massive step for going on to win the Commonwealth Games the next time around.”

 

Sara Bayman and Tamsin Greenway of England celebrate victory during the 2015 Netball World Cup Bronze Medal match between England and Jamaica. Image supplied by Tamsin Greenway, Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

 

Into the commentary box

Back in England, Tamsin continued with her dual coaching and commentary careers, becoming known as the best analyst in the business. She’d started at SkySport while still playing, and initially found it challenging to discuss teammates and friends. “I remember talking up Serena Guthrie not long after I started. She was a good mate of mine, but she was new to centre and I didn’t think she was the right choice at the time, because we still had Sara Bayman and Jade Clarke. There was massive backlash on that.

“So I thought I had two ways of doing it. I could either go back to being everyone’s mate, or I could stand by my opinions and find a way to back them up.

“I thought, ‘Screw it, we’ve got to be able to talk openly about our game.’ Not in a derogatory way, but in a tactical way. And that’s where the analysis came in. So that’s my thing. If you can back up a statement, then regardless of whether people agree or not, we can all learn more about the game.

“We need to talk, we need to understand it more, we need to spark debate and then form our own opinions.

“What does excite me is that netball is still in it’s infancy on television, especially compared to men’s football which has been around forever.

“There’s a lot more that we can do to tell the story, particularly around using statistics to bring it alive. And I watch all the other coverage around the world, to see what others are doing, and what might make our coverage better.”

 

Tamsin Greenway at work for SkySports. Image supplied by Tamsin Greenway/courtesy of Clive Jones and Steve Porter.

 

Scottish Thistles head coach

Just before Covid struck, Tamsin was headhunted to coach the Scottish Thistles. The Sirens’ Technical Director, Karen Atkinson, said, “She wanted to get into international coaching and had just missed out on the England job. With Gail Parata leaving Scotland, I thought what a perfect person Tamsin would be for the Thistles. 

“Not only has she got the knowledge and experience, but she brings a completely different perspective that the players haven’t seen before. She can see the bigger picture in terms of how she wants to play the game, but also the finer details of how you are going to get there.” 

For the first time in her coaching career, Tamsin was faced with the difference between a dream and reality. She said, “Of course we’d love to medal at the Commonwealth Games in 2022 – that’s the fairy tale – but the reality is what we need to do is back up our rankings. 

“We’re currently 8th in the world, so what does that look like? What targets do we set, what does that look like in a competition, and how are we going to do it? What does the support look like? That’s all a work in progress.

“It’s about getting players to buy into the dream, to buy into the journey. We need to understand that the Thistles are not professional athletes. I love that Noeline Taurua (New Zealand coach) can drop players if they’re not fit enough, but she can because that’s their job. They’re paid to do it. 

“That’s not the case over here, and we also have to understand that they have a life away from the court. One of the big things across the SuperLeague is the difference in how people are training and the access they are getting to training. It’s drastically different among players and teams.

“But so far, so good. The Scottish athletes are playing very well for the Sirens. We are already starting to see a shift in their behaviours due to the influence of people like Karen Atkinson, Technical Director, and Lesley MacDonald, their coach.”

While Covid has made training difficult, and tournament play impossible so far, Tamsin believes that the Thistles are heading in the right direction. “How professional they are, the ambitions they’ve got, has been so positive. The pressure will be there in a major competition, but so far we’re in a massive culture shift which is exciting.”

The Thistles finished 12th at the 2019 Netball World Cup, and so there’s work to be done if they’re to match their current world ranking at the next Commonwealth Games. Given factors such as the lack of match play through Covid and the recent emergence of other nations on the world scene, that could be tough. 

But neither the athletes nor their coach are backing away from the task. As Atkinson remarked, “Tamsin’s never been afraid of a challenge – we’ve seen that throughout her career – and I think that shows what a great character she is.”

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.