“Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.” Bill Gates (1995).
After winning a heart-wrenching silver medal at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, Australian Diamonds’ coach Lisa Alexander was given a back handed gift.
It was from her daughter, who shared Gates’ famous quote with her. The words resonated in the wake of the loss to England, just one more reminder that success doesn’t rest on past results.
“The silver lining of this loss is that we will examine ourselves more closely, we will be more ruthless, and prepare within an inch of our lives for the Netball World Cup next year,” Alexander said.
“Perhaps better than if we’d won gold. So that and knowing that we were professional, well behaved and respectful to our opponents after the loss, are the consolations I take.”
The one-goal loss to England was not only a shock for the coach, but for Australian netball fans expecting a hard-fought contest followed by another gold medal for the Diamonds trophy cabinet.
Alexander’s team have dominated international netball in recent years. As reigning world and Commonwealth Games champions, they played an error-free brand of netball in pool games on the Gold Coast last month. No other team came close – Australia’s narrowest winning margin was an astonishing 21 goals.
After a marathon ten days of matches featuring the world’s best netballing nations, Australia were comfortably placed to record a gold medal victory on home soil. Instead they came up against an English team that had nothing to lose. They’d never featured in a gold medal match at a Commonwealth Games before.
England were blending players – half the team were in the middle of their domestic Superleague, the rest were off-season from Australia’s Suncorp Super League. It was a challenging marriage and yet coach Tracey Neville managed it flawlessly.
Alexander said, “England really played for England. They played for their country, for the Roses. Tracey (Neville) had taken a deliberate strategy to make sure everyone understood what the history was, and how significant it was for them.”
“Tracey should be applauded for the work she did to get the team together. It’s not easy. In fact, what she’s done is extremely difficult. She should be congratulated for her coaching performance, and so should the athletes for what they did as well.”
The gold medal match proved to be an enthralling contest, two formidable teams locked in battle. If Australia made errors and looked hesitant at times, they were forced into it by a smothering English game plan.
“England never gave up. Simple as that. Geva Mentor had an enormous performance and their centre court was very strong overall. Their two shooters were just outstanding, they were machine-like in their execution and their calmness.”
With the scores tied 51-all, England scored on a penalty after the final siren to record a historic victory. They were ecstatic with the result, leaving the Australian team devastated. Such is the nature of team sport where silver is the only medal awarded for finishing a tournament on a loss.
“Your initial reaction is to feel like losers,” reflected Alexander. “There’s no other way to say it.”
“You’re so invested in this marathon of a tournament. So much energy and effort and brain power goes into the whole thing, and it’s based on months and months and years of preparation, all coming into that one space in time.”
“At the end of the day we don’t take losing lightly and I’m quite comfortable with that. If you do, you shouldn’t be in the business of high performance sport.”
Alexander said she had to put her emotions aside at the end of the game; her immediate concerns were for her athletes.
“All I was concentrating on at that point was looking after them, to make sure they processed things with as much dignity and as graciously as possible. I was really proud that they did that.”
“It was a busy time (for me), speaking to the team from the heart, authentically, ensuring that they know that we’re all disappointed and acknowledging that we didn’t bring our best game on the day. But also acknowledging that England did.”
“I also had the fifth quarter to do myself, the media. I had to get myself under control quickly. That was hard, but it’s what you expect as coach of your country. You’ve got a duty to perform really well.
“I’ve been on the losing end of finals and I understand that you need to lose well, and you need to win well. Hopefully our behaviours wouldn’t have been a lot different if we’d won; we would have been dignified and acknowledged our opposition,” Alexander said.
Having such integrity, it explains why Alexander was deeply hurt by headlines that painted her as a sore loser. In the media throng after the game she was asked about the impact of Suncorp Super Netball’s unlimited import policy on her team. Alexander answered honestly, if bluntly, only to see her comments misconstrued in post-match coverage.
Alexander said she was disappointed with the characterisation and coverage.
“It was important to me to make sure Tracey (Neville) and the England team knew what I really thought. I wrote to them and said it was a fantastic performance. What you’ve achieved is amazing. That’s how I truly feel,” Alexander said.
While Alexander was criticised for her statement about unlimited imports, there’s no denying that the policy has allowed Australia to build the best domestic netball league in the world and that it will impact the national program.
For example, just two Australian goal shooters are currently receiving regular court time. The other six goal shooter positions are all held down by imports, including three of them by Jamaicans.
“We just have to make the best of it,” stated Alexander.
“We could look at it negatively and say it’s not helping the national team and we’ll pack our bags and go home, but that’s not me. I’m not giving up and I know our athletes won’t either.“
“Of our two athletes that are consistently playing goal shooter, we know they can be better and they will seek to improve. Watching Kristina Brice, who received court time recently, I was really pleased, and there’s someone like Gretel Tippett who plays goal attack, but may be better suited to shooter. Then Sophie Garbin coming on for the Swifts and doing so well. There’s lot of ideas and options that we can consider.”
“We also have to remember it gives us insight and feedback on athletes from other countries we will come up against. The two English shooters were brilliant in the Commonwealth Games final, so this (domestic) season I will be looking at how our athletes play against them. We’ll learn a lot.”
The 18 imports receive considerable court time in Suncorp Super Netball, so its underpinning program has become crucial for local athlete development. Each of the Australian Netball League’s eight teams are aligned to a Super Netball team, with opportunities for some players to train or play with each group depending on their status.
The bridge is acknowledged by Alexander, who said it is how Australia has been able to keep its high performance pathways so strong.
“It’s been a smart, strategic move by Netball Australia, and I thank the states and territories for supporting it.”
The Commonwealth Games performance review is yet to be finished, a thorough process undertaken for every major tournament. Alexander explained that a pre-Games review was done, because there isn’t always a great amount of information at the end of a tournament.
“It is coloured by the result. We did that with our athletes, staff and Super Netball Clubs. It’s just good practice. Then we did one based on the tournament, and some based on the finals weekend.”
“We still have to do a proper review with the athletes because there simply wasn’t time at the end of the Games.”
“We will look at the game individually, the goals we set, the roles we played and where the improvements can come from. We’ve already generated some key themes, and we will have to make decisions around what we believe are our priority areas.”
Alexander’s unflinching honesty has seen her study her own performance as closely as that of any player.
“The Performance Director of the Australian Institute of Sport will also provide a critical eye. I’ll speak to some key people and I will personally analyse the game again, going through things I may have done differently.”
Together with crucial analysis, Alexander believes the review will help the team to deal with the roller coaster of emotions that they’re experiencing.
“The staff are really hurting at this stage. The players had to go straight back into their Super netball teams and haven’t really had time to reflect as yet.”
“I’m not saying the players weren’t devastated, because they were, and they wore the stiff upper lip well. But by moving on immediately it perhaps is something that they haven’t had the time to fully process.”
“We need to have that conversation with the players, and we haven’t had that opportunity yet. But I really felt for the staff. They put so much effort into it and the result was devastating for them too.”
Under Alexander’s tenure, the Diamonds have had a period of sustained success. Very few of the current players or staff know what it’s like to be second best and it’s not a feeling they want to revisit. As soon as the review is finished, planning for the 2019 Netball World Cup will commence. Alexander is itching to get started.
“I’m looking forwards to the challenge. I can taste it, I can feel it, I just want to get stuck into it.”
However, it’s clear to her that defending the World Cup title next year will take an enormous effort.
The margin between the top six nations is continuing to narrow, and England will be particularly difficult to knock off on home territory.
To do that, fans could potentially see tweaks to the playing roster and game plan, something the microscope placed over the squad will eventually reveal.
“Preparation for the World Cup shouldn’t be any different, but it will. Absolutely!”
“We have to ask if we turned up as well prepared as we could be. Clearly, we didn’t. Partly that’s my responsibility. Partly it’s the athletes. We all share that responsibility and we need to be better. Perhaps we also let the occasion get to us and that is a reality of sport. That’s also something we will need to look at.”
It will be fascinating to watch how the next twelve months unfold before the moment of truth in Liverpool next July. How the Diamonds respond is in their own hands, but it feels apt for them to borrow from a different quote, one often attributed to England’s greatest statesman, Winston Churchill.
It reads, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
Cover image: Simon Leonard