Lisa Alexander sets Diamonds for World Cup
Lisa Alexander arrives on a six-degree, fog-shrouded Melbourne morning, black puffer jacket zipped tight to the throat against the bitter chill. But for the longest-serving coach of the Australian Diamonds netball team, things are hotting up. That night she’ll fly to Sydney to lead her 12-player squad through a week-long camp before heading to England for the World Cup.
Fresh from watching the closing minutes of the Matildas’ shock round of 16 exit at the FIFA Women’s World Cup, Alexander knows only too well the pressure on high-profile Australian teams to perform on the international stage. Since the quadrennial Netball World Cup began in 1963, Australia has held the trophy aloft 11 times. It’s the type of domination that puts a target firmly on the back of each green and gold dress in Liverpool. Still, although the Diamonds are the reigning champions, the world of netball has changed a lot since their 2015 win against New Zealand’s Silver Ferns in Sydney.
“I try to use pressure to help me to be at my very best,” says Alexander, pragmatically, as she nurses her double-shot espresso. “I think it actually helps us for higher levels of performance and improvement if we’ve got that extra pressure on us.”
Where once the Diamonds and the Silver Ferns could be expected to face off in every World Cup or Commonwealth Games final, today’s netball stars are dotted around the globe. Last year, at the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, the unthinkable happened – New Zealand failed to make the final and hot favourites Australia took on England, which had scraped into the gold-medal playoff by virtue of a one-goal win over Jamaica. In front of an expectant home crowd, the Diamonds lost their lustre in the dying minutes of the game and also fell to the Roses by one point. England gold; Australia silver; Jamaica bronze. It was akin to Rafael Nadal losing at the French Open and it spelt the dawning of a new era in world netball.
Lisa Alexander grew up playing netball in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne. “I played with Vic Churches representative teams and I got in their open team quite young,” she says. “And so that’s when I knew that I probably had a bit of talent.”
The girl from Cheltenham looked destined for two things – to become a doctor and to play netball at a high level. She was that unusual combination of swot and jock, and the only girl at her school to study year 12 physics.
“Some of the boys thought I was a bit odd – the ones who were right into their electrical circuits at the time – and couldn’t quite understand this young woman in their class who was also out on the sporting field.”
But just as she was trialling for the state under-21 team during her first year at university studying medicine, Alexander became pregnant.
“I was 18 when I had Carly,” she says. The pregnancy was unplanned and forced Alexander to take a year off uni. It was during this time she rethought her career as a doctor. “I deferred my degree and decided to go into teaching so I could do it all. I think if I’d studied a medical degree, it would have been just that and family and I wouldn’t have been able to play elite-level sport as well. At the end of the day I probably always wanted to be a teacher – I sort of got talked into medicine a little bit at school because of my marks.
“Today I am really thankful I got through my degree and got a teaching position straightaway and was able to combine that with family and netball. And that’s the way it’s always been.”
In the late 1980s, Alexander had a shot at the national team. “I got to Australian squad level for two years and went to trials,” she says. But she never gained that coveted Australian Test cap.
“So I know what it’s like to miss the team and how devastating and traumatic that can be – because you put everything into it. I probably could’ve hung in there a little bit longer, but we moved to the country [to Leongatha in Victoria’s Gippsland region] and that’s when I started down more of a coaching journey.”
“Comm Games on the Gold Coast was tough,” says Alexander of last year’s loss to England. “I think in hindsight we perhaps got things perfectly correct from a physical point of view; perhaps we didn’t test our athletes enough from a mental point of view. So we’ve definitely learnt those lessons for this World Cup.”
As far as the recent ascendancy of other nations in world netball, Alexander points in part to Australia’s national league.
“Look, Suncorp Super Netball doesn’t make my job any easier, there’s no doubt about that. If I put my complete Australian Diamonds hat on, I would say we should just be developing Australian players. You’d have all the best players across the country and you’d have the opportunity to develop the next generation.
“But that’s not the world of professional sport and we’ve taken a deliberate decision as Netball Australia to have a competitive professional domestic league. To do that we can’t be Australia-only, because it just would not create the interest and it would not be the world’s best [netball league].
“It’s actually improved world netball to the point where there are now five teams that could win the World Cup on any one day if they were in the final. So that’s an extremely different landscape all of a sudden. That’s changed in four years. We can cry, ‘Poor me’, but it is what it is. It provides us with a challenge. At the same time all 12 of our players are in that league and are also getting the benefit of that week-in, week-out competition.”
Alexander is indeed relishing the competitive nature of this new-era World Cup, which began yesterday at the M&S Bank Arena in Liverpool.
“I know some of the group matches are going to be tough as well,” says Alexander, whose trademark blunt black bob has been replaced by a softer cut and lighter tones. “I don’t fear it; I actually look forward to it and I think it actually drives us to a higher level and more accountability about our performance each game.”
Alexander’s career as a teacher has been integral to her coaching style.
“I’ve always taught the person and not the student, and that’s been my coaching philosophy as well – it’s person first and athlete second,” she says. “I think that’s probably where I’ve gained a little bit extra – where my coaching’s helped my teaching and my teaching’s helped my coaching.”
Her experience of missing top teams has also influenced how she delivers bad news to today’s players. “I try to do it in a way that is as respectful and empathetic as possible,” Alexander says. “In my day it was pretty brutal.”
Thankfully times have changed. “We now have a wellbeing manager as well so there’s a lot of follow-up and after-caring for those athletes who do miss out.”
At the front end of the court for this World Cup she’ll have the wise heads of shooters Caitlin Bassett (the Diamonds captain) and Caitlin Thwaites, who have been with Alexander since she was coaching the Australian under 21s. Midcourter Liz Watson is the other member of her player leadership group. Guarding the opposition’s goal are the least experienced Diamonds. “Our defence end has been quite young for the past two years but we’re really excited by that, too,” says Alexander. “We think they haven’t reached their potential yet.”
So where does she think sporting contests are won and lost?
“Games are won above the shoulders – I’ve always thought that,” Alexander says.
Her perfect player would be athletically gifted, with great skills and netball smarts as well. “But the most important part is that they have that never-say-die attitude and a real competitive drive.”
And how would Alexander like to be remembered once her Diamonds coaching days are over? “I’d like people to say that I’ve driven netball to be taken seriously as a high-performance sport in Australia. That would be No. 1. No. 2, I’d like to be remembered as a person who has tried to look holistically at the development of athletes at the highest level. So it’s not just about them being athletes, it’s about them being people and looking after their wellbeing as well as their sporting careers.”
As always, Alexander feels she has a role to play as an educator.
“I try not to be a scary coach,” she says. “I try to be an inspiring coach and for the athletes to know I’m on their side and with them. I think [the Diamonds players] see me as a mentor to them, an encourager, teacher, guide.”
Come July 21, Alexander will be hoping to be on the sidelines, in what she calls her “sanctuary”, inspiring her team to bring home Australia’s 12th Netball World Cup.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 13, 2019 as "Lisa in the sky with Diamonds". Subscribe here.