I grew up in a small country town, 3 hours out of Perth. When the basketball boom started to take off in the late 80s and early 90s, I decided it was something I wanted to play. There was no indoor court in town, only outdoor bitumen courts with wooden backboards and chain hoops.
he first person I saw play basketball was Michael Jordan. I wanted to emulate those sorts of feats so I spent a lot of time doing calf raises and jumping up. The bane of my mother’s existence was black hand prints on the roof because I was constantly jumping and touching. I probably should have spent more time practicing shooting and dribbling!
As a 14-year-old I made our U18 representative team, so I was playing two years out of my age group. From that, I found a specialist basketball program run at Willetton Senior High School by Alan Black – the coach of the Perth Wildcats. After tryouts, I was offered a position there, so my family made the commitment for my sister, a very good netball player, and I to move to the city to follow our sporting dreams.
I wasn’t quite good enough to represent Western Australia at State level, but I just loved the game. I played 7 or 8 times a week, everywhere I could go. By 28, the wear and tear had taken its toll and I had knee and shoulder injuries. It seemed like the time to stop and try coaching instead.
YOU HAVE TO MAKE MISTAKES
An opportunity came up to coach the wheelchair team in Perth. I’d had a relationship with them along the way, given that my Dad is in a wheelchair, was one of the first coaches of the team back in the 90s, and was a former Paralympian himself in the sport. Although I’ve never played a game in a wheelchair, I’d been to their practices and watched their games with him. The national league back then, and is still now, pretty strong, and there’s good players to coach.
My Dad stayed on board as a mentor, but gave me the reins and freedom to make mistakes. It was very daunting, going from coaching juniors in local competitions to suddenly flying across Australia for games in the national league. You grow up very quick. That first year was very difficult because it was a Paralympic year, so the focus for many players was Europe rather than the national league. My team was very young and inexperienced but it was good to make some mistakes, get some things right, and really develop your coaching philosophies. By the end of the season, we’d gotten two great players back from Italy (Justin Eveson and Brad Ness) and won 4 of the last 5 games.
The following year we had Justin back for the full duration of the season. He was an up and coming player who, with Shaun Norris, would form the dynamic duo that carried the Rollers (the Australian team) from 2002-2014. We made the Grand Final that year and lost by 15 points to the defending champions, which was fantastic. We were growing and moving forward as a team.
It all started roll on from there. Opportunity after opportunity came up and 12 years later I’m looking at a 3rd Paralympic Games as a coach.
CLASSIFICATION AND THE POINTS SYSTEM
For wheelchair basketball, each player is classified on what they can do. The guys with the most function are 4.5 pointers, and those with the least function are 1 pointers, depending on what’s put them in a wheelchair. Amputees and knee injuries or similar are classified generally as 4.5 points and severe spinal injuries are 1 point. My job as a coach is to ensure that the 5 players on the court add up to 14 points. That adds another dimension to the coaching, as it’s not just a case of subbing Player A for Player B. It’s got to add up within the parameters. If it doesn’t, you’re given a technical foul, which is quite embarrassing! The first thing people yell out is: “Can’t you add up?”.
I do a lot of preparation. I have my starting 5 and first substitution on an Excel spreadsheet, but also have to consider outliers such as injuries or a foul and what guys can be subbed in for that situation. You might need to remove a guy from the court worth 2 points, but don’t have a direct one-for-one replacement, so you have to remove a 1-pointer as well who’s done nothing wrong so you can replace them both with one 3-pointer player. You’ve then got to manage the guy coming off court who needs a few words of advice, and also to remind the other guy who’s had to come off with him that he’s done nothing wrong and is still important to the team effort. It’s not just substitutions, it’s man management and a bit of math thrown in!
For example, if Andrew Bogut has to come off the court for an injury, coach Andrej Lemanis can bring in another shooter or point guard. I can’t do that because I might need that guy to make points/combinations work. The next best player for me isn’t the 3-pointer who sits behind him on the depth chart, it might be a 4-pointer but he doesn’t fit our combination so another guy gets the opportunity. It does become very difficult managing that.
Managing expectations is very important, right down to the selection of your team. My philosophy on it has been to shift away from an individually dominant team with one star player, to have combinations that work together. We select our best combinations rather than our best players. There’s also managing egos and the unselected guys, because you don’t want to lose them forever. We’ve a few guys that have had to bide their time across the World Championships into the Paralympics, just waiting for that right combination to mature and step up.
TRANSFORMING INTO AN ELITE TEAM
Growing up I had some very good coaches and some very bad coaches. My idea was to create a team I would have loved to play for. You never want to be a guy’s last coach. I’ve never wanted to be that guy, where a player has walked away from the game because he didn’t enjoy it or wasn’t treated with respect. I’ve tried to emulate things from very successful coaches such as Lindsay Gaze, John Wooden, Ric Charlesworth, Wayne Bennett and Leigh Matthews. They were successful for a reason. I’ve also been fortunate to have very good mentors in the Paralympic field: Brendan Keogh and Chris Nunn.
I’ve focused on recovery as a point where we can make a big difference between us and our rivals, as we’re all shooting a 1000 shots a week, pushing around in the same wheelchairs. We now see at the end of tournaments that our guys are at 85-90% rather than 65-70% strength. There was no research on recovery of paraplegical Paralympic athletes to begin with, so we started using heat thermometers, saliva tests, sweat tests, even using pallet trackers to check distance travelled over a game. The pallet trackers came from a warehouse location system and we strapped them to the bottom of each chair, which allowed us to compare workloads for each athlete and ensure we tailored their post-game recovery efforts exactly. This information now also feeds into their gym strength and conditioning workouts. We individualise their programs so they can become the best players they can possibly be.
To their credit, a lot of players have never had anything like this before. They’ve come in at age 23 after a motorcycle accident, for example, having never been an elite sportsperson and don’t know what ice baths are or what making healthy lifestyle choices looks like. Educating the athletes is something we spend a lot of time on, and, I think, is why they buy into the system. They know what they’re doing, why, and how it’s going to influence the end result.
We’ve a good mix of guys. Everyone’s got a different story and brings something to the table. Our team meetings are not your average! It’s pretty humbling to sit there when a guy is talking about being revived twice on the way to hospital. You’re dealing with some pretty tough and resilient men who don’t need a lot of motivating. My Dad has helped me understand them a bit more, about being in the prime of your life and then suddenly you’re in a wheelchair hating the world, hating anyone who’s trying to help you and anyone who’s not trying to help you. But as far as the basketball side of it works, we’re elite athletes, the top 1%. If you want to be a Roller, there’s no excuses for not doing the work. We treat everyone as equal. Our 1/18th mentality means that everyone shares 1/18th of the glory and 1/18th of the heartache if we lose. When we go away, we all sit together, never letting someone sit by themselves no matter how bad their day’s been. In many of our practices, we embody that team mentality and put no one above the team.
THE PROCESS TAKES CARE OF THE RESULT
I’ve got Tom Kyle with me in Rio, who has just spent time coaching the Gliders (national women’s team). He’s a good fit for the team, and has been to a Paralympics and World Cup with me before. We’ve also got a new assistant, Luke Brennan, who is a great young basketball brain. He does a lot of scouting and together with video tech, Jeremy Synot, managed to get us 6-7 games of every team we’re going to play at the Games. One of our biggest points of difference with other teams is going to be knowledge and feeding that into our game plan. I think it will put us in a good place for Rio.
We have a saying from John Wooden: “The process takes care of the result.” Everything we do has a process and that process always stays the same. You know what each part does and each piece has its own moves to do. Our team is spread out over the country, so we have an online video system that we use to share drills, set plans and game plan with everyone. The guys are able to do these same drills with their state coach, whether they’re in Brisbane or Tasmania. Then when they all turn up to a camp, they’re all on the same page. It’s part of the evolution of them becoming professional basketball players.
For Rio, if we focus on winning, then we’re setting ourselves up to lose. I doubt any of the guys have heard me say the word ‘win’ or ‘gold medal’ more than 3 times in the last 12 years. We manage expectations by having no expectations. We want to be the best recovered team. We want to have everyone hitting a personal best on their bench press before they get on the plane. We’re going to play as hard as we can for 40 minutes and going to trust our process. It doesn’t change whether it’s game one, a quarter final or in a World Cup match. It keeps you improving as well, otherwise where do you go once you win a World Championship? We’ve won two World Championships and a Paralympic gold medal, but by focusing on the process, we can still aspire to be better.
ONES TO WATCH
We’ve had some big games in the past against the USA, having beaten them for the gold at the World Cup. Canada is another, and then Turkey is one we’ve had a big rivalry with. They always come out and give it everything they’ve got.
Back yourself. You’re going to make mistakes, but if you don’t make those mistakes, how do you improve? That’s what you want from your players, so why not adopt the same philosophy as a coach?
Powerful Stories, Tips and Amazing Insight
Ready, Set, Go! Everything you need to know to start coaching from the legends in the field. As well as the Business and Life coaches, our launch edition features David Parkin (AFL), Lisa Alexander (Netball Australia), Adam Commens (Hockey Australia), Simon Cusack (Swimming Australia), Sean Douglas (FFA) and many more!