I started playing cricket and football in my younger years in Cooma, near the Snowy Mountains. But because the sun goes down at 4pm, you can’t train for those sort of things, so I went indoors and started playing basketball. Because we were very close to Canberra, we played a lot of representative basketball there as curtain raisers to the old Canberra Cannons.
moved to Wollongong for university and got my first real coach, Adrian Hurley, who happened to be an Australian coach and a lecturer at the university. I never quite made the NBL unfortunately, but I represented at the second tier underneath. They had a training team for the NBL team at that stage, and I represented for Shellharbour.
I started coaching at 17 for the representative basketball side at Cooma, then at university part of my role was as coach for the university basketball team. That’s where I really got into it, because I was studying a Physical Education teaching degree. That complimented things, and obviously being around the likes of Gordon McLeod who was the Australian point guard at that stage in 1979 allowed me to pick up a lot of coaching knowledge. While the terminology’s changed from those days, the essence of the game is still very pertinent today. You’re still trying to create time and space to get the job done, whether it’s a wheelchair game or able-bodied.
At Wollongong, I was Head Coach of the women’s team, and a player-coach for the men’s as Adrian didn’t do the competitions so I was able to run the team there. It started to introduce me to the elite side of coaching. Afterwards, I moved to Brisbane for a job at a private school to run their GPS Basketball program and do part-time teaching. GPS basketball is quite big in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. I was there for 2.5 years, and during that time also got involved with coaching in Brisbane at a junior national level. I had the Brisbane U14 representative team, which ended up winning the state competition and then the Australian Club U14 Championships. On that team was a little 9-year-old fellow called CJ Bruton. He went on to play many games for Australia, a 2-time Olympian, Commonwealth Gold Medallist, Australian Boomers captain and a 6-time NBL champion. He’s now an assistant coach to the Brisbane Bullets NBL team.
CHANCES AND OPPORTUNITIES
In 2008, a colleague of mine at work whose son is in a wheelchair, said, “Would you coach wheelchair basketball?”. That led to me starting to coach the Queensland Wheelchair Basketball team, just before the Paralympics invasion. At first, I thought it was going to be harder than it was, but the game is still the same. You still play it on the same sized basketball ring and courts, still have to move the ball and transition up and down the court. There’s a few differences, such as where you have to play defence backwards rather than fronting up to the player. I’ve always played a fairly up tempo game, so I got my Queensland team playing the same way. At the time, in wheelchair games, they were playing very negative zone defences.
I was fortunate to get a chance to coach against the Western Australian team, which has the Australian Coach, Ben Ettridge. Straight after that series of 3 games, Ben asked me to come along to an Australian camp with them as a guest coach, so I was able to start attending a couple of Australian camps. One day I got a phone call from Ben to say that the team were heading over to Italy and Manchester for a tournament but the Assistant Coach, Craig Friday, couldn’t attend. Would I be interested? I had to quit my job – running a multi-million-dollar IT project for Suncorp – to take the opportunity to go overseas on my first foray as an Australian coach.
From there, Ben took me on as a second assistant. At the 2010 World Championships, we won the gold medal, after which Ben asked me to be involved with the U23 program. In 2012, once again Craig couldn’t make the London Paralympics, so I was the main assistant at those Games as well, where we won silver. It was a bit of a gut-wrencher, losing the last game, and we’d set ourselves fairly high expectations. A very strong Canadian team got over the top of us in the final, but it was an awesome experience playing in front of 15,000 people at the O2 Arena.
In 2013, an opportunity came up to coach the Australian women’s team full-time – the Gliders. I’ve been their Head Coach the last 3 years, but unfortunately we missed out on qualifications for Rio. We were beaten by a very strong Chinese team who run a full-time program. They’re tough to beat at the moment! They should contend well at Rio, and have a side that could potentially win a medal. We only lost by 8 points, and missed qualification because our zone in the IWBF controlling body didn’t get an extra qualification spot. This meant that only China qualified for Rio, despite there being several teams in the world top 10 in this zone. It’s a bit disappointing when you think that the Paralympics are supposed to be the best of the best.
The qualification restrictions are in place to limit the number of teams competing at the Paralympics. These restrictions are created by the International Paralympic Committee depending on length of time the Paralympics are on, and how many courts and officials are available. The women’s competition is allowed 10 teams, and the men’s have 12. The host nation always gets a spot, then the top 5 positions in the previous world championships also get a spot. We ended up 6th. Each zone is then given one spot: Americas, Europe, Africa and Oceania. The Africans didn’t even compete in the World Championships, and yet with 3 strong teams competitive at world championship level in the Oceania region, only one gets through. It’s a bit disappointing and I think it will be changed to make the qualification process fairer.
Unfortunately, it means the girls have lost a bit of motivation. They really struggled after that disappointment. At that point I felt it was time to give someone else a chance at the job and resigned from Basketball Australia as their Head Coach. I’m very fortunate that history seems to have repeated itself and Craig is once again not available to accompany the Rollers to Rio, so I’m heading over after all in the assistant coach capacity. It’s funny how this keeps happening!
MENTALLY TOUGH TEAMS
I’m quite a cerebral coach. I like to work things out and have people test me. I don’t like doing things just because it’s been done in the past. The girls tend to need to know the reason why we do thing, whereas the boys are more, “Okay Coach, how hard do you want me to hit?” Very black and white. The girls you have to explain, but I’m quite happy with that. In our games today, I think the girls still have a bit to go on their journey to come up to the elite mentality standard of men. This is only because we don’t have the same depth in their program as the men. When you have depth, you put pressure on each position and you get a different sense of hunger when you have more competition. That’s just Paralympic sport in our country, unfortunately, although it’s getting better as we get more people participating and the high performance athletes have to compete for their sports.
Paralympic coaching is only different due to the classification constraints. In able-bodied basketball, you’ve got 12 players in your team and the interchange of players is quite easy. In a para team, you can only have a team worth up to 14 classification points on the floor at any one time. Those points are attributed depending on the level of disability: 1, 1.5, 2, 2.5 and so on to 4.5 [see Rollers Head Coach, Ben Ettridge’s article for more information]. Therefore it’s very important to understand how your players fit together in points and function. It also plays a role in selection as you obviously can’t load your whole team with 4-pointers because you couldn’t have them all on the court at once. If you go over 14 points, you can’t play.
We actually go out looking for 1-pointers so we can put more big players out there. Australian wheelchair basketball is one of the most dominant in the world because we’ve got very good 1-pointers and we back it up with exception 4-pointers. We tend to have an abundance of single leg amputees because of the nature of the injury, or those who have been disabled from birth. We get a lot of cancer patients that lose a leg, or from farm accidents. You also get a lot of paraplegics that tend to have a break at the hips. Getting players that have a high break but can still function really well is not easy.
There’s no difference in the mental side of high performance between para and able-bodied. In some respects, I would say the Rollers are one of the most mentally tough teams you would ever want to meet. I’ve seen teams who have potentially more skill than us get beaten because of the mental toughness of our boys. In many respects, they’re the same as the able-bodied teams. They train the same number of hours, they do the same strength and conditioning, shooting, ball handling skills. The girls are still a work-in-progress by comparison, but again, that’s purely due to demand and will improve as their journey continues.
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!