Margaret Foster is a New Zealand Netball coach with a big passion for her sport. Having played for the Silver Ferns (NZ National Team) back in the 1990’s, Marg has gone on to coach at international, franchise, university?and grassroots level netball all over the World. She has spent her life dedicated to developing netball and is never afraid to say what she thinks about the administration of netball as a sport. The FCN chatted with Marg about her career, her experience coaching at a UK University in 2014 and how breast cancer changed her coaching career forever.
You played for the Silver Ferns in the 90?s, but how did your journey into netball begin and was it always your ambition to play for the national team?
I come from an athletics background originally. I competed at athletics when I was very young, from 7 years old right through to 14. I went on to play all kinds of sports from gymnastics, athletics, swimming, taekwondo, roller skating, netball and basketball. Every sport I got into I was very full on with. I either made the teams or got to national level in the sport. When I was 13 I had to make a decision on which sport to specialise in, I chose netball because athletics was an individual sport and netball is a team sport. I liked that when you lost in netball. In athletics, I got so nervous and as all the onus was on just me, I though it was less pressure to do a team sport
Was it always your plan to become a coach after your netball playing career?
When I look back at this now, I always thought I would be a better coach than I would be a player. I have coached teams since I was 13 and I used to coach the Year 9 A team as well as coaching 2 senior club teams. For me coaching was all about bringing the best out of people which I loved, I found that really rewarding. I also loved the whole strategic element and having to find another way of doing something right, I just love all of that. So for me coming from a teaching background and coming into coaching from a very young age doing what I do now was progressive for me.
Was it therefore an easy transition going in to coaching full time after you retired from playing?
Yeah, it certainly was. It was a milestone for me going solely into coaching. I got dropped from the NZ netball team (I got back in? couple of years later), but when I got dropped it made me reflect and question what I was going to do now! I love my sport, so I had to think how I was going to stay in it.
I felt I was really poorly treated as an athlete, so I just thought ?bugger it, I am going to get in their and be a coach! That way I could control my own destiny within the sport. I ploughed into doing all of the coaching qualifications you can think of! I looked at my CV the other day and though Oh my gosh! I just went for it when I was still a player. I did all the high performance coaching qualifications in New Zealand and when I got back into the team as a player, all of that made me more appreciative and more grateful. Every environment I went into from then on with all that wonderful knowledge, I spent a lot of energy learning and being a fly on the wall. I was able to look at it from a players point of view and figure out everything I loved in a coach. I used to have a journal and write down all the things I liked and the things I would never do; so that was a good learning situation for me.
What do you feel needs to happen to allow Netball as a sport to progress forwards and get the right people in the right coaching jobs?
For me, administrators in the sport can really destroy the soul of coaching. Because they have no idea what to do. For me to really make change within the sport, the coaches need to get on these boards – in New Zealand, we have administrators that are not experienced enough to make decisions on who should be coaches for the jobs.
If you are a little bit outside the square, which I truly believe that to be an elite coach, you need to be, you cannot be vanilla! Look at the likes of Melissa Hyndman, an incredibly passionate coach, coaches like her get treated badly. She fits into what I call a ?too hard box a too hard category – so even though she would be the best coach, she would find that she wouldn’t get the type of jobs that she wanted because she is so honest and might get up peoples nose and thats what happens over here. You have administrators that just mess things up, and thats what is bad about our sport – you have to change the administrators.
..that isn’t a short over night process is it?
Absolutely not, and then you have to sell your soul to breeze your way into a job and that is what happens. They pick all the people that are vanilla people and yet I am trying to say to my coaches (I work with about 12 coaches here and help them as their mentor) keep to your style and be authentic. That can be very hard to do when you are getting over looked. It used to be that results were the key but it seems to me that that doesn’t even matter these days. It all about who you know – you can be a failure and not progress something and yet you still get the job So I need to get on the board!
One of the common reasons why women don’t seem to progress to the elite levels of coaching is partly due to the levels of commitment required to coach and particularly the levels of travel that is involved. You have coached all over the world, so how did you manage to balance your travelling and coaching commitments alongside a family and a personal life?
That was extremely challenging. I had to master each moment because if I committed to something, I wanted to be committed 100%. There are nice incentives with travelling (like airports and sightseeing!), but you have to have that clear plan in your mind as to what you definitely what you want to do. What I really understand and appreciate now is that a lot of athletes in particular in countries outside Australia and New Zealand, don’t get paid.? And doing it voluntary is a hell of a commitment! Whilst you might have a love of sport – we aren’t football players that get paid millions – because I am sure if we got paid millions it would make travel and the family life so much easier! Because that would be your job and you wouldn’t have that many commitments. I was very fortunate that I was paid, so I was lucky in that respect because coaching was my job. So I could compartmentalise it.
A example of this is experience is when I went over to Loughborough in the UK [in 2013], I went to help out the University Netball Team because they didn’t have a coach. When I went over I brought one of my assistant coaches with me too. To do a job like that, you need to be living and breathing that environment and do a bloody good job.
From a personal point of view, it must be really hard to have that transition to a completely different country so far away from home that has totally different sporting and coaching environments. How do you mentally deal with that change?
The mental side of that was the biggest thing. From a coaching perspective, you always try and look at the glass half full, but honestly when I first got over to the UK, the extremity and the difference of commitment and talent was huge and it made me feel a little pessimistic! It makes you feel that you really take the talent and commitment for granted in NZ. The players over here [NZ] are immersed in netball, in all of our school programmes and our clubs, the participation rate is very high. To start with, I was really excited as I thought it would be exactly like NZ, but I did get a bit of a rude awakening when I got there. The level and standard of netball was not as high as what I anticipated. so you have to mentally adapt.
I think of Lyn Gudson and Wai Taumaunu and how they paved the way for England Netball and who they brought through via the Bath [University] programme. They had all the young players like the Pamela Cookies of the world. They really shaped England Netball and got them up to the next level of standard. This is what I was expecting, but when I came over to Loughborough I was shocked. They had amazing facilities and really proactive people that worked for the University (the Chancellor was really sports minded), but the level of actual talent was kind of low. That was very tough to deal with.
Why do you think the level of commitment of UK netballer’s is so much lower than everywhere else?
That is definitely because of the environment and what they have been brought up with. Over in NZ, we come from a background of playing outside all night until the lights came on and we would have to go back home for dinner. As kids we would play netball, cricket, running around, we are a very sporting nation and we are immersed in watching sports too. Whereas over in the UK, there are so many other interests and distractions. Unless your parents are driving you to get out of bed and go for a run etc – you won’t. Because it gets colder and darker earlier and you have to work and then go to a gym after work, not many do. It all depends on what your environment is growing up.
You have coached in many different team settings from national teams, franchise teams and school / university teams; do you have to change your coaching style or approach depending upon the set up or standard of team?
Yes, absolutely! When I reflected on how I was as a coach over in the UK, I remember I was operating at a 5 out of 10 with regards to intensity to the players and they thought I was still too tough! When I was over there, the players struggled with the smallest things. For example, players had expectations they would automatically be on the main line up and would get all upset and gossipy with each other if they didn’t. I had to grow all these new types of strategies I never thought I had as a coach, because I never thought I needed it. I found that quite tough because you are working with personalities and I was working with a lot of soft athletes. I knew I could have changed all that, but it would have taken 2 or 3 years and I was only there 3 months. I needed to change their values. It was certainly different – and the lack of commitment was very interesting. I really would have thought that the UK would have been the same level of commitment as over here.
So, I had to change my coaching style to fit the culture of the nation and I give that a big emphasis. I had to focus on the strengths of the UK players and embrace that. Also, I had never experienced losing, not consistently anyway. It was the first time in my whole career that I was with a team that lost every game. It was a real eye opener and a massive learning curve. I would have loved the opportunity to come back, but because I got called in at such a late stage in their programme, I didn’t have enough time to select my own players and mould them into a team. You really need at least 12 months to make changes.
For a female playing a sport like netball in a country where it isn’t a professional sport, you have your work cut out! I went from a winning environment to a team that was picked beforehand and always lost! I brought over three NZ players and they couldn?t get into it either.? It was a hell of a challenge. I would not have changed the opportunity for the World, it was brilliant in terms of learning,- it was tough!
You went through breast cancer a few years ago and thankfully now you are all better – I wondered if going through that experience has made you think differently about coaching or made you a different coach?
Yes, it absolutely has. My family really believed I got breast cancer from coaching. Because I was a 24/7 coach, I was always in high pressure situations, I continually wanted to be the best and wanted the best out of my athletes; I was so driven. I would wake my husband up at 2 in the morning saying ?oh no I didn’t do this and that and if I lost a game it would take me so long to get over it – my reflection on it was ridiculous, I never stopped thinking about it. So for me getting cancer when I was still coaching, when I look at it now it actually woke me up and made me change my ways. I haven’t been back elite coaching in that same cauldron since. Because my family attribute my cancer to being Head coach, I had to change my ways and change my direction of coaching.? So now I coach coaches and help coaches around the World, which I love! I also help children coming through netball too. I feel this has kept my cancer at bay. I do miss the elite coaching and the whole environment but when I have applied for big jobs and I haven’t got it, its because the Universe is looking after me and doesn’t want me to coach at that level. It has really shaped me.
I was a bit silly when I got my cancer, rather than taking time out, I was back being Head Coach straight after having a major operation. I still went through training the following week, I was just so committed. I have learnt the lesson now, but at the time I wanted to still feel normal and that’s what you kind of do when you get cancer. Your first reaction IS shock because you feel immortal until then and then you worry that your d-day is coming sooner than you anticipated. I really thought I was going to die. I can appreciate how people want to go back to their normal lives and normality when they have got cancer, but my biggest advice is not to! You need to take that time out and look after your body. When you get cancer, something hasn’t been going right in your body, whether it’s mentally or physically. You have to get that fixed before you move on. And I was fortunate that my journey since breast cancer has been so powerful.
Did any of your players or coaching staff treat you differently at the time?
Oh gosh yes. I was working with the top players at the time like Julie Seymour (the NZ captain) and they knew what I was like as a person; I was OTT as a coach. I wasn’t even paid at the time; it cracks me up now when I think about how much energy and commitment I put into that particular role when I had cancer! They all just wanted to help me because they knew what I was like. I really loved that team, they were just gorgeous. When I said yes to going to the UK and coaching at Loughborough University, I had just come off my breast cancer treatment. I was on it for 6 years and I just got to the point where I wanted to go back to my love of coaching and I felt really well! My husband told me at the time I wasn’t allowed to do it because of my health. I got really stubborn and didn’t listen to him and just really wanted to do it. So whilst it was a great experience, it was actually really hard! I cried on the plane leaving my children and my husband and I really had to question myself why I was putting myself through that. It was just yukky! The biggest thing I learnt was about mastering the moment and staying in the present. So everything I did over in the UK was all about staying in the moment and not thinking about home. Otherwise it would have been too tearful. From a coaching perspective it was great to be back coaching a team of so called elite athletes.
I just wanted to see what my body would do and to experience what netball was like over there and that’s what I took out of that experience.
You went on to set up MotivatioNZ after all this – can you tell us a bit about it?
After one particular tournament I came home and moaned to my husband that one of our netball players made a fundamental error and lost us a game because of that. He said to me why don’t you set up a netball school like my swim school and teach fundamentals I was trying to figure out what I should do next in life and business and as I came from a coaching and teaching background with my husband (who was an Olympic Swimmer) owning his own swim school, it just made sense. I thought it was a great idea!? Instead of working with the elite athletes, I could create the elite athletes. I wanted to work with 8 to 14 year olds and create an awesome programme that kids would come and do every week.? So I set that up MotivatioNZ here in Christchurch; it has actually just expanded to the Sunshine coast in Australia, Bay of Plenty NZ, and soon to be in the UK!
We also work in schools as well, we run netball academy’s at private schools, netball skills programmes at schools and our flag ship programme which is Learn to play netball, Love to play netball. They come every week for their go of netball.
So in a few years time you will hopefully have the NZ netball team full of the kids that you coached in MotivatioNZ?
Yes! At the moment, we have the u17 netball team that won the national title and every player has been though MotivatioNZ. And we have 3 players that are in a franchise team who I have worked with since they were 12 years old- which is huge! The aim is to have the whole team of athletes coming through. We also have holiday programmes and camps which have real top of the line coaching with nutrition, psychology, mindfulness gratitude and specificity of our game. We are doing this with really young athletes. I even have some 9 year olds that are pretty sharp. We have broken down the 10,000 hour rule to see what it looks like and we can top up the young athletes training hours. We give them the extra that makes them extra ordinary.
What advice would you give to women who want to get into coaching netball? Do you need to be a player before hand or can you just get straight into coaching?
I think you have to be a player to understand how the game works, but you don’t have to be an elite player to be a top coach. When you break down the relationship between coach and player its about communication and that’s all it is when you look at it. When you’re a coach, you can coach any sport really, you just have to fit in the technical bits of that sport. The fundamentals of being a coach don’t change.