Wes Blair – Interview

Wes (Lesley) Blair is a Netball Coach based in Warwickshire, England.

With more than 24 years coaching experience having worked for England Netball for ten years as well as coaching a number of teams including the University of Wolverhampton’s netball club, Wes now works with the next generation of Wasps Netball players as the Performance and Pathway Manager and Coach.

Our FCN founder Vicky had a chat with Wes about all things Netball, Coaching and her thoughts about Netball being one of the rare sports dominated by women.

Read more from Wes:

How has Covid-19 affected your work as Performance Pathway Manager & Coach?

Can Netball in the UK ever have the status it has in Australia?

I was reading through your LinkedIn profile about the responsibilities involved with your current role as performance pathway manger and coach. It looks like a massive job role, so I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about some of your major priorities within the role, how you manage the immense amount of work involved and what some of the key priorities are involved with it.

I’ve been in that post since August 2019, but I’ve been involved with the team from the start. I’ve managed the programme for the under 15’s through to the under 21’s, so that incorporates looking after trials, organising trails for each of those different age groups, booking venues, making sure I’ve got coaches in place.

We’ve been trying to do some mentoring of the coaches, and also just make sure that coaches get some CPD as well, and whether that’s myself delivering that or utilising other resources that we have available to us as well. But in terms of the athletes themselves, organising their training sessions, making sure they have S&C (Strength and Conditioning) available to them.

We have to put together an annual plan, so from start to finish in terms of when the season starts to when it ends, where competition sits in that, what training looks like on a week to week basis, on a month to month basis, so we have to organise that and submit it to England netball.

It’s not just fitting within us, it’s what we have to feedback to England netball as well, it is like some of our surface level agreements in there. I also deliver sessions myself. 

How do you do that as well?! 

Well, this year I’ve moved from doing the under 19’s – so when I started was doing the under 19’s, this year I’ve moved to coaching the under 21’s. But what’s good is the link between the under 19’s and under 21’s is quite seamless, in that a lot of them have moved from one age group to the other.

Whilst it’s been a step up for me, I’ve still retained a lot of the girls that I coached for the last like 2/3 years, so that’s been nice. I coach those athletes once or twice a week as well now, well, normally once or twice a week, so yeah, I do that as well. What else do we do?

And then just community work as well, just to make sure that we are visible within the community so we hold half term camps and things like that to get the girls involved in the community and link in with the county associations, we have five counties that are linked to us. So, again, part of my job is to link with those country associations, so that we have girls coming through to us when we have trials and things like that.

Counties can nominate players at any point that they want us to have a look at as well, like some of the age groups, so under 15’s in particular. So, again, it is a fairly new partnership working, in the netball setting and the counties that we work with, but yeah there’s 5, there’s Birmingham, Warwickshire, North Bucks, South Bucks and Oxford, are the five counties that we work with.

Part of my role is to link with each of those county associations and see if, from a Wasps perspective, what we can do to support them and get more girls involved, link their pathways to Wasps as well. So, it’s starting to get there, a lot more work to be done. 

How on earth do you fit all that in, that sounds like a two or three person job!

Yeah, the good thing is it comes in waves, so August, September, October, it’s really busy because we’re holding trials and things like that, and then you’re sort of straight into training. But then we do one to ones and evaluations of the players as well then competition kicks in December/ January time, so the focus changes in again.

Whilst it is a lot it’s not all necessary, although it feels like it, necessarily all at the same time. Again, we have athletes that do DISE as well, so Diploma in Sporting Excellence, so we link with Loughborough college as well. So, I have 10 athletes, no I’ve got 8 this year, I had 10 last year, that I then give quite in depth coach reviews to as well, so we have to get all of that paperwork done and assessments done as well. So, that’s just another bit that we do, but it’s all good.

Being a coach within a sport that is 99.9% dominated by women, what are your thoughts when you see other sports lacking female coaches, or even making such a big deal of having a woman coach?

first one when I don’t see female coaches, I suppose I’m of that age as I say I’ve grown up not seeing it. But it doesn’t mean to say I don’t think there’s female coaches out there. I do think there are female coaches out there, and it’s going back to the same old, if I see I might want to be it.

If I’m not seeing it, then it’s never gonna be at the forefront of my mind, and it’s just gonna take that one person, or that one mentor to say “Do you know what, I think you’ll be good at this”, and push them on. It’s the same as football the lineslady is actually from Coventry, where I’m from by the way, was one of the first lines people to be reffing on a Premiership game.

That’s one, so from that point of view I’m sure there are others, but they are very much like, “I don’t really think I’ve got – whilst I may have the skills, I don’t have the confidence or the drive to actually think I can make it,”, because you’ve got to be resilient, you’ve got to just be that little bit better than the male counterparts. And that in itself from my point of view is quite sad, because as I say, I could have the skills and be absolutely fantastic but, it’s how do you get over that stumbling block in terms of being accepted in them. I think other sports have to do a lot more to improve or mentor coaches, even in other sports.

I’m a really good netball coach, I might be really good because of the way I deliver and being innovative, to deliver basketball. But I’ve only ever coached basketball at school, but other coaches, there are more experienced coaches out there, probably should look a little bit further than within their own sport, I feel. Because there are lots of transferrable skills, that they could actually tap into, and it’s about them being brave, I think some of these sports do need to be brave, to pick up some of these wonderful female coaches out there. And I don’t think they want to, to be honest. I think they’re scared and actually taking that stand, and I say with media as well, it might start to ridicule the fans and things like that it might start to ridicule them.

Again, it is about them being brave and saying “Well actually this person’s going to be really good.” Like I say, it’s a shame but there are things that they can do and I think, from my point of view, and for the female coaches like in other sports they just need one person to take that stand and be brave.

The second part to that question; do you think any male coaches in netball, feel the same as women coaches do in other sports?

The male coaches that I’ve coached alongside, some I’ve mentored at club, I think from the female perspective they’re very much more accepting. Because again some of that is going back to looking at what they bring other than coaching skills. So, from a club perspective, one of our coaches that coached our under 14’s was male, but he came from a football background. So, he had the coaching, we just had to give him the netball and he brought some of the things that they did in football that helped us as a netball club.

So, you know from that point, I think the netball club and female coaches are really quite accepting to the male coaches because I do think they bring something different. I think you see a different level of, I suppose work ethic, respect, when a male coach is coaching. Particularly if it’s like a difficult player, I don’t know what it is, it’s just something different, you know, two females can clash and clash and clash and clash, whereas actually you know what, I’m gonna send you over to him, because I know he probably can just diffuse the situation, or just makes it better.

I think we are a little bit more flexible, is the word, a bit more accepting. So, are there lots and lots of male coaches wanting to get into netball? I don’t know, but I think the ones we do have, and the ones that I work with have been good, you know, we’ve got Dan Ryan in the Superleague. I know obviously he’s Australian but from his perspective I suppose he’s a leader of them, and male coaches are and will look to him, and think “Actually, I can do this in a female dominated world.”

And to be honest we have a lot of males within the netball, I know it’s a female sport but in terms of some of the top jobs and things, competitions, Superleague, performance, they’re all men. So, when you look at it like that, I think the males that want to get involved, probably see it maybe as a stepping stone to something different, or something better – I say better that’s not the word, to something different in terms of coaching. But like I say the ones that I’ve worked with and, you know I’ve had conversations with Dan Ryan, I’ve been to one of his conferences,  what they’ve been accepted from the coaches has been really good, as well as from female coaches, I think the respect is there.

That’s you coming into a female dominated world, it can’t be easy. So, there’s a lot of respect there, as well you’ve got the Knights  Men’s netball that have just taken off as well and working with some various franchises, and I suppose they see that again, actually kinda going “Can I go and coach a Superleague franchise at some point down the line?”. I think they can and I think guys they just bring something different. It’s not always necessarily a case of something better, it’s just something different. And I think sometimes we can get caught and it can be a bit stale but actually getting a male coach in whether it’s from basketball, rugby, whatever just makes a massive difference. 

What is your ultimate goal for your coaching career? And how far away do you think you are from achieving that? 

People say this to me all the time, and you know coach Superleague or whatever. Honestly hand on heart, in the past, and I know people might think this is weird, my aspiration hasn’t necessarily been to coach Superleague or coach England. And the reason I say that is that I feel that, from my perspective and just the person I am, I can do a very very good job, in terms of performance in coaching without actually coaching at the top level, does that makes sense?

 I don’t always believe that you have to have all your best coaches coaching at the top level. Because if you don’t have any good coaches at grassroots, or community or at the starting pathway, then you’re never going to have those players coming through at the other end.

And that is where I can do a very very good job, doing what I’m doing. That’s not to say I don’t have coaching aspirations to be a better coach, you know, slightly less I suppose controlling, a little bit more creative, in that respect. But having had some time down and whatever, if someone said to me, “You know what come and sit on our super league bench and come and coach because we need you.”, I’d do it, and I’d be confident enough to do it.

The same with England I’d really love to get involved now, in one of the younger age groups. I think that’s where my strengths lie, with under 17, under 19, under 21. I’d like to get involved with that. But again, I don’t have aspirations to coach England at a senior level. I just don’t, because I know where my strengths lie. And I suppose every year, those strengths might change, but I feel if we do a good job at that level, that is where we’re gonna see most reward. And I’m all about that, and playing to my strengths. If I’m gonna coach, and I’m gonna be out 6 nights a week, I need to enjoy it, and if that’s where I get the most enjoyment from.

What tips or advice would you give to other coaches, wanting to follow a similar career path that you’ve had?

I would say, just find yourself a really really good coach mentor. I’ve been very fortunate in my time to have really good coach mentors, two of whom have been ex England coaches in the past. Betty Galsworthy, she was my first coach mentor, got me into coaching, thought I was quite good at it, I was pregnant at the time and wanted something to do, and that’s what I did. So I did my first coaching course when I was 7 months pregnant.