Netball: Ruth Aitken profile

By Chris Rattue

Too soft, they said. Not tough enough for the top job, they added.

Not that many of us knew all that much about Ruth Aitken when she became the Silver Ferns coach five years ago, an appointment which has brought the long-awaited recapture of the world netball crown - with a Commonwealth Games gold medal and repeated triumphs over Australia thrown in.

It's just that Aitken, an English teacher from Paeroa, seemed too nice for the job. What were the Ferns going to do - start shouting "Frank Sargeson" back at them.

Surely, with the Aussies stamping all over us, we needed someone who would leap on their hind quarters.

"Certainly, when I was appointed, there were a fair amount of question marks from some quarters - that I wasn't a traditional coach in being dictatorial," says the 50-year-old Aitken, a thoroughly modern coach whose extensive reading includes the works of Phil Jackson and Wayne Bennett.

Aitken goes on: "And I do remember after one of our tests when the Aussies were saying we were really rough and mean ... I thought very nice Ruth, the soft coach, has now got this team that everyone thinks is too rough."

The sunny-side-up coach apparently believed you couldn't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. Ruth became ruthless.

The Silver Ferns go into camp this weekend in preparation for international netball's only serious encounter, a test series against the Australians.

It's another chance to see just where the supposed Rough Revolution has got to, after the accusations flew at the provincial championships in Auckland last week.

New Zealand netball even has Anna Scarlett, whose presence leads to other fallen women who don't appreciate a whirl of telescopic limbs crashing in to them.

The simplest theory on how the game reached its most aggressive point is the most obvious: that increased fitness, tactical awareness, television coverage and advanced mental preparation means players can't stop at the lines of decency they used to. It's probably evolution rather than revolution.

Aitken, who had a whistlestop test career, says that while the international game was always fairly aggressive, the aggro aspect should go no further. "I don't think the game is at a point of tipping over the edge and we've not said anything directly to players,"she says..

"But we don't want them to beat each other up out there and we would like them to contest with as little umpire involvement as possible. We also reinforce that if they are being penalised all the time, they are not being effective."

On Scarlett's controversial provincial championships, Aitken says: "A definite free spirit, that girl, her aerial work is absolutely inspirational, but it can be a little bit uncontrolled as well. There are all those arms and legs going everywhere. I think she needs to adjust more quickly than she did."

Enough said, although as Aitken herself concedes, this is not always the case.

Aitken can talk. She recounts a story involving one of her two sons, about a time when Aitken was to deliver a 45-minute speech at a function. "Quite a long time, huh," she said to her boy.

"Don't worry, mum, once you get started ... " he replied, knowingly.

And on her decision to follow the English rather than physical education strand of her teacher training, Aitken says with her hearty trademark laugh: "It's great in English - you can talk as much as you like."

It is action and results rather than words which have marked Aitken's magnificent reign, after she replaced Yvonne Willering in 2001. The Silver Ferns were living in Australia's shadow at that point, and hadn't won the world title since 1987.

Aitken's arrival coincided with those of South African legend Irene van Dyk and tough Fijian defender Vilimaina Davu in this country. But the turnaround has involved far more than two high-class recruits, and in van Dyk's case in particular the shooter has been turned into a far more complete and skilled player.

Aitken believed from the outset that New Zealand had the necessary skills but not the conditioning or mental tenacity to keep delivering under pressure.

Her coaching techniques include a lot of 10-second drills, so operating under duress becomes second nature, and has included innovations such as the "mental log books" the Silver Ferns used at the National Bank Cup prior to the triumphant 2003 world championships. Each player had a self-selected buddy on the bench who gave them intensity ratings for five-minute periods on subjects like responding to unfavourable umpiring decisions, self-talk etc, etc.

Naturally, video analysis has become increasingly important in the cat-and-mouse tactical games, although it doesn't go close to matching what is used in rugby and league.

Importantly for Aitken, the video removes doubt players might have about what the coaches are saying. Even van Dyk, she of almost shooting perfection and training fanaticism, has faults.

During the 2004 series against Australia, Aitken and her right-hand women (assistant coach Leigh Gibbs and high-performance manager Tracey Fear are in this netball inner circle) noticed van Dyk's footwork was too patterned, especially her "stepping in". Australia, particularly Liz Ellis, had worked it out and were cutting off the space. Video played a key part in correcting this.

"We did spot it on the court but sometimes players' awareness of what they're doing is not great and the video is fantastic. You don't have to nag, like the parent with a 2-year-old."

Which was followed by another large Aitken laugh.

There's a pattern to this, too. Aitken laughs at what she or others might perceive as her character quirks, but when it comes to coaching philosophy, the statements come without this add-on.

The following tactical statements get a bit closer to the Aitken centre.

"On defence, I like space marking and one-on-one ... on attack I like driving play but no 50/50 passes. They drive me to distraction. You need the lifted ball but it's got to be accurate - if someone can't change away from the 50/50 passes then it's down the road because you work so hard to get possession.

"We have a master-the-moment philosophy. Just get on with it, don't buy into any form of distraction. The next pass is the mantra - there are times when players make a mistake and spend the next few seconds feeling sorry for themselves. By that time, it's all gone. You're not allowed a few seconds. You can't."

And try this.

"I certainly don't want netball to become a free-for-all ... the game needs to be skilful, but you have to go in hard or else you should go home, really. I like to coach netballers as people, so we develop them as people ... but by crikey, winning is good too."

My favourite, on video analysis and player homework, was this:

"We get the players to help drive the tactics ... but in choosing what we give them we like to steer the outcome to what we want. They just think it's their idea."

Then there's Aitken's "mirror and window" philosophy, the former to be used in times of trouble, the latter in which to view others during the good times. So, to the mirror. Aitken believes she and Gibbs failed in the lead-up to July's surprise defeat against Australia in Sydney.

"Leigh and I would say we had become distracted in our preparation. We felt we had taken our eye off the ball. We were trying to get our calendar sorted, to get some challenge into our programme before the next world champs, and we shouldn't have done that," she said, adding that "the ability to be critical of yourself, but not beat yourself up, is really important in building resilience".

Aitken's own international career consisted of two warm-up games before the 1979 world championships in Trinidad, followed by one championship game against Ireland, she thinks. The score was 95-7, she thinks. She dismisses and treasures this all at once, remembers the disappointment of little court time, feels she was treated fairly by coach Lois Muir, and says it has given her an empathy with players in a similar position these days. A wing attack, she describes herself as a "grafter".

There is a well-founded theory that Aitken-types, top players but not of the highest level, make the best coaches because they still have the drive to succeed and can relate to players, whereas the genius types have already reached the mountain top and are continually confused as to why others can't do as they did.

Aitken half-subscribes to this theory, but is too nice to fully concur, because it would mean talking down the coaching credentials of genius players. (In Aitken's world, netball genius equals Sandra Edge).

Aitken began her coaching life in the seventh form, in charge of the Paeroa College's third form boys basketball squad. She began coaching netball while still playing, and her decisive career moment came when, having found she was over-stretched as wife, mother, teacher, and coach of Waikato, the Magic and New Zealand A, she dropped the teaching to rediscover her coaching creativity. And they reckoned she was soft.

Our time is almost up. Aitken is about to return to Paeroa, where she, her deputy principal husband Grant, and their sons Michael, 15, and Jamie, 13, live in one of the homes she was brought up in, on 12ha. (Her parents, who live in the Coromandel, play a big part in the after-school minding of the boys.)

Which brings us to a final story and a final laugh.

On her appointment, Aitken and her family had the traditional media meet and greet. Pictures in the park plus television time.

Jamie, aged 8, searched a Sunday newspaper for more.

"What does 'players revolt over Aitken' mean?" he asked. Aitken gulped, but never flinched.

On reading the story, she discovered it wasn't so much a revolt but words of support for the departed Willering. Still, there were doubts, all around, among players, the media and the public even though her credentials included taking Waikato to titles in 1999 and 2000.

Five years on, the Quiet Revolt has given way to the Pleasant Revolution.

So, after one meeting, to look through the window at Ruth Aitken. She sees life as having been good to her and she fully intends to be good to life. Players would have a clear idea where they stood. She comes across, in the most natural of ways, as a wordy straight-shooter with a very clear idea of her coaching methods and a steely determination to implement them. Repeatedly cut across these methods at your peril.

She will still care, but you'll end up over there.

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