Simone McKinnis was nervous. Very. It was round one of 2013, a late-March Monday night in Auckland, and the new Melbourne Vixens coach was chatting with team manager Jen McIntyre ahead of her ANZ Championship debut against the Northern Mystics.
“I said ‘you guys go ahead. I’m just going to stay here in bed. Let me know how it goes!'’’ McKinnis laughs now.
“I just remember being really nervous. Loving it, though, because you love the contest, you love the challenge. It’s similar to a player: you have the ups and downs, the good and the bad and it’s about how you handle that and respond.’’
In the seven seasons since that opening match in New Zealand - which, for the record, delivered a solid 60-46 win - McKinnis has led the Vixens to the 2014 premiership amid regular finals appearances, while rebuilding a young list and forging a reputation as one of the most respected coaches in the game.
Following a third-placed finish in 2019, the ink is now dry on McKinnis’ latest two-year contract, and a coach still thirsty for improvement believes there is much more that can be achieved.
“I didn’t need to be convinced, or convince myself. I just really feel that I’ve still got a lot to offer to the group and that there’s unfinished business in lots of ways, as well,’’ she says.
“So you learn a bit each year, you learn a bit about yourself each year, you learn about the players a bit more each year, and this year we’re certainly wanting to improve and get the best that we can out of ourselves.’’
A first Suncorp Super Netball title is the obvious goal - “that’s what we’re all striving for,” she says - and September’s heavy preliminary loss to the NSW Swifts was a bitter pill.
“It obviously doesn’t sit well with anybody, it burns a little bit, but in some ways you have to let go of that, and we’ve just got to be looking at ‘right, what do we need to be doing better and how do we need to be doing it?’ Consolidating what has been strong for us but really working on those things where we’ve got to improve.
“Certainly really basic execution let us down at times last season, but that’s the basic skill: execution under pressure. That decision-making is really important, and that composure and calmness and stepping up and being ready to compete every game right from the word go.’’
If the challenge is what continues to drive McKinnis, then there is a lengthy pause when the former champion wing defence is asked to describe herself as a coach. Eventually, she settles on this: “I’m 100 per cent invested. That’s what I would say. Absolute focus on the job and the girls and doing it to the best of my ability, and wanting to push myself enough for them to be good enough, if you know what I mean.’’
Still superbly fit more than three decades after her retirement, the 63-Test Diamond and lifelong Geelong resident has done more kilometres on the Princes Highway than most. Yet her ‘think time’ comes not so much behind the wheel as when she is exercising: either Crossfit, or a run, on top of daily walks of her and partner Sam’s rescue dogs Jeff and Buddy.
“One of the things that keeps me sane is just training,’’ she says. “I’ve always enjoyed training, and that’s probably my time when I switch off or think. The girls were in the gym this morning and I’d go off for a run around for the lake and be thinking about the session later in the day.’’
Yet a request to focus this story more on McKinnis herself is met with a joking-but-not-really “oh no!”. The coach admits her enthusiasm for thinking, planning, adapting and evolving in order to get the most out of her players is not matched by a fondness for the public part of the role. “I don’t like the focus on me. For me, it’s all about the girls. That’s my thing. It’s all about the girls.
“My philosophy is that if at whatever time a change is needed, if I’m not the right person for it, I’m quite OK with that. That’s the nature of it and I’ll give my best while I’m here, until somebody else needs to take over.’’
Written by Linda Pearce