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Mystics coach leaving for the sake of women's sport

The Mystics head coach since 2017, Helene Wilson passes on her netball wisdom to defenders Sulu Fitzpatrick and Phoenix Karaka. Photo: Getty Images.

The Mystics’ loss will be the big gain of women’s coaches across all sports, as successful head coach Helene Wilson leaves the netball champions to work in high performance sport.

As Helene Wilson broke the news today to her victorious Northern Mystics team that this will be her last season as their coach, her body gave her conflicting messages. 

“My heart is sad, but my head is really excited,” says Wilson, head coach of the Mystics since 2017.

After seven seasons with the franchise, who she led to their first ANZ Premiership title last year, Wilson is leaving netball to take on a role at High Performance Sport New Zealand. Her job - to help grow female coaches and leaders across all sport.

She’ll see out the rest of the ANZ Premiership season, where the Mystics are red hot favourites to retain their crown, and then become manager of women in high performance sport.

“I’m sad to leave, because it’s been such a massive part of my life,” says Wilson, now in her 30th year coaching netball. “But I’ve always said I’d like to pass the team on in a better place than where I found it.

“Yes, we’ve won a championship… and to be able to rise from the bottom of the table in 2019 to the top of the table in two years has been a pretty exciting ride.

“But it’s about more than that for me. It’s about watching our people grow. We’re a homegrown team, we provide young talent to the New Zealand netball system. I’m proud of that.”

A mother of two teenage sons, Wilson also believes it's time to give back to her family. 

"Fifteen years ago I said to my husband, can you give me five years to give this coaching thing a go? And here I am still," she laughs. 

"My son said to me: 'Mum I’m so excited you can watch me play basketball; it's the first time you’ve seen me play in two years'. I feel like the Mystics have had my boys' mum. And I'd really like to spend some quality time with family now - and give my husband our weekends back."

Wilson’s assistant coach for the past two seasons, Australian Rob Wright, has committed to being assistant coach again in 2023. So the hunt is now on for a new head coach.

Sulu Fitzpatrick (left) and Kate Burley run through plays with Mystics coach Helene Wilson during the 2021 ANZP season. Photo: Thomas Havill 

Wilson let Mystics captain Sulu Fitzpatrick and vice captain Michaela Sokolich-Beatson know in advance of telling the rest of the team on Wednesday afternoon.

“We had a bit of a cry together, but they were really cool about it,” Wilson says.

While Fitzpatrick is sad to lose a coach who’s helped reignite her passion for the game, she’s also excited to see Wilson taking on a new challenge.

“She’s committed her life to netball for years, and it’s something that her whole family has taken on. She wakes up and goes to sleep working on netball,” Fitzpatrick says. “That’s one of the things about her a lot of people don’t see, and don’t appreciate about her. She’s amazing.

“I think she’s definitely earned a break, although I think she will always be involved in netball in some way.”

There won’t be much of a break for Wilson, though, who starts in her new role mid-July, after the ANZ Premiership finals.

The Women in High Performance Sport programme started in 2019 – a prong in the Government’s strategy to improve gender equity in New Zealand sport.

The lack of women’s coaches and leaders in high performance sport has been constantly highlighted.

At last year’s Tokyo Olympics, only four women held coaching roles in the New Zealand team, compared with 62 male coaches.  The independent inquiry into Cycling New Zealand released this week pointed out a “dire lack” of women’s coaches at the top level of the sport.

In an effort to address that, the Women in High Performance Sport programme initially placed eight female coaches and leaders directly into the high performance programmes of national sports organisations. It also introduced Te Hāpaitanga, a programme pairing 12 emerging women coaches with experienced mentors, and giving them guidance through workshops.

Now more than 60 women have been through the residency and coaching programmes.

Wilson has been involved in Te Hāpaitanga since it began. She was mentor to the two Phoenix women’s football coaches, Gemma Lewis and Natalie Lawrence, in the first intake, and is now mentoring hockey coach and former Black Stick, Danielle Cranston.

It’s been a great opportunity for Wilson to learn from other codes at the same time.

Helene Wilson (left) with her assistant coach Tia Winikerei watching the Mystics train. Photo: Suzanne McFadden.

She’s also had a decade of experience working in high performance sport outside netball, too.

A physical education teacher, Wilson decided to return to work after having her sons, but in a different career. In 2012 she became an athlete life advisor at HPSNZ.

She worked with athletes from Swimming NZ, Cycling NZ, the Black Ferns Sevens and Black Sticks women, helping them with their lives outside of sport.

“I was really fortunate to work one-on-one with athletes,” she says. “And to also be exposed to how high performance works and learn from the different disciplines how to create good environments for people to succeed.

“I think that background training in wellbeing and the holistic care of people has been one of my greatest strengths as a coach as well. When people are happy, they perform at their best.”

All the while Wilson was coaching netball, leading the Netball Northern team to victory at the national U23 championships in 2015. The following year she left HPSNZ to become a fulltime coach with the Mystics.

After seven years as an assistant and then head coach at the Mystics, Wilson wasn’t actively looking for another job. But someone suggested she take a look at the women in high performance sport role, made vacant by Sonia Boland, who’s returned home to Australia.

“It came out of the blue in lots of ways,” Wilson says. “But when you love sport, and you love working with people, good things come your way. To get an opportunity to share my skills in a role like this is really exciting.

“It will be challenging, and I like a challenge. I was well aware I was taking on a challenge with the Mystics.

“I believe my authentic strengths as a person are around leadership, building systems and bringing people together, and sharing the value of the diversity of people. I’ve done it with Netball Northern. And I wondered what it would be like to do it in another context across sport.”

HPSNZ director of high performance, Steve Tew, says Wilson’s experience means she will be a “tremendous asset” to high performance sport.

“Helene has been there, done that – working and coaching in high performance sport for more than a decade,” Tew says.

“She is perfectly placed to relate to the issues facing talented women striving to gain experience and respect in coaching and leadership roles within our system, and drive solutions through the Women in High Performance programme.”

Wilson knows she’s had a more privileged position than many female coaches, working in the unique environment of an all-women’s sport. But she hopes what she’s learned from coaching at the upper echelons of netball will transfer to other codes.

“While I’ll miss netball dearly – because what you do with a team is so, so special – to give back some of my knowledge and my experience as a woman in high performance sport to other people coming through really appeals to me,” she says.

Helene Wilson talks to her Mystics players during a quarter break in the 2020 ANZ Premiership. Photo: Getty Images. 

She believes the key part of her new role is building relationships with national sports organisations to “see how they can create sustainable change”

“I think it’s about how you ensure there are more people with the skills, confidence and visibility that’s required to step into leadership roles in high performance sport – without worrying what their gender is,” she says.

“That they’re not just there because they are women, but because we acknowledge and appreciate they have the right skillset for the role.”

Wilson is most proud of creating a shift in culture at Northern Netball, and creating a system that “people want to be part of”, she says. And she’s proud of the growth within the Mystics team, especially this season.

“One of the strengths of our team is the players do it for each other. But this year the shift I’ve seen is that it’s now players doing it for other people - the management staff or the people who contribute to the team. Seeing the players so grateful for all the time and effort people put into making them the superstars out on court, that’s been awesome.

“That’s what I want them to do over the next few weeks. To me, that’s success. That’s winning.”

An example of that came in Monday night’s one-goal loss to the Magic. With key shooter Grace Nweke out injured, and Filda Vui having to leave the court with a bleeding leg, the Mystics’ young training partner, Danni Binks, entered the game.

“She played for five minutes and shot two goals, up against Leana du Bruin and Erena Mikaere, two of the tallest and most experienced defenders in netball. And here she was holding our shooting end up at goal shoot,” Wilson says.

“I need to have the courage as a coach to do that, but the players on court also have to trust her. So no matter how young, how new or how experienced you are, if you’ve done the work and you’ve been part of it, we will trust you to do the job. So that was cool.”

What will Fitzpatrick miss most about Wilson?

“Her stories – she has a story for everything. Apparently, she is a professional dancer, hairdresser and a physio,” the Silver Fern defender laughs. “She loves to have a yarn and share her life experiences.

“In the last couple of years, we’ve worked as a small group [with Sokolich-Beatson and manager Meghan Robinson] and we have a chat group called Big Girls Chat. We talk over netball things but have a bit of a laugh as well.

“We’re a collective of women making sure we do our best to steer the ship in the right direction, do what’s right for the team, and lead by example.

“I know Helene won’t be able to help herself next year, she’ll be back in the Big Girls Chat, adding her comments and advice.”