Netball is not only one of the most popular women’s sports in the UK, but also on the other side of the globe. Australia, currently ranked number one in the world, love the sport too.
However, it’s not just women who predominantly play netball Down Under – a lot of men do too. One individual in particular began his journey as a netballer, before turning his attention to coaching at the highest club and national level possible.
Speaking exclusively to GiveMeSport Women, Dan Ryan, head coach of Superleague side Leeds Rhinos, discussed how he went from playing in an all-girls league at the age of eight, to guiding the English top division’s newest franchise to success.
Before venturing into the world of coaching, Ryan played the sport in his homeland. His love for netball began at a young age with his mum playing it and him watching it on TV.
It wasn’t until the age of 12 that his county, Victoria, saw his desire for the game and thus made a mixed league, something he thought was great and prepared him for the men’s game three years later.
“I never really saw it any different. I was just a young boy that loved playing netball. And I just happened to be playing with the girls,” he said.
“Once you turn the age of 12, you can no longer play in the girls’ leagues or in the girls’ teams anymore. But my association actually created their first ever mixed league so I could keep playing.
“And so I was able to do that for a couple of years around the age of 13 and 14 before moving into the men’s game at the age of 15. So I’ve never seen myself as anything different.”
The Australian played his trade as a goal-attack, and even represented his country several times. He expressed how important and enjoyable playing in the position was in the latter stages of his career.
“I really enjoyed, particularly the last five to 10 years of my career, playing the real playmaking role of a goal-attack and just refining the court craft and playing the team game and setting things up and really crafting goals. I think [it] was what I loved most about it,” he said.
“There’s no better feeling than setting up a player that is shooting for a goal. So I love those elements of the game and certainly bring that into my coaching as well.”
The 36-year-old became part of Adelaide Thunderbirds’ coaching staff in 2012. While assistant head coach of the club he helped guide them to the ANZ Championship in 2013. However, his spell as head coach between 2016 and 2018 was on the other side of the spectrum, going two seasons with one win in that period. Despite this, he saw it as a good thing and says it has made him the coach he is today.
“The hardships, the struggle and the adversity that I went through and the team went through during those two years has been the catalyst for the greatest form of growth and development that I’ve had as a coach,” he said.
“I put a lot of value in making meaning of the hardships and the struggles that we face. And I think from a coaching perspective, it’s so important that you have those tough seasons and those tough years and those tough environments. And, you know, the struggle actually is the catalyst for the growth and the growth actually is the reflection of how well you can navigate your way through your obstacles.”
Ryan’s coaching career has mainly consisted of Thunderbirds and Manchester Thunder. While head coach in 2016, he guided the latter to a top place finish in the regular season, before narrowly losing in the Grand Final 55-53 to Surrey Storm.
The Australian described his time in charge of Thunder as ‘really fortunate’. He said:
“I was really keen to come over to the UK and show people what I could do as a head coach and I think really fortunate to inherit a really great club culture and playing list at Manchester Thunder, and I brought a few extra players in there as well in that 2016 season.
“It was a great season overall [but] disappointing not to win, but just to go on the journey and see what I could do to a group that was well established and take them to the next level was really exciting.”
As mentioned above, netball is predominantly played by women, but this also filters into coaching too. The 36-year-old is one of only two professional men’s head or assistant coaches in the sport at the moment, the other being Rob Wright. However, Ryan thinks his gender is not something that makes a good coach. Rather, an individual’s skill set does.
“Coaching is not a job that has a gender, coaching has a skill set, coaching has attributes, coaching has a level of competencies, and that’s how we should all be assessed, evaluated and employed by,” he said.
The Australian added if you make the role about your gender, it could make your coaching journey harder. He said:
“I think if you make a big deal about being a male coach, or a female coach, you’re almost making the journey more difficult for yourself. I’m a coach, I happen to be a man, but I’ve been involved in the game since I was an eight year old kid, therefore anyone can go on the journey.
“If you’re good enough, you’ll get the rewards, and if you’re the right fit, you will get the jobs that you’re striving for. So, you know, I always take great pride in the fact that I’ve definitely been, I guess, in the minority in my sport, being a male where there aren’t many of us.”
The 36-year-old went on to say how he hopes he can be a role model to aspiring coaches, no matter their gender.
(Image credit: Leeds Rhinos Netball)
“I do like to be a role model in that regard for any other male or female coaches,” he said.
“Because I think our biggest source of inspiration can be someone’s journey, not that I’m a male coach, but that I am a coach in a female dominated sport. But I’m no different to anybody else.”
Ryan took the head coach job of this season’s newest franchise Leeds Rhinos. His first signing was Jade Clarke, England’s most capped international. This campaign has been impressive for the Yorkshire club. They have the potential to finish in a play-off position if they win their remaining four matches.
So what does the future hold for the Australian and Rhinos? A top four finish would be great, but is not something he would lose sleep over.
“I’m really loving what I’m doing at the moment with Leeds Rhinos and the reality is we don’t look further than the next training session,” he said.
“So it’s a mindset of riding the wave and if that means we end up in the top four, that’s great. If it doesn’t, we’ve also achieved a hell of a lot in our first season.”
“For me, it’s never really about putting a ceiling or putting an end point to what I want to achieve or where I want to go. It’s about making the most of the opportunities in front of you and seeing where they take you and just enjoying the journey along the way.”
(Feature image credit: Ben Lumley)