From paddle boarding to touring the world, introducing new Vitality Roses to winning her first test series, it’s been quite the 12 months for Jess Thirlby as Head Coach.
For many elite netballers, the end of the Vitality Netball World Cup 2019 represented the conclusion of a four-year international cycle. For the Vitality Roses, it marked the start of a new journey both on and off the court.
In the days that followed the tournament, England Netball announced that Jess would be taking over the reins as Vitality Roses Head Coach.
The former Director of Netball at Team Bath threw herself into the role and began her tenure with a camp in Sedbergh, situated between the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District. When there, the Vitality Roses squad were given demanding tasks such as mountain biking, open-water swimming and scaling waterfalls. Their new Head Coach, a former England player herself, was right there with them.
Jess said: “When you have a new Head Coach and some new athletes in the programme at the start of a new four-year cycle, it’s perfect to be thrown together and to spend a lot of time with one another. The girls were put in really challenging situations and I was very fortunate to join in some of the activities with them.
“I massively believe in unity and I thought the camaraderie was really impressive. They were prepared to put themselves outside of their comfort zone because it was the right thing to do for their team. That was really encouraging for me. I love to see great character in a team.”
A number of exciting young prospects were there at Sedbergh and many of them later embarked upon a behind-closed-doors tour of Australia and New Zealand with their Head Coach.
Fifteen players were selected by Jess to jet off to play seven games in 10 days against the Diamonds and Silver Ferns. The team also included the likes of Natalie Panagarry and Fran Williams who made their World Cup debuts in July 2019.
Commenting on the tour, Jess said: “It was such a great opportunity to expose this team to the Australian and New Zealand style. I really feel like the athletes and staff embraced that tour experience for what it was. They weren’t formal test matches but I was so impressed with how the athletes did.”
Whilst on tour, Jess and the team came together to watch some of their fellow England players on TV as they lifted the Netball Europe Open trophy in Northern Ireland, which was followed with a victory at the U21 Netball Europe Championships a week later in Worcester.
Jess said: “I watched every single game of Netball Europe Open, we all did. None of those players had a senior cap and I don’t think the achievement of winning a senior competition can be underestimated.
“At both competitions, they played with a maturity way beyond their experience and it was great to see the amount of young talent coming through.”
In November 2019, the Vitality Roses headed to South Africa to face the SPAR Proteas for a three-match series which they won 2-1 to seal Jess’ first series win since she was appointed as Head Coach.
A great start to the new four-year cycle for the Vitality Roses 🌹
🤓 Lots learnt
🤝 Partnerships developing
🧢 A first cap for Kate Shimmin
— England Netball (at 🏡) (@EnglandNetball) December 1, 2019
Reflecting on the competition, she said: “It was an outstanding achievement by this team to come away from home with very little international experience. To have sealed the series in those opening two games in that fashion is an achievement that shouldn’t be underestimated.”
“Finishing game three having played all 12 players was another objective of ours coming into the series. I didn’t anticipate being as successful as that so soon which is fantastic.”
The Vitality Roses then played in front of a home crowd in January 2020 for the first time since the Vitality Netball World Cup 2019.
The Vitality Netball Nations Cup saw Jess’ side come away with a bronze medal after battling against the Jamaica Sunshine Girls, the New Zealand Silver Ferns and the South Africa SPAR Proteas across four days of action in three cities.
During lockdown, Jess helped to launch Bee At Home – a series of challenges for U11s and the rest of their families to take part in to stay active while at home. You can find out more about Bee Netball here.
She also joined the Vitality Roses for a series of virtual workouts, including making England Netball member Emma Bowes-Crick’s dream of training with the team come true as part of the ‘Any Dream We’ll Do’ initiative.
Jess recently announced the names of the players that have been selected for a Vitality Roses programme agreement for the 2020-21 international season with some experienced names returning after taking a well-deserved break following the 2018 Commonwealth Games and the Vitality Netball World Cup 2019.
A return to training plan for the Vitality Roses has also been revealed after the Government outlined its five stage return to elite sport roadmap and guidance around the conditions that need to be implemented for elite athletes to return to competitive training safely.
“Despite our eagerness to begin training together again, we have to be mindful to start small, get the environments right and then grow our training groups from there. Whilst we have big competitions, like the next Commonwealth Games, on the horizon, the health and safety of our players, staff and the Netball Family is our main priority,” said Jess.
“With this in mind, we are following the Government’s guidance and that of our medical team, as well as speaking to venue staff throughout this process to ensure the Roses’ training environment is optimal.”
We have now also issued our roadmap for the community level of the game here.
To mark one year in the role, Jess sat down with British Canoeing’s Slalom Head Coach Mark Ratcliffe to discuss Jaffa half-time oranges, the impact of sport science and nutrition on sport, and the differences and similarities noticed between coaching individuals and teams.
Watch the full feature hosted by BBC presenter Claire Carter below…