Could Kiri Wills be the next Silver Ferns coach? The woman at the head of the Stars says she still has plenty of mahi to do – including winning an ANZ Premiership title.
During the intensity of a netball season, Kiri Wills has three secrets to success she follows to the letter.
Wills, once a top attacking player, has won championship titles with secondary school sides and the New Zealand U21s during her 20-year coaching career. And now she has her eyes set on an ANZ Premiership title with the Northern Stars.
To help get her there, she’s following her “tricks” to unwinding and de-stressing from the franchise coaching role – no alcohol during the season, reading a good book, and engaging with the family’s two rescue dogs.
“I’m a voracious reader. I’ll read everything from murder mystery to historical novels,” says Wills. “The only way I can really switch off is to have something that distracts me, so Netflix is great, but reading also winds me down from a game.”
She finds it hard to get to sleep already so opts out of drinking for the three-month season as well. “I find if I’ve had a couple of wines at night, that sleep is shorter and it’s not as deep. So that’s my number one tip actually,” Wills says.
“And if I’ve had a really crappy day or I’m really unhappy about something, our two rescue dogs are amazing. You just get to the front door and they’re just so happy to see you. That’s therapy for all of our family. How can you be grumpy when they’re so happy to see you?”
It’s obviously working for Wills. She recently celebrated her 50th game as an ANZ Premiership coach, when the Stars beat the Magic – the franchise she finished playing netball with in 2007 and won back-to-back New Zealand titles with during her stint there.
And the Stars sit at the top of the table halfway through the premiership season, with six wins from seven after a nail-biting 57-56 extra-time victory over the Tactix on Monday night.
Wills also represented New Zealand at U21 level, and played most of her national league netball for the Auckland Diamonds before moving to the Magic. After playing, she spent time in assistant coaching roles at the Mystics and went on to be the Silver Ferns development squad coach and NZ U21 head coach position in 2015. Two years later, she led the New Zealand side to victory at the World Youth Cup.
“I love coaching. And I’m so blessed that I’m paid to do something that I love. I think if I wasn’t being paid, I’d still be doing it – so my husband is quite relieved,” Wills laughs.
The 50 game milestone crept up on her quickly, catching her by surprise.
“I got a service award from Auckland this year which reminded me I’ve been coaching since 1998. That was prior to a number of the players in my team being born so I’ve been coaching all of their lives,” she says.
“So this 50 is kind of the tip of the iceberg. I think all of those school teams, club teams, age-group rep teams, they prepare you for this level and then when you get here, it’s just continual learning.”
Wills admits she doesn’t tend to use milestone games to motivate the players. “I actually try, where possible, to treat every game as another game. Like, let’s just do it,” she says.
Still, she was really pleased to get the win against the Magic in her 50th game.
“I guess I really did want that win,” says Wills. “Especially because our last game against them [Magic], we came off a little bit shaky, and they closed the gap. It wasn’t a very convincing win so we wanted to be much better than that first game and they came through and they were.”
Even though Wills says the build-up is not centred around milestone matches, the Stars acknowledge the occasion in the changing rooms beforehand with a Samoan celebration led by shooter Amorangi Malesala. The proud south Auckland law student was also instrumental in creating and leading the Stars haka against the Pulse (before the Stars’ first loss of the season).
The Stars franchise have also celebrated Gina Crampton’s 100th and Jaime Hume’s 50th game this season.
Growing up in the Far North, Wills says her life in the community there led to her becoming a “people person”. Raised in Kaitāia until she was eight, Wills moved to nearby Ahipara with her family and stayed in the southern part of Ninety Mile Beach until she went to Otago University.
“Everything up there is shared. We used to go camping around Reef Point [west of Ahipara] where there are no facilities, and our parents used to just put up tents, we’d dig a long drop, and it was a real communal way of living,” Wills says.
“And I think I’m at my best when I’m surrounded by a lot of other like-minded people and I think coaching is a really good place for people like that.
“If you enjoy other people’s company, and enjoy working towards something together, coaching is just a really nice way to do that. And I just get a massive kick out of helping people to achieve their goals.”
For Wills it was a natural progression to go from player to coach. She initially wanted to be a PE teacher, but her mum explained how difficult the career path was when she was exploring options.
So instead, Wills went into sports administration at Baradene College after Otago University, working 15 hours a week while still playing competitively.
It was at Baradene that Wills got into coaching, after she couldn’t find enough people to cover the growing number of netball teams.
“I ended up coaching the Year Nine team one team and I actually discovered that I really loved coaching,” says Wills.
“I didn’t stop playing until 2007, so I was actually coaching for nine years while I was still playing. And then I moved through my career goals.”
Wills went to Auckland Girls’ Grammar and coached them to become New Zealand secondary school champions before moving onto St Cuthbert’s College to be their director of sport.
Under her guidance, St Cuthbert’s got into the New Zealand secondary schools competition for the first time. Wills had the likes of Silver Fern and Mystics defender Sulu Fitzpatrick in her team as well as her Black Ferns sevens champion sister, Theresa.
Of course the team goal of winning the ANZ Premiership is always there as a head coach, but for Wills it’s also about making sure each player is progressing, no matter who they are.
“If I can help them to be better in some way…if you work through something together, and it happens the way that you want, then you go ‘Oh yeah, that’s awesome’ and again that shared experience of achieving something.”
A new assistant coach this year in Paula Smith and manager Debra Charteris contribute heavily to reaching those team goals. The new additions to the Stars coaching line-up have bolstered the core group who’ve been at the franchise for a while, making a solid foundation.
Wills says she’s been very fortunate with her assistant coaches and management groups throughout her career.
“I’ve had Julie Seymour for U21s, I’ve had Bubby [Temepara Bailey], and now I’ve got Paula [Smith]. She and I get on really well,” she says.
“She uses her initiative and she’s confident enough to lead things when I want her to, so she’s been really supportive. Bubby was exactly the same.”
Being able to laugh with fellow coaching staff is important, too, as the role can be stressful on the sidelines. “So to have someone that you can blow off steam with is quite nice. Although now that the mics are on we don’t do it as much as we used to,” laughs Wills. Coaches in the national league are wearing microphones this season.
The Stars have been the dominant team in the league this year. They now have a three-point lead over the Mystics, who lost to the Pulse on Sunday, and will meet them this weekend for the first time this season.
Wills says it was the contracting decisions and openly sharing the franchise’s values upfront with players that’s helped the Stars’ results.
“I think one of the key things for Di [Lasenby, the Stars general manager] and I when we’re talking to players and their agents or managers is we talk about our values in the Stars. Not only what we’re creating but what that person needs to be bringing with them,” she says.
“Because quite often when you’re negotiating with players and their managers, it’s all about ‘what is the team going to give me?’
“So yes, there’s a skillset, and yes they have to meet all those physical things, but there’s also a way of being, and I think this team has come together really well.”
Crampton and Anna Harrison – current and past Silver Ferns – were critical signings for the Stars, says Wills. “But I think the success we’re seeing at the moment is actually the improvement and the uplift of everybody else around Maia [Wilson], Gina, and Anna – our spine,” she says.
“The competitiveness of our squad internally means the standard of our training is really, really high.”
So how would the players describe Wills?
“I think they would describe me as passionate,” she laughs. “In a good way. I really care about the club and what we produce. And they can feel it, in the way that I speak with them, and the way that I drive things.
“They would say I like to have a bit of fun, and I like it not to be too serious. But I draw the line and they know when it’s time to work and when it’s time to play.
“And I think they also appreciate that I treat them like adults, I don’t schedule their lives into minutes, and I’m not all over them about things that I think they should be responsible for themselves. So I give them their independence and I think that’s important because they are adults.”
Her goals for the next 50 games as coach?
“I want to ensure that the Stars have a really strong legacy. We look to the Pulse the last couple of years, but probably the most successful franchise in New Zealand domestic history has been the Southern Sting-Steel,” says Wills.
“I think that to be a part of a franchise that is consistently putting out results, year after year, is something that I would like to be a part of.”
Wills says people often talk about her coaching the Silver Ferns, but it’s not a focus for her at the moment.
“I just look at Noeline and I think she did 17 years at franchise level before she became the Silver Ferns coach. I’m in my fourth year, so I’ve got a long way to go,” she says. “If that happened, that would be great but it’s not on my radar at the moment.
“I just want to make the Stars franchise as good as it can be. And I think probably a little goal inside of that is I want to make as many Silver Ferns as I possibly can in my space and support their programme.”