Tia Winikerei was 29, a police detective and a new mum, when she decided to return to playing netball.
She’d first played as a four-year-old – in a wraparound skirt far too big, rushing onto the court for a kids’ team her mum coached. She’d made rep teams growing up in Te Kuiti and played through all the age groups for Aotearoa Māori.
But then her career in the police, with shift work and nights on the beat, took precedence and she gave netball away.
“I don’t regret that, but I often think ‘You didn’t play netball for all of your 20s’. It was in that time I was developing my professional career, and I took up individual sports – I ran a half-marathon – because it was logistically easier,” Winikerei recalls.
Then when her son, Keenan, was two, she decided to go back to her sporting love, turning up at the Rangitoto club on Auckland’s North Shore.
“The team that I joined was a collection of people who were left over or came late. So we were quite a mismatched bunch,” Winikerei, then a midcourter, says.
But it was the coach of that team who would change Winikerei’s life, steering her into the world of coaching.
The coach of that mishmash of players was Marian George, a legend in New Zealand netball. George, nee Smith, was a national trialist as a player in the 1960s, became a national selector and umpire, and today is a life member of Netball New Zealand. But it’s as a coach she’s best remembered, raising North Shore to lofty heights, travelling the country coaching and even writing a couple of books on the subject.
“In the four or five years I spent with her, she taught me a lot about leading a team, particularly a team of people who might not all be at the same ability,” Winikerei says of George. “She always viewed it as ‘I’m here to make these people better’. It was my first real exposure to that.
“She laid the foundation for me to understand the movement patterns of the game, the technical individual skills that we’d practise all the time. She supported me to learn how to coach.”
Two decades later, Winikerei is the new head coach of the Northern Mystics. No doubt George, well into her 80s now and living in Ōtaki, will be proud.
In some ways, Winikerei’s elevation may be seen as quite a leap; in others, it’s a natural progression. She was ‘apprentice coach’ for the Mystics over the past two seasons – learning from the head coach of six years, Helene Wilson, and her assistant, Rob Wright.
Winikerei, though, brings plenty of life experience to the job. She spent 16 years in the police force, where she learned to work with many teams of people. And having spent a year learning te reo Māori through full immersion, Winikerei – who’s Ngāti Maniapoto – also brings whakaaro Māori (Māori thinking) to the Mystics environment.
She’s not afraid to speak te reo during TV interviews, either.
Two games into the ANZ Premiership, and the unbeaten Mystics are already looking like the team to overthrow this season. Their 54-45 victory over the Tactix on Sunday was a battle of attrition, but the Mystics patiently ground it out, with Winikerei calmly leading from the bench.
She admits she struggled in the pre-season games, though, transitioning from assistant to head coach.
“As an assistant coach, you focus on individual things, technical things about the game, strategies. The difference between that and the head coach role, you’re setting the plans of how you’re going to play, and keeping an eye across all the different pieces,” she says.
“I went through a stage where I couldn’t read the game properly, and Rob had to help me unpack it a little bit.
“When we’re playing now, I’m confident we’re across what’s going on in the way I used to be. But it’s through a different lens because now I’ve got the total responsibility of what happens next.”
Wright, back from Australia for his third season as Mystics assistant coach, has no doubt Winikerei knows what she’s seeing and doing.
“It’s really easy working with Tia. She’s very clear in what she’s wanting, and very collaborative,” he says.
“She has a very big picture view of stuff. Sometimes when you’re not necessarily from that elite playing background, you can look at things differently. You’re a little broader in your thinking. And I like that; I always like to think outside the square.
“She also makes everyone feel very valued and included. And when you do that, it’s easy.”
The feeling is mutual for Winikerei. “Rob and I have a very cool working relationship. I feel like it’s more of a partnership than a hierarchical thing. And to me that’s the best way of working,” she says.
But Winikerei wasn’t always comfortable about applying for the head coach role, after Wilson left at the end of last year’s challenging season (the defending champs finishing third) to work at High Performance Sport New Zealand.
Winikerei’s decision was made tougher when she and husband, Glen, left Auckland and moved back to Rotorua to be closer to whānau. But it’s something they’re making work, Winikerei says – she’ll live in Auckland during the Mystics season, with Keenan, who’s 21 this year. “Glen is back and forth,” she says.
But she also had to consider the pressure that comes with the job.
“Having been in the Mystics for at least six years, I know the expectations of the role. I know the gravity and the width of the role and all that comes with that,” she says. “I had to weigh up the responsibility of being able to do all the things that are required and know that I could do all the things that were needed.
“After working through the process and talking to the people I trust, I realised my skillset had been prepared well enough to take responsibility for that.
“I’m not famous, I’m not what people would expect [the coach] to be. But I’m the right person for it right now, so that’s okay.”
She may not be well-known, but netball has played a major part in her life. Winikerei spent her early years in Akaroa, on the Banks Peninsula: “a really tiny place where life was pretty free”.
She remembers her first game: “I stole a wraparound skirt out of the bag. I wore it the next day because I was so excited to play.”
During her high school years, her whānau moved to Te Kuiti, where her dad is from. She remembers fondly playing basketball and touch during the week, and netball with her friends on the weekends.
Netball was her passion, though, and she played for the Riverland senior side at national tournament “against Auckland and all the big teams”. She played a visiting England side for Aotearoa Maori U21.
After police college, 22-year-old Winikerei had one season of club netball in Henderson – at the same Te Pai courts where the Mystics now train. “I enjoyed it but I didn’t have the same joy as when I was at high school,” she says. When she returned to the courts seven years later, she played for five seasons before taking over from George to coach Rangitoto.
“It’s really hard work coaching; it’s much easier to play. But I really enjoyed it, and I was like ‘I think I’m okay at it’,” she laughs.
Then in 2012, Winikerei made a prophetic statement.
“One of the girls asked me ‘Are you going to keep coaching?’ And I was like ‘Yeah I want to go and coach in the ANZ’. That was back in the days when it was the Championship and they were playing Australia, and I didn’t really know what I was saying,” she says.
“But my comment to that player was ‘Well if I’m going to coach, I might as well coach at the top level’, like why bother otherwise? I didn’t even know then that’s what I was starting to prepare for.”
Winikerei left the police and retrained in sport and recreation, working at Sport Waitakere getting young people involved in social sport, before becoming community netball manager for Netball Northern. That’s how the Mystics apprenticeship came about.
She’ll always be grateful, she says, for her time in the police, and the opportunities she had there – like the year-long sabbatical to study Māori at Te Wananga Takiura.
“There are so many parallels between policing and coaching. You’re working with people all the time. The dynamics of how groups work and how people work together… That’s part of what I’ve done my whole life,” she says.
“I ended up being a sergeant then a detective sergeant, where you run teams of people who in that area of work are experts in their own right. So it’s a lot like working with this group here – they’re all highly experienced people who know what they’re doing. It’s learning how to draw that out.
“You give the people who are really good at something the job they love doing and then they own it.
“The police are like one big family, and there’s families within families. And the whānau orientated way we operate at Mystics is essential to who we are.”
She’s proud to bring Māori philosophies and principles into her coaching.
“So my way of working with people, and I think it’s important from a whakaaro Māori point of view, kotahitanga, whanaunatanga, the oneness and the relationships and being a collective is essential in my world to getting the best out of people or the group,” Winikerei says.
“And that legacy has been built through the foundation work that Helene did, and the way the team moves, and the influential nature of Sulu [Fitzpatrick] and Michaela [Sokolich-Beatson]. But also the long-serving Mystics like Peta [Toeava] and Phoenix [Karaka].
“And now the young ones walk in and it’s just like that. And that’s really special to me and it was something that was laid before me and I’m able to carry that on. And if Mystics can continue that way, that will be the legacy that’s left.”