Erin Bell

25 years of the Adelaide Thunderbirds: Erin Bell on culture, captaincy and challenges

In part two with Erin Bell for 25 years of the Adelaide Thunderbirds, she reflects on the club’s culture, captaincy and the challenges.

Edge of the Crowdis celebrating 25 years of the Adelaide Thunderbirds with Erin Bell, reflecting on the club’s culture, coaches, captaincy and challenges.

In part one, Erin Bell relived her early years at the Adelaide Thunderbirds and the premiership success the club enjoyed at that time.

Now, she shares her memories of the culture of the early days and her relationship with coach Jane Woodlands-Thompson.

Bell also delves into taking on captaincy, the challenging times she led through, and why she had to move on to the Magpies to try and find her game again.

Team culture: Adelaide’s country-town nature creates ‘big bonds’

The Adelaide Thunderbirds aren’t the only team who have benefitted from the tight-knit community the city of Adelaide is.  

Generally, everyone lives within 20 minutes of each other. It’s easy to have team dinners, game nights, beach walks or grab a coffee because you all live in a similar area.

For a sporting team to be friends and hanging out socially outside of training times can only benefit the bonds and make playing sport more enjoyable.

Thinking back on her time in South Australia, Bell says this was a key part of the Thunderbirds success in her time and has been a feature of the team over the years, and something they seem to have got back to in recent years.

“Our team was a really fun team. We had a really good balance of players, experience, some of us [were] really young and we just we had a lot of fun off the court as well.

“And I think that's a little bit of a trend of the Thunderbirds throughout their history is that you hear all the past players talk and I think it's because Adelaide is just such a small, well a big country town really.

“All the players always lived close by and you're able to hang out socially and I think that that's a huge part of why the Thunderbirds have always, all the teams, have always had such big bonds because of that factor.

“Having played in Sydney and Melbourne, it's a huge disadvantage because you never see teammate unless you're at training because you all live so far away from each other.

“I just remember having a lot of fun and just taking it all in.”

That culture extended to full squads who were supportive of each other, no matter the court-time situation, especially in the premiership years.

“A big part of it that stands out to me in that 2013 group is actually the players who were on the bench. And I just remember that those five girls barely got any court time that whole year, but they were so supportive, and they were just giving it their absolute all at training and they were just your biggest advocate while you were on the court.

“And I think that having that really brought our team together, because a lot of the time, sometimes players aren't happy on the bench and you know, little cliques can form and there's just a little bit of tension...

“From my perspective - I know I was on the court, so it was happy days for me - but I just never felt that from them, and I just always remember that from that group, that they were like a really key part of keeping that culture together.

“We're all still really good friends now, which is nice, too.”

Coaching calls: ‘we challenged each other’

At the end of 2009, Bell received a phone call that was a lifeline from the coach of the Adelaide Thunderbirds Jane Woodlands-Thompson.

Daughter of inaugural Thunderbirds, Margaret Angove, Woodlands-Thompson has a reputation for being one of the best brains in the business. She was head coach in Adelaide from 2008-2015.

Just a year with Tania Obst at the helm in 2007 separated the Angove-Woodlands-Thompson family’s coaching reign of close to two decades from 1997-2015. Bell appreciated Woodlands-Thompson as a coach, but possibly more so after she left the top-job at the Thunderbirds.

“I just think she knew the game inside and out, and she always knew our opposition and she also knew how each player operated and I didn't even know how I operated before I moved to Thunderbirds.

“And I also didn't really even know throughout the time I was there, until she wasn't our coach anymore; then I realised what I needed. It was kind of as I matured as a player as well… Our training plan was very organised; everything was just structured so we didn't have to think about all of the other stuff. We could just kind of turn up to training and do our job as athletes.

“Our relationship, because I ask a lot of questions and I want to know answers, like why they're doing things and so if I wasn't sure why we were doing a certain drill or why we had to do this, I would ask her.

“She said she always appreciated that as an athlete, because it made her a better coach because she had to always have her reasons why and sometimes the conversation may not have gone all happy days, but I think it was good.

“We challenged each other, and I think we got the best out of each other in the end and I really ended up appreciating her as a coach, but probably more so when I didn't have her anymore and realised how much she did for me as a player.”

When Bell made her first Diamonds squad, Norma Plummer was in charge of the national team. Later, Lisa Alexander would take over. Bell enjoyed having the very different perspectives of these coaches and believes it made her a better player and also, a better coach.

“Norma (Plummer) and Jane (Woodlands-Thompson) were quite similar in their structured kind of approach and then Lisa (Alexander), brought in a lot of players, not saying that Norma and Jane didn't empower players, but Lisa, that was a really big part of her philosophy and she gave a lot of ownership to the players on a lot of things.

“And I think that was really good for me to get experience, it's probably helped me now that I'm a coach myself, and I can understand that from a player's perspective - how much I appreciated being empowered in that way.

“Like being asked: what do you want to do at training? And what do you think you need? You know, I think I've brought a little bit of both into my coaching now that I've experienced that, because as I said earlier, like I actually love the structure of Jane, I love that she just told me what I needed to do and I could just do it.

“But then, it was also good to be able to go, well actually I feel like I need to do a bit of this or a bit of that, and I think now as a coach myself, I try and bring both to the players because I've benefited from both styles.”

Captaincy calls: ‘I'm a bit of a fix-it type of person’

At the end of 2013, there were some changes at the premiers. Nat von Bertouch, who’d been captain since 2008 and the start of the ANZ Championship, retired. Sharni Norder (née Layton) moved on, along with other personnel changes.

Bell acknowledges how hard of a task it is, staying at the top when every team is plotting against you.

“I think obviously when you win two premierships in close succession, you become the hunted and all the teams, they were out to get us.

“Every single game for us was a tough match and everyone did their research about us, and they knew everything about us as a team and there was just no easy game.

“So, I think that fatigue started to set in a little bit probably after 2013. It was a little bit of a rebuild. I hate that word, though, because obviously at that level, you should be competitive all the time. Which we were… when Jane was still there, we were always still competitive.

“But I just think we had a significant number of changes within our line up and it just took us a little bit time to get used to that again and the other teams hunting us down.”

That fatigue and ‘rebuild’ would rule the Thunderbirds, who went on to stunningly fall from first to eighth, seventh and tenth in the final years of the ANZ Championship.

Bell took over the captaincy of the Adelaide Thunderbirds for the 2016 season, the first of the club’s three-year stint at the bottom of the ladder.

Renae Ingles (née Hallinan) had announced she would miss the season, pregnant with twins, and the team was under a new coach, Michelle Den Dekker.

It was a “huge honour” for the goaler, but “something that [she] actually never thought that [she] would do there, because [the Thunderbirds] always had such strong leaders.”

With a fix-it attitude, Bell attempted get the team back to where it was when she joined, but admits taking on captaincy wasn’t really in her sights given the club’s strong leadership.

“I've always been kind of confident in that area to be able to lead, but I think when I took over the captaincy of the club, we were struggling. We were in a pretty tough place.

“And I think, for me, I'm a bit of a fix-it type of person, like I want to fix that problem, make that better, make sure that person is feeling good. And I think I took on that as my role as captain and forgot about my own job of actually playing netball.”

While it was not an easy two years, Bell feels like she “learnt a lot about leadership during that time.

“I would probably change a lot of things, if I had that opportunity again, but as I said, we were in a tough position as a club and like I absolutely love the Thunderbirds and am so passionate about them, at that time I just wanted to do absolutely everything that was in my power to get us back on track.

“So I think probably to the detriment of my own game.”

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Challenging times: Adelaide’s ‘messy years’

After the success in the early years, the team started to slide further and further.

Adelaide had been taken over by new coach Dan Ryan after a challenging 2016 that saw Michelle Den Dekker leave her role as head coach and Kristy Keppich-Birrell care-take for the later part of the season.

Through 2016, Adelaide won just two matches and finished bottom of the ladder for the first time in its history.

Things didn’t get much better in 2017, as it plummeted to the bottom once again, this time taking just one win.

At the inception of the Super Netball competition, the current Australian league with eight domestic teams, Bell remained captain of the Thunderbirds.

She tried to hold the side together over those two years, but all the meetings, game reviews and commitments were exhausting and as a result, her game suffered.

“I remember just having meetings with the coaches trying to work out why we weren't winning games and we had different combinations, we had different personalities in the team, and just trying to manage all that…

“I just remember having a lot of chats with the girls and just like, you know, trying to individually make sure everyone was in a good place, but then that became quite exhausting, because obviously we were not very successful on the court, we were losing games, which makes it really hard from a culture point of view.

“And I think because we had had a change in players and changes in coaches, our culture just wasn't as strong as it was back in the day and I had that memory of how good it could be, I just feel like everyone was starting to retire around me and leave the club and I was like yeah, I guess I just didn't really know how to bring it back.

“I think now, we're finally starting to see it, with the girls at the club now and the fact that it's been [the] same players for a few years, the same coach… Tania (Tania Obst) is great with the girls. So, I think, there was a lot of things that contributed to us having a few messy years back then, but, as I said I would probably change a lot of things that I did back then, but at the same time I don't regret just absolutely trying absolutely everything I could to get the club back on track.

“Unfortunately it didn't really work, but I tried.”

Things didn’t get any better the next year without Bell; the side lost all 14 games and at the end of the year Ryan’s time as coach came to an end.

Leaving Adelaide: ‘I just felt like I had reached a brick wall’

The pressure was well and truly on captain Bell’s shoulders during the rough times in Adelaide and she left for the Collingwood Magpies ahead of the 2018 season. At the time of her retirement, Bell wrote for Athlete’s Voice:

“Some of the speculation around why I moved annoyed me. It sounds so simple, but I literally moved so that I could have fun and enjoy the game again.”

When asked about that period of her career, looking back with hindsight four years later, you are reminded just how much she gave up to move to Melbourne to find the joy in netball again.

With a successful coaching business based in Adelaide, as an established player holding the captaincy, Bell had everything to lose, but she wasn’t ready to lose netball.  

“I'd tried absolutely everything to get the club back on track, I'd tried to get my game back on track and I just felt like I had reached a brick wall and I didn't know how to get around it.

“I didn't feel as supported at the club, as I had previously, so I didn't feel like I had the tools that I needed to actually perform and look, number one that's your job as an athlete and I think I'd gone away from that.

“So, I just wanted a bit of an opportunity to be able to just focus on my netball and just my game again without the cloud around it and all the other stuff that goes with being a captain.

“I think I just really needed an opportunity to see if I could get myself back on track mentally, get my game right.

“And I mean, I absolutely loved my time at the Magpies, the girls were great, it was a great experience, but I didn't feel like I could play as good as I used to and just whether it was a mental battle within myself and high expectations and getting old but I kind of knew at the end of that year that, you know, I'd at least given it a go and it still kind of wasn't feeling right for me anymore, so it was time to retire.”

Retired netballer: ‘life is very different now’

When Bell moved to Melbourne, she might have given up her coaching business, but she did return to study.

She is almost finished a Masters of Teaching (Secondary) and will soon be qualified to take her coaching qualities into high school classrooms – something that suits her perfectly.

“That was the other tough decision when I left the Thunderbirds, was kind of, pretty much, finishing my business and it was a pretty sad moment, because I had put in so much time and effort building it up and I'd been lucky enough to coach thousands of girls throughout South Australia, like country - I was on road trips all the time - and I was out at Pinaroo and everywhere else, Kapunda, bloody I was all over, I knew SA like the back of my hand, I'd drive to every country town there was.

“I don't have my own business here in Melbourne, but I do still do a lot of coaching. I'm involved in schools and in the state league competition here, so I'm definitely still doing a lot of coaching, but I'm actually just about to finish off my teaching degree. So I'll, once I'm qualified to teach [I'll do that].”

She’s also busy with one-year-old son, Alfie.

“Right now, while I've got a one-year-old and hopefully we'll have a few more kids, it's a little bit time consuming!

“Life is very different now, and I sit back, and I love watching all the Thunderbirds, all their social media and all their videos at the moment, it's so good. And just everything coming out, bringing back all the memories and making me feel very old, but also making me feel pretty lucky that I was a part of such a good club.”