Jean Leigh has been coaching at grassroots level for over 30 years. Alongside current President Joan Kirkham, she founded Trafford Netball Club in 1992, coaching over 1,000 kids along the way. In September 2015, she was awarded the Grassroots Coach of the Year at netball’s Goalden Globe awards. KUDOS went to see Jean at her home in Sale, just a couple of weeks after the glittering ceremony in Coventry.

Jean Leigh receives her Grassroots Coach of the Year award

Jean Leigh receives her Grassroots Coach of the Year award

KUDOS: Grassroots Coach of the Year – you must be very proud to receive this sort of recognition?

Jean: “Yes I am. I’ve never had anything like this happen to me in my life, so it’s special and I feel very humbled.”

How long have you been involved in netball and where did your journey begin?

“I’ve been involved in netball for over 30 years, starting at a primary school called Moorlands, where the kids called me ‘Aunty Jean’. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just enthusiastic but we used to win everything. I played against Joan Kirkham and afterwards she invited me to the Ducie Centre of Excellence in Moss Side. So I went along and got involved with coaching the kids. I still didn’t know what I was doing and Barbara Bishop, who was with All England, took four or five us on board and taught us coaching or umpiring. I wanted to do coaching. Three of the other girls I was with did umpiring – one of them, Jean Dolan, is now a top umpire – and every one of us stuck with netball, which is a real credit to our beginnings.

“Joan Kirkham already had a team called Ducie, based in Moss Side. We realised most of the kids seemed to come from Trafford, and so she and I decided to get a little under-11s team together. I suggested using Sale High, scrounged some gear and that’s how we started the club.

“We are a club for all. A fair club. We’re not elitist, and over the years I think we’ve become a highly-respected club. Nobody really hates us!”

Does any one player you’ve coached over the years stand out?

“Jade Clarke. I remember the Youth Games – which saw teams from all areas in the region competing against each other at the Armitage Centre. Jade was just a little girl but she was my main player – she was fabulous. I remember she broke her arm, but it didn’t stop her from practicing – she used it as a chance to get better with her other arm, and she was back within 8 weeks. Jade stayed with Trafford until she was 12 years old. She’s now played for England loads of times and has been inducted into the England Netball Hall of Fame.

“Funnily enough she’s due to hold one of her first coaching sessions in Reddish at the end of October and my granddaughter will be going to Jade’s coaching session, so it’s come full circle. It’s my proudest achievement – to have coached Jade, and won the nationals in the mid 90s with Jade in the team. She was only about 10 at the time but she was fabulous – a real team player.”

How much emphasis do you place on winning?

“You’ve got to learn to lose to win. At the moment we have a very successful under 10s team and last week they won 42-1. To me that’s a waste of time – they’ve learnt nothing. I want them to lose. I really want them to lose, because ultimately they start getting big ideas, they think they’re great. They’re not – they’re no different to any other team I’ve had…it’s just that they gel well together.”

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Jean Leigh with one of her Trafford Junior Netball teams

In other sports, particularly football, grassroots coaches often encounter overly-aggressive parents, or parents who try to encourage their kids but channel it in the wrong way. Do you encounter this and if so how do you deal with it?

“Of course we do. I like to have a chat with the parents and tell them I won’t tolerate it. They don’t like being told off but they usually react well. The children are here to learn and I categorically will not have any parent criticising any child on that court, ever. We have a code of conduct at the club, and actually another letter is going out soon to reiterate we will have none of it. The parents have to sign the code of conduct, to say that they will behave at matches. Overall we are very lucky at Trafford – we have nice parents, good parents, and parents who will volunteer if needed.”

How much interest do you take in the personal and social development of your players?

“Well I get to know the children very well. I get to know first of all the lively ones, and if a lively child suddenly becomes very different then you know there’s a problem. In that case I will always talk to them, and many will come and tell me things anyway. I’m a coach that is quite approachable for the younger kids. I’m a force to be reckoned with on court, and I won’t stand any messing, but they’re not scared of me and I always notice if a child suddenly becomes withdrawn.”

You’ve given over an immense amount of your time to your commitment to coaching – does it ever get in the way of ‘real life’?

“Oh yes! My husband – who died eight years ago – was forever answering the phone saying to me “Bloody netball!” He’d be so proud of me, because he hated the netball but secretly he didn’t really. In those days, the house phone was always ringing…

“Jean! Phone. Bloody netball again!”

“He hated taking messages for me! It also interfered in other areas – making me late for family do’s, annoying people by not arriving for stuff when netball came first. But having said that, my four girls – none of whom took to netball – are so proud of me for getting this award.”

The appointment of Tracey Neville to the England job has given netball’s public profile a real shot in the arm, and women’s sport in general is enjoying a surge in popularity. Do you think netball is increasing its profile and if so how can this be maintained?

“I do think so, it’s been amazing. The Back to Netball scheme has become the in-thing. There are more leagues and more opportunities without a doubt. You can join a team at the lower end and work your way up, or just play for fun. There’s something called Simple Netball, which is more of a social thing. When I think of how I started, and we went to see Barbara Bishop – and how much I learned from that one lady (who ended up at the top of the tree, I might add!) – it amazes me how much the game has progressed.”

Do you have any coaching role models?

“The person that inspired me most, as I was learning, was Kath Edwards from Altrincham Grammar. She inspired a lot of people. She is an icon in netball in the north-west and she was definitely my mentor at one time. I remember her coming to watch me play and I went to pieces! But she really did inspire me. You learn from other coaches and I think certain aspects of Kath’s coaching I took on subconsciously.”

What core advice would you give to current or aspiring grassroots netball coaches?

“Have a sense of humour. Enjoy the children. Be positive with them always – encourage them, give them constant support and lots of praise, get to know them. I always emphasise to do their best. I tell them “I don’t want any heads to go down – enjoy the game”. Enjoyment is the most important thing.

“All in all I can honestly say I’ve never gone out onto a netball court and not enjoyed it. My greatest pleasure is when they hold the first year tournament, and I see all the young girls that I’ve coached at different schools competing and playing for their school team for the first time. It’s my payback if you like. I do all this to get them to a high a standard as possible, and then I go back to the beginning at the start of the following year and teach the young ones the basics.

“I’m still learning. You learn all the time.”

It was an absolute pleasure to meet Jean and we wish her and everyone at Trafford Netball Club every success In future.

If you’d like to get involved at Jean’s club – either your children or yourself – visit their websites and get in touch.

Trafford Junior Netball Club

Trafford Netball Club

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