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Karen Atkinson of Strathclyde Sirens.

Winning Coach during the Vitality Super League match between Strathclyde Sirens and Serven Stars at Studio 001, Wakefield, England on 13th January 2021.

When Karen Atkinson was appointed Strathclyde Sirens’ Technical Director in 2019, the club didn’t expect to benefit from her vast experience directly on match days.

Atkinson is leading the team from the bench this season with Head Coach Lesley MacDonald not travelling to Vitality Netball Superleague (VNSL) games due to personal circumstances.

The situation somewhat echoes the former England international’s entry into coaching as it wasn’t something she necessarily planned on pursuing yet she has become such a highly respected figure.

“I hadn’t really thought about going into coaching as a career, I’d done quite a lot whilst I was playing but it was mostly to fund my playing career because coaching fitted in around the netball,” Atkinson said.

“Going into schools, going into clubs, just doing it as a little bit of freelance business. And then my playing career came to an end and thankfully it was on my own terms, exactly when I wanted to retire.

“At the same time, the Head Coach at Mavericks wanted to step down, Maggie Jackson, and she was a big part of my playing career as well and continues to be and has for a long time been a mentor from a coaching perspective.

“She just asked did I want to take over when she stepped down, so it was kind of an opportunity where I didn’t really know what I was doing when I finished playing, although I tried a lot of different things. So, I just gave it a go and it was seamless but more accidental as well.”

Karen Atkinson the player was ‘diligent and thorough’ in her own words and perhaps a ‘geek’ in the eyes of others due to her attention to all the finer details of performance sport and her preparations.

This broader knowledge of the strength and conditioning work, the support services work, all the things that went on behind the scenes helped her transition into coaching.

The main challenge was learning how to manage people outside of just their athletic skill: “I think just as every coach will probably say, it’s just the player management and suddenly being in a position where you’re making decisions that affect players,” Atkinson said.

“It affects their emotional wellbeing, how they’re feeling, you’re making decisions whether they play or not and that’s quite tough as a new coach. So that’s the toughest bit, just building those relationships as a coach as opposed to a player.”

The three-time Commonwealth Games bronze medallist believes understanding how different players function is crucial and has enabled her to improve.

“I think as a coach over the years I’ve probably developed in terms of the empathy you need to have for players and how you need to understand more about their life and their personality as a whole and what makes them tick and what’s important to them,” she said.

“For some players, it’s simply they don’t know enough about certain areas so you’re helping to educate them as well as they’re going through their playing career. Or they don’t have the resources available to them or they have a tougher family life or they’re combining work or study with playing.

“So, I just think all of that, understanding that piece that sits around the player, I probably got a lot better at that over the years and that’s helped my coaching I think.”

The 42-year-old has nearly a decade of high-performance coaching behind her and a level of expertise that would be valuable to any club.

“I think it will do wonders for the sport in terms of people tuning in, recognising what a quality product it is.” – Karen Atkinson

Atkinson reflects on what appealed to her about Sirens: “I think what attracted me to go and work at Sirens was the infrastructure that sits around the team and what is possible there,” she said.

“They’ve got a really professional backroom staff in terms of how they’re structured, the members of staff they have and how good those staff are at their jobs as well.

“So, you could see all this potential and then I think as a playing group, they’ve got a really positive culture up there in terms of how supportive it is and the club really looks after them.

“We’re now trying to push on the self-belief, the winning mindset and mentality that they need both on a day-to-day basis when they’re training but then also when they step on the court at Superleague level.”

Of course, the ‘Sirens Tribe’ will be able to see every one of their side’s VNSL matches in 2021 as part of a landmark deal struck by England Netball with Sky Sports.

Atkinson is thrilled to see netball receiving this level of coverage: “That is the best thing to have happened from this Covid situation from a netball perspective,” she said.

“I think in any other year, we’d all be going to home and away venues where it’s very difficult for a Sky production crew to get around the country filming all of these games.

“So, because we’re all at one venue and Sky are happy to leave cameras there and all that kind of stuff, it’s opened up the amount of visibility for netball and I think it will do wonders for the sport in terms of people tuning in, recognising what a quality product it is.”

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