The QT

Thursday 16 May 2024

Helping the next generation – on and off the court

Darlington’s Leah Kennedy represented her country before finding her calling as a netball coach and co-ordinator for Mental Health UK. As Simon Rushworth discovers, she’s perfectly placed to mentor the next generation — on and off the court
After struggling with her own mental health, Leah Kennedy (second left) is conscious of the need for clear communication with young players

Leah Kennedy knows it’s good to talk. In fact, had it not been for one chance conversation then her life — and career — could have taken a very different turn.

“A girl I used to coach reached out to me a few months ago,” explains Leah, a former England netball international. “I hadn’t talked to her for a while but she wanted to thank me for supporting her.

“She explained she hadn’t been in the right headspace to speak to me before that point but said that if it hadn’t been for me then she wouldn’t be here right now. I was shocked.

“When I worked with her I’d noticed that things weren’t quite right and we talked about it at the time. She had a lot going on but I created a safe environment where she could still play netball and still escape the worst of it.

“I didn’t realise at the time but that got her through a very, very dark period.

“When you learn that someone is still here in this world because of a conversation you’ve had — and the action you’ve taken — then it makes you think.

“It was a really big moment in my life and made me realise that I could be doing more than I was doing.”

Fast forward to May 2024 and Leah is doing so much more — making a positive difference as Your Resilience co-ordinator for the charity Mental Health UK. It’s a role she’d never have considered prior to reconnecting with her former player but it’s a job that brings the 31-year-old’s qualities and experience to the fore.

“It wasn’t long after we had our conversation that I saw the advertisement,” says Leah. “It felt like it was meant to be that it was managing a programme for young people within a mental health charity. 

“Your Resilience is free to 14 to 18 year olds and equips them with the tools and resources they need to manage their mental health now and in the future. 

“It’s an invaluable resource.”

Leah (far left) leads a huddle of team-mates and aspiring netball stars during her time with Team Northumbria in the Netball Superleague Credit: Stephen Batey

Most long-term mental health problems begin in adolescence, with 75% of mental illnesses taking root before the age of 18. Leah has personal experience of a widespread problem.

“I struggled with my mental health when I was in the England environment as a player,” she confesses. “Less so when I played Super League. But when I was younger I was quite an anxious person and I remember I was often recommended to see the sports psychologist when I was with Team Northumbria.

“I used to have panic attacks on the court. I might get three intercepts but make one error and I’d focus on the error. That would induce the panic attack.

“So I approach my job from a personal perspective as well as from the perspective of the young people I’ve worked with.”

Leah is busily preparing for this weekend’s trip to Glasgow where the hometown team Sirens are set to host London Pulse in the Netball Super League. 

She heads north of the border every week to assist Head Coach Lesley MacDonald in shaping a young yet talented squad. “It’s my job to drill the defence,” explains the Darlington-based, former England goalkeeper. “It’s been a difficult season but I love it up there.”

It’s also Mental Health Awareness Week. Leah has been in meetings since Monday and boasts a bulging in-tray at Mental Health UK.

Then there’s the handover she is working on after a year in post as Roses Academy’s Interim Head Coach, overseeing players aged 14-18 as part of the England Netball Player Pathway. “I’ve had a fantastic experience with a great group of girls,” Leah adds. 

Throw in the fact that she is also North East Netball Pathway Lead and it’s a miracle that The QT has been able to slide into her schedule. 

“I’ve got a lot going on right now,” agrees Leah. “It’s a busy time.”

At just 31, Leah (second right) has emerged as one of English netball’s most exciting coaches

It wasn’t too long ago that Leah was being talked about as one of English netball’s rising stars and tipped for a long career at the top of the game.

At the now-defunct Team Northumbria — the franchise folded when the University of  Northumbria chose to shift its focus from performance sport to participation — she improved significantly under the tutelage of future England coach Tracey Neville.

Six years later, Leah and Tracey were reunited at international level and the former went on to represent her country six times.

But Team North’s sudden collapse and a succession of injuries forced the poster girl for North East netball to rapidly reassess her options.

“Preparing the next generation of regional netball players became my main motivation for retiring as a player,” she explains.  “And I’ve been able to do that.

“But do I think it was too soon? Sometimes. After Team North I played a few games with Severn Stars and I went to Leeds Rhinos during the Covid year, where I helped out with training.

“After that I do wonder whether I could have — perhaps should have — gone back to Super League. I was still young. I’m still playing Premier League with Oaksway [in Hartlepool] now and I feel fitter than ever.

“Then again, I got a black eye the first time I trained with Sirens! You forget about all of the pain and the injuries.

“But do I regret calling time on my Super League career? Massively. I’ve still got something burning inside me and telling me to play just one more year.” Super League coaches, take note.

Leah (middle, black leggings) offers some words of advice and encouragement to England’s Roses Academy players

How Leah could fit in full-time senior netball is anyone’s guess and with Super League set to go fully professional from next year it might well be a step too far.

Whether Sirens will be awarded a franchise in the new era remains to be seen but for now Leah’s loving life north of the border.

“I used to play in Newcastle with the Head Coach, Lesley MacDonald, and we have such a fantastic time working together,” she adds. “I split my time between Glasgow and wherever the girls happen to be when they’re on the road. It’s a case of planes, trains and automobiles!

“It’s been a really challenging season. Our big defensive signing, Towera Vinkhumbo, has been injured all season and so I’ve ended up working with a 19-year-old goalkeeper at Sirens. 

“She’s been thrown in at the deep end and watching her improve this season has been wonderful. When I wonder whether I stopped playing too soon I need to remind myself of the impact I can have as a coach.”

That impact has been recognised by England with Leah a popular appointment at Roses Academy. Her term in charge comes to an end later this month after England Netball appointed Sonia Mkoloma to the role full-time — the 123-times capped former international is set to lead her country at next year’s Netball World Youth Cup in Gibraltar.

“I applied to stay on but I was up against someone with a wealth of experience, who’s already Assistant Coach of the senior team,” adds Leah. “And Sonia will do a fantastic job.

“I enjoyed the whole process. I’m only 31 but I was selected for interview, held my own in front of a very experienced panel and competed with senior coaches who are a lot older than me.”

Coaching age-group teams is just as much about what happens off court

Leah Kennedy

Leah’s time at the Roses Academy helm took her to the West Indies, Gibraltar and beyond but she explains netball is only part of the story. “I’m looking after a group of teenage girls who, in many cases, have never travelled abroad without their families.

“It’s exciting and daunting at the same time. I don’t have any concerns about their ability as players — they’ve been selected to represent England because they’re extremely talented.

“But I need to be conscious of their mental health, their wellbeing and their development as people.

“I was in Trinidad and Tobago last summer at the Commonwealth Youth Games and it was an amazing experience. Forget the girls — it was my first time in the Caribbean!

“There was a lot to take in but we were there to play a netball tournament and I needed to remind some of my players that it wasn’t a holiday.

“Of course, they wanted to socialise with other athletes from other sports and that’s fine — that’s all part of being involved in the Commonwealth Games.

“But I had one player who was away from home for the first time and quite anxious about the whole situation. She felt under pressure to socialise with her team-mates when, actually, all she really wanted to do was stay in her room and read her book. 

“I had to tell her that was absolutely fine. Coaching age-group teams is just as much about what happens off court.”

Leah, in action for the much-missed Team Northumbria franchise, wonders whether she retired too early. Credit: Stephen Batey

Without a Super League franchise as a focal point, North East netball remains at a serious disadvantage in terms of development and profile. Nevertheless, with Leah leading the charge as the region’s passionate Pathway Lead, talent can still find a route to the top.

Take Cody Sullivan — daughter of former England international and Newcastle Eagles basketball star Drew. Leah has been working with the Blyth-based teenager for several years and Cody was the only North East player named in England Netball’s 27-strong Roses Academy squad for the 2023/24 season.

“It’s always been a challenge for girls from our region to make an impact on the national and international stage,” admits Leah. “But we have huge support from the universities in the North East with scholarships and funding available.

“And against all the odds our players continue to make their presence felt across the country. I was incredibly proud when three girls from our region were the mainstays of the Leeds Rhinos defence last year.

“I started working with Cody when she was still playing under-13s netball and now she’s been selected for the Roses Academy. I’ve seen her come through the North East pathway with flying colours and her commitment is incredible. It really doesn’t matter where you’re from if you’ve got the talent and the right work ethic.”

So says the former England star from Darlington. “Exactly,” laughs Leah. “Just look at me now!”


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