When you sign a four-time Women’s National Basketball League (WNBL) championship legend as the new coach of a nine-time championship-winning club, it almost writes itself as a recipe for success.
However, some things don’t always work out the way you plan them to.
Kristen Veal is one of the most accomplished athletes in Australian basketball, on top of her four domestic championships she is also the youngest-ever player to debut in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) and has played for her country as a member of the Australian Opals.
Veal won three of her titles with the UC Capitals who are the most decorated team in the WNBL having won nine championships across their 39-year history.
Veal took over as the coach of the Capitals for the 2022/23 season, but it was a far-from-ideal start for her first year as a top-level coach. With injury setbacks from the first round, the Caps rotated through 15 rostered players, 11 of which sat out one game or more with injury, and one of their import players left after just four games.
The setbacks with the playing roster made consistency difficult to find and the Caps started their season on a 12-game losing streak. They eventually notched up two wins from 21 games, which left them at the bottom of the standings and with the club’s equal worst season result.
Amid such a difficult season it would have been easy for Veal and her players to lose motivation, yet the team managed to band together and enjoy playing out the rest of their season. I spoke to Veal to find out more about the Cap’s unexpected year, and how they managed to keep morale up in the face of so many setbacks.
Q: It must have been difficult for you and the playing group when the wins weren’t coming, how did the players take that?
A: It’s disappointing for sure. It’s disappointing because of the work we put in because they were dedicated and were getting better, they were so close and they were doing all the right things. There was still some positive signs that we were moving in the right direction but it’s a hard one to take. It got to a point in the season that it wasn’t necessarily about the win but about the reward for their work and their commitment and their continued willingness to show up against all adversity.
We got the opportunity to just come in and throw our best shot at every team. The players were really receptive to what we asked them to do and they went out and showed that they can compete and play some really good basketball.
Q: How did you then keep the team motivated?
A: We looked at it like we were winning without winning. The other wins are the way we were playing, the joy with which we were playing, the belief within our team and community, and character development. Going in, I definitely knew we had the talent and enthusiasm to make finals but this year ended up being a bit more about redefining success.
We were building and connecting, and people were growing into themselves as people and as players. There are people who walked in the door on day one who are better people and players now. They’re more grown up, more aware and more themselves. Everyone has a story of growth, opportunity or overcoming adversity this year.
Q: As far as first seasons go this was about as testing as it could get, has it changed your approach as a coach?
A: I didn’t fully appreciate the expectation on coaches to be ‘perfect’, that making mistakes could lead to loss of confidence and trust. So, I decided to lead through reflection and vulnerability, be okay to make mistakes and not shy away from that. I relate and connect through being genuine. I want my players to be open to ideas and open to growing, to be about each other, to believe in the team, the hard work and the toughness.
As a player I never wanted to coach, I think deep down I realised its demands and the exposure of it. But I’ve definitely grown to love it. For a long time, when I started coaching I still felt like a player. Now I genuinely feel like a coach.
Q: Despite only getting those two wins you continued to get bigger crowds each home game, what does that reflect the culture that the team built?
A: The belief from our fanbase, sticking with a team despite a losing season, is almost unheard of. Our group really reflects our basketball community and Canberra as a city. That’s exciting for me to share. We get to uncover talent, put it on show and give opportunities to some special individuals.
We’ve shown that we’re able to impact young people in the community through more than just wins and points on the board – I think that’s the value of a good team, individuals, and organisation. The players’ self-belief of knowing that they can play well and, for the less experienced players, present themselves to the league and professional basketball has been a huge win.
Q: As a player you were part of some huge successes for the club, has that knowledge helped during such a tough season?
A: I think at the end of the day, I was part of that success so when you’re part of it and when you have some ownership of it, not just with the ups but with the downs as well, I feel more prepared than I think I would have if I wasn’t part of it over the past two decades both as a player and a coach.
There’s always going to be pressure, whether you finish bottom, whether you finish top or whether you finish anywhere in the middle. It’s a professional league, it’s people’s livelihood and we’re trying to build the sport and continue the legacy that the Caps have here in Canberra. There’s always going to be pressure, but I think there’s an opportunity to build on what we have, you can start to feel it rising and developing into the way we want to and if we do that then we’ll see continued success.
Original photos by Grace Buckmaster