Joyce Brown an Australian netball icon ahead of her time

Coach Joyce Brown (R) watches on as Australia take on New Zealand in the 1991 World Cup Final. Craig Golding/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

In a series dedicated to female pioneers, we look at athletes across all codes who faced adversity or discrimination, but persevered to give young women of today a chance to play in a growing professional environment.


In a career that spanned over 40 years, Joyce Brown's impact on netball in Australia is still felt today. Unbeaten as a player and coach at the Netball World Championship, the captain of the inaugural World Cup winning Diamonds and the coach and mentor of many of Australia's best coaches and players, Brown is truly an icon of the sport.

Dreaming of Wimbledon centre court from a young age, Brown would never reach the pinnacle of tennis, instead she would become one of the best minds in netball. Picking up the sport in primary school, by her 20th birthday she would be representing Victoria at the national championship and five years later she would travel to England for the first Netball World Championship.

"I always fancied myself at Wimbledon," Brown told ESPN. "I was a tennis player from when I was six and of course wanted to be Wimbledon champion, but you learn you're just not at that level. We were lucky enough, some of us, to be in that [1963] team."

Known as women's basketball at the time, netball was played throughout Commonwealth nations but international competitions suffered due to a lack of universal rules. Following the 1956 Australian tour of England, the first push for unifying international rules was made. By 1960 the International Netball Federation was developed, regularised rules were made and the World Championships, now called the Netball World Cup, was created.

Australia sent 10 of their best to Eastbourne on the south coast of England, including five Victorians, with Brown named captain in 1963 for the first World Championship. The team spent close to four weeks at sea, as they sailed from Australia to Sri Lanka and onto England. For Brown, it was the first time she had left the country and would open her eyes to the world.

"We traveled by the Canberra ship and it was just a grand adventure. We were up at 6:30 every morning on deck, training, and we had a huge bag of balls and we got rid of them finally, throwing them over the side.

"We saw for the first time how the other half of the world lived. We called into Sri Lanka on the way and they were marvelous to us, but you saw their great poverty and great richness, it was just an eye opener for somebody who had not yet traveled the world."

Played in a round robin style format, Australia would go on to win all ten of their games, including a one goal win over trans-Tasman rivals New Zealand in a tradition that continues to this day. But despite their stunning achievement, the team would return home to little reception or fanfare after claiming the first world title.

"It was very exciting coming home champions. But I remember we didn't get much publicity at home so when we got back to Australia I wrote to the Prime Minister [Robert Menzies] and said I felt we should get more publicity for what we've done because while the men's cricket team was losing in England we had taken home the world trophy.

"We were invited to a reception and more recognition came from that. I'm a feminist from way back and I think anything that people can do in the world, women can do a little bit better."

It wouldn't be the last time Brown rubbed shoulders with Australia's leaders, with Bob Hawke hosting the Australian netball team at Parliament House in 1990, before he sat courtside at the 1991 World Championship final in Sydney.

Calling time on her playing career soon after that World Cup, Brown eventually moved into coaching and would bring her unbeaten run at the World Championship to her coaching career. Taking on the Diamonds job in 1975, she would lead the Diamonds to three World titles, including another nail-biting one-point win over New Zealand in the 1991 Final. But for the Victorian, it's all about the talent you get in your hands.

"In those days you finished as soon as you played at the top level. You came home and had your family and fitted into the pattern of what women were supposed to do, the script was already written," Brown told ESPN. "For me it was a natural thing at that stage [to move to coaching] to put my phys-ed together and my thirst for knowledge about movement in sport and psychology in sport and to coach.

"You're part of a team, it's not just Joyce Brown. If you're in the best 10 as we were in Australia in 1963, they're very good players around you and so it is with the teams that I've coached. I've had the best 10 players in your hands to coach, it's a great responsibility, and it's great joy.

"It's the players who do it; the coach, yes, we plan and carry on and learn to know each player and do the best we can for each one, but it's the players who produce the contest out on the court, and I've been very lucky to have the best in my hands."

Labelled eccentric and wacky by her players, Brown was a coach ahead of her time. Focusing on more than just the athlete, Brown recognized her players weren't one dimensional, and needed mental development for the tough moments. Brown gave her players poetry and books or would give them articles from newspapers she thought were interesting. She wanted to know her players on a deeper level; know how to push them, what made them tick and how they would respond under pressure.

"I was quite different, quite mad - some of them said I was quite mad. It's good if you're mad because it means people could underestimate you," Brown told ESPN. "It wasn't just mental toughness I worked on though, but also what makes each one tick, I think that's the most important thing.

"I think there's far too much emphasis put on conditioning and strengthening coaches today. What you've got to have is your skill - very, very good skills that's the main thing - but of course, it's what you have above the shoulders.

"That's what I always worked on. I've had to be different, I would send them pieces of poetry or something motivating I'd seen in the paper or ask them to comment on a particular motivational word. I didn't want their minds to just stay on the netball court, I wanted it to stretch out and see them develop a bit further."

Stepping down from the Diamonds in 1993, Brown's netball career finally came to an end, but her legacy would live on. Inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame, recipient of a Medal of the Order of Australia in 1992, and inducted into the Australian Netball Hall of Fame in 2008, the accolades came thick and fast for Brown, but it was the friendships she gained from the sport, that she treasured most.

"I achieved great friendships, people that I met when I was 18, people that I played with, we've just got great friendships that have gone on forever. That is my greatest thing. I've had a great life because of netball and the mentors that I've had."