Raised in the suburbs of Sydney, Liz Mills built a successful career in African men's professional basketball. As a driven and goal orientated coach, her style is underpinned by the African idea of ubuntu: I am because we are.
Not many people would have had the nerve to do it, but for Liz Mills (MEd '14), it was absolutely in character.
She was visiting Zambia in 2011 with her twin sister, Vic. It was a return trip for both of them after they’d fallen in love with the country during a world tour they’d done after Liz graduated from the University of Sydney.
Being a keen player of netball and basketball herself, and also a coach of junior reps and women’s basketball teams since she was 17, Mills went to see a preseason game of the Zambian men’s national Super League.
By the end of the game, the 24-year-old Mills, who had never coached a male team, approached the president of one of the clubs and asked to coach his team. Mills can see how that might appear brazen or egotistical, but for her, a clear-headed strategic thinker, it was based on a calculation.
“Australia is the second or third best country - male, female juniors - in the world of basketball,” she notes. “We’ve actually had some of the best coaching development anywhere, pioneering a lot of the frameworks that are now used by other countries.”
In other words, Mills felt, as an Australian, she would be seen as having something of substance to offer. It also helped that she was asking this of Zambians, “They’re really welcoming and gentle people. It’s kind of their culture.”
No doubt impressed by Mills’s confidence and passion for the game, the club president agreed to let her coach his team for an hour. That hour for Mills, has turned into a 10-year career in African men’s basketball boosted by early success when the low-ranked Zambian team she was coaching won the national championship that season.
Her greatest triumph though, came this year as coach of the Kenyan men’s team. Kenya went up against eleven-time champions, Angola, for a place in the AfroBasket 2021 competition; and they won convincingly, putting Kenya in the African championship for the first time since 1993. The Kenyan people erupted in ecstatic celebrations.
For Mills, each success is confirmation that her particular approach to coaching gets results, that approach being to build relationships within the team.
“It starts by understanding how each of them ticks, what kind of people they are off the court,” she says. “It’s honest conversations with individuals and with the team as a whole. If everyone understands what they bring to the team, we can move towards a goal as a cohesive unit.
“I don’t mind losing someone if that’s the way to get the team dynamic right. For me, it’s character over skillset every time.”
Considering her pan-African, trail-blazing career in basketball, it might be a surprise that Mills grew up on Sydney’s sedate north shore. Her parents both have backgrounds in accountancy and actively encouraged their three girls to explore all their interests (“I played flute for a while, then decided to be cool, so I moved to the saxophone.”), though sport became central.
“Our parents came to every, single game we played. Other parents didn’t do that. We were really lucky,” says Mills.
Since her success with Zambia, Mills has coached senior men's club teams, men's national university teams and men's senior national teams across the African continent. She has also become an international basketball consultant and promoted basketball analytics in the African competition which has helped enhance strategy and improve performance generally.
Allowing that African basketball isn’t the massive money-machine that operates in the US, Mills has maintained a parallel Australian corporate career, returning to Africa when basketball competitions demand and COVID allows. At times, this has seen her doing two jobs in two time zones and operating on four hours sleep a night.
As well, she is always working to improve herself, which led her to do a Master of Education (Sports Coaching) at the University of Sydney in 2013. Usually a two-year course, Mills had to get back to Africa for 2014, so crammed her course into just one year.
“It was an intense but very rewarding program, and great for networking,” she says. “And it wasn’t all basketball coaches, which really opened up my mind. I could see ways that I could use what I was learning in my non-coaching work.”
Reading previous articles profiling Mills, it is easy to see how outspoken she is about Australian sport and sports federations. This confidence in speaking truth to power comes from an obvious reality.
“I brought myself to where I am,” she says. “No one helped me to do what I’ve done, so what can anyone do to me?”
One subject she visits regularly as both a victim and as a harbinger of change, is that women in Australia are routinely fenced out of the male-dominated world of sports coaching; coaching being a career, that on the face of it, could be thought of as gender neutral.
“There’s not much physical activity required of a coach,” she notes. “You might get a ball on the rebound and have to pass it, but not much else. All a coach really needs is a brain that works.”
Still, female coaches are relatively few in number, with Mills noting that the Australian swimming team for Tokyo is about half women but has no female coaches. Mills sees a boys' club at work.
“It’s guys helping each other up the ladder,” she says matter-of-factly. “And there’s this idea that women can only coach juniors or other women. I have huge respect for junior coaches, but when I came back to Australia, after coaching men’s teams, I went back to my club and they offered me an under-14 boys team.”
There are signs things might be changing with Basketball Australia setting up the Elite Female Coaching Advancement Program. Mills has been invited to take part.
Though Mills feels Africa has given her opportunities that would not have come her way in Australia, Africa has not been all smooth sailing either. On court, she has been mistaken for a water girl, shooed away from her own coach’s chair, and seen opposing players and managers obviously talking her down.
Unfazed, she went a perhaps provocative step further, by taking to wearing black leather boots on court, an idea inspired by the female coaches of Australia’s Women’s Basketball League who have pointedly worn power suits and high heels.
“People are very offended by my boots sometimes and I’m told I can’t wear them in tournaments, which is ridiculous,” says Mills, obviously enjoying the ruffling of feathers. “They’ve become my signature now because they project a sense of authority; they make a real boss statement.
“That said, they’re also easy to walk around in.”
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