Passion and understanding ignite on court
Bert Tobia has been a tireless contributor in women's age-group basketball in Southland over the past 20 years. Brendon Egan finds out where the long-serving coach's passion comes from.
Listen to precocious Southland basketball talent Morgan Hunter speak and you begin to understand just how much of an impact long-serving coach Bert Tobia has made.
The 18-year-old Hunter is the most successful women's basketballer to come out of Southland over the past decade – representing New Zealand at under-17 level, then creating history earlier this year, when she was named in the Junior Tall Ferns side.
Tobia coached Hunter during her four years in the James Hargest College First V and has invested countless hours in the youngster's development.
Hunter puts a large part of her achievements down to Tobia's dedication and commitment, and admits without him, she never would have progressed as far as she has.
Tobia has experience with women's basketball at the top level and knows what is required for young basketballers to make the grade. He has been assistant coach for the New Zealand under-18 and under-21 teams, and served as head coach of the under-18 national team in 2010.
"If I didn't have him down here, seriously, I would have never made the New Zealand team," Hunter said.
"He's a New Zealand coach, so he's our connection. He knows what we need to do to be able to make these teams. He's really hard on us and gets us to where we need to be."
Tobia has put in the hard yards working with Hunter and another local talent, Bailey McDougall, who was a member of the New Zealand under-20 side last year.
On top of their regular James Hargest senior A practices, Tobia carried out individual training sessions with both players to improve their skills and fine-tune any areas of weakness.
"He's had the biggest influence out of everybody. He's one of those coaches, who's so approachable," Hunter said.
"He's not about himself, he's about the athlete. He's always there. He's pretty much the go-to guy.
"Bailey and I have so much respect for him. He's done so much for us. If we ever need an extra training or extra hand, he's always there."
Tobia's basketball coaching career was born in the early 1990s during his secondary school years at Verdon College. He had several close friends in the Southland under-17 basketball team, coached by American Tab Baldwin – who later led to the Tall Blacks to a fourth place finish at the 2002 world championships.
Tobia said Baldwin created a major impression on him with his passion and understanding of the game – which really opened his eyes about coaching.
"Tab was working at the YMCA at the time," Tobia recalls.
"Seeing his knowledge of the game and how he interacts with the players, it was a really good spark for my basketball thirst."
Tobia played basketball for Verdon and made age-group Southland teams, but began to realise his talents lay with the clipboard, rather than out on the court. He was involved in coaching teams, even while he was a student at Verdon, and remembers being given a set of keys to the school gymnasium to run training before class.
During his time at Otago University Tobia would regularly drive back to Invercargill at the weekends to assist with basketball coaching at Southland Girls' High.
Eight years ago, Tobia was asked to take over as coach of the James Hargest College senior A girls' team, who have achieved remarkable success in that time.
Hargest have become the most dominant Southland schoolgirls First V side – winning six titles – and have also claimed two Southland A-grade senior women's trophies.
Tobia has enjoyed great moments in charge of the team and admits he now considers himself "a Hargest boy", having spent so much time coaching at the school.
Hunter said she knows of several young basketballers who enrolled at James Hargest College, just so they could have access to Tobia's coaching skills and lift their individual games.
"He's created a pathway for the girls to look forward to and actually want to come to Hargest and play basketball.
"There aren't a lot of female basketballers down here," Hunter said.
"When Bert trains you, you know you're going to get the best. He puts in the time and effort to make sure it's quality."
Tobia's coaching has not just been restricted to the schools' programme. Since 1993, he has coached various Southland girls' age-group representative teams.
This year, he steered the Southland under-15 team to a second place finish at the regionals. They will contest the national premiership tournament next month.
He has also spent time coaching the men – acting as assistant coach with the Southland Sharks when they played in second division in 2005, and coaching Southland under-20 and under-23 men's teams, while he was at university.
In recent years, Tobia's talent has been recognised with national coaching opportunities. Aside from coaching New Zealand age-group teams, he has also been away to tournaments in Australia with the national Koru under-16 team and the Pacific Slam South Island side.
Last year, Tobia was honoured for his outstanding service at Basketball New Zealand's annual meeting, with a volunteer coaching award.
So what has kept Tobia, who works as a network engineer at SBS, passionate about coaching basketball for so long?
"I love the sport. The sport is fantastic," he said.
"It's a great game to watch. It really comes down to watching the players develop and pick up key concepts in the game – whether it be offensive or defensive.
"The more they want to learn, the more I want to coach them."
Southland Basketball general manager Jill Bolger said Tobia had been a tireless contributor behind the scenes for a long time and she believed their sport was lucky to have someone like him.
"He's been involved in our representative programme for 15 to 20 years. He's someone you can rely on and sticks his hand up to take teams. He's been a fantastic stalwart and he's still young. We'd like to think he'll be around for a long time yet ... He's very well thought of."
When it comes to coaching, Tobia's philosophy is a simple, but effective, one. He prefers to focus more on the development of players and their growth as individuals, rather than win-loss records.
"The European approach is, what athletes have I got and how much better are they now," he said.
"That's definitely me. I think `What did they have at the start and what can they do now – as a team, and as an individual'."
As for the women's game in Southland right now, Tobia believes major inroads are being made. The selection of Hunter and McDougall in national teams during the past year, has shown aspiring youngsters they can reach the top if they are prepared to work hard and put in the required effort.
"The game has really grown. The pool of talent coming through is better. We've still got to keep building."
- The Southland Times