Learning in real time: Nat Hurst's road to the top

First-year Adelaide coach Nat Hurst doesn't want any players who remind her of the player she once was in her team.

It seems a surprising revelation by the 39-year-old former star point guard who won seven WNBL championships but there was much more to her brilliant playing career than distributing the ball and receiving medals on the dais.

Hurst, who played a total of 13 seasons in the league, six and a half overseas and also represented the Opals, wants the rollercoaster to be a smoother ride for her players than it was for herself.

"I did struggle a lot within at stages during my career," she tells ESPN.

"I was on myself too much to be perfect. I worked out so much, I shot so much, I was always at the gym and I wanted everything to be perfect and it wasn't.

"I want to get the message across to my players that things might not be perfect but they can still be pretty good. When I see them getting down, I put my arm around them rather than keep pushing them physically on the court.

"We don't let girls put their heads down, we find different ways to get them through when we see them struggling. I want them to make mistakes, mistakes make them better, what I want to see is how they respond.

"I wish I had someone in my corner during my career who kept relaying that message to me.

"I don't want any Nat Hursts, I don't want to see anyone leave the program down on themselves."

From the back court to the sideline, today Hurst feels comfortable being vulnerable as she begins her head coaching journey after two seasons as an assistant at the Lightning; the team where she finished her 290-game career.

"I'm so proud of myself, I don't often say that, that I've been able to continue in the league after having a pretty good career," she explains.

"I want to help players. I love working with them and watching them succeed. I love giving players confidence. In my career I was so up and down mentally that I don't ever want any of my players to feel like that, I want to help them through that.

"I want them to get further than I did. I'm proud that I can give back to them the way it was paid forward to me."

Hurst was completing her final WNBL season in Adelaide in 2019-20 when she applied for a job coaching Canberra in the Waratah (now NBL1) league on a whim. She landed it.

But with the interruptions of a pandemic, she's been in the role three years for just one and a half seasons of basketball.

"It was the start of 2020, I'm about to retire, I don't want to be out of basketball and this job's come up. Do I know what I'm doing? No, but I've been a point guard for long enough I feel like I'll fake my way through it," Hurst says.

When the UC Capitals WNBL job came up earlier this year it seemed like the perfect fit for Hurst, a Canberra native, who played for the Caps and is building a family home in the nation's capital with wife Tara and children Nash, 5, and Billie, four months.

She was preparing for the Canberra interview process when Adelaide, following the departure of coach Chris Lucas, offered her the big gig after two seasons as assistant.

But, she had to give an answer two days before she was due to interview with the Caps.

"If I wanted to give this (coaching) thing a real shot then Adelaide was giving me a massive opportunity and showed a lot of faith in me. I just couldn't knock it back in hope that I'd get another job," Hurst explains.

"I'd grown to love Adelaide, I love the Adelaide Lightning."

Hurst had one phone call to make before telling the club of her decision. She wanted the blessing of Steph Talbot, the club's skipper and best player.

Talbot most recently selected in the All-Star 5 of the FIBA Women's World Cup where the Opals won a bronze medal.

"I said 'Steph you're the captain, you're coming into the peak of your career and if you feel like I'm not the right person for this job and I'm not going to be able to help you continue your career in the direction it needs to go, I want you to tell me'.

"She said 'No Nat, I have full faith in you.'"

And so Hurst's decision was made.

Honesty and vulnerability were early foundations Hurst laid with the Lighting group.

Adelaide lost its first three games by eight points or under before securing its first win of WNBL23, and Hurst's as a head coach, last round against Sydney.

"I was very honest with the girls before the season and I said 'you guys make mistakes on the court, well I'm going to make a crap load on the sideline' and the best part was that Steph turned around and said 'at least you can tell us that us you're going to make mistakes'.

"I've owned a couple already. There's been some times when I could have done things differently, rookie errors I know I made.

"I am learning in real time and really lucky the girls back me in.

"I don't know everything but I do have knowledge, I have faith in the system I've implemented and the vision for the players, the team and the club but I need to keep growing, learning from the girls, taking information from other coaches and watching different styles of basketball.

"I've got a lot to learn and I'm OK with admitting that."

Adelaide Lighting host the UC Capitals in WNBL action on ESPN Wednesday night at 6pm local time.