There could not have been a more deserving accolade. As well as the considerable administrative work he does for the centre, and his Takapuna club, Graham has been an inspiring mentor for a cross-section of North Harbour bowlers.
The honour was the latest in what has become a long list of awards, including being named National Volunteer of the Year in 2015. Besides coaching, he has helped launch a number of successful tournaments, including the Milford 5000 and Harbour’s staging of the 2014-15 Nationals with Browns Bay the headquarters.
The summit of Graham’s coaching endeavours came when he spearheaded the Harbour men’s one to eight-year representative side to back-to-back wins in the National Championship in 2016 and 2017. Graham, however, downplays his own part in that emphasizing that it was a collaborative effort which involved not only a squad of talented players, but a formidable coaching and selection team.
The success, he says, was the result of a process which began some seasons back which attempted to bring in a fresh approach. This included extensive practice sessions, rigorous trials and having a squad together for 12 months. And above all, a group of selectors to help in player identification.
Coaching is something which seems to come naturally to Graham – a skill in which he became interested when his children were heavily involved in sport.
But he excelled first in rugby – as a one-time First XV midfield back at Westlake Boys’ High, and an Auckland Under 19 representative in 1969. He coached the Rangitoto College first XV and various North Harbour age group and secondary school representative sides. Those he has coached include future All Black Anthony Tuitavake, Highlander Alex Ainley, Maori All Black Chris Smyllie, and Harbour representatives Roger Dustow and Jon Elrick.
Son of former All White and one-time prominent bowler Adrian, Jon Elrick has become a phenomenal points scorer with his boot at Harbour club level. But it was only at Graham’s behest he switched from being a flanker to a goal-kicking five-eighths.
That perception has continued in bowls – a sport that was always a lure for him, with his father having been a Past President of the Mairangi Bay club.
Graham began bowls with his great mate Tim Preston at the Milford club. They were joined soon after by their wives, Anne and Rhonda, who also quickly became outstanding players. In the 2010-11 season the two couples shared in a rare feat: Graham and Tim won the Centre Men’s Junior Pairs title and Rhonda and Anne (who’s now a gold star holder) the Centre’s Women’s Junior Pairs.
But since then coaching has become more Graham’s forte. Not long into his playing days he was shoulder-tapped by two leading centre bowlers and coaches, Tony Marinkovich and Dennis Matthews, to become Harbour’s Director of Coaching.
Graham has made coaching his passion. He has read widely on the subject, not only about coaching bowls, but coaching high-performance sport in general. He has attended coaching courses in Australia and has mixed with some of the game’s top coaches and players. His philosophy has been to always respect the integrity of what happened in bowls in the past, but equally to be always open to new ideas.
His contact with high performance coaches like National Olympic Games Team Manager and champion sculler Rob Waddell, and Peter Belliss, has made him a firm believer in sports psychology. Or what he prefers to call – mental skills. He points out that often in the past, coaching concentrated on playing skill and physical aspects like fitness, but tended to overlook the “the top six inches”.
Graham is quick to emphasize the support he has enjoyed in achieving success for the centre. “We believe totally in our team mantra… ‘We go, not ego.’”
“That sums up how I like to be involved: partnerships with people who can add value, and a strict code of conduct, which is just as relevant for the management team as the players.”