Netball in UK is on the crest of a wave. This follows the unprecedented success of the national team, and a widely televised home World Cup played in front of packed crowds. It has a higher profile than ever before, and this is reflected in the popularity of the youth game in clubs and schools.
It has a lot of advantages over the other team games played by girls in schools. It doesn’t require the same specialist facilities as Hockey, and the entry level of skill is lower than both Hockey and Lacrosse. Only Soccer rivals it for accessibility, and Netball is much longer established. The game is easily understood, and can be satisfactorily played at a range of ages and skill levels. Its introductory version, High Fives, provides a transition to the complexities of the full game.
Most of the countries in the world who play this game have warm climates. Australia, Jamaica, South Africa, Uganda, Malawi. It is a game which suits a warm environment. At the higher levels, it is an indoor game. The court is small, and movement is structurally restricted by the rules. Uniquely, players can’t move when in possession of the ball. It is the only game where shots at goal are made by a stationary player. It is made for a genial environment
In the UK, however, it is a winter game - played predominantly outdoors. The season proper in co-ed schools starts in the first week in January. Outdoors. The first two weeks of term have been cold, wet and windy. Any progress and enjoyment will have been despite the environment, not because of it. Goal Shooters and Goal Keepers, sentenced to inhabit a small circle, will have spent a lot of time standing still.
The outfit doesn’t help either. The skimpiest dresses imaginable, designed for the indoor game and warm climates, provide little protection against the bleak mid-winter. Protective additions are often frowned upon. It’s great testament to the appeal of the game that many girls are still keen to play despite all this. Inadequately clothed girls are still turning up in Arctic conditions for after school practices on outdoor courts in the dark.
Why is it done like this? There can be few people who believe that this is the best Netball experience that can be devised. It is largely because of the power of status quo. It’s always been done like this. When boys’ schools became co-educational, it was the vacant part of the calendar once the Hockey pitches reverted to use by boys. The national competitions run through the winter – but that is a choice that the game makes.
Given the option, when would Netball enthusiasts probably choose to play the game? Probably in May and June, when it’s light, bright and warm. And it's a pleasure to be outside. The clothing might be more appropriate for this time of year. Ironically, this is the stage of the school year when girls’ sports alternatives are least satisfactory. There is an urgent need for a game that is more active than Rounders, more engaging than Field Athletics, with a lower entry level of skill than Tennis and shorter duration than Cricket. Netball and Soccer are the outstanding candidates for this position.
Radical thinking, and sector collaboration, would be necessary to achieve this. So, it’s probably not imminent.
Written by Neil Rollings, January 2020