As part of the annual ThisGirlCan Week, which celebrates and encourages female participation in sport, UAL offers people the chance to have a go at a range of different physical activities.
I opted to try netball as it is a sport that has always caught my eye and intrigued me because it is not played in my home country, Spain. The closest thing we have to it is basketball, but there are many differences: size of teams, type of ball, more markings on the court, and many different rules.
In fact, the two are only seen as sibling sports because they both involve passing a ball with your hands from player to player and scoring points by placing it through an elevated net. But, like American football and rugby, they are related, but only distantly.
Although netball was originally called women’s basketball, things have changed. The first netball match in England was played at Madame Ostenburg’s College in 1895, and the sport quickly spread throughout what was, at the time, the British Empire but is now the Commonwealth.
For more than a century it was viewed mainly as a game for schoolgirls, played during Physical Education lessons, with little or no interest from the media or wider public even at international level.
However, as more funding became available in the UK – particularly for sports with a good chance of medal-winning success – elite netball took its first steps towards being semi-professional. England won gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, and finished third in this year’s World Championship, and netball’s Super League is now televised by Sky.
During the try-out session, I realised how inclusive the sport is and how accomplished players need to be. UAL has two big, strong teams that play every week against other universities, and to play at an even higher level must require a huge amount of skill and determination.
The other thing to note was it’s not just for girls: there were boys in the training session, too, and they love the sport. Yes, they can be more aggressive, looking for more contact, and maybe their passes are stronger, but the game is really about being strategic and quick with the ball.
Whatever the perceptions outside of the sport, the reality inside it is that everyone supports everyone and gender isn’t a problem. More than 80% of the girls wanted more boys in the team as it is a mixed team league.
Perhaps, making it mixed at the highest levels would add to its overall appeal and improve netball’s chances of becoming an Olympic sport.
According to the International Netball Federation, netball remains very popular in many Commonwealth nations, specially in schools, and predominantly played by women. It is played by over 20m people in more than 80 countries. In the UK, it is the No.2 female participation sport after football, with approximately 1.4m women and girls playing it in 2018, compared with 8.2m who play football, according to England Netball.
The UAL players I spoke to were all certain that it is a sport that deserves more attention – and perhaps the ultimate accolade of Olympic status.
Alexandre Hor said: “I feel like sometimes netball is not taken as seriously as it is a female sport and does not have as much status when compared to the ‘male’ sport equivalent of basketball and the NBA.”
Lauren Barrett said: “I would like to see more media coverage and money put into it as I feel its quite overlooked compared to other team sports.”
Maybe if it was in the Olympics, more people would know about it therefore more people would play it – Patricia Beja
Lauren Hillsdon added: “What I loved most about netball in primary school is that it was completely mixed, and teams were based on performance only, not gender. I found this so much more fun as there was no ‘netball is a girls sport’ and ‘netball is just rubbish basketball’ stigma. I didn’t even realise it was a ‘female’ sport until I got to secondary school and it was female only. It was considered ‘cool’ to play netball in primary, and everyone wanted to make the A team.”
Patricia Beja said: “I don’t think netball is a sport only for girls. I understand that it started as being just for girls to play, but in the 21st century I don’t think it makes sense to have sports categorised by genders. Everyone should be able to play whatever they want to.”
In terms of its potential Olympic inclusion, the main thing holding it back is perhaps its status as a Commonwealth-only sport, but Kirsty Shannon said: “It definitely should be in the Olympics. I think it’s not because people think it’s only a women’s game, but men can play too – mixed netball is fun and I think men would enjoy it if they had a go.”
As Patricia Beja put it: “Maybe if it was in the Olympics, more people would know about it therefore more people would play it.”
Photos courtesy of UAL Sports.