Getting back into netball when you’ve not played for years

LUCY DUNN: “THE LAST TIME I PLAYED NETBALL WAS 35 YEARS AGO”

“The last time I played netball was 35 years ago. No, of course not. What I do recall, however, is that you ran around a lot; if you were tall you got to be goal attack and if a ball brushed past your ear it stung like hell. Also, who could forget the three-second rule?

The one thing I have the most vivid memories of is the indignity of lining up to be picked – or not picked – by the team captains; cheeks burning while I waited, eyes cast at the floor. I was always last to be chosen. I wasn’t popular, cool or sporty. I was shy, body-conscious and hated any physical exercise. That stomach-churning anxiety of waiting to be picked is still alive and well today, in fact, I truly believe it’s a learnt reflex that never leaves you. These days, however, instead of netball, it’s situations like being asked by a colleague to join a meeting or by friends to go to the pub. Am I part of the gang? Do I fit in? Am I good enough?

I came to exercise late in my forties, when I finally discovered that it could actually be fun, exhilarating and that it didn’t matter if I was *good enough*. It seems like I’m not alone – more women are getting back into sports every year, with netball now officially the UK’s biggest sport for women. And the numbers are still growing: every year England Netball helps over 15,000 women get back into the game with their Back To Netball scheme, by carefully matching newcomers with like-minded teams and co-players.

Was I even fit enough? I can’t remember when I last even threw a ball!

But, still, school netball has left scars and so, when me and my teammate and fellow Pooler, Emily Baker, turned up for our allotted group at a north London leisure centre, I steeled myself for old feelings of inadequacy.  Was I even fit enough? I can’t remember when I last even threw a ball! Suddenly, I was back to being 15 again, standing freezing on a netball court, being yelled at by Mrs Kennedy the PE teacher…

I needn’t have worried. Firstly, there was no “picking” of teams, instead I was asked what position I wanted to play. Before I knew it, we were in the middle of a game, and I was running (and keeping up with everyone), throwing and catching, fouling, forgetting to stick to the lines and breaking the three-second rule. Sure, I didn’t know what I was doing and was completely clueless yet, despite this, I didn’t hear any tutting from the tall girls in goal, nor any admonishing whistles or sneery comments either, so being clueless didn’t matter. I was having fun and the netball session was just that, a netball session, played by a gang of friendly girls throwing a ball round together, enjoying the game and supporting each other. It took me back 35 years, but to the good bits, not the bad – and that was a brilliant feeling. I’ll be back.

Getting back into netball when you’ve not played for years 1

The regular netballers playing a match

EMILY BAKER: “I WAS REALLY NERVOUS TO GO BACK TO NETBALL”

I wouldn’t admit it before the session, but I was really nervous to go back to netball.

I last played over 10 years ago, when I was much nimbler, fitter and willing to break a leg in the name of sport. At school I was in the first team – if only for a season – but there was a time when I thought getting up at 7am on a Saturday morning to travel to the other side of Manchester and throw a ball around in minus two degrees was completely sane. We were a good team, and often topped the local school league, but to me those Saturday mornings were just time spent with my friends. What else would we be doing?

And then life happened – well, as much life can happen at 14 – exams; a social life; lie-ins. I dropped netball as quickly as I’d dropped horse riding, tennis and practically every other sport going. Looking back, I regret it. And, while I was nowhere near good enough to build a career in netball, if I’d have carried on I might well be playing regularly at my local club, or even just with friends in the park.

That’s why when Lucy suggested we try a Back To Netball session, I only offered a tentative yes. I always tend to psych myself out of starting something new, especially when that something new involves a bit of coordination and – God forbid – running. But, since I was going to be with a fellow Pooler, someone equally as nervous about playing netball again, I knew that there wasn’t really anything to worry about.

You have to be willing to make a bit of a fool of yourself. You have to have the confidence to ask questions and admit that you’re going to make mistakes before you play

But, here’s the truth – you have to be willing to make a bit of a fool of yourself. You have to have the confidence to ask questions and admit that you’re going to make mistakes before you play. If you can do all that, you’re going to have the best time you’ve ever had while exercising. The session starts with a few warm-ups, which I’m sorry to report did involve some “light jogging” and squats, and a rather complicated exercise called Cut The Cake that I won’t even bother trying to explain the logistics of. The real fun started when we chose bibs and got into a game.

It’s a cliché straight out of a rubbish feel-good sports movie, but it all came flooding back to me as soon as I took up the wing-attack position. There were a few teething problems – Lucy didn’t realise she had to actually catch and throw the ball, I couldn’t keep track of which thirds I was allowed in and I did try to block a pass to one of my own teammates at one point. But in the end it didn’t matter – looking back, I’m not even sure who won the match, we were having that much fun. It was such a welcoming and inclusive group of women that you could make a fool of yourself and still feel a vital part of the team.

Some would say it’s a coincidence that the England netball team won a historic gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in the same week that Lucy and I went to a Back To Netball session. And they would be exactly right – but it’s still nice to feel part of something.

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