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  • Writer's pictureEllen Worrell

#Write 52 week 38: Netballing life lessons

This week on Facebook has seen a new photo challenge emerge among the netball community: to share some of our favourite netballing memories and tag at least 5 teammates, past and present. I'm aware that my #DitchingThePlastic series means I've ended up with some new readers who may not know quite how nutty about netball I am. But having looked back through my photos to take part in this particular challenge, it's dawned on me that netball really is part of my very being.

When we moved back to the UK from France in August 1997, I was about to turn 9 and didn't know the first thing about netball but boy was that about to change! These days, despite nearly reaching the magical six-foot mark, I'm not considered particularly tall in the netballing world, but back in primary school, I towered above my peers. Despite only being in year 4, I had the honour of donning one of those fetching wraparound pleated skirts in bottle green and representing my school. We ruled the roost among the Welland Valley schools, and winning brought me such a buzz week in, week out. I'll be forever grateful to my teacher Mrs Donaldson and netball coach Val for coaxing me onto court – those early years really shaped how I would spend hours of my life!

In secondary school, I was the geeky one on the team, never really fitting in, but I was already captivated and just wanted to play. We were a strong squad and held our own against the local state schools (not so much those pesky private ones though!!). Then as my time at secondary school drew to a close, I decided to find yet more netball and played in a newly formed team, Joules Lions, in the Market Harborough Netball League (still going strong, 15+ years on).

School sports trip to Holland, October 2003 – that's me on the far right, much taller than all the others!

Netball then became a real passion when I got to university. In my first and second years, I played in the first team and we had mixed success, but so much fun. I also decided to give something back to the club in my second year and was elected Chair. I made it my mission to secure some sponsorship so we could buy some new kit – I've subsequently found out the skirts we used to play in were a good 10 years old before I started wearing them!

Left: Moonlighting as a Goal Keeper at the Warwick University netball weekend, 2010 Right: Colours Ball, 2008 – what a lovely group of ladies

Upon returning to the UK after my year abroad in my third year, netball at the University of Surrey had changed beyond recognition. The inimitable Tamsin Greenway had arrived and had her sights on setting up the hugely successful Surrey Storm Netball Superleague franchise. (For anyone who doesn't know who Tamsin is, she is an England Netball legend, was once named as the best Wing Attack in the world and has been instrumental in raising the profile of our sport in general. Oh, and she's recently been appointed as Head Coach for Netball Scotland – her first international coaching appointment. Watch out world, Scotland are on the charge!)

So, with Tamsin in charge of uni netball, training really stepped up a gear. Two hours on a Monday evening, an early morning tactics session on a Tuesday, matches on a Wednesday and an early morning fitness session on a Friday. If we weren't running hard enough, she used to lob balls at our heads. I certainly lost count of the number of times I was sick after those 7am Friday sessions! While I had made it through trials and been selected for the first team (hurrah!), I wasn't being picked. I was putting in the hours at training but then simply sitting on the sidelines during matches and I hated it. It took me a few weeks to build up the courage to talk to Tamsin, but as it was my last year of uni netball, I wanted to enjoy every minute – and that included representing Surrey out on court. Tamsin agreed to drop me to the second team (yes, that hurt my ego!) but it meant I got to play every week again. And I loved it.

Playing my favourite position, Goal Shooter, while Tamsin Greenway umpires casually beside me

After four happy years at Surrey, I headed to the University of Bath to complete my Master's degree. Now, Bath is another huge Netball Superleague team – and has a reputation for spotting and nurturing future England talent (in fact, it was Tamsin's first team!) – so I was excited and anxious in equal measure about contemplating playing netball there. Looking back now, I'm sure there would have been a place in one of their squads for me, but I actually decided not to even attend trials; I knew my Master's course was going to be really full on, and I didn't want to be put in a position where I couldn't give netball my all. That would have left me really torn. But thankfully, there was a great local team in Warminster where we were living at the time, so I got my weekly fix of training and matches. In fact, it was a fantastic year; we won every match and got promoted to the first division.

We then moved again and ended up in Thatcham, just down the road from a close Surrey Uni netball friend – Anna. She had told me about her wonderful club, Thunderbirds, and dragged me along to trials. I finally felt as though I fitted in: I'd found countless other netball geeks for whom netball took priority. It was beyond great. We trained once a week and I played in two different teams for the club, so I certainly got my netball fix. I volunteered as captain and even ended up on the Berkshire Netball board, helping organise and manage netballing activities throughout the county. Netball really was my life.

No longer the tallest in the squad!

Back then, I was naive and too impatient whenever I was injured (a regular occurence for me!) – I always took to court too soon, and one day it caught up with me. I'd had dodgy ankles for years, twisting them, snapping ligaments and breaking bones, but then all of a sudden my left knee decided it no longer wanted to play ball either. I pushed on, wearing supports/tape, dosed up to my eyeballs on ibuprofen, seeing a physio and having steroid injections. I eventually made it to the top of the queue for an MRI, when it was discovered I'd damaged the cartilage and needed surgery.

October 2014: the day arrived. A simple keyhole operation to clear out some of the damaged cartilage. The surgeon had even said I would be back on court by March and I'd pinned all my hopes on that. But when I woke up, he said the damage was far more extensive than had shown up on my scan and that he'd had to remove most of the cartilage. He said the words I'd dreaded: "Unless you want to use a walking stick by the time you're 40, you need to stop playing. Now." Aged 26, my whole world came crashing down. Outside of work, netball was my everything. To the outside world, I pretended I was fine, but I really wasn't. I was utterly bereft.

We moved again and I took this as an opportunity to step away from everything netball. I discovered the joys of aquafit (especially deep-water workouts!) and singing in a choir again. I became a mum. Life changed. But deep down, I yearned to be involved in netball again somehow. When Izzy was old enough, I furtively started looking for teams local to me – I wanted to train but didn't want to risk playing in a match in case I got too competitive and caused yet more damage. Sadly I couldn't find anything suitable, so I buried that desire again.

But then one fateful Saturday evening, someone new to our little corner of Corby asked if any ladies fancied meeting up for wine and/or a run. Now, I don't drink nor do I run (unless a ball is involved) but having seen the post garner a lot of interest, I floated the idea of getting together to play netball. Enough people seemed keen, so I booked a court at the local school and crossed my fingers someone else would turn up.

Priors Hall Park Netball Club is born, September 2018

Since our first session back in May 2018, the club has gone from strength to strength. We were lucky enough to be awarded a grant by Corby Borough Council to help cover our hall-hire costs and buy some equipment, Priors Hall Park's owners (Urban & Civic) sponsored our kit and we finally entered Corby Netball League in September 2019. We've come up against some stiff competition – particularly from teams that have been playing together for years – but I am super proud of my ladies and they've pulled some cracking wins out of the bag (including an absolute nail-biter where I was shouting so much, I lost my voice!).

I'm also proud of myself for completing my Level 2 coaching course, and while I didn't know it at the time, it seems Tamsin influenced me hugely as a coach. She was always very tactical and analysed the game like no other (if anyone has seen her half-time commentary chats on Sky Netball, you'll know what I mean). I learned a lot from her and still apply a lot of it today. I coach my ladies to play within the rules, but to push them as far as they will go. Netball's come a long way since those early primary-school, pleated-skirt days!

So right now, all us netballers are on lockdown too, but when we're allowed back on court, my heart will be filled with joy once more. But for now, here are a few life lessons from my 20+ years as a netballer:

1. Netball friends are friends for life

2. 14 women on a netball court = feisty

3. Injuries suck big time. Check on your injured friends, even if they say they're ok.

4. Netball will make you laugh and cry in equal measure.

5. Netball is joyful, uplifting and good for the soul. Here if you need, ladies (and gents).

Fast foward to 2:27 to watch Tommy Little's fantastic summary of netball.

For anyone wanting to see how netball has evolved, England Netball are replaying both the semi-final and final of the 2018 Commonwealth Games live this weekend on YouTube. Both matches embody what it means to be a modern-day England Netball supporter. Be prepared to be on edge!

Saturday 18th April, 6pm: Semi-final v Jamaica

Sunday 19th April, 6pm: Final v Australia

And perhaps one day, this one will get the chance to play (in a red dress? A mum can dream, right?!).

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