Netball is moving out of the shadows

Like the blazer, the tie and the works of Shakespeare, netball was something most people left behind when they graduated from school. Just as the bard was often under-appreciated by kids, the worth of the sport is often forgotten by adults.
Lesley MacDonald, pictured during the Commonwealth Games, wants more people to return to the sportLesley MacDonald, pictured during the Commonwealth Games, wants more people to return to the sport
Lesley MacDonald, pictured during the Commonwealth Games, wants more people to return to the sport

Which is why so much has been done in the past couple of years to try to ensure that more people engage with the fun cardiovascular team sport. Listed as one of the challenges in the recently launched Scottish Women in Sport initiative aimed at getting Women Active at Work, netball is a sport determined to build on the interest generated by the 2014 Commonwealth Games and ensure the much-talked-about legacy has some resonance.

Programmes such as the Bounce Back To Netball offer players of all ages and abilities a less formal environment to rekindle their passion for the pastime and use it as a sociable and fun platform for getting fit.

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And the hard work does appear to be paying off, with the participation numbers remaining steady after that post-Games surge.

“It has been a long time coming but in the build-up to the Commonwealth Games we were always talking about how we could use it to raise our profile and create that legacy everyone was talking about. I really do feel that we have been able to do that and our participation numbers have gone through the roof and unlike some sports it hasn’t dipped once the novelty wore off,” said Lesley MacDonald, a pathways development officer with Netball Scotland and the nation’s most capped player with over 130 appearances for the Thistles. Having participated at Commonwealth Games and World Cups, she finally retired last year and has diverted her energies into a coaching role.

“My focus was always on playing but as I got older my focus started to shift a wee bit because I wanted to stay in the sport and I wanted to give something back. I was given the opportunity to take part in sport and play netball and I want to help give other people the opportunity to do the same so it seemed like the natural thing for me to move into coaching.”

Decades behind the likes of Australia, New Zealand – where the sport is rated one of the top women’s participation sports – and the Caribbean nations, as well as neighbours England, where the investment levels and the profile of the sport have soared, Scotland is making a dogged stab at trying to bolster involvement as well as the degree of interest and sponsorship as they try to close the gap on the countries above them.

MacDonald advocates getting as many people playing as possible, whether at recreational or elite standard, and says that will eventually reap rewards, both to a country battling obesity and health issues related to fitness and to the national team hoping to have a stronger pool of talent to choose from in the future.

“The likes of Australia and New Zealand are established on the world stage and they do have a higher profile, greater promotion and are taken more seriously so we have a long way to go to catch up.

“But it is great because the sport is now on the TV a lot more, with Monday Night Netball on Sky Sports, and people are talking about it on social media and I think people’s interest has been piqued. We have never had anything like that before so we have been trying to harness that and let people know that you don’t need to stop playing netball when you leave school and that it is a great team sport and a great way to stay fit and active in a sociable environment.”

MacDonald had originally retired after the Commonwealth Games but was coaxed into returning for last year’s World Cup in Sydney, where the Thistles added an overall 11th-place finish to their ninth place at the Commonwealths.

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But now she has officially bowed out of competing, preferring instead to help bring through the next tier of talent, in a bid to help the national coach Gail Parata guide the nation up the world rankings.

“I think I will always miss playing but the coaching does give me a different kind of satisfaction. It is now about bringing the youngsters through. I’m still fairly new to the coaching side of things but I am fortunate because I will be leading the under-21s to the World Cup next year and that will be a bit of a journey for me and the players. It will be interesting to see but hopefully a number of them can then move up to the Thistles. There are a few of the younger players who already train alongside the Thistles, which is great, because they are training with a higher standard of player, and hopefully they can bring that back to our other under-21s and help bring the other guys through.

“Hopefully after next year we will see a few of them take the next step and that would be very satisfying for me.”