Watching the ball move around from my end of the court, I experienced a sense of confidence that I felt nowhere else. Every fiber of my being was conditioned to understand the precise plays my teammates were enacting, to know where each teammate would be and when and intrinsically understand at which precise moment I had to dash forward and defend the goal.
I stood, bouncing on the balls of my feet. “Always bounce, it’s the best way to be ready to jump into action,” was the mantra that had been ingrained into my brain by my coach since the age of 11. I maneuvered myself in a way that could simultaneously “zone” the goal attack away from the goalpost, as well as allow me to suddenly leap in front of her and intercept any passes sent her way.
Putting on my uniform for what I knew would be the last time was surreal. I didn’t know how to separate myself from a sport that I loved so much. I’d been with the same teammates and coach for so long that we’d grown into one being — eight separate brains that somehow functioned as one cohesive whole.
Though, as with all sports, communication is key, I always knew, without the need for words, precisely what my teammates needed me to do and when. We’d grown up together on the ruddy brown netball courts at my school. We’d spent countless Monday and Wednesday afternoons with Hong Kong’s intense heat enveloping us like a thick winter blanket. Sweat patches imprinted onto the ground after sitting and the heat waves radiating off the court became jokes to us. We became a family through our mutual love and dedication to the sport.
Despite the severity of their tone, I knew the shouts from my coach on the side were words of love and encouragement. The goal shooter on my high school team flawlessly scored goal after goal, and the goal attack, whom I was defending, turned to me each time, offering her genuine congratulations. The tight-knit community of the high school netball league meant that opposing teams had grown up along side each other, and had learned to recognize each other. Attending a game was like going to a reunion.
Moving to Yale and finding I had to explain something that was so integral to my being left me sorely disappointed.
Netball is played on a rectangular court that is roughly the size of a basketball court. The splitting of the court into thirds regulates where players can go. Teams of seven move the ball around the court by passing and shooting into the 10-foot goal rings that stand on either end. Players are assigned specific positions, which both define their duties and aims, as well as the sections of the court they’re allowed to venture into. The player with the ball can hold it for three seconds and cannot run with it. Defenders cannot be within three feet of anyone holding the ball.
The sharp screech of a whistle marks the beginning of each play, which starts with the center passing to the goal defense or attack, or wing defense or attack within the center third. Games consist of four 15-minute quarters. The seven players wear bibs, upon which a two letter abbreviation of their position is displayed. Only the goal shooter and the goal attack are allowed to make shots. Likewise, only the goal defense and goal keeper are allowed in the shooting semicircle to defend the shots. The remaining players wait on the outskirts, ready to jump into action. As with hockey or soccer, the play restarts from the center after each goal is scored.
Our high school netball league played on outdoor courts, against the backdrop of Hong Kong’s busy city streets. A symphony of honking horns, angry coaches and blowing whistles accompanied our games. The timing of the netball season was perfectly placed to be during the stuffiest, smoggiest and hottest time of year for Hong Kong, yet each netball game was approached with excitement and nervous anticipation.
Upon arrival to the courts, we’d take turns setting up the posts and taking out balls and bibs. Hair would be tied up, headbands put on, ankle and knee supports strapped in. We’d line our water bottles up along the edge of the court and begin our series of warm ups.
Most people I’ve spoken to at Yale have never heard of netball before. How can a sport that is so well-known and revered in my part of the world, and elsewhere, be completely unknown in the United States? The Netball World Championship were first held in Eastbourne, England in 1963. Today, three major competitions take place internationally: the annual World Netball Series, the Commonwealth Games and the quadrennial World Netball Championships. Furthermore, though not played at the Olympics, netball became an International Olympic Committee-recognized sport in 1995.
The US has two national netball associations, Netball America and the United States of America Netball Association. However, their competition for members and national recognition only serves to further splinter the already minute netball constituency in the US.
According to a New York Times article from 2011, the largest netball league in the U.S. is the Caribbean-American Netball Association in Brooklyn. The league consists of immigrants, hailing from countries such as Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, who live in Brooklyn’s large West-Indian neighborhoods. The prevalence of netball within the immigrant population and not with U.S. natives, as well as the promotion of netball in the British sphere of influence hints at the sociopolitical undertones of the sport. Netball is mainly played in Commonwealth countries or ex-colonies of the old British Empire. It has been spreading into the Global South, including the African nations, becoming the world’s most widely played women’s sport. However, why netball remains an unpopular sport in the US is a mystery.
Netball is generally understood to be a female sport. It was originally adapted from basketball to comply with the ideals of femininity in the late-19th century. It adjusted rules, including making the sport ‘noncontact,’ to accommodate the social conventions women had to follow in sports. However, netball was not introduced as a method of engaging women through sports and empowering them to transcend gender notions. Rather, it was a political effort to discourage women from participating in traditionally masculine sports. It was a method of making women literally stay in their place.
The game has developed along with feminist ideas about the capacity of women since then, and has grown to become the fast, contact-laden, physically exhausting sport that it is today. The recent Foxtel “Play Like a Girl” campaign featuring the Australian National Netball team is testimony to the sport’s ability to promote female strength and power. It has both become a method of empowering young women and grown to be a “gateway” sport for many girls. It is certainly the reason I decided to start playing basketball, and later, rugby.
That last game was one to remember. It involved sweat, bruises, a dislocated knee on the other team, copious amounts of athletic tape to hold together faltering bones, muscles and sprained fingers — negating any criticism that netball was a “chill noncontact sport.” Every member of my team had a bandage or joint-wrap on at least one of their limbs. Be the injuries new or old, we had been conditioned to play through any initial pain and await the arrival of endorphins and energy that would certainly erase any remaining soreness.
At the closing of the game, we chanted the all-too-familiar cheers of thanks and praise that had accompanied every game of netball I had ever played. These “three cheers” of “hip-hip, hurray!” had always been a testimony, in my brain, to the camaraderie of our netball league. Every game ended with cheering: first, for the opposing team, and second, for the coaches who had so carefully umpired the match.
Though we ultimately came second place in Hong Kong’s top A Grade league, I was endlessly proud of the growth my team had undergone to reach that point. We had begun our journey together as tiny year 11-year-olds, showing up to training for the first time and timidly entering our first season of netball. We watched team after team of seniors play with poise and confidence and had aspired to become them. We may have switched our positions around over time but our team remained a constant. Years later, we graduated to the top high school league and our abilities as players soared as netball became almost a second nature.
That evening, we stuck our hands into the center of the circle we formed. A lump slowly formed in my throat as I stood there that final time with my team, my family and my place of comfort. Our captain, for the last time, shouted the blood-pumping, “Phoenix on three!” as our arms soared above our heads.