Netball offers to help other codes recover

As sports face the significant impacts of Covid-19, getting professional leagues and community sport back up and running poses many challenges. But Netball NZ chief executive, Jennie Wyllie, believes her sport is primed for a return - and ready to share its wisdom with other codes.

Netball in New Zealand has been in a rumble before, and we’ve come out the other side better for it.

The last four years were incredibly testing for the game in New Zealand. After the Silver Ferns stumbled at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, we put ourselves under the microscope - we had to stop that type of bad happening again.

Our faults were exposed publicly and on display for all to see. The repair job was brutal, there was nowhere to hide. We had to be brave, fail and fail fast and innovate – try what hadn’t been tried before.

It was our chance to create a new era for the Silver Ferns and our sport.

And I am pleased to say most of it has worked. Today the Silver Ferns stand as world champions - something that dreams are made of.

Those challenging years have primed our sport to be resilient, to be able to deal with whatever obstacles come our way. It has certainly primed me.

Now we’re back in a rumble again. Fighting for our sport - but in a different way. And we're ready for this - because we know how to learn, adapt, move forward and succeed.

Three leading women’s sport representatives - from world rugby, football and cricket - have been holding regular crisis meetings to formulate strategies to reduce the impact of the coronavirus on women’s sport.

I’m disappointed that netball - a sport which has 20 million female participants globally - hasn’t been invited to the table. To me, that is a complete oversight. I want netball to be part of that conversation so we, too, can share what we’ve learned with others.

Jennie Wyllie, CEO of Netball NZ.  Photo: Michael Bradley Photography. 

Our sport has so much to offer based on what we’ve already been through. I believe netball is a significant sport for New Zealanders, but it is too often taken for granted. How is this right, given that netball courts have been the playground for so many New Zealanders?

It’s time to put a stake in the ground, and it’s my job to say, “Netball is more relevant than ever now”. We should be at that table.

Sport has the perfect opportunity to make changes now, so girls can participate on an equal footing. Because sport is rebuilding in so many capacities, the time is right to create equality in the opportunities for both girls and boys to play. New Zealanders should not squander this opportunity to address the systematic inequities across sport.

The way that community sport is funded is not equitable. I want to see us think completely differently on how funding goes out to communities, and completely differently about how we report on news in sport.

In a world where there are limited resources to go around, you must work from a position of strength. And I have absolute confidence that netball has that presence.

There are trailblazers dotted throughout netball. They are brave and incredible women, with tremendous foresight and the strength to make tough decisions without ego. As the game evolves again, I know we will look a little different. But we will keep the core values that are intrinsic to our game.

Netball New Zealand had anticipated a big year for our sport in 2020. The ANZ Premiership, now in its fourth year, continues to grow in intensity and reputation; our world champion Silver Ferns are focused on regaining the Constellation Cup from Australia.

We had just released our future strategy plan for the sport, ‘Poipoia’, with the goal of connecting and inspiring communities through netball.

I have always known - but now I have experienced - the power of the netball community. It’s one that says: “We will fix this; we’ve done it before, and we will do it again.”  

I feel inspired and take energy from our netball people and they will play a huge part in the rebuilding of New Zealand communities from the top to the bottom, without expectation of reward or recognition.

On any given day before we went into lockdown, on any set of courts in New Zealand, you could find hundreds of netballers playing in competitions running in military-like precision.

The players warm up together, they know where their court is, they know the umpire will turn up.

It works because every volunteer knows what they’re doing. They are an industrious group of volunteers – hundreds of thousands of them - who have dealt with issues before, whether at home, or at work or in sport.

They are better prepared to re-establish their structures for their participants, because the netball community has been doing it for decades.

Community netball will be ready to start again when it is safe. But we won’t be just diving back on court.

We want to think creatively.  For example, if netball has to run over summer, then so be it.  We are already a year-round sport now with our summer leagues, indoor leagues and international fixtures.

Courtney Tairi and Laura Langman are hosts of NETFIT NZ. Photo: NETFIT

We’re already preparing for the return in many ways.  We will be different, and we will be ready.

We introduced NETFIT NZ during lockdown – a free online programme delivering fitness, netball skills and well-being to New Zealanders - so our players will be ready physically. We launched a new website aimed at improving performance and reducing injuries by NetballSmart, the Netball NZ injury prevention strategy supported by ACC.

If you sat in on a board meeting at a netball centre right now, you’d hear people saying “Here’s Plan A, B, C and D, and if this happens we will go to E, or it might be a hybrid of them all”. Because they are so used to scenario planning.

In my professional career I have been privileged to be involved with many high functioning executive groups with far more financial resources than netball, but none have the resourcefulness and adaptability of this group.

In this role, I am part of a team that authentically makes a difference to the lives of Kiwis.

I am immensely proud to be part of netball’s regeneration legacy. My children’s kids will learn about New Zealand’s response to Covid-19. They will also learn about how Kiwis led the world in their response to this pandemic. My kids will be proud of their mum; they will know about the role I played in the regeneration of New Zealand communities through netball.

Our future strategy, launched in February, is so timely. We wrapped it in this beautiful word - poipoia. For us, poipoia means to inspire, to care for, to provide guidance, to nurture.

We told our netball community we trusted them to make decisions. “You know your people, your region, you know how to make your netball accessible, enjoyable and safe for your communities. Go ahead and do what is right for your people.”

They don’t need me to tell them what to do, or when they can or can’t play. All they need is support and guidance. The best conversations at the moment are in our netball communities, as they come together and compare what they’re going to do.

This is their moment to shine.

That’s why I know netball is going to be fine and ready to go again. Because we’ve been doing this for almost 100 years.

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