Finding the bright side to netball’s long wait

Two months away from the court will have been a blessing in disguise for some netballers. But as the sport prepares to return in Level 2, there’s a warning for players not to rush back too fast.

Storm Purvis, like most netballers you’d expect, is champing at the bit to get back on court.

The last seven weeks have been especially frustrating for Purvis – “it’s been the longest pre-season of my life” – after bolting to come back from knee surgery in the New Year.

The former Silver Fern felt she was ready to play again for the Northern Stars in the second round of the ANZ Premiership - just as the lights were turned off, the stadium doors locked, and Covid-19 settled in.  

While this latest extension of her time away from the court has been challenging, Purvis admits it’s also made her realise maybe she wasn’t completely prepared for a return.

“After rushing that first rehab stint leading into my first game, now I’m not sure I was totally ready mentally,” she says. “But now I’m really ready.”

There will be hundreds of netballers around the country – from professional to community ranks – who were wrestling with niggles and injuries as the season was about to begin; who've been able to make the best of the unexpected break to rest and recover.

There are even young players, nursing overuse injuries like jumper’s knee or shin splints; some are athletes who've come straight from a season of summer sport in a different code.

Girls like 14-year-old Paris McConnell - a promising goal attack and a competitive swimmer. The Tauranga backstroker was training towards the national division II swim champs in Dunedin this month, and her first netball trials.

Then a fortnight before lockdown, a physio advised Paris to take a break from all sport to rest her badly inflamed knees.

“Telling a kid who lives and breathes exercise that she has to stop is pretty hard,” her mum, Juanita, says. “So for us, the lockdown has been a lifesaver.

“It’s given her six weeks to rest, and from a mum’s perspective, it’s saved me a lot of heartbreak.”

During the downtime, Paris kept up her shooting practice – sometimes while on horseback just to mix it up. She will start training with her swim squad today as New Zealand enters Level 2, slowly working her way back to full fitness.

Paris McConnell (left) and sister Zarah practise shooting with the help of their pony during lockdown. Photo: Juanita McConnell. 

Paris is part of a netball performance squad for teenage players in Tauranga run by Silver Ferns assistant coach Debbie Fuller. 

“It was great that she could have this break,” Fuller says. “Any opportunity an athlete has to have a block of rest and recovery is gold. In sport, you’re often pulled in all directions – all of the girls in our squad do multiple sports - and you can go from season to season to season, without time to rest.

“These seven weeks of down-tools will have allowed players to reset their thinking, give their bodies time to recover and have quality time addressing injury problems.

“I think it will be excellent for netball to see the girls coming out with their nostrils flared, raring to go.”

For the elite netballers, like Purvis, that day is next Monday, when the franchise teams can finally start training together again under special dispensation. They will train towards a more significant date - Friday June 19 – when the national league cranks up again.

All six franchise teams will be based in Auckland, playing the 10 weeks of the competition at the Auckland Netball Centre in St John’s. The games will be reduced to 12-minute quarters, and some teams will play double-header weekends. There will be no crowds - fans will have to get their first live netball fix on television, via Sky Sport – and strict distancing rules will apply off the court.

As for club netball, there’s no set date for a start yet. With government guidelines banning gatherings of more than 10 people, netballers will be able to get ready - training together in small groups – but will have to wait for a review of that limit on May 25, to get a clearer picture of when they can start to play.

But Netball NZ’s injury prevention expert warns that all players – no matter how eager they are to get back with their team-mates – shouldn’t be in a hurry.

Sharon Kearney, manager of the NetballSmart programme, says the seven-week hiatus will have made a “real positive difference” for those athletes dealing with some overuse injuries and constant niggles.

“But if they transition too rapidly, the time spent sorting the niggles will be negated. A steady progression back to loading is important,” she says.

“The desire to get out of lockdown and play sport will be pretty high… it will be greater than the overall self-regard for the physical transition. So I’m sure physios will be dealing with some injuries.

“You can’t blame people for that. But let’s hope some sensibility prevails.”

At every alert level, Kearney has been creating resources for netball coaches around the country to first, help keep their players active in lockdown, and then get physically prepared to take the court again.

In Level 4 it was training inside the house. In Level 3, NetballSmart created challenges to further develop players’ fitness like ‘Covid Core Control’ and ‘Iso Strength’. They’ve run online sessions called Coaches Kōrero, where the country’s top coaches shared their knowledge, and sports psychologist Rod Corban advised how to cope with lockdown.

“When kids first come together in a team again with their coach, probably the last thing they’ll want to talk about is tactics and technical stuff,” Kearney says. “The emotional transition back into sport is going to be the most important thing for people’s well-being.”

That includes being able to watch the professional apex of the sport too. “Yes, it will look different, and it may be behind closed doors, but it’s live and people can connect with it," Kearney says. "It’s the start of the healing process - moving out of this pretty intolerable situation.”

Silver Ferns assistant coach Debbie Fuller. Photo: Getty Images. 

In preparation for the ANZ Premiership’s return, Fuller and Silver Ferns head coach Dame Noeline Taurua have been helping the franchise coaches build their plans.

“It’s tough out there. The majority of franchises have had to cut staff,” Fuller says. “When you get to down to bare bones, the currency you’re dealing in is knowledge, goodwill, good faith and people who are willing to work when times are tough.

“We’ve had a shock to the system, where we’ve realised sport is actually a privilege to play. Now it’s up to the netball communities to rally around these flagship teams and support them as much as they can.”

In her role as performance coach for the Silver Ferns development squad, Fuller has also been keeping up-to-date on the players’ well-being.

“I’ve been checking in on them all – girls who’ve been running on farms and doing stair work-outs. It’s been an opportunity to use your imagination well,” she says. “It’s definitely broken the monotony, when they complain about doing the grind.”

It’s also been a chance for athletes to make gains in their game, Fuller says.

Purvis, who’s been working part-time in her sports reporter role at The Crowd Goes Wild, has been using some of her spare time to work with a ball and a wall.

“It’s been nice to work on my attacking and passing skills, things I wouldn’t normally have time to focus on. That’s been a silver lining,” the 27-year-old defender says.

What she hasn’t enjoyed as much has been an "intense" running programme, which she says has been great for her fitness, but may not be so good for her knees. Purvis has had three knee surgeries during her career, the latest in January to tidy up her left knee.

“I didn’t have the full surgery I needed, but it was just enough to get me through. Then I got through my recovery really quickly so that I could get back on court this season,” she says.

“It’s been kind of weird having this extra time doing shuttles and running on concrete, which aren’t typically good for knees. So I’m pretty keen to hit a netball court again.”

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