Netball prepares for return to the court

The six coaches of the stalled ANZ Premiership tell Suzanne McFadden how they’re managing in lockdown, how players are keeping on top of their game, and how optimistic they are of playing netball again this year.

There are no team high fives or huddles; no kids eagerly waiting for selfies. And no banging of the dreaded thunder-sticks.

But the promise of a return to those staples of the game is driving New Zealand’s elite netballers to carry on preparing in isolation for the moment they'll be back on court in the ANZ Premiership. And there's a positivity that it will be when, rather than if, that moment comes this season.

Just one round of the premiership was completed before the Covid-19 lockdown began; the Steel-Magic game was the first ever played without a crowd. A two-week postponement has been stretched out indefinitely.

As the country waits to see when we leave Alert Level 4, and what the next level holds, Netball New Zealand has been working a number of options to get their elite league back on court. 

They are committed, they say, to playing some - if not all - of the 2020 premiership, but when and how will be guided by government advice and the restrictions of each alert level. The rules around travelling between cities, for example, will obviously factor in what a rejigged competition looks like.

At the same time, they're looking at a programme plan for the Silver Ferns to play this year. Salvaging any competition will stem some of the financial losses they anticipate without any netball - with no play they stand to lose more than 60 percent of their revenue.

Netball NZ are staying in close contact with franchise coaches, players and management during lockdown, keeping them up-to-date with what could happen next. The coaches meet weekly online with Silver Ferns coaches Dame Noeline Taurua and Debbie Fuller, national coaching manager Tania Karauria and high performance coaching consultant Tristan Collins, to talk through the creative ways their teams are getting ready for a return.

Northern Stars coach Kiri Wills says her team are driven by hope. “Netball NZ have given us some pretty robust plans with a sliding time-frame, and it looks hopeful," she says. "And hope is the main thing that keeps us going, and gives the girls something to train for.”

Helene Wilson – Northern Mystics  

Isolation has turned out to be the mother of invention for the Mystics. They work out together three times a week via video call, in sessions named ‘Bums and Tums’, ‘Pick N Mix’ and ‘Bend it Like Bikram’ yoga.

They’ve had to be innovative, training in often-small Auckland backyards. Emma Iversen practises her passes to 1.93m shooter Grace Nweke by lobbing the ball over her deck umbrella.

Others are dodging wheelie bins in the driveway or doing ball skills in their cul de sac. “We’re making up things they can do with the space and equipment they have,” says coach Helene Wilson, who checks in with each player.  They’ve been doing quizzes and games like Scattergories to keep up team spirit. 

Fitness-wise, they have bodyweight gym sessions and conditioning three times a week – “or an on-foot running session to get the lungs burning,” Wilson says. Ball handling is incorporated in almost every session - basketballs to strengthen wrists, tennis balls for co-ordination, and balloon juggling for footwork and direction.   

"The girls have been really positive,” Wilson says. “I was expecting them to say: ‘This is monotonous and repetitive’ which a lot of it is right now, but that’s where you rely on everyone’s ideas to make it interesting.”

Wilson is confident the Mystics will play again this year, but she’s not sure what the competition will look like. “I hope for the girls’ sake and for the fans and clubs, that they get out and play. It will be good for the morale of everyone who loves netball.”

Kiri Wills – Northern Stars

Wills and her Stars team have a “low key” philosophy in lockdown. “As long as they’re staying fit, and they retain the knowledge of what we did all pre-season, we’ll come out of this okay,” she says.

“The girls are doing their wellness and training loads every day, and we keep in touch daily without fail. If there’s any big news to discuss, we’ll call a team meeting.

"Our team isn’t very high maintenance, but at the same time, we didn’t want to miss any red flags. So we have our buddy system to check in with each other.”

There’s a light-hearted approach too. Shooter Jamie Hume is the team’s ‘riddlemaster’ who posts up a riddle with daily clues. You can watch their Easter bunny Instagram dance-off here: 

This week, each Star has been asked to choose an opposing player in the league they "want to get on top of”. They'll send a video clip to Wills showing how they could achieve that back on court.   

The Stars reacted quickly to the Government’s lockdown announcement, and had gym equipment in every house by Alert Level 3. “The best thing is that they’ve been able to get out of the house and run,” Wills says. The hardest thing? Reaction work. She’s had them throwing balls against the backs of chairs.

While she's convinced the league will resume this year, “it depends on the rest of New Zealand obeying the lockdown rules".

Her players just want to play. "Like Grace [Kara], who’s coming back from having a baby and is putting so much work in.”

Amigene Metcalfe – Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic

Amigene Metcalfe has some compelling reasons why the ANZ Premiership should restart in 2020.

“The country – and the world – needs sport,” the Magic coach says. “We need it from a mental wellbeing aspect.

“If community sport doesn’t get up and going, we need our up-and-coming athletes to be inspired or have something to look forward to. Everyone is struggling financially, and professional sport is getting a hiding too. So if we can give something back to our sponsors, and keep them coming back, then our competition is the platform to do it.”

Metcalfe feels her Magic players are doing okay mentally and physically, but she's also making sure "no one slips through the gaps”.

Aside from the full team video meeting once a week, the Magic’s senior player group – captain Sam Winders, Erena Mikaere and Ariana Cable-Dixon – have a phone tree and keep in regular touch with the people in their groups, including franchise staff.

“We discovered there were a couple of players who were struggling – missing that team training aspect. So, the girls have one optional session a week, where they can Zoom in and follow the same programme together online," Metcalfe says.

“We’ve also got a buddy system, with those very self-motivated and driven matched up with those who aren’t so inclined.”

The players are all on individual fitness programmes, but have different levels of gym equipment at home.

“We know they will still come back from this in pretty good shape,” Metcalfe says, “but they will be missing that high-intensity court work that you only get when you’re together”.

Yvette McCausland-Durie – Central Pulse

“I have this theory,” says Pulse coach Yvette McCausland-Durie. “I don’t know if there’s research behind it, but as sportspeople you spend a lot of time preparing for the unknown. So actually living in this unknown space, the players are somewhat content with it.”

McCausland-Durie has been keeping tabs on her team through Zoom video team meetings and old-fashioned phone calls with each player.  

“We always have a team meeting once a week, so we’re running that the same. They all have different responsibilities they’re in charge of – one is conditioning, another pastoral care who do check-ins, and nutrition,” she says. “I think they’re doing really well.”

They’re making the most of their situations too. Kelly Jury is back home on her Taranaki farm, using tractor tyres as weights. Captain Katrina Rore has been running up local stairs and doing rugby drills with her husband, Joel. Claire Kersten has been dashing up hills in the Hawkes Bay. Ameliaranne Ekenasio carries her son, Ocean, in a backpack on trails near her home, and teaches yoga online.

“They’re doing iso-challenges, and Q&As online to keep the community engaged too,” their coach says. “They haven’t had trouble being creative.”

Ever the optimist, McCausland-Durie believes the Pulse will get out on court some time this year. “We know it won’t look the same. But the players want to get out there, and they know they’ve got to be ready to go.”

Marianne Delaney-Hoshek – Mainland Tactix

It’s been a fairly unsettling time for Tactix players and coach Marianne Delaney-Hoshek with Netball Mainland, which managed the franchise, going into voluntary liquidation during lockdown.

Although they’ve lost their manager and assistant coach, “we’re still all-go as a team”, Delaney-Hoshek says. “We’re very lucky that Netball NZ has taken on myself and the team so we can continue to train and go on from there.”

In the few days before lockdown took effect, Delaney-Hoshek made sure the team were well-equipped – with gym gear at home and programmes from Tactix fitness trainer, John Wilson.

“Everyone is in a different situation – some of the girls are working, some are not. Some are fantastic trainers who do their own stuff, like Kimi Poi who knows how to get herself into peak condition,” she says. Poi is in a house ‘bubble’ with team-mates Erikana Pedersen and Charlotte Elley; they motivate each other.

The Tactix squad was already split into two teams, who compete in challenges throughout the season. Last week it was devising a ball-on-the-wall activity to video; this week, a chair challenge.

“I like things that get them doing a skill without thinking too much about it. And one that’s useful for other people out there,” Delaney-Hoshek says.

“I’m very confident we will get to play this year. I feel like Netball NZ are really planning this well. Because there won’t be much international netball, everyone’s really keen for us to play. And we really want to - to keep our young athletes with role models, and giving our fans something to watch. And we don’t want the sport to go broke.”

Reinga Bloxham – Southern Steel 

It will be hard, Steel coach Reinga Bloxham admits, for players to hit the ground running once isolation ends.

“Doing as much as we can now will help us lift once we come out of lockdown. But if they aren’t touching the ball or doing that footwork and lose that foundation, it will be like going two steps back instead of one,” she says.

“It’s something we’re really focused on, so when we can come back together, all those basics are still in place, and we can do what we have to as a team again.”

The Steel have Zoom calls every Monday, Wednesday and Friday – check-in sessions for players and management to “make sure everyone is okay” and have a mental connection, which is vital right now, Bloxham says.

The four-week lockdown fitness programme has been testing. “The first week they admitted it was tough doing it by themselves – they were just ticking the box rather than pushing themselves. So it’s been about finding self-motivation,” Bloxham says.  

To keep the fun, they’ve added buddy challenges – one skills-based, like passing the ball in a bubble, and one random, like TikTok videos.

Bloxham believes there will be a premiership league this year, but the time frame will pose the greatest hurdle.

“I think for us to play again, we will have to be at Level 2, if not Level 1. We just have to be really patient. And as professional athletes, we’re not very good at that; we like being in control.

“This lockdown has been a good challenge for us all to sit back and think about the things that are important to us.”

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