Joanne Walker: Pity this fat-headed attitude to netball

WHEN a national newspaper writes a disparaging story about the sport you love, one which is enjoyed by 
thousands of people across Yorkshire every week, you can understand why there might be disappointment. 
Add in a headline that says that sport is “making daughters fat” and that “most girls hate it” and you have understandable anger.

That was my reaction when I saw what the Daily Telegraph had to say about netball. In a piece that was obviously written by someone who has never been courtside at a game, it called the sport “ridiculous” and “sissy basketball, seemingly designed for dainty flamingos who don’t want to break a nail”.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Netball is a tough sport. It is, in theory, non-contact but any of the thousands of people who packed into the Sports Arena in Leeds in the past few months to see the Yorkshire Jets take on the other seven teams in netball’s elite Super League, a competition televised live on Sky Sports, would know that is not always the case. I have the bruises to prove it.

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It is also a sport which is growing in popularity with a 12 per cent year-on-year growth in participation across the country and a 27 per cent growth since 2010. Sport England confirms it is one of the fastest-growing sports in England. Here in Yorkshire, almost 21,000 over 14-year-olds play netball regularly and that number is also increasing.

Those numbers are ones to be proud of in a country where there is still a huge disparity between the numbers of men playing sport week-in week-out and women. In an average week across Yorkshire, 42 per cent of men will take part in some sporting activity but only 30 per cent of women will.

We need to close that gap and netball is helping do that. One of the great positives about the sport is that it can be enjoyed by all ages – from primary school to those who are older.

Of course, not everyone wants to or can play at an elite level. I started playing seriously when I was 11 and was inspired by my PE teacher who loved netball. My mum and dad were standing by the side of netball courts for years to come and it was while playing in a school game in Preston, where I was brought up, that I was spotted and began a journey that would lead me to play for England and now for the Yorkshire Jets.

That experience shows how important school sport and PE continues to be and why it is important we invest in it. We must capitalise on the legacy of the 2012 London Olympics and the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow this summer. Netball will be one of the highlight sports during the Games, with the best teams from around the world competing to a global television 
audience.

The public’s enthusiasm for netball is something we have to do more to capture but the appetite is there. Already this year we have had the biggest ever domestic netball match with over 3,100 people packing into the Copper Box arena at London’s Olympic Park for a Super League game in March. And that is nothing compared with the crowds the sport attracts in Australia where over 10,000 were courtside for a game in Sydney earlier this month.

Netball is a sport which has mass participation among girls, students and women. Now 280,000 people aged over 13 take part in it regularly across England and that comes at a time when almost a third of girls aged under 16 are classed as overweight.

A report linking the participation in netball, or indeed any sport, to obesity is not only wrong but irresponsible and undermines the work of teachers in playgrounds, coaches in sports halls and the hundreds of thousands of players who take to the court week-in week-out.

I was in Essex coaching Leeds Athletic Netball Club when the newspaper published its piece on the sport. It is an event where hundreds of girls from across the country compete in the England Netball Clubs Under-16s finals.

Those girls, just as I have been, are inspired by netball, love the sport and it helps us keep fit. Instead of making efforts to put them off we should be encouraging them to stay active, play regularly and inspire the next generation. And, just for the record, there was neither a dainty flamingo nor an intact nail in sight.

• Joanne Walker, 24, is one of England and Wales’ leading netballers. A former England international, she plays at Goal Shooter for the Yorkshire Jets, one of only eight teams in the Netball Superleague, which is shown live on Sky Sports.