Whenever I meet a woman at a party, or through friends, who has robustly sculpted calf muscles and reaches my eyebrows or, preferably, higher, I have only one thing on my mind.
After a second glass of wine, and having ascertained that the woman lives in travelling distance of west London and isn’t completely insufferable, I venture, tentatively: “Are you free on a Tuesday evening?” “Maybe, why?” “How do you feel about ball sports?” “Er…” Recruiting for a weekly amateur netball league is a challenge. It’s not a sport with a great reputation.
Girls who like netball don’t have the greatest reputation either. Anyone forced to play it at school (most women in the UK were) and who wasn’t particularly good (most of us) will know what I’m talking about.
Along with its more violent companion, hockey, it can conjure up terrible memories of teenage angst – getting changed with and then competing against spotty young women whose insecurities were matched only by your own.
Since I was at school, there have been more schemes to get girls into sport. British readers will no doubt have seen the posters for the This Girl Can campaign, featuring plump but happy girls talking about how much they love exercise. Reality is very different. The latest data from the Health Survey for England shows that only 12% of girls aged 14 do enough physical activity to benefit their health. Baffled civil servants and sports experts spend a lot of time trying to work why exactly girls despise physical education so much.
Despite their fondness for Snapchat and Gigi Hadid, teenage girls are far more Victorian than we think. According to a recent report by Women in Sport, 48% of girls believe that “getting sweaty is not feminine” and 45% think “sport is too competitive”. Many said they preferred dance and aerobics to traditional school sports like netball.
It’s ironic: netball was invented in the last decade of the 19th century precisely to get young women playing sport. It began as a version of basketball, which had been dreamt up in Massachusetts in 1891 as a way of keeping young men active in the winter. The gymnasium-friendly game caught the eye of a sports teacher, Senda Berenson, who adapted it for her all-girls school. She made the halves shorter, outlawed contact and snatching the ball from other players, and introduced a three-second time limit for holding the ball.
These changes, said Berenson, were designed to reduce fatigue and limit the strain on the heart – women were still the weaker sex, after all. Basketball for women (it wouldn’t be called netball until it crossed the Atlantic a few years later) could, according to 19th-century sociologists, instil such values as self-control, physical and moral courage and – crucially – teamwork.
In 1901, Luther Gulick, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Physical Education, wrote that “it is more difficult to get women to do team-work than it is to get men to do so.” While men, he claimed, were naturally loyal to other men, women were loyal to the home and could be inconsiderate towards other women.
Netball was part of a movement to give women “the capacity for co-operation” at a time when they were “entering many lines of work that hitherto have been carried on entirely by men.” The divisions and positions of the game ensured that no star player could emerge, and the success of the team depended on all of its members.
A century later, at my school, netball had its own social hierarchy. The girls who made the A team were stronger, fitter, faster and taller than the rest of us. And even they were typecast (the goal keeper was chubby and a bit of a bully; goal attack was the it-girl who wore the shortest skirt; wing attack was speedy but chippy about not being centre of the court). Those of us who weren’t good enough for the team were relegated to the other court and ignored. But if you did make it – I was proud to ascend to the lofty heights of the B team – you felt like you were part of a family.
Fifteen years on, my family members are different, and older, but the sense of belonging is still strong. The 40 minutes I spend on a netball court are some of the most satisfying of the week. Perhaps it’s because I can hang out with a group of women and there’s no need to do what women often feel they have to do when they get together: talk, drink or shop. Running around in my old airtex vest, I enjoy both the nostalgia and the fact that some things do get better with age. It’s also a rare chance to be as aggressive and competitive as I like.
Other women clearly feel the same way: netball’s popularity as an amateur sport is growing. According to the Active People Survey, more than 156,000 netballers across Britain play the sport for at least half an hour every week. Unfortunately, they will not be able to watch professionals play it in Brazil later this month: despite being recently recognised by the International Olympic Committee, netball has still not been played at the games.
Even though I’ve seen the girls I play netball with most weeks over the past few years, I still don’t really know what they do for a living, whether they’re married or where they live. I do, however, know that Martha likes to take the crazy shots and gets mardy when she misses; Jayne will do anything to bat the ball away from her opponent; Georgia likes to scream orders down the court; Leila doesn’t take well to it; Olivia likes to mock my airtex; and Sophia darts around the shooting circle like a fly in a jar. And that for the time we’re on the court, I won’t be able to check my phone, worry about work, or care what anyone else thinks of me.