Netball rethinking its future
A concerning drop off in high school numbers is prompting netball to think differently about its future.
Netball New Zealand has created a Youth Engagement and Retention Strategy aimed at addressing the causes behind a 9.5 percent decrease in playing numbers since 2007.
While netball is the number one sport played at secondary school level nationally, according to the NNZ strategy, there is a significant gap between junior players (67,798) and secondary school players (37,470).
Netball South was an active participant in the creation of the strategy and has also worked hard to understand the issues affecting participation locally.
Chief executive Lana Winders said the regional body had been focussing on the secondary school game as the five-year rollout of the new junior development programme known as Future Ferns came to an end.
“Over the past couple of years we’ve been receiving data identifying we are experiencing a drop off in the high school area,” Winders said.
“We came to understand that this wasn’t about us and our products, it was about asking them what they needed.” Netball South chief executive Lana Winders
“That made sense in terms of what we are hearing from other sports and things we are hearing from Sport NZ. We were coming off the back of a major rollout of a modified version of netball for five year olds through to Year 6, so we started to turn our attention to what we were seeing at the secondary school level and what we were going to do about it.”
The number of players turning away from the game in Southland was not alarming, and indeed netball in Southland tends to perform better than the rest of the country, but it did indicate a worrying trend, Winders said.
The result was a 2018 programme called NetSchools, which was included in the region’s community plan and involved analysing what was happening in the local secondary school leagues, what teams were going into centre competitions - and then looking at who was missing.
Netball South contacted those schools, offered taster sessions, talked to sports coordinators and used players from the Southern Steel to interact and promote the game.
“What we discovered is that the lifestyles of the kids are changing. They want things faster, they have less ability to commit, because they are being pulled in so many directions - to work, academically, or other school things. Some codes are being affected worse than netball, but some are doing really well, so that was really interesting to us too - what were they doing that we weren’t doing?”
Adding national level research to their own local insights, netball could see a case for change emerging.
“The sports that are doing really well are offering modified versions of their sport, less structured products where you can come in and pay to play and it’s not so heavy on commitment. It’s the sporting experiences that have a greater focus on fun and socialising. That’s what we were seeing when we were in the schools too. We had kids who were really keen to be involved in the taster session, and they were having fun and enjoying it, but the pick up didn’t happen.”
With no team in either the Invercargill Netball Centre Saturday competition or secondary school league, Netball South took a deeper dive with Invercargill’s Aurora College, working closely with sports coordinator Anna Crosswell to understand why the school was not entering teams.
“We came to understand that this wasn’t about us and our products, it was about asking them what they needed. There was demand there, but the girls just didn’t know where to start.”
An open day training session run by senior Steel players Wendy Frew and Te Huinga Reo Selby-Rickit, selected for their contrasting but complementary styles, helped provide a spark and a team was built over subsequent sessions.
Netball South supported the school with funding applications for uniforms and balls and found a coach, who was in turn supported by the Netball South coach developer.
“They ended up winning their grade in the Invercargill competition and they went into our league as well, playing against all the other school teams, which is a really tough competition and they did really well.”
As a coach of several school teams herself, Winders knows the challenges to participation well.
“I don’t think those kids that fall out of netball are going to other sports, or getting involved in casual activity either, they just get lost to the system.”
Netball has traditionally offered a very structured product, but the game is learning that that does not suit everyone.
“Structure still works for a lot of people, but we have to morph what we offer to be more flexible around the demands of timing and those sorts of things. That’s a journey that we are going on now. We need to provide netball to the kids in the way that they want it, not the way we think it should be.”
The NNZ strategy has identified a number of pilot programmes to be trialled over three years and Netball South has been seeking additional funding to pay for a position to drive the strategy.
It’s intended that a strong focus of the strategy will be on developing Youth Advisory Groups so that secondary school players have a big say in what shape the game takes.
The future will be defined by those most affected by it.