Why I want my daughter to play basketball not netball

Elite netball is highly athletic and competitive, despite its historical origins.
Elite netball is highly athletic and competitive, despite its historical origins. Photo: AAP/Dave Hunt

Next weekend I will complete my first season as a netball mum and I’ll be cheering on Ms 7 and her team mates in their final game.

There’s no doubt my daughter has gotten a huge amount out of learning to play the game and being part of a team this year. I’m grateful to everyone involved and especially to the two wonderful fellow mums who organised and coached the team, one in particular taking my daughter under her wing.

But rather than play the summer comp, we are going to learn to play basketball instead. I believe more families with girls should consider basketball rather than opting for netball as a default.

Basketball is growing in popularity for girls, especially at high school level.
Basketball is growing in popularity for girls, especially at high school level. Photo: Shutterstock

Netball is a hugely popular sport in Australia. It’s the third-most popular sport for girls of all ages behind swimming and dancing and the most popular team sport, according to government figures. It’s second behind swimming for nine to 11-year-olds and reigns supreme for the 12 to 14-year age group, when almost one in three Australian girls play netball.

So any criticisms I might make about netball will almost certainly raise a few hackles. It also means that the institution of netball is doing just fine, so there’s no reason to be defensive. If you love netball, then please carry on as you were.

I’m not really here to disparage the sport but to question its near-monopoly status that leaves all other girls’ team sports in the shade.

Boys play a much wider variety of team sports: soccer is No. 1, but AFL, cricket and basketball are each played by more boys than the percentage of girls playing the second most popular team sport behind netball.

 

Few boys play netball, though they can these days. But across all age groups, netball is played by twice as many girls as any other team sport. I don’t think that’s because it’s twice as good. It’s largely for historical reasons.

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Basketball was invented in the late 19th century and they created a modified game for women soon afterwards. Women in the Victorian era wore long skirts and long-sleeve blouses so they dispensed with dribbling and bounce passes. The sport was tailored so it wouldn’t be too strenuous for the weaker sex and to dampen unladylike competitive tendencies. This is all well documented by historians – there's a good overview in a paper by Tracy Taylor in 2001 published in the journal Sporting Traditions.

As for the rules that restrict players to particular zones on the court, rather than allowing them to run up and down the full length of the court as they did in the men's game? Well, that was literally a mistake. According to the International Netball Association, a female educator obtained a written copy of the rules of basketball and misinterpreted the lines on the court as intended to restrict player movement. Her error was codified into the rules of women’s basketball, which later became the separate but similar sport of netball.

For a long time, women’s basketball didn’t have much competition as it was considered one of the few sports suitable for women, one that didn’t challenge traditional notions of femininity. It wasn’t until 1970 in Australia that women’s basketball changed its name to netball.

Of course, netball today is highly competitive and athletic especially at the elite levels. It’s a great sport for girls to play – but so is basketball itself. The peak basketball associations are actively reaching out to girls and women, with the goal of becoming known as a gender-neutral sport, and the government figures show it’s growing in popularity for girls.

Basketball is not a contact sport, but it’s much less rigid than netball and that will suit some girls better. You can run the length of the field and anyone can shoot a goal, so many children feel they have more agency and possibility.

It’s also a much more vigorous workout, with less risk of boredom on the other hand and injury on the other.

Yes, elite netball is athletic but I’ve watched plenty of junior games where the girls down one end of the court are standing around chatting, or even turning cartwheels, because they’re not getting any game play. In basketball you’re running up and down the court for almost the whole game.

Despite being less strenuous at non-elite levels, the stop-start nature of netball produces an outsize number of busted knees and ankles. Basketball, like any sport, isn’t injury-free but being able to catch a ball and then continue the natural movement into a bounce provides some protection.

Netball is highly rules-based. Before you even start the game, your appearance is policed, from the length of your nails to a ban on wearing leggings under your uniform even though it’s 8am in the middle of winter.

There are a zillion rules for game play and the permissible defences are weirdly ineffective, especially the "stand three feet away and pretend to be a tree" stance for defending a goal. It’s all zealously enforced, with the whistle going constantly.

Are we teaching our girls healthy competition and teamwork or are we teaching them to conform?

I've never said a word against netball to my daughter but I know she found it fun and frustrating in equal measure. That's why I’m keen to expose her to a similar sport that's more free-flowing. If she wants to go back to netball she can.

I played both sports when I was younger and much preferred basketball. No doubt, for some it's the reverse, but I loved the freedom to go anywhere and the possibility of shooting a goal at any time. It kept me motivated.

In netball it’s easy to get pigeon-holed into playing particular positions early on. In my daughter’s comp, the players were meant to rotate positions throughout the game and over the course of the season. We kept to the rule, but many of the other teams did not.

One point netball has in its favour is it’s the ultimate team game. The zoning of player positions mean that the ball must pass through many hands to get to the goal.

But all team sports encourage team work and cooperation. If netball truly taught team work better than any other sport, then we should all demand our boys play it too. If you believe netball is twice as good as any other team sport, enrol your sons.

Caitlin Fitzsimmons writes about work, life and money. Facebook: @caitlinfitzsimmons

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