What the Hell is Netball?

Trust me, if you’re moving to South Africa and if your family has any girls, you’ll learn about netball soon enough. But first for some background: A big part of school life here is sports. With the school days being shorter, and – from our first observations – less homework given, there is a big emphasis on after-school activities. Our school offers plenty and mandates at least one of them per child each term. This is actually a very neat thing, since any kid from Grade 1 upwards can join a team and gets to experience competitions against other schools as well as Interhouse Championships (more on houses later), thereby eliminating the need to join clubs outside of school. There is no additional charge for any of this and the instruction, in our case, is very good.

However, while at first glance the extracurricular offering may look very comprehensive, you have to be a bit careful before you pick a school based on certain sports: Just like in the U.S., there are different seasons for everything so at any one time there are just a few choices, and, more frustrating, there is a BIG separation between boys and girls. I’m sure once I’ve lived here longer I might better understand this, but right now it feels as if, post-Apartheid, they wanted to hold onto some way to segregate people, honestly. Now, I understand that girls don’t necessarily need to play rugby (in fact, I don’t think I want my boys playing that either), and that they can maybe live without cricket as well – after all, they do get to play softball, which irks my boys to no end because there is no baseball – but it is very hard to swallow that girls are not allowed to play soccer. In a country that just hosted the World Cup, for crying out loud! The school blames this on a lack of interest from girls, and also a lack of fields and leagues with other girls’ teams, but the fact remains that this is very discriminatory. As a result, almost no girls here play soccer (prompting the schools to say “see, there isn’t enough interest.”

netball in South Africa

netball in South Africa

netball in South Africa

The sport the girls get to play instead of soccer is netball. Trust me, we’re really trying to fit in, with a “do as the Romans do” philosophy and all that (otherwise our kids would be enrolled at the American School) but netball is a stretch. Basically, imagine basketball played outside on a tennis court – so far so good – where you take away the backboard and make both ball and basket smaller. Okay, not too bad, you might think. But now take away – of all things! – dribbling! One of the most glorious basketball moves – in my humble opinion, and I’ve spent hours teaching it to my kids – is the layup. Very hard to do without dribbling! So you’re now left with a bunch of girls (no boys playing this game) standing around crowded together and passing the ball, until the “goal shooter” ends up with it and shoots, which usually results in a basket, because defenders apparently are not allowed to jump or even get close. I can’t say for sure that that’s a rule, so forgive me if I’m misrepresenting things, but I didn’t see much jumping in the few  netball matches I’ve watched so far. Feet are firmly planted on the ground at all times. Steals, apparently, are not allowed either, at least not the kind where you rip the ball out of your opponent’s hands. All you can do is politely wait for the other person to shoot, without getting too close, and then perhaps stretch your arms towards the ball if it misses, but if your opponent happens to reach it first, you have to quickly step back to the outside of that 3-foot zone to let her shoot again. Moreover, the entire field is divided into zones that certain players are allowed into, so that only goalkeepers and goal defenders are allowed around their own basket, and goal shooters and goal attackers likewise on the other end, which leads to a stop-and-go kind of game where girls will suddenly  pull their hands back form a pass they might have caught because their feet were slightly outside of their zone.

But I’m determined to look at the positive side of things. At least they’ll become very good at getting open and passing, and using their pivot foot. There is a whole lot of pivoting going on! And the good news is that netball isn’t terribly hard, especially with basketball experience, so Impatience has already gathered some outstanding performance award, scoring the only two goals for her entire team in her last game. Or baskets. Or whatever they might call them. I find it quite embarrassing when, during a game, I’ll yell “get the rebound!” only to attract strange looks from all sides. I take it it’s not called a rebound, or perhaps you’re not allowed to get it, whatever the name. But it’s not just that, I think it’s the yelling per se that attracts stares. I’ve come to the conclusion that ultra-competitive-pacing-the-sidelines-and-yelling parents must be a uniquely American institution. All you’ll ever hear at a match here is a quiet and polite “well done!” even if the actual feat nowhere approaches “well-done-ness” in any way. The little Under-8 girls were showered with praise for their one-and-only match of the season, where I drove one hour each way, through traffic, to watch two 10-minute halves, interrupted by 10 minutes of orange-wedge sucking to combat exhaustion. In fact, being prone to arriving late, I might have missed the performance entirely, it was so brief. I wanted to shake somebody and tell them that little girls can play one-hour sweat-soaked matches just as well as their soccer-playing boy counterparts!

Sorry for the tirade, I had promised looking at the positive and here I go ranting again. All in all, we really do like the school sports here, if not the actual sports as much as them being offered in the first place. (And I’d also like to apologize at this time to all netball aficionados the world over who might read my demeaning description with outrage; I googled it, and apparently it’s quite a sport, played very seriously, exported into the world no doubt along with British imperialism, judging from the countries it is played in today).

So the girls played netball first term, Impatience also ran with the cross-country team, Jabulani, having the fortune of being a boy, got to play soccer – on an excellent team I might add – and absolutely loved it, and Zax, due to the odd twist that the sporting season seems to be different in high school, got to choose between rugby and field hockey. He wisely chose the latter and ended up loving it as well, though their team regularly got battered. Hockey is really very much like soccer, except that you are bent over what seems to be too short of a stick, which only has one side you’re allowed to use, and there are some additional twists like short and long corners. This term, Impatience has added hockey as well, and there have been athletics – which is what we’d call track and field – tryouts in order to select teams for the next season. The school also has tennis and golf teams, and once the temperatures get warmer, by October, swimming will commence, as will the softball and cricket seasons.

I think I’ve already mentioned the other extracurricular activities, such as chess club, debate team, robotics, drama, choir, orchestra, arts, and individual music lessons which the kids are allowed to schedule during certain parts of the school day, which I think is brilliant. The one aspect of South African school life that I haven’t described yet are so-called houses. I’ll assume that you’ve read Harry Potter, so you’ll know what a house is. To make it easier, Dainfern College seems to have borrowed from Hogwarts terminology by naming one of their houses Griffin, which is the one our kids are in. The other ones are Phoenix and Kraken. I don’t know if there is a House Cup, but the students do amass points for their houses by the merits they earn, be it by answering a difficult question, helping out a teacher, or politely greeting a parent in the hallways. Griffin, it seems, is always in the lead. The only thing that’s missing is a gigantic hourglass on the school grounds! Every once in a while there is an Interhouse Competition in the current seasonal sport, where the students, from Junior Prep to High School, don their house t-shirts and run or swim or kick against their classmates and for the glory of their house. Those days are big affairs for everyone, students and teachers alike, and they are great fun. I think it was worth moving to South Africa just for all of that!

More about Netball: Netball or Basketball?

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