The Huddle: Herts & Essex Sports Centre 

As the new season approaches, our latest feature in The Huddle showcases the positive impact facility operators, including schools, can have working collectively with people at England Netball as well as local clubs and other netball organisations.  

For all those that we represent, netball is more than a sport. It is a way of life, a means of connecting with friends, keeping physically active in a safe non-judgmental environment, and supporting mental wellbeing. 

In March 2020, as the pandemic hit, courts across the country fell silent and the grassroots game was paused. 

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The Netball Family has rallied together over the last 18 months to help keep everyone fit, active and connected to our sport, but there’s nothing quite like the buzz of training, the game day rituals, the team talks, the matches, the competition. 

None of this would be possible now though without all those working behind the scenes, including facility operators. 

Grassroots netball is reliant upon accessible courts, most of which are found on school sites. 

In March 2020, a facilities study showed that there were over 10,000 courts available for community use in England, with over three quarters based on education sites.  

These courts were used by 1.26 million participants per year, 291,723 of which were playing in a formal club setting. 

Since COVID-19, availability of these courts has reduced dramatically and it’s been particularly challenging in the current climate for some netball organisations to access a venue.  

At the end of June 2021, our records showed that approximately a third of sites were either closed or not available for netball bookings.   

However, with the help of England Netball forums, comprehensive restart guidance, advocacy resources and commitment from volunteers, a large number of courts across the country have successfully been reopened with a focus on driving participation and enriching lives through netball like never before. 

Being part of the netball community also offers reciprocal benefits for the facilities, such as a reliable income stream to assist with maintenance. 

The Herts & Essex School Sports Centre in Bishop’s Stortford, which enabled Swan Netball Club and Bishop’s Stortford District Netball League (BSDNL) to restart, is just one brilliant example of what can be achieved by all parties working together.  

Discussing their experience of reopening facilities on a school site, Hayley Jones, the centre manager, said: “We are fortunate in that the school sports centre is quite separate from the main school site so we wanted to be accommodating and supportive of our network of clubs accessing our outdoor facilities as soon as possible once lockdown restrictions lifted.  

“We worked closely with club and league committees to follow the England Netball roadmap and agree reciprocal protocols for the use of the courts and safe movement around the site.”  

From the staff at the centre to the club and league volunteers, everyone had a role to play in educating about and implementing all the protocols required, while empowering and building the confidence of those returning. 

In addition to all the national restart documentation, Swan Netball Club produced ‘return to training’ videos at each stage and hosted a Zoom forum to explain all the practices and procedures. 

The centre also provided a venue familiarisation video to show what to expect and movement around the site, as well as increasing flexibility around court bookings to provide more space.  

Support was also provided for the officials involved with an umpire training session held on site prior to restart.  

With the collaborative and dedicated efforts of all those involved with the centre, club and league, local women and families were able to get back to doing what they love most – playing netball with friends, with a smile on their faces. 

Julie Kay, Head Coach of Swan Netball Club and Chair of Bishop’s Stortford District Netball League, told us how delighted and lucky they feel to be supported by such a great venue. 

Julie said: “Herts & Essex Sports Centre has been amazing at keeping netball clubs and leagues like ours going through the pandemic.  

“We have a close working relationship, and their communication and collaboration has been instrumental in ensuring at each stage we can return to court as quickly and safely as possible.  

“With their help and our Zoom sessions during the periods of lockdown, we have been able to offer some form of training to our members every single week.  

“We have consistently engaged over 100 players per session throughout and we have kept the club going.  

“We feel very much part of the sports centre and we can’t wait to get back on the netball courts again.” 

The year ahead for netball in this country is unparalleled. It is a critical year to return our sport. This is our time to build back stronger, to grow our sport, to strive for more. 

This is our time to inspire more women and girls to take to the courts than ever before, to set ourselves apart from other sports, celebrating what makes us unique, filling our courts across the country with joy once again. 

If any school, or other operators, would like to open their netball facilities to the local community, please find and contact your local NDO here 

If you are an England Netball member organisation, you can access the facility advocacy pack via the Care Package to equip and empower you to build working relationships with facilities and secure your bookings for the 2021/22 season. You can also share this story as an example of the positive impact supporting and being involved with the netball community has. 

The Huddle is a feature in the Virtual Netball Club (VNC) and promises to do what all good huddles do – bring the whole Netball Family together! Ultimately, it’s a space to share amazing stories and celebrate incredible achievements – from members of the Netball Family who work on the front line, to those fundraising or helping netball return safely. Share the stories of people who inspire you here. 

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