Players on court at one of the Rise Together leagues

As our grassroots game returns, our latest feature in The Huddle shines a light on just one inspiring example of how collaborative, proactive and passionate efforts are supporting women and girls to return to court: the Northants Rise Together leagues.

Since the first lockdown was imposed in March 2020, COVID-19 has had a significant impact on the mental and physical wellbeing of our Netball Family. Courts across the country fell silent, leagues became inactive and the camaraderie of being with friends simply wasn’t the same via virtual means.

In Northants, no less than seven leagues (six adult and one junior) were impacted by the first and second lockdowns with everyone missing the buzz of the game day rituals, the team talks, the matches, the competition.

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Reports from Women in Sport focused on the impact of COVID-19 on teenage girls and women’s lives and physical activity over the last year found 45% of women said they were struggling to keep their spirits up and feel positive at this time.

From the start, volunteers at all levels of the game selflessly invested considerable time and energy to overcome the challenges faced and protect the game and its people.

This was exactly the case in Northants with considerable amounts of time behind the scenes to equip and empower all those involved ready for restarting once restrictions were lifted for the third time, in 2021.

Although there was a desire to get back out on court, there was also a nervousness around returning to netball safely meaning local leagues were suspended and there were no teams to play against.

Driven by their love for the game and desire to enrich the lives of the Northants Netball Family after a tough year, Yvonne Blunt (County Chair of Northamptonshire) and Kelly Thomson (Northampton Netball Development Officer) knew that if the sport was to return, it would need to be delivered very differently.

Recognising this challenge and determined to create opportunities, the Northamptonshire County Netball Association (NCNA) convened a meeting in November 2020 with local league Chairs.

After endless hours of consultation and meticulous planning, including many a Zoom meeting, an agreement was reached that the county would deliver two fully-funded leagues – one north and one south county – for 10-12 weeks aptly named Rise Together as everyone united to get the sport back up and running.

In line with Government restrictions, the Rise Together leagues restarted on 8 and 11 April (south then north respectively) with a staggering 180 attendees registering their interest in the first week.

“The Northants Netball Family – from league chairs, players, coaches, officials, volunteers and the wonderful Northants County Netball Committee – have come together to support the return to court for our members,” said Yvonne.

“Endless hours of work and Zoom meetings have been put into helping netball return through the Northants Rise Together leagues in Corby and Moulton.

“Our Northants Netball Family is the heart of netball with their amazing passion and commitment to drive and develop netball in our county.

“I cannot thank everyone enough for all their hard work and support, especially the committee for making this happen.

“We are truly lucky to be where we are and that is back on court, playing the sport we love, with the people we love and staying safe.”

As well as the county covering the cost of venue hire, PPE, balls, kit bags and first aid equipment, support for officials was also put in place with awareness and mentoring to understand the modifications provided by County Umpiring Secretary, Debbie Edwards.

The relationship between the NCNA, members and England Netball is now stronger than ever, and the pandemic has truly seen teams join together and women who don’t usually umpire start their umpiring journey.

As a sport, we could not survive without the passion, innovation and collaboration of netball volunteers alongside England Netball staff and due to the unquestionable success of the Rise Together leagues, the concept has been taken forward nationally with others across the country following suit.

Praising the achievements of all those involved, Kat Cruickshank, England Netball National Clubs and Leagues Manager, said: “It has been brilliant to see staff and volunteers supporting one another to bring the Rise Together leagues to life.

“Following the impact on the grassroots game caused by the COVID-19 global pandemic, it’s fantastic to see the number of women in the Northants Netball Family feeling confident to take this opportunity to return to court and get back playing the game we all love.

“The significant time, energy and success of all those involved in delivering the Northants Rise Together leagues has not gone unnoticed in the wider netball community and has in fact inspired the development of the national offer.

“It’s hugely rewarding to see Rise Together leagues now popping up across the country as England Netball continues to be ‘here if you need’ for the whole Netball Family during this time.”

Thank you, Yvonne and Kelly, for your time, effort and energy in making a huge difference to the lives of women and girls by enabling and empowering them to safely return to court, as well as sparking a transformational impact on providing the best netball opportunities across the country.

Thank you also to the league volunteers…

Debbie Edwards – NCNA Umpiring Secretary

Katie Smith – NCNA Secretary

Jaqui Brown – Northants Performance Head Coach / Lead

Lavon Walcott – Coaching TSG Lead

Philipa Heild – NCNA Treasurer

… and the local league chairs / vice chairs collaborating to get netball back safely:

Corby – Andrea Kane / Amanda Gibson

Kettering – Jackie Brookes

Wellingborough – Suzanne Coleman / Jaqui Brown

Rushden – Yvonne Blunt

Daventry – Sharon Connerty / Cath Kitchen

Northampton Senior and Junior League – Barbara Wilkins / Elaine Wright

If you’ve been inspired by this Rise Together League and want to get involved with supporting the restart of netball as a player, or volunteer, contact your Netball Development Officer to see what is happening in your area.

The Huddle is a brand-new 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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