A single point made the difference between gold and silver at the quadrennial Netball World Cup held in Liverpool in July. In a nail-biting final that kept spectators on the edge of their seats, New Zealand upset holders and 11-time winners Australia 52-51.
At the post-match conference, New Zealand coach Noeline Taurua said, “It has taken us a long time to be able to get to this stage. Sometimes good things take time.
“I’m very aware of my role, and I’m only one piece in the mix of everything,” she continued, singing praises of New Zealand netball programme.
On the other side of the court, the Australian players were coming to terms with their defeat. Emotions were running high and tears were shed – they had won the last three World Cups and players were not used to losing.
Australia coach Lisa Alexander said her players were “shattered”.
In the changing rooms, Alexander ensured the players remembered that feeling of hurt, “because that’s what helps drive athletes to higher levels of performance in training”.
In the 3rd-placing match, pre-tournament favourites England beat South Africa to win the bronze. The hosts were gunning for gold on home soil, but fell short by two goals against New Zealand in the semi-finals.
Also making their presence felt were the passionate Zimbabwe fans who lit up the arena with their songs, drums and slick dance moves as they cheered on their team with every goal scored, as if they had just won the Cup.
For Singapore, they will do well to make the most of the experience and bounce back from it. After all, they finished last out of 16 competing teams, losing all seven matches.
But Taurua commended Singapore’s style of play after New Zealand defeated the Republic 89-21 in a group game.
She said, “Singapore is ranked among the lowest in the competition, but I love their style of play. I thought there were moments when they had us on the back foot, and they put some beautiful shots in.”
Singapore’s defence was resolute at times and skipper Charmaine Soh led the charge, but the players lost out to their opponents’ physicality and size.
Better youth development
Despite the losses, Team Singapore coach Natalie Milicich stressed that she was far from disappointed in her players.
“It was about hanging in there and we had to look at what was achievable with a very young team. Ultimately we are realistic about the fact that we are not professional. We are unfortunate that we don’t have the funding to have full-time paid athletes. If we did, I think eventually those gaps will narrow.”
One way to improve the level of netball in Singapore is by training athletes as early as possible, said Soh, who added that children as young as three or four already start training in Australia and New Zealand.
In Singapore, children start at age nine and 10.
Soh also said that having youth programmes could also mean that Singapore would have a larger talent pool to pick from.
Echoing Soh’s sentiments of grooming youth netballers was World Cup ambassador and Uganda captain Peace Proscovia.
The 29-year-old was substituted by her teammate seven years younger in one of the games, and had no complaints about it.
She said, “Coming off and letting someone like Mary go in is my pride. One of my key objectives is to promote the young ones, because the future does not belong to us (who) are edging out. Mary is much younger than me, and she needs that time to gain confidence.”
For Proscovia, netball paved a way out of her poverty-stricken village, and onto the world stage. She is also a PhD student in Australia.
Sport is more than just playing the game. It builds character, teaches perseverance and honest values. It galvanises people and has the ability to empower women, and inspire a whole new generation of athletes.
Nelson Mandela once said, “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, it has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope, where once there was only despair.”
Culture is key
Off the court, Singapore could learn from other countries that performed better at the World Cup. Champions New Zealand has a population of 4.7 million, just about a million less than Singapore. And debutants Zimbabwe finished eighth, a laudable position considering the team had fewer resources and even needed to crowdfund to afford attending the World Cup.
While just qualifying for the World Cup was commendable, Singapore’s performance still left much to be desired if they want to better themselves at the international level.
The first steps: investing in young athletes, hiring top coaches, and developing a structured netball programme.
This article first appeared on The Business Times.