11 October 2019

England Netball's outgoing chief talks of the triumphs off the court that have defined her tenure

As the outgoing head of England Netball, Joanna Adams has many highlights to reflect on. So it's perhaps surprising to hear that medals and titles come second to the impact her sport has had on individual lives.

She is passionate about the positive impact netball has had on the mental well-being of those involved and talked about the initiatives that have helped girls who are struggling in one way or another. 

“We’ve worked a lot using walking netball with young women who’ve got eating disorders because obviously they can’t go back to full on sport, so we use walking netball as a means to encourage them at a more gentle level.”

She shared a heartwarming story: “We received the most beautiful letter from a girl who had been hospitalised with an eating disorder. She said the only thing that would help her get back on track would be being able to play netball again.

“So we contacted the hospital and Sasha Corbin [England netball player] was allowed to go in and sit with her for a while. Only a few weeks after that she actually got out of her bed and went on court.

“She’s now 21 and she’s qualified and got a proper job and now coaches netball. She and her parents keep in touch and they say netball saved her life.

“This is such a good example to show that If sport is delivered in the right way it can be very powerful. It’s something I will never forget and it’s those kind of things that I am most proud of.”

Jo Adams talks at a TeamUp media day about the positive impact of netball (Sportsbeat)

Adams was also keen to emphasise the importance of the team, rather than just the competition side of sport, in boosting the mental health of children.

“From a sport point of view, it’s really important that if it is a team sport, it’s not just seen as super competitive,” she said.

“You can have a team sport and it can just be fun. A lot of people are critical of team sports because they see them as overly competitive but what we feel is integral all the way through the system is that we avoid putting sport in an environment that affects someone’s confidence or mental state.

“It needs to be the right version of a team sport with the right group of people. It’s about inclusivity, fun, and learning with friends and to do that we must educate teachers and coaches to make sure they deliver the right form of the game to the right group of people.”

England star Rachel Dunn endorsed the Adams philosophy: “I’m not sure where I would have been without sport. Being part of the team was what I needed because it doesn’t matter what background you come from.

Rachel Dunn spoke about the importance of downtime to achieve at the highest level (sportsbeat)

“All that matters is that you’re out there working together as part of a team. From a mental health side that is so important.”

Slightly surprising then, when she was asked what the key to England’s success had been - Commonwealth gold last year, World Cup bronze this year - she responded without hesitation: “Jigsaws. Jigsaws are definitely the key to our successes. We do them as a team and we love them. Jigsaws all the way.”

“It all started at the Comm games last year,” said Dunn, “When you’re in the village, you’re quite isolated, so someone brought in a jigsaw and that’s how it all started.

“It’s great because you’re doing stuff and achieving and can just switch off and have that mental break at the same time - it’s like a mindful task that you can do on your own or together as a team.

“We had the 12 of us on there and it was hilarious. We’d be like ‘has anyone seen Geeva’s head or Helen’s knees anywhere?!’ That stuff outside the game was so important because you would go mad if you just focused on the game the whole time.

Anyone seen Helen's knees? Jigsaw fan and netball player Helen Housby(PA Images)

“When you get that final bit it’s just like ahh yeah!"

Even in jigsaw time, the England girls work as a team: “We left 12 pieces at the end so we each had a piece to complete the puzzle. It was a strong team effort and it’s things like that which keep us in a good state and then help us on the court.

“Maybe we could thank the jigsaws for the gold medal” she said.

Children at St. Edward's Catholic Primary School receive expert coaching from England's Rachel Dunn (sportsbeat)

Adams is clearly leaving her post as CEO with the sport in good shape. Her next challenge will see her become the first chief commercial officer of The London Legacy Development Corporation with a remit of helping realise the commercial potential of the park and venues, including the London Stadium.

She was speaking to NewsChain at a media day for TeamUp London, a campaign co-founded by Adams herself. It is an initiative created by the England & Wales Cricket Board (ECB), England Hockey and England Netball to increase the number of young girls playing team sport in schools by maximising the legacy of hosting three home World Cups from 2017 to 2019.

To extend the initiative across London, TeamUp was awarded £650,000 of funding from Wembley National Stadium Trust (WNST) – running until March 2020. London schools can still apply for free support and experiences through TeamUp, including teacher training, coaching and athlete school visits, by registering online at www.teamupengland.com.

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