2020 was meant to showcase the very best that elite sport had to offer: the European Championships, hosted by different cities across the continent; the Tokyo Olympics – building on Japan’s great success at hosting the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Yet, it was around this time one year ago that the world was only starting to understand the devastating impact that a virus could have on our daily lives.

So, rather than enjoy out favourite pastimes, we stayed at home, built bars in our gardens and baked banana bread.

We also discovered Zoom and it was through the video call app that Basketball NI and Netball NI last week announced a new partnership as the local governing bodies of each sport come to terms with the challenges posed by the pandemic.

With indoor team sport likely to be among the last to be given the green light to resume, it seems like basketball and netball teams face yet more uncertainty.

While the partnership is designed to facilitate a safe return to action for both sports, the alliance will also seek to tackle the long-term problems of mental health and participation at grassroots level.

Indeed, the continuing uncertainty regarding a start date for a return has led to fears that the pandemic could result in a talent drain from indoor sport.

Basketball NI coach Andy Mulholland says trying to convince youngsters to return to sport when Covid-19 restrictions are eased won’t be a straight-forward task.

“There is no better time to be working with other governing bodies,” said Mulholland.

“One concern to come out of all of this for Basketball Northern Ireland is mental health and I think it is a concern for everyone at the moment.

“That human connection is one of the things we are missing from the pandemic and sport is one just one of the best ways to do that and being part of a team sport.

“There’s a lot of fatigue starting to come in now. It’s a big issue we’re not talking about enough.

“When things start opening up again, some people aren’t going to want to join up again straight away. The mental health side of things is something we need to talk about a lot more.

“We have tried that with Basketball NI through our partnership with AWARE to engage with people as much as we can. I think we’re aware how important it is. We don’t know how to fix it yet, but we must talk about it more.”

Mulholland knows that indoor sports face unique challenges surrounding their return. With outdoor sports set to return much sooner, the likes of basketball and netball will face increased competition for the time and dedication of young players.

The Basketball NI coach also feels that current players will need extra attention to compensate for the time they’ve lost over the course of the last year.

CJ Fulton is now at an American college despite having seen less action than hoped due to the pandemic in 2020

CJ Fulton is now at an American college despite having seen less action than hoped due to the pandemic in 2020

He added: “You’ve the likes of CJ Fulton (former Belfast Star player) who recently went to America and they haven’t gotten the full experience that they would normally get, but they are still over there in elite programmes.

“At the grassroots side of things, my main concern, as a coach, is those kids who have just missed out on a year of development at the age of 12, 13 or 14. Are they going to push to become elite athletes?

“We’ve been in touch with the clubs to engage with their mentors as much as possible and try and keep them as active as possible.

“We have a problem with hospitals at the moment and parents don’t want their kids getting injured and having to go to the hospital and create more pressure on NHS.

“We have to get things right. Trying to keep kids engaged is quite difficult. You need to get them to love the sport otherwise they won’t become elite athletes.

“I think it is an issue that we aren’t talking about enough. How are we going to get kids engaged again? I think we are all hopeful that when everything opens back up that everyone will be crazy to come back and join up. I think the mental health thing is something that we are going to have to talk about a lot more because there are going to be people who are afraid to go outside still. There are going to be a lot of issues there.

“We’ve missed the whole year. I think when you are young, a year feels like a long time, but as an adult it seems like a short period of time so I think that will have a big impact.”

The partnership between the two governing bodies is supported by both Fionnuala Toner and Ciara Cooke, who are experienced players in both codes.

Toner is the vice-captain of the Northern Ireland international netball team and is currently with Superleague side Leeds Rhinos. Her basketball career began in earnest when she was a pupil at Our Lady’s and St Patrick’s College Knock and she was part of the Ulster Rockets side which won the National Cup back in 2011.

Ciara Cooke

Ciara Cooke

Cooke, a former student at Dominican College in North Belfast, is part of NI Netball’s Emerging Warriors side and also plays basketball for the Ulster Tigers.

Although Toner recently featured the Allstars team against England in the Vitality Netball Legends Series, both players said the last 12 months have been extremely difficult. 

Speaking prior to the Legends game, Toner said: “It is really tough – I played my last of netball back on March 6, 2020. I think for me, for the last 15 years, I’ve known nothing else other than sport five or six days a week.

“To go from that to absolutely nothing is really tough. I probably didn’t realise until June or July how big an impact it had on me.

“You just don’t have that release. When I was able to get back across to Leeds in October time, you get back with our teammates and back into a team environment. We’ve all grown up with team sports. In hindsight, you probably take it for granted and I know realise how much I value it in my lifestyle.”

Cooke echoed those sentiments and added that having no goal in sight in terms of a return to competitive action was especially tough to deal with. 

“That’s something we are struggling with,” said Cooke.

“I take training day-by-day. In terms of long-term motivation, it is tough.

“Sport, for people like us, means training and seeing different people – that mental relief is so important.

“I think in the darker months, people are feeling it a bit more this time. There is only so much you can do on Zoom.

“Through the NI Warriors programme, I’ve been lucky enough to get into the gym as well. We’ve been doing Zoom workouts and individual workouts, but it is important to get those endorphins out and even go for a run outside.” 

While Cooke will be hoping she can force her way into the NI squad, Toner is already an integral part of Dan Ryan’s side – having played in two Commonwealth Games and helping The Warriors to a tenth-place finish at the 2019 World Cup.

With the 2020 campaign all but written off due to the pandemic, Ryan’s squad are set to return to action in March with a series of games against the Republic of Ireland. Those games could still take place with elite sport still permitted under current restrictions.
Toner, who is also coached by Ryan at Leeds Rhinos along with fellow South Belfast native Michelle Magee, hopes the inactivity of last year won’t halt the remarkable progress of the NI team.

Fionnuala Toner

Fionnuala Toner

“The team that went to the World Cup, that was a tournament of firsts for a lot of the girls and they all stood up,” said Toner.

“It’s frustrating because we probably had the core there with young ones coming through and we didn’t get the chance to leverage off that last year.

“We now have a competition schedule and we’ve been in regular contact with Dan (Ryan), and we have pockets of players that are able to play.

“But getting together in March and being able to train and play would be huge to put 2020 behind us and look forward again.”

Given the similarities of both sports, they’ve experienced the same challenges throughout the pandemic and are now seeking to support players and clubs as they seek a return to the court as soon as it is safe to do so in 2021.

Both governing bodies will seek to detail best practices and will take a collaborative approach to supporting the safe return to indoor team sport by accessing appropriate forums.

The aim is also to emerge from the pandemic with more women and girls seeking to participate in netball and basketball in order to provide long-term sustainability for the games locally.

“The language that is used from both the Executive and from other sporting bodies when we put information needs to be instilling confidence in our members that is it okay to get back.”

However, there is an understanding that this isn’t going to happen overnight and Netball NI chief executive Karen Rollo feels that indoor sport has been unfairly demonised in the overall debate.

“The key for us is that we need our members and wider netballers to be confident that it is safe to return,” said Rollo.

“We have a number of protocols in place and we got four weeks of club netball back in September.

“We had strict protocols in place and our clubs are really good at adhering to those. I think we also need help from the facilities to know that it is safe to open up and we do have the mitigations in place to make our sport as safe as possible.

“We adapted our rules to make face-to-face contact time-limited and we’ve adjusted the game time.

“I think we also need the language to change around our sport and we’ve spoken about this with Basketball NI.

“We are seen as the ‘monster’ and as part of the problem. Team sport is not part of the problem and indoor sport, from a netball perspective, there is not a case that can be reported back.

“The language that is used from both the Executive and from other sporting bodies when we put information needs to be instilling confidence in our members that is it okay to get back.”

Rollo feels the health and social benefits as well as the life skills gained from playing team sports needs to be taken into consideration as well.

She added: “We’re looking at having a collaborative approach as to how we can get our sports back safely, because we know that indoor sports will be some of the last to return given their nature.

“We’ve chatted with Ciara (Cooke) and Fionnuala (Toner) and detailed how they’ve been able to play both sports and, ultimately, trying to raise the profile of both sports, as well as getting them back.

“From our perspective it’s about what else is there around netball, not just on the court. It’s around the other skills you develop by being in a team sport - it’s about communication, leadership, problem-solving skills.

“We’re losing those skills by not being able to meet together. Everyone can put a face on during a Zoom call and say everything’s okay, but it’s only face-to-face you can really tell.”

Netball NI chief executive Karen Rollo believes indoor sport has had a raw deal since restrictions began

Netball NI chief executive Karen Rollo believes indoor sport has had a raw deal since restrictions began

While the governing bodies will be hoping that 2021 yields a return to action for local sides, the 2022 Commonwealth Games are also on the horizon with the Northern Ireland Netball side hoping to build on their strong showing at Gold Coast back in 2018.

Yet, continuing doubts surrounding the delayed Tokyo Olympics and indeed Birmingham 2022 suggests more uncertainty for teams.

While Tokyo organisers and the International Olympic Committee are adamant the games will start in July, London 2012 chief Keith Mills believes the Olympics are “unlikely” to take place this year as Covid-19 cases remain alarmingly high across the globe.

Another one-year postponement of the Olympics would have a knock-on effect on the Commonwealth Games with Birmingham chiefs looking to start contingency planning for the possibility of their games being postponed or cancelled.

Last week, Birmingham City Council leader Ian Ward admitted that it was “not certain” the 12-day event would go ahead and plans for an athletes’ village in the north of the city have already been scrapped.

With the roll-out of a number of vaccines worldwide, Birmingham 2022, which is scheduled to begin on July 28 next year, there is reason to be optimistic.

Karen Rollo says Netball NI are continuing to engage with organisers with Northern Ireland’s place at Birmingham 2022 dependant on Dan Ryan’s side remaining in the top 12 ranked teams.

“From our perspective, we’ve been engaging with Commonwealth Games NI quite a bit around what the plans are and the plans for Birmingham 2022 have changed substantially,” said Rollo.

“This Commonwealth Games will be very different from what has gone before. The main change will be the athletes’ village – there isn’t going to be one. That’s a huge part of being involved in the Games. It isn’t just the competition side, it is being in that environment and being with our teams and interacting with other athletes. You could be waking through the village and see a famous athlete.

“The athletes for Birmingham will be housed in three different locations.

“We are still in conversation with the International Netball Federation as to how they are going to determine who qualifies for Birmingham. The process at this stage is that it is the top 12 teams in the world and the cut-off date has been extended.

“The global situation is so different with some teams being able to play test matches and some not.

“Last week we sent them an email asking for further clarification because Northern Ireland have test matches planned for March. Whether or not they can go ahead given the latest meetings happening, we don’t know and we are ranked eleventh so we are in a precarious position.

“We want to make sure we play our way to the games, but the INF have a responsibility to ensure that the integrity of the rankings are maintained and that the best 12 teams are there.

“We have to stick to the competition schedule we have in place, if it changes, then we have to go back to the INF and say it has been taken out of our hands.”

If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that sport and indeed lift must be adaptable to the challenges of the pandemic and nothing is certain. Plans and predictions can often appear futile.

Yet, the beginning of 2021 has already offered much hope of a return to some form of normality in the not to distinct future.

For the basketball and netball fraternity, who have endured as much hardship as any sport, that return can’t come soon enough.