October in Brisbane is a time of adrenaline rushes and netball fever. It’s where elite teams will unite and battle for gold; the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been before. While the Constellation Cup is in town, for many it will take second place to the prestigious Marie Little OAM Shield, Australia’s national netball competition for women over 16 with an intellectual disability.

These disabilities are of various types and levels, but often fall under the Autism Spectrum Disorder (which can range from Down syndrome to Asperger’s syndrome). Players with more physical disabilities, such as cerebral palsy, are also included.

Isabella Ivancic-Holland, Mandy Berry and Storm Duncan from the South Australian Rubies. Photo: Georgia Musolino

The competition was established in 2013 in honour of Marie Little OAM, a woman with big visions who had an even bigger impact. Since founding Sport Inclusion Australia in 1986, Little dedicated her life to improving the lives of women with intellectual disabilities through sport. Today, her legacy lives on not only through the competition, but through the girls’ achievements on and off the court.

This year New South Wales, South Australia, Victoria, Queensland, Northern Territory and Western Australia will compete between the 5th and 7th of October. Netball Queensland are thrilled to be hosting the event for the first time, with passionate team manager Phoebe Lennox eager to display the team’s talents in front of a home crowd.

“This is only our third year involved in the Marie Little Shield and we’ve been working hard to rebuild the opportunity for players with an intellectual impairment in Queensland. So, to have the chance to showcase the state team and what can be achieved is something we’re really excited about,” Lennox explained.

“We’ve had a couple of parent supporters follow us around, but we haven’t had much of a cheer squad otherwise. So, the girls are really looking forward to playing in front of their family and friends!”

A big highlight this year will be the momentous grand final, preceding the Samsung Diamonds vs Silver Ferns Constellation Cup match. Lennox said, “This is such an awesome platform for the whole competition, so we’re hoping lots of people come early to watch the girls play. When you’re trying to build programs, communication is key to get the right message to the right people. Hopefully this curtain-raiser and massive visual of what the Marie Little program is all about will be a launching pad to a bigger and better competition next year.”

But the question on everyone’s minds – which team will conquer the competition? Will the three-time New South Wales champions continue the winning streak, or will South Australia and Victoria upset their campaign? Can Queensland crack the top three, or will underdogs Northern Territory and Western Australia shake the rankings? This year, it’s anyone’s game.

A fierce competition…

This sixth year of competition promises to be the most intense yet.

The fearless New South Wales team are favourites to take out the title once again. Head coach Jenny O’Keefe credits the girls’ successes to their sheer passion and enjoyment of the game which drives their playing abilities.

“I can even see with the training sessions; they’re keen to come, they’re delighted to be with each other, and they’re very focused. So, it’s nice to see a few things coming to the court from training, and I think they get as much feeling of success from being able to apply them as they do with any other victories. Plus, they come from such a widespread area, so they’re also bringing different things from where they’re from.”

One stand-out with this gutsy squad is their ability to bring a level of physicality. This is a defensive skill which is the trickiest aspect to teach players with an intellectual disability. Many girls aren’t comfortable with being ‘on-body’ or in close proximity to other players, and it can significantly increase their anxiety. Overcoming this challenge occurs through experience and a range of defensive training skills, and the skills transfer into real life.

Jenny said, “I think that some of the netball the girls are seeing elsewhere might have an impact on the physicality. They tend to learn quite well from watching and doing, so I suspect this has been a bit of an influence. Besides that, one of our focuses is always knowing where the ball is and wanting the ball.”
While NSW is feeling empowered in their netball, they are well aware of the contests which lie ahead.

Jenny explained, “It’s a competition where you have no idea what you’re going to come up against, for the other teams have big improvements in 12 months. So, we like to focus on the message that if you can come off the court knowing you had a really good go, that’s what matters.”

New South Wales team of 2017. Photo courtesy of NNSW.

Three-time runners-up, the South Australian Rubies, are more determined than ever to light up the national stage. With two new players and four training partners bringing a fresh dynamic to the team, Head Coach Tricia Crockford is pleased with their trainings and overall growth.

“It’s all about trying to keep a nice routine while we’re away; the same stretch, the same warm-up and those types of things. We also have a little bit of luxury in knowing some combinations that really work for us at the local C6 competition,” said Tricia.

Key aspects of coaching a team with intellectual impairments includes maintaining their attention, being repetitive and explicit in instructions. However, five years of bonding, learning about each other’s personalities and building trust means Tricia can move beyond this hurdle to expand their skills.

She said, “Their playing, organisation and social media usage get easier each year because you don’t have to keep reiterating them. I’m able to broaden my instructions a little now and they get it. They know my mannerisms and I know their mannerisms, so I know the ones that I have to run with and have to instruct step-by-step. I also know the girls that I can push that next step.”

While they are yet to win the competition, the players’ phenomenal progress has Tricia confident they’ll be fierce contenders for the shield. “In 2016 we lost by 10 against NSW, but then last year we lost by one in the grand final. So, for me, I think we didn’t lose by one, we’ve improved by nine. So, I think if we can improve by another nine, it should see us win gold by eight.”

“But in the end, it’ll be about going over there, having a tour of Brisbane and having some fun. I’d like to think the work we’ve done will put us in really good state, but we’ll have to wait and see!”

The Rubies enjoy a light-hearted moment after training. Photo: Georgia Musolino

Victoria’s brand-new coaching team, including head coach Naomi Linossier and assistant coach Emma Ryde, are proving to be quite the game-changers. Despite being Naomi’s first year, she’s managed to empower the girls with their netball abilities through a fresh perspective, different drills and a distinct game plan.

“Originally, I’m from basketball, so it’s cool to bring that side of things,” said Naomi. “I’m also a PE teacher, so I bring good game sense and different mini activities, rather than just the usual drills. We also plan to have each player stick to one area of the court mainly, because I think it’s important to give them a specific focus. It just helps to settle the team and gives a better understanding of who they’ll be playing with.”

“I’m a big believer that you have to do all the little stuff to get the big rewards at the end, so we’re focusing on having a steady pace, making good choices and not giving the ball to the other team.”
Naomi also praises her players for their extremely welcoming attitude to the coaches and five new young teammates, which has allowed them to bond cohesively and hone in on their netball skills.

“We’re pretty lucky that we don’t have to do too much team bonding because they all clicked really well. It was great to see such a good attitude and atmosphere at training where the girls were working together and having fun. Although the first training was pretty quiet, they’re now laughing when coming in and there’s a lot of banter going back and forth, which has made the whole experience really enjoyable.”

Victorian team 2018. Photo courtesy of NV.

On the other hand, Queensland hosts have maintained a relatively consistent training and coaching squad since their debut in 2016. With the team ranging from ages 16-46, head coach Merrin McCullough is impressed by the mentorship of older players.

“Our team is really caring, and I suppose having that age variety means we’ve got a couple of mum-type figures that really watch over the younger ones. Our oldest player has been captain for the last three years, and she is especially such a great mentor.”

This year, her players have been undergoing intense preparations, which take a different approach compared to teams without intellectual disabilities. Merrin explained, “We undergo standard netball training, but I just have to measure out what level of competence they’re up to, how much they understand it and their level of confidence.”

“So, I’ll have to break it down a lot more. Some things they pick up really quickly; other things not so much, so we do a lot of repetition, especially with ball work, movement down court and things like running towards the ball.”

But for Merrin, it’s a coaching experience like no other. “I’ve been coaching for 43 years for all sorts of levels and ages. But what I love about coaching the Marie Little Shield is the amount of work and effort that these girls put in. It’s incredible, because they have to battle not just learning about netball but a lot of other stuff too. But they work just as hard as everybody else.”

This hard work has seen Queensland score fourth place over the past two years, and team manager Phoebe Lennox is certain they’ll be even more competitive this year, particularly against the stronger states. “We’re slowly getting there in terms of building our court performance, and we’re confident that we’re improving each year. We have more depth across the court and more players, which will give us a bit more flexibility in terms of court time and making sure the girls are well rested between each game.”

The Northern Territory team, the Dragonflies, made their competition debut last year and stole fifth place from Western Australia in the final match. This event truly highlighted the comradery and loving spirit of the entire community, who all joined in to celebrate the notable win. South Australian Rubies player Mandy Berry shared the pure excitement that everyone felt.

“It was amazing to see how much the Northern Territory players learned from when they were training to actually playing. And when they won their first match, we all ran up and were crying and gave them a hug. The energy was so amazing, and it was so good to see them win their first game. They were beautiful people and their uniforms were gorgeous, so we’re looking forward to seeing them again.”

Photo courtesy of Hannah Rexx Photography

This year, the Northern Territory’s ten-player squad is being led by coach Chantelle Ayers.

Hoping to challenge these teams is Western Australia, who debuted in 2016. Being a newer addition to the national community, head coach Jamie-Leigh Strickland says they’re still focusing on maintaining a consistent routine and imbedding the newer girls into the team.

She said, “They’re not quite at the strategy and tactics level yet, but we’re focusing on sticking to a creative routine to better prepare the girls for training each week and really solidify some of those skills in their memories. We’re also focussing on getting them used to playing with a couple of positional changes and effectively integrating the newer girls into the team.”

“We treat them all equally and assume they can do it until proven otherwise. When that time comes, we adjust accordingly. But so far, the trainings have been fantastic, and by continuing to lay these pathways for the girls, it allows them to see how much closer they are to getting to the other teams.”

Besides the need for repetition, Jaime-Leigh also notes that coaches must be aware of their wording, for many of the girls are very literal in their understanding. “It’s really interesting, even little things like ‘keep your eyes up’ has them staring at the roof, or ‘cover the post’ will lead to them standing there and just looking at the post. So as coaches, we’ve got to watch what we say because that’s exactly what they’re going to do, which is actually quite helpful once you find the right terminology.”

With the round-robin competition consisting of ten 20-minute games, preparing for such intense competition conditions can be difficult. But Jaime-Leigh has well prepared the girls with constant encouragement and ‘pushing them through that mental barrier of feeling fatigue’.

The encouragement of family at training also plays a huge role in motivating the girls. “We get a lot of families or support workers watching the training sessions, so you see the joy they get from watching their daughters/clients have an absolute ball and work really hard for an hour and a half. Parents also get the chance to talk to new people that are going through similar stuff, which is great.”

Western Australian team 2018. Photo courtesy of NWA.

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