A group of expats has found a place to play netball in Seoul, a sport popular in commonwealth countries, and now gaining popularity among Korean schoolgirls.
Netball is the number one women’s sport in countries like Australia and New Zealand but is unheard of in some other countries. It’s a cross between basketball and handball but the ball can’t be dribbled, and players have set positions on court.
Rachel Yates, 25, from New Zealand, has been playing since she was eight but when she came to teach English in Korea last year she discovered there was nowhere to play the sport.
“I was craving a game of netball and myself and other friends would talk about how great it would be to play here but there was no league, no facilities, and netball requires a special court and goalposts,” she said.
But by chance she saw a news item on television that featured school girls playing the sport in Korea.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Yates. “My Korean friend tracked down the news story and it turns out netball is now played in about 100 middle schools all over South Korea.”
In fact, netball was introduced to Korea in 2001 by the now president of the Korean Netball Association, Kim Soo-hong, who had lived in New Zealand. Through the association Yates was able to track down a school in Seoul that offers netball to its students.
Shooters line up the ball, while middle schoolers experience firsthand how expats play the fast-paced game at Yeouido Middle School. (Yeouido Middle School)
So since late last year, a bunch of foreigners have been visiting Yeouido Middle School and it has been mutually beneficial. In return for a place to play, the expats have been giving the students coaching.
“These girls are learning netball from scratch. It’s a new sport for them. They haven’t seen netball played on TV, they don’t have any adult players to emulate, and coaches are still learning about the game themselves, so they’ve got a long way to go. But the main thing is they have fun playing it,” said Yates.
Kim Eun-kyung is a gym teacher at the school and coaches the netball. She says having foreigners introduce the sport to the girls has been exciting for the students. “I think foreigners are giving our students an unforgettable memory of netball. Our students get to learn about the details of all the rules and different drills by playing and getting coached by foreigners. It feels like we are learning from real professionals,” she said.
Kim Mina, 14, is in her final year at Yeouido Middle School and has been playing netball since she entered the school but watching experienced players has really opened her eyes. “They are tall and so fast. Playing with harder players has definitely made me improve my netball skills. I like how netball is very energetic and I also love that feeling when the ball goes inside the hoop, it makes me feel so good,” she enthused.
Another student, Won Seo-young, 14, says the visits have also helped her improve her English. “It’s a good opportunity to practice speaking. I have no fear talking to the foreigners who come. I also got to know how netball is played in other countries. It’s very fast paced. It was a bit different than what we have practiced. I was glad to find out,” she said.
In future, coach Kim Eun-kyung would love to see the sport grow in Korea and for girls to continue playing it beyond middle school. At high school, students are so busy studying that the sport tends to be pushed aside.
But student Kim Mina says sport can actually help students perform better in the long-term, “There are some students who can’t even come to gym, because they are studying so hard after school. Lots of Korean girls think that if they are playing sports, they should give up on studying. I think it is better if they can do both, because playing sport can help you release the stress and have fun at the same time. That’s why I think netball should be popular for girls in Korea.”
With the help of foreigners that goal will become more achievable. In addition to the sessions at Yeouido Middle school a Tuesday night netball league has also sprung up in Sinchon. Organizers are looking for more players with or without experience.
For more information about playing netball in Korea email email@example.com
By Bridget Tunnicliffe and Koo Hyun-jung (firstname.lastname@example.org)