Netball players are stronger, faster, and fitter than they have ever been before as the game gets faster and contests become closer.
We have always sat in awe about the speed and agility of our elite Netballers but in this new age, we now marvel at their strength, the ability for these athletes to really push their bodies to the limit on court and contest in ways never seen before.
As the 2021 Suncorp Super Netball (SSN) season continues to thrive there has been more and more discussion around the physicality of the sport and defensive styles that teams employ.
Is there even such a thing as too physical?
Is the physicality of the game impacting the quality of netball?
Thanks to our friends at Champion Data, we have access to play-by-play statistics for every round this season and the numbers tell an interesting story.
Here are some general statistics for the SSN League ahead of the season’s resumption on Tuesday:
SSN League Total Average Penalties: 56 per game
SSN League Average Contact Penalties: 45 per game
SSN League Average Obstruction Penalties: 11 per game
Team Highest Average Total Penalties: Queensland Firebirds – 68.64 per game
Team Lowest Average Total Penalties: New South Wales Swifts – 48.36 per game
Team Highest Penalty Count single game: Queensland Firebirds Round 1 – 93 Total Penalties
Team Lowest Penalty Count single game: Giants Round 2 – 35 Total Penalties
A quick glance at the data reveals the Queensland Firebirds as the most penalised team in the competition with the side’s average far exceeding the league average, in fact, four times this season Firebirds have exceeded 70 penalties in a single game (Round 1, Round 5, Round 6, Round 11).
By comparison, the NSW Swifts fare as the least penalised team exceeding the league average of 56 penalties only three times (Round 5, Round 7, Round 11).
To put that into perspective, the round one game between the Queensland Firebirds and the NSW Swifts racked up a total of 139 penalties.
It is not rocket science – the less time spent sanctioned means more time to contribute to the game.
Consider this, every time the whistle is blown that’s at least one person – sometimes two – out of play, that is a team of six for an entire phase of play reducing pressure on the ball carrier.
The statistics do not lie, currently, the top four are the only four teams that have an average penalty rate below the League average of 56 per game.
The Swifts average 48.36 per game, GIANTS average 53.55 per game, West Coast Fever 51.64 per game, and Sunshine Coast Lightning 54.85 per game.
These are teams that have achieved success through sustained defensive pressure and the ability to have their seven players on court competing for the maximum amount of time during the game.
It is worth mentioning – some people might be a little shook – the West Coast Fever is often touted as having a very physical defensive end, but the Perth-side actually have one of the cleanest averages across the league, with average contact penalties at 41.09 per game and average obstruction penalties at10.55 per game – both under the league average for those metrics.
While we know Fever players have a physical presence, however, they are much more selective in the contests they enter on court and it speaks to, perhaps, the key to physical defence.
Contest selection is crucial.
Especially the defender’s ability to assess their chances of turning over the ball or gaining the ball in a clean manner, one that does not involve the umpire – although that is easier said than done on the court in the mere milliseconds you have to decide in that moment.
On the opposite hand, defenders who go for everything will often involve the umpire and a high penalty count.
A counterargument can be made that a high penalty count can still result in a win, and that physical teams can muscle to a win with overwhelming physicality, and you would be correct.
The Queensland Firebirds muscled their way to a win against the Lightning to keep their season hopes alive in Round 11 all the while racking up a total of 84 penalties to the Lightning’s 64 penalties.
It should be noted the overwhelming theme online that the Queensland Firebirds were overtly physical and bordered on dangerous in their contest. There was also scuttlebutt online about the umpiring but that is a trap door we are avoiding today.
What will be said though is the impact this has on the game.
Netball matches that have high penalty counts or very physical contests on-court and it usually results in a very erratic, stagnant style of play.
In these physical contests, both teams find themselves unable to establish a rhythm or maintain fluidity in attack.
Also, error count and turnovers increase as teams either overcorrect in attack or underperform due to the physicality and in some cases, players are removed completely from the court due to sustained injuries.
How does this also compare to netball elsewhere?
Aotearoa’s domestic league is about to enter finals and as per Champion Data ANZ Premiership teams average dramatically less than SSN.
The ANZP teams average 51 penalties per game with the Northern Stars the highest team with an average of 55 penalties per game and the Mainland Tactix the lowest averaging 46.29 penalties per game. (Note: Data reviewed before this weekend’s action)
This would not be a surprise to most netball fans though as teams across the Tasman prefer space and zone defence as opposed to the one-on-one defence Australian’s are feared worldwide for.
Regardless of the impact on the game there is no doubt physicality is most definitely now a draw card to the sport and makes SSN the world-leading Netball league that it is.
As teams draw near the finals stage of a tumultuous season riddled with covid troubles no doubt physicality will be a major focus for teams to manage players health and also focus on ensuring players can perform given tight turn around between games and a condensed ending to the season.
There is also a chance for some to finish the season off successfully by dealing with the amount of whistle blown on court and allowing themselves the best chance to win.