Case Quarterly: What has your role as netball club chaplain over the past four year involved?
Raewyn Elsegood: My volunteer role as club chaplain of Gazelles netball club involves caring for the emotional and mental health of our committee, coaches, players and their families. This has involved dealing with such issues as suicide, domestic violence, family estrangement, anorexia, cutting, anxiety, injury, mediation and a lot of listening to help mums and coaches know what step to take next. These issues are a part of life everywhere, and not just found in a netball club, but they are issues that may not have been addressed had someone not been there to say ‘I’m here to care, I’m ready to listen’. I get involved when asked, listen, advise in a general way—usually with open ended questions to get people thinking for themselves—and, where appropriate, refer on to a professional.
I began my role as chaplain just caring for the committee for the first year, so they got to know me and understood what I could assist the club with. That year, the committee had to face a number of serious issues, so they really got to see how I could help. The following season I was introduced to the coaches and managers as someone who could assist them with the emotional and mental issues of any of their players, and over the third and fourth seasons I have been introduced to not only the players but our whole association (5000 members). They are now looking to place a chaplain in any netball club in our association that wants one, and Netball NSW are trialling it to see if this is something that could work across all local clubs in NSW.
Overall, I find that sporting communities are very open to having a sport chaplain present, ready and willing to address not only emotional and mental health but spiritual health also. As a sports chaplain I have assisted our netball community with memorial services, funerals and child dedications, as many members don’t have a connection to the church. I am it. What a privilege.
CQ: What ages are the girls and women in the club, and what levels do they play at?
RE: Gazelles netball club is a local netball club of 41 teams, made up of 350 girls plus their families. They are a part of the Baulkham Hills Association that has girls starting from 5 years of age through to open age women at all levels from grassroots (A,B,C,D grades) to representative level.
CQ: Do the issues faced by the girls change as they get older?
RE: Yes, the issues change dramatically as they get older. Anxiety is common from ages 8 through to 13 years, and I saw it develop in teens into cutting and anorexia. I have dealt with roughly 20 cases of anxiety-based issues over four seasons. The causes of the anxiety were mainly outside of the sport. The sport actually helps give the mind something healthy to do while working through the anxiety, possibly with strategies given by a professional. Team based activities are widely accepted to help anxiety issues, and I talk to many parents who have been sent by a professional to a team sport to assist with anxiety-based issues.
There is definitely a sense of entitlement that grows in the teenage years that causes coaches concern. An example of this might be players making plans together to override what the coach had told them to do when they didn’t like the position they had been placed in. The transition of ‘who should I listen to, my mum or my coach’ as the girls finish primary and move into their high school years is a hard one all round.
The older women’s teams can become a little aggressive in play. This is especially difficult when a much younger or inexperienced umpire is in charge of the game and trying to navigate what is normal and what is over stepping.
CQ: Do the issues change as the competition level becomes more intense?
RE: Yes. In particular girls want to play regardless of what is going on in their life, including injury that could impact them for life. The girls get hungry for a win at higher level competition, and can become more aggressive on court. This can send tempers flaring on the sidelines.
CQ: Are the issues facing girls in sport different to those facing boys, or much the same?
RE: A sports chaplaincy role at the local level is very different when caring for a male sport compared to a female sport. The girls take their problems and emotions onto the court and hang on to them, whereas the boys seem able to keep them separate from the game, or deal with them quickly with a chat on the sidelines or a shove on the field. The overall issues like suicide, domestic violence, injury and yelling parents are there across all sports, but there is definitely a difference in how these are expressed by girls and boys. In elite adult sport the issues are different again, as they have media to contend with and drugs and alcohol play a larger part.
CQ: What are the benefits for girls and women in playing team sports like netball?
RE: The main benefit is good physical health, as most sports require one game per week and one training per week, that is, at least 2-3 hours per week of outdoor physical activity. Experts say that it improves mental health as well, reducing stress, anxiety and depression. I can attest to this with my own daughter. She began netball in Year 5 with anxiety, and as she developed her confidence within a team we began to see great changes. She built confidence and learnt resilience, and even ended up becoming a qualified umpire—the most abused position in local sport!
CQ: What keeps girls and women playing, and what makes them leave?
RE: Simply put, relationships are the key to longevity. A sense of belonging to something greater than themselves and a developed acceptance of each other’s differences. They generally leave due to external pressures like HSC, part time jobs, and boyfriends all wanting a piece of their precious time. Or it could be that their body has just had enough, due to multiple injuries, or that the relationship network that was supporting them is no longer doing so.
CQ: Are there particular challenges for Christian women and girls in sport?
RE: In local sport the biggest challenge is when the game is played. If it’s a Sunday, it takes the focus away from regular attendance at church. Other challenges have to do with how they play the game, and how they cope with winning or losing.
CQ: How can Christian women and girls be role models in their sport?
RE: By showing the fruits of the Spirit in all our actions and reactions (Galatians 5:22-23). It can make a big difference if Christians are the calm, peaceful players that are kind, generous and compassionate to their teammates and the other team’s players.
The same goes for the families of the players, coaches and committee. Unfortunately, the biggest issue I had to address this year was parents (from any club) on the sidelines yelling less than positive comments at either their child or someone else, in particular the umpire. A ‘sssshhh’ order given from Association level is becoming way too common now as a discipline to teams where parents just can’t be quiet.
Sports like netball have a great team building component that helps develop players’ strength, endurance, and resilience, but it is the attitude of the player that is the stand out amongst all things. The challenges mentioned earlier, like how the game is played, and how players cope with winning and losing, are an opportunity for a Christian to stand out if they choose to play calmly, show kindness, and see a loss as a challenge rather than defeat.
Raewyn Elsegood is the NSW State Coordinator of Sports Chaplaincy, Australia, and former chaplain to the Gazelles netball club.
 A 2019 Roy Morgan study found that 32% of all 18-24 year olds report suffering from anxiety. Among those who play a team sport, the number drops to 19.5%. Rates of depression and stress were also lower in this population. Interestingly, while both men and women gain mental health benefits from playing team sport, the effect is greater for young men (21.5% overall report anxiety compared to 11.5% of sportsmen) than for young women (39.5% overall to 31.5% of sportswomen).
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