Mentor, G.K. 2019, Leap: Making the Jump to Take Netball to the Top of the World. London: Hodder and Stoughton.
Geva Mentor is a household name for netball fans and rightly so. She has played in five Commonwealth Games and five Netball World Cups for the English Roses and was selected for the national side at just 15 years of age. She won two premierships with Team Bath, one with the Thunderbirds, one with the Vixens and two with the Sunshine Coast Lightning. She was named MVP of the 2017 Suncorp Super Netball league and Netball Scoop MVP in the same year. She is widely considered to be one of the best defenders in the world. She was also one of the first English players to make the big move to Australia following the beginning of the ANZ Championship in 2008.
Yet the road hasn’t always been easy for her. Most notably, she was locked out of the English Roses for an extended period due to an enduring desire to improve her game in Australia. She has had ongoing struggles with England Netball throughout her career and has changed Super Netball teams twice in the last few years after being told she was too old to continue as a starting player. In 2018, Mentor had the most successful year of her career winning a Commonwealth Games gold medal and captaining the Sunshine Coast Lightning to back-to-back premierships. But in amongst this extraordinary success, Mentor was going through one of the most personally difficult parts of her life.
This book chronicles Mentor’s journey from a freshfaced schoolgirl selected in the English national team to a gold medal winning legend of the sport. Its importance in this sense cannot be understated. Mentor has a better perspective on the strengths and shortcomings of global netball than almost anyone else. She has accumulated 146 caps for the England Roses and has played over 150 national league games. This book touches on many issues that netball will need to address if it is to move forward as a professional sport.
Mentor’s love of sport was instilled in her from a young age. Her mother, Yvonne was a good tennis player and her father (from whom she inherited her 191cm frame) was an athlete. Mentor dabbled in different sports including gymnastics, basketball and horse riding. She became a representative trampolinist as a youngster, a sport she was forced to quit at the age of 14 after her height began to dramatically increase her risk of injury. The passion she had for sport from an early age was clear and the way she describes her early interest in trampoline gives some insight into how it developed her as an athlete more generally:
There has to be a purpose to what I am doing. I have to have a goal to reach, a point, as it were, to what I am doing, and so one thing led to another and I started entering competitions at weekends. (p. 27)
Mentor was clear that she was always probably more suited to team sports. Originally asked to join a netball team and wave her arms around because she was tall, it then seemed a meteoric rise to the top levels. She was selected to play under-14s representative netball where she was scouted as a talent. From here she made the English under-17 and under-21 squads and was then selected into the English National team at the age of 15.
It’s hard to imagine Mentor spending much time sitting on a bench now, but in the first year of her international career she didn’t get on court. She is adamant that this was still a formative period for her netball, noting that:
I’m a firm believer now that it isn’t just about exposing people to court time, it is letting them earn their position. And that doesn’t always come easily. You have to challenge those on court who are playing in your position and you have to fight to get on; it’s what I’ve come to know as healthy competition. (p. 74)
Certainly this attitude helped Mentor develop as a player and she lists patience and teamwork as two of the main values that were instilled in her over that first 12 months. She made her international debut in a game against the Silver Ferns in 2001. Starting the game at goal keeper, Mentor was up against none other than Irene van Dyk who had recently made the move over from South Africa. As she recalls:
When I went over to greet her she just put out her arms and pulled me in for a giant hug. Then she kissed me on the cheek. Well, I wasn’t expecting that! (p. 81).
It says a lot about how netball has changed in the last two decades that the Roses lost by “about thirty-six goals” (ibid) in that game. At this point in time, this was considered the norm. Until 2018, the Roses had never made the final of a Netball World Cup or the Commonwealth Games. Mentor’s frustration with this grew as they edged ever closer to the top two nations, but always seemed to fall at the final hurdle.
At first it seemed to be a lack of hunger; an expectation that the Silver Ferns and the Diamonds would always be playing each other for gold and that there wasn’t a lot other countries could do about it. Mentor clearly struggled with this attitude. After watching the final of the 2002 Commonwealth Games from the stands she knew that “this was the level I wanted to be playing at” (p. 110).
A key part of the Roses getting increasingly close to Australia and New Zealand was the internationalisation of the game of netball. Mentor and Sonia Mkloma were two of the first players to make the big move across to Australia to play in the new trans-tasman ANZ Championship. Playing against the likes of Laura Langman and Sharelle McMahon on a weekly basis would have made challenging the top nations seem a more realistic goal. Yet many of Mentor’s English teammates still saw a bronze medal as a win. After they lost the semifinal to the Silver Ferns in the 2011 World Championships and eventually went away with bronze, Mentor stated that
the new girls on the squad were happy with the [bronze] medal but I knew deep down we were better than that. I had this real yearning for a better medal and it felt like a chance had been wasted. (p. 146)
The Roses also came agonisingly close against both Australia and New Zealand at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, losing both games in the final seconds of the game by giving up possession. What was clear from this tournament is that the Roses had true belief, perhaps for the first time, that they could go all the way. The amount of energy spent in the two one-goal losses was too much for the team who went on to lose to Jamaica in the bronze medal match and leave the tournament without a medal. Mentor was devastated, recalling at the time that
When it was all over, Mum came to give me a hug. There were no words spoken between us, I just let her safe arms envelop me while I sobbed. (p. 165)
The frustration Mentor was feeling was also because of perceived poor decision-making from management and coaches across several major tournaments. The Roses had trained for months in heat chambers and saunas for the 2003 World Cup to combat the Jamaican heat. Yet when they arrived in Jamaica, both their accommodation and the courts they were playing on were freezing cold with air conditioning.
In the 2011 World Championships, Mentor struggled to build a good defensive pairing with Sonia Mkloma because she was so often paired with Stacey Francis instead during the preliminary rounds. When it came to the semifinal, her and Mkloma started the game in defence together, but hadn’t had the opportunity to build on court together throughout the tournament.
In the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, the players were all made to appear on a BBC show the night before they were to face the Silver Ferns in the semifinal. While both Mentor and Eboni Usoro-Brown (at the time Beckford-Chambers) were clear in their objections to this, they were overruled. Would this have changed the result? It’s hard to know, but certainly being well-rested can be a crucial part of being able to avoid costly errors at the end of games when the pressure is on.
As netball has become more professional, these kind of issues are bound to happen occasionally, but it seemed that England Netball were often on the back foot, both in terms of coaching decisions and player welfare. These annoyances could seem minor, but when considering how much time and money is invested in Australia to ensure that their netballers are at peak on match day, it was as if England were already behind other nations before they even took the court.
Mentor was ousted by the English Roses following the 2011 World Champs. She was by now with the Melbourne Vixens and had committed to a work contract with them in September when the Roses would be playing the Jamaican Sunshine Girls. Mentor had informed the selectors of this and been encouraged to trial anyway, but was then voted out of the team by a panel including then coach Anna Mayes and her assistant coach Colette Thomson. She was devastated by this decision which saw her out of the team for around 18 months.
There’s a lot to unpack here. As the top five netball nations have become increasingly close, national associations have to balance growing domestic pathways, while allowing established players to grow their game in better competitions. Thomson who was backed up by Mayes believed that all their players needed to commit to the entire international season or not at all. Two English selectors abstained from the vote and Mentor was officially advised that she couldn’t be part of the Roses programme.
When Mentor eventually returned to the squad in 2013, she opened the door for many other players to make the trip to Australia and New Zealand, a key part of what made the Roses so competitive in the years to come. Of the Roses squad who beat the Diamonds to gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, eight had current or former contracts with New Zealand or Australian sides.
Both England Netball and Netball New Zealand struggled with players who would benefit their pathway wanting to play in other leagues. Laura Langman was famously barred from playing for the Silver Ferns for two years because she didn’t have an ANZ Premiership contract. The two national bodies have now taken slightly different approaches with a large number of English players plying their trade in Australia; the Suncorp Super Netball competition has unlimited imports and as a direct result, has become the strongest competition in the world. Netball New Zealand have kept the same policy with the aim of growing their pathways, but have made allowances for world class players like Langman and Maria Folau to play in the Australian competition.
Throughout her career, Mentor was also on the receiving end of some very unprofessional behaviour. High performance netball in England has appeared to lag behind programmes in Australia and New Zealand. A big part of this has been a failure to acknowledge players for their achievements. It was many years after her first cap in 2001 that Mentor received official acknowledgement of it. While players are usually given something to mark the occasion, there was no such celebration for Mentor, despite her mother’s best efforts to spur them on.
The same has happened with her 100th cap. While the top nations have been better at celebrating their long serving players, Mentor knew that England Netball would not arrange anything:
Mum and I had organised everything that day because we didn’t want to leave anything down to England Netball. Jade Clarke celebrated her hundredth cap at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games and England Netball didn’t do anything to mark it at all, so the rest of the girls and I made it special for her and made a fuss of her that game. (p. 180)
With the increasing professionalisation of netball comes more of a duty of care towards the players. Mentor’s description of her struggles over many years to be taken seriously both in England and Australia raise significant questions about how netball clubs and national federations can take better care of their players.
This discussion has some parallels with Sharni Layton’s recent call to International Netball Federation delegates to take care of their athletes, first as humans and then as players. Layton was forced to bow out of Diamonds duties due to severe mental health issues in 2016; at the time she was the most famous netballer in Australia, working with ten sponsors and doing work for Animals Australia alongside daily training. In amongst this responsibility, Layton found herself having increasingly common meltdowns. Luckily for her, she immediately received help from the Australian Diamonds wellbeing manager when she opened up about what was happening.
What is clear from reading Mentor’s account is that the support she had from her mother and her brother Raoul through all the ups and downs of her ongoing career were key to her wellbeing and that there is every chance she may not have been able to continue playing overseas without it. Considering she moved to Australia at just 24, her family’s ability to be there for her when she needed help was key to her success. With an increasing number of players coming from other countries and less privileged backgrounds, this call becomes all the more important. Professional sporting organisations who want the best players in the world must also do everything in their power to take care of these players.
As Mentor mentions in the prologue to this book, she has recently become an ambassador for the JAN Trust, which aims to empower Black, African, Minority and Ethnic Women. If there is anything to take away from this book, it’s that an athlete’s success on the court is only the beginning of their story. If we truly want the game of netball to grow, we need to make it a welcoming space for young women who may not have had the family or professional support that both Layton and Mentor had access to. If we want netball to be professional, we must ensure the safety and wellbeing of players.
Perhaps prophetically, Mentor closes the book with an assessment on the Roses’ chances at the Netball World Cup in Liverpool. While still clearly believing that they would face the Diamonds in the final, Mentor wasn’t willing to completely dismiss the kiwis:
I am personally cautious about the New Zealand side. They have Noeline at the helm now, and Laura Langman is their captain. (p. 274)
Mentor hasn’t made any public decisions about the next steps in her career just yet. What is certain is what a fantastic ambassador she is for netball globally and what a huge effect she has had on the game. Role models are important in women’s sport and Mentor has had a crucial role in influencing young women (and particularly young women of colour) to play and, ensuring that the sport can take the next step into the future.
Mentor has now been playing netball professionally for almost 20 years. A winner of six premierships across her domestic career and a Commonwealth Games gold medal, she remains humble about her storied career so far. She was recently awarded a CBE for services to netball and the game is in the public eye in England more than it has ever been.
On retirement, she doesn’t give much away citing that she may be in need of a break after the World Cup. Mentor will go into teaching after she decides she’s done; we hope not too soon. One does get the feeling that she will always be involved in netball in one way or another because “it’s a game I’m bloody proud to be part of” (p. 275).
Where to buy:
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