NS EXCLUSIVE: Shanice Beckford – high hopes and big dreams

NS EXCLUSIVE: Shanice Beckford – high hopes and big dreams

Cutting a diminutive figure alongside her taller and better-known teammates, fans could – almost – be forgiven for overlooking the 170cm Shanice Beckford. However, over the last ten years the Jamaican has become one of world netball’s most influential and best performed goal attacks. With a significant workload out on court, a deadly accurate shot, and a long-standing bond with current team members, Beckford plays a pivotal role for the Sunshine Girls.

Debuting for her national team as an 18 year old, Beckford hasn’t relinquished her starting bib since, and continues to improve and impress. At the recent 2022 Commonwealth Games her accuracy sat at 88%, up 11% on her 2019 World Cup performance, while she also did a power of work out the front of dominant shooter Jhaniele Fowler.  And after a silver medal winning performance – the first time that Jamaica has ever reached those heights at a pinnacle event – Beckford has high hopes of going one step further at next year’s World Cup.

As a junior growing up in Kingston, Beckford, like so many of her countrywomen, first combined netball with track and field. She said, “I fell into netball by accident when my coach needed some extra players, but fell in love with the game and eventually gave up track.

Beckford’s performances demanded attention from the national selectors, and she was offered a place in the Under 16s, a feeder programme for the 21s and seniors. And while her rise to the top happened quickly, her senior debut was still a pinch-me moment.

Eighteen years old at the time, Beckford was preparing for the Netball World Youth Cup, when she was called up to the national team. She said, “It was a funny way to get started. We had a three test series against England here in Jamaica in 2013. I sat on the bench for most of it, until I got about five minutes in the last game, playing against Stacey Francis. It was very intense, England beat us, but I must have won my coach’s heart because I’ve stayed in the team ever since.”

Following her first Netball World Cup in 2015, Beckford and her compatriot, Nicole Rochester-Dixon, spent a season playing for Team Northumbria in what is now England’s Vitality Netball Super League. She said of her time in the UK, “It was a culture shock for me, although I loved it.

“It was a great experience to be there, training and playing among some of the best netballers in the world. When I went home I was able to share the knowledge and skills set learned with the other ladies here who didn’t get the same opportunity.

“It also gave me far more respect for what elite netballers do – the travelling, training day-in and day-out, the intensity of the games. No game was ever easy. I’d never had that before.”

 

Jamaica finish with bronze at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. Image Simon Leonard

 

In 2017 Beckford was almost lost to the game for good. She and midcourters Rochester-Dixon and Khadijah Williams were stood down from all national duties by the coach of the time, and while the training incident is now a distant memory, Beckford said, “How the coach went about suspending us was really, really, wrong and I didn’t like the approach that was taken by the board of Netball Jamaica at the time. We were given a suspension for an incident that didn’t need it and without following the disciplinary steps that leads to getting a suspension from the team.

“I really love netball, and as I’d never dealt with a situation like that before, I didn’t handle it well.  That time was a very low period emotionally for me – I’m a very reserved person, and it took a long, long time to be able to put it behind me. I almost didn’t play on, and missed one home series as a result.

“But our family, teammates, and support system rallied around the three of us, and I ended up using it as a learning lesson: not staying down in it, but looking at what I could take away from it instead. The positivity rather than the negativity. I moved forwards, and it became part of my netball journey.”

Jamaica is relatively small in terms of population – just shy of three million residents – and while netball is the most popular women’s sport, it still can’t compete financially with the male dominated codes of football and cricket. Athletes like Beckford, who has a degree in marketing, have to support themselves.

As a result, national training are held in the evenings after work and on Saturday mornings. Beckford completes the mandated four sessions per week, and will often add an extra day or two depending on how she is feeling. She said, “It’s hard. It’s really hard. Some days I’m exhausted after work and don’t feel like training. It’s difficult to balance, and I have little time to relax, although I’m lucky that my work is so supportive and sometimes lets me leave early, or gives me time off for training.”

 

Shanice Beckford has made a name for herself as an accurate long range shooter – from anywhere! Image Simon Leonard

 

While Beckford is based in Kingston, half of the national team currently ply their trade overseas in Suncorp Super Netball, with a decent salary, specialist coaching, and access to elite training and support facilities. It’s a far cry from what the remaining home-based team members receive, and while the contrast could be grounds for envy, Beckford feels immensely proud of those teammates instead.

She said, “Of course those of us at home wish we were able to earn as much as them, but we’re happy for the ladies that do receive these opportunities. When they come home, they spread their knowledge and skill sets with us.

“To be honest, the biggest challenge is that our overseas-based players don’t have much time here – and that impacts how well we can gel on court. For example, before the Commonwealth Games we only had two weeks and three training sessions together, before we left for England.”

To connect and cement bonds within the team, everyone is hooked up to a group chat, talking to each other daily. Beckford said, “We watch all the games that we can manage (due to the time difference) and they check into our training sessions when they can. They tell us what they want and expect from us, and we do the same to them.”

The Sunshine Girls find that being honest with each other is not only crucial, but essential. With their limited funding they don’t have a performance analyst, just one of the facilities they can’t access that most top tier nations take for granted. Instead, aided by their coaching staff, the team members talk about each other’s play.

Beckford explained, “We don’t miss their (overseas players) matches – we get up in the night to watch them, and tell them what they are doing well, or what they need to do, or what their opponent is doing against them. We try to have that connection and I think you can see it in our team camaraderie.

“In a funny way, because it’s challenging to find ways to make it work, it brings us closer together. And when they come home it’s like they never left. Of course we’d like more time together, but it is what it is, and we have to make it work within the time frame we have.”

 

Team members have to rely on their coaches and each other for performance analysis. Shanice Beckford taking on a front cut at the 2019 Netball World Cup. Image May Bailey

 

With many incredibly talented and athletic players, Jamaica has always threatened to turn world netball on it’s head, however, a lack of consistency and skill errors have proved costly over the years. Having never finished higher than third, they went into the 2019 Netball World Cup with high hopes, but were stunned when relegated to fifth place.

It was time for some serious soul searching, and revisiting the basics, as Jamaica was determined not to let the mistakes of the past haunt them. Aiming for a gold or silver medal at the 2022 Commonwealth Games, with legendary coach Connie Francis once again in charge, and Australian Rob Wright on board as a specialist coach, the athletes knuckled down to work harder than ever before.

Beckford said, “We went back to the drawing board. It started with the individual, then the units and then the group at large. We worked on our weak areas, we watched clippings, we had more structure, more focus. We looked at what we needed to do, and shut down the outside noise.

“We believed we had the skills, the players and the flare to be better. And we added structure, fine tuning our set plays, and knowing what to do, when to do it, and how we could better respond to when things not working for us in the match. We did keep our sense of fun – that was very important to us.”

 

Maintaining a strong connection between team members has always been important to Jamaica. Shanice Beckford (right) featured with Romelda Aiken, who has played overseas for many years. Image Marcela Massey

 

With Connie Francis at the helm – who Beckford rates as a ‘phenomenal’ coach – the Sunshine Girls worked tirelessly. Beckford said, “With Connie’s experience and passion for netball, no training session was easy. When things weren’t working, she’d go back to her drawing board, come to training with an solution and  tell us what she wanted us to do. She’d remind us about missing out to Australia and New Zealand, and how much that hurt.”

While the attacking end had a strong and pre-existing connection, the electric defensive unit was bolstered by Australian specialist coach, Rob Wright, who started working with the team in January. Originally dialling into training sessions via Zoom, Wright headed to Jamaica after his coaching commitments in New Zealand finished. He primarily worked with the defenders, and team transition into defence.

Beckford explained, “He spread his knowledge across the team, and brought focus, patience and structure. He introduced different things we’d never done before, and really helped us look at the game in a new light.

“He and Connie were totally different, but they had the same goal, to get the job done.”

Heading into the Commonwealth Games, few pundits picked Jamaica to finish in the medals. Despite half of the team taking part in the rigorous Australian competition, questions were raised about the midcourt’s lack of top-tier experience. Would their error rate blow out, and could they stay composed under pressure?

However, Jamaica stunned Australia during pool play, beating them by two goals for the first time ever at a Commonwealth Games. Beckford was on fire, contributing 10 goals at 100%, plus 28 centre pass receives, 20 circle feeds, and an intercept, all for just one turnover. The team went on to easily account for New Zealand in the semi-finals, setting up their first-ever date with Australia in a gold medal match.

 

Shanice Beckford in action at the 2022 Commonwealth Games. Image Sue McKay/Kick It To Me Photography

 

The novelty wasn’t lost on the Sunshine Girls. Beckford said, “We had such mixed emotions before that match. Excitement, because we’d never been in that position before, and nerves for exactly the same reason.

“As a team, we wanted to play hard and execute well, and I think we did that for the most part, even though we didn’t come away with the win. But we’d never been in that situation before. Most of the Australian girls had at least experienced Suncorp Super Netball finals, and they knew what it would take to win, and how to fight to the end.

“We fought as hard as we could too, but they are world number one for a reason.”

While Jamaica were ultimately defeated, 55 – 51, they won silver in an enthralling encounter. And while it was an incredibly proud moment for the team, they have a sense of unfinished business. Beckford said, “It was a definite confidence boost. We left the Commonwealth Games knowing that we are capable of beating the world number one, and that we can get the job done. So we’re really looking forward to Cape Town.”

Stronger for the experience, the Sunshine Girls believe they still have room for improvement – a scary prospect for other nations. Beckford said, “We spoke about it after the game, and definitely on the fitness end I think we can do more. That kind of tour takes a toll on the body, and we did get a little bit fatigued. I think we also went away from our game plan at times, so that’s more a matter of fine tuning than making huge changes”.

And while training will start again soon, and some team members take part in a three-test series in New Zealand, for now, it’s time for Beckford to have a well-earned break. She has to head back to work, but also will spend time catching up with family and friends, hitting the beach, and refreshing ahead of the next big challenge.

The highest Jamaica has ever finished at a World Cup is third, and that not since 2007. But with another year’s worth of hard work and court time, Beckford and the rest of the Sunshine Girls have high hopes and very big dreams.

 

Bronze at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. Jamaica haven’t medalled at a World Cup since 2007, and are hoping to be on top of the dais in Cape Town next year. Image Simon Leonard

 

Shanice Beckford taking on Australia’s April Brandley at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. Image Simon Leonard

 

Shanice Beckford in the Roses Reunited tour, in England 2021. Image: Ben Lumley

 

Shanice Beckford at the Netball World Cup in 2019. Image May Bailey

 

 

 

 

About the Author:

Physiotherapist, writer and netball enthusiast. Feature articles, editorials and co-author of "Shine: the making of the Australian Netball Diamonds". Everyone has a story to tell, and I'm privileged to put some of them on paper. Thank you to the phenomenal athletes, coaches and people in the netball world who open a door to their lives, and let me tiptoe in.