Phenomena of netball – Part 2: Facial recognition and spatial awareness

After a two year hiatus I have returned to netball this summer for a short season. Returning once again to the sport that occupied my childhood and adolescence has brought fresh perspective to some interesting phenomena of netball. Here is the second in a series of three posts.

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Part 2: Facial recognition and spatial awareness

I had forgotten, in the intervening years, just how physical and embodied team sports actually are. They really do lift your social engagement to a whole new level of heightened physical awareness, and sensitivity to emotions, and careful analysis of others. Except that people are physically moving everywhere all over the place really fast and ferociously. And the emotions are driven by competition, reacting to every little thing that happens in the moment. And the careful analysis is not to understand the person holistically but to analyse their playing, to determine strategy, to beat them. So heightened, but much less personal.

My positions on the court are defence and goal keeping. Sometimes I play against a shooter that I really get, right from the moment we step on court. Those are the most fun games; I can tell exactly where she will go, and how she will move. When I play against these girls, they hardly ever get opportunities to score because I usually intercept passes to them before they can get into the circle. I can stand a metre or two in front of my partner, with my back to her, and know exactly where she is from the sound of her feet and the pattern of her past plays. I’ve noticed, after a few weeks in a row of partners like this, that I struggle to identify the girl I was playing against when it comes to shaking hands at the end of the game. After an hour of being able to plot her every move without looking directly at her, I’ll still have no idea what her face looks like!

Sometimes I play against shooters that really get me. They know exactly what I am going to do and where I am going to go. They run rings around me and get every goal into the ring. I feel like an idiot, waving my hands in the air, knowing that I cannot stop the inevitable. I know what the faces of these girls look like! Some of them are girls I played against as a teenager, their faces are still buried in my subconscious. I feel a tiny pang of fear when I turn up to the court, and see them, and recognise them. Memories of old, difficult matches come creeping back and wonder if she is now old enough – like me – to be on the downward spiral of fitness with a slowing metabolism. Hopefully she will be an easier opponent today? Nope. It hardly ever works out that way!

Such strange social interactions! Such a heightened awareness of others’ movements, such strong memories of faces, all driven by adrenalin! The thing that is so weird is that for all this heightened interaction I know none of their names, none of their stories. It’s all very unbalanced.

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