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Fit in my 40s: could korfball be the nicest team sport of them all?

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Netball can be a bit bitchy…” one woman confided, as we warmed up around the korfball stand, a magnificent 11.5ft structure holding a big yellow hoop. “When I got to university, I went off football, because it was a bit loutish,” said a guy. You won’t run short of chat at a korfball game; there are always a couple of people in reserve, and often a whole five-strong team waiting to play. That’s so sweet, I think. It’s the team sport for people so nice they can’t get along with any other team sport. Maybe we don’t even compete? Maybe we just pass the ball to each other, like piggy-in-the-middle without a pig?

Not so much: for the rules, imagine a cross between netball and basketball. Once you’ve got the ball, you have to shoot or pass it; you can bounce once, but you can’t dribble; the hoop is outrageously high, which makes it unusual for people to score from far away, which alters the dynamic. It’s truly unisex, but within that, rigorously segregated. Women mark women, men mark men; there weren’t enough men this Monday night, and from the alacrity with which three women offered to be men, I surmised that this was quite common. There were easily enough of us – 25 – to play a full match, eight at each end, but that involves quite a lot of standing about. If you’re an attacker, you’re not allowed at the defence end, so you’re just yelling “Shoot, shoot, shoot!” from across the line, and that’s in an ideal world. In (my) real life, I instead got distracted by a thought or insect, so when the ball returned I was woefully unprepared.

To get more play, we divided into teams of five and played two mini-matches simultaneously. I had someone to mark, and I knew the basics: you want to stay between your person and the post; if they have the ball and you hold your hand above their head, they’re not allowed to shoot and they have to pass. If they move away from the post, it’s not necessarily the smartest move to chase them around – they won’t be able to shoot from out there anyway, and you’ll exhaust yourself keeping up with them (a sports-psychology point: it is much more tiring to chase someone you can’t see because they’re behind you than it is to run away from someone who’s in front of you). And that, give or take some rule adjustments for the mini game, is about it.

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It has all the triumphs and disasters of any small-team sport, everyone’s lungs full of air, waiting for me to catch a ball, sighing with relief when I do, mewing involuntarily with disappointment when I drop it again. It’s incredibly good for short bursts of cardio; in the hurly-burly, you forget to be lazy. But it’s completely emotionally brutal, all your human energy concentrated on thwarting one poor person you’ve never met who will, inevitably, thwart you. If this is the team sport for the too-nice, I might be too nice for all team sport.

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