PLAYERS' VOICE

Helen Naylor: Why I stayed in the UK

I began playing basketball from such an early age, as soon as I was physically able to hold a ball where both my parents played and were heavily involved in the Doncaster Panthers Basketball Club.

Cool fact – my Dad played against Michael Jordan when he toured in the UK.

I spent countless hours being dragged along to my elder sister Sarah’s practices and games so I usually joined in and got knocked around by the older girls.

At home we had two concrete walls adjacent to each other with patio in between so we put baskets on each end and had our own basketball court. We would shoot around for hours and I would get beat by Sarah and usually ending up crying from scrapes off the walls, we learned to toughen up quickly. We got absolutely no sympathy from our parents, I was told to get back out there and keep practising.

I was very lucky in Doncaster to have some great basketball coaches and influences around me, Sue Bettesworth, Ian Day, Bob Martin and my mum who coached me for years and is still today is my biggest critic yet biggest supporter, I still look to her on the sidelines in games now for words of advice.  These coaches all have a very decorated basketball history and great knowledge of the game and I’m very thankful I got to learn the game from them from an early age.

I remember Saturday’s at age 12, I would play for u16 then u18 then senior women’s games back to back, at that time all I aimed for was to be better than my sister and to beat her in 1-on-1 some day (have been doing this for years now).

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I was involved with all the Yorkshire regional trials and from there I went through the ranks with the England age group teams.

At 12 years old, I was the youngest player ever to be invited to the England U16 team. I figured I must be good.

When I was about 14-15yrs old it started becoming really popular for girls to go to America and I started to think about my own future and where I wanted to go with basketball and education. I decided I wanted to go to the USA to play college basketball.

I went to America with East Durham college around 16/17 years old and toured around Boston and New Hampshire playing in front of coaches and looking at schools. I made a few contacts who kept in touch with me over the next year. I had contact from a number of D1 and D2 schools and a school I very nearly went too would have meant playing against my good friend Jo Leedham as it was the same conference she ended up playing in.

As the end of sixth form and my A levels came closer my focus started to shift a little bit and I questioned if I actually still wanted to go, I thought about long term and education wise and decided at that time not many girls were making big money from playing pro and that getting an English education would be better and more recognised later on.

I started exploring my options here and universities that had good facilities and where I would be able to play everyday. I decided on Leeds Met and faced the difficult decision of who I would play for National League as Doncaster would not have a team without me or my sister. My sister returned back home from uni in Nottingham that year and we decided we wanted to play together and that we would try to go to Sheffield- our main Yorkshire rival….if they would have us.

I was able to train everyday at Leeds met and was given a scholarship and was able to compete in Bucs every week on top of hatters stuff. I had access to great facilities with S&C, lifestyle and nutrition, psychology and physio – the programme grew over the 4 years I was there and I had some great coaches who worked with me individually relentlessly. They were hard on me and pushed me to get the best out of me.

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I was very lucky to be coached by the legendary Betty Codona for a few years and she always had belief in me and was very honest with me about areas I needed to improve on. I was going against some of the best senior players in the country every day in practice and I knew I could only get better. Did I get to play lots at first? No! It was my first ever experience of sitting on the bench a lot and I hated it but I knew i was getting better.

Betty then retired and I was coached by her daughter Vanessa Ellis. I have to admit I was for my first few years at hatters terrified of Vanessa, I used to be so nervous when she took our training sessions. However I soon learnt that she is an amazing coach and developed a good relationship with her and she has had a massive influence on my game, she continuously pushes me and never lets me settle.

When I look back at my decision not to go to the USA do I question if it was the right one?

Sometimes! I wonder how much better I would be if I had gone, but the truth is it’s not guaranteed I would have been. I had high level coaching here in the UK and have gained a great education. I also had the opportunity to travel the world with basketball and to play professionally twice over in Australia.

I have for the last two years been working full time doing something I love, something I wouldn’t have been able to do without my education here and for me now having a balance of basketball and work is most important. I chose my path which I don’t regret one bit.

– Helen

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