Friday, August 19, 2022

Time to ask the hard questions in English hockey

It’s a curious thing to live on an island, which between Tasmania and here, I’ve done for most of my life. Even without Brexit, there is a unique type of independence and detachment in your world when you are surrounded by the sea.

As it happens, I’ve also lived in Perth, statistically one of the most isolated cities in the world, but even the 1300 miles of mostly desert in between Perth from Adelaide doesn’t give the same sense of separation that just thirty miles of English Channel provides.

In sport, the challenge for an island is to set a standard which mixes the good parts of how the game is played everywhere else with some special, unique bits of your own. At the top level, that can hopefully give you a hybrid version that the rest of the world struggles to deal with. The very obvious example of an island (or technically two) doing exactly that is of course New Zealand’s All Blacks.

With a population of not even five million, NZ still produces a rugby team that is head and shoulders above the rest, not to forget that they also boast a phenomenal netball team, excellent cricketers and both men’s and women’s hockey teams that punch well above their weight.

Ignore that challenge however, as I experienced for many years in Tasmania, and you run the risk of closing yourself off from what everyone else is doing and becoming satisfied with what’s happening inside your own coastline. For so many years, I’d come back to Tasmania after being battered at a national championship and see the results brushed under the carpet along with all the hard questions.

Recently though times have changed in my home state, at least in the men’s game, and over the last five years, a state with only 2% of the national population has won and regularly finished in the top three of the AHL, provided several national players and significantly raised the standard of its domestic league.

England hockey club fears

In comparison, my fear for hockey in England is that it is where things used to be in Tasmania. With the occasional exception, results on the European front are consistently below par and there seems to be a reluctance to raise, let along confront, the hard questions.

Worst all, Tasmania’s woes could always be explained as a consequence of its tiny population compared to the big Australian states. Hockey in England has no such excuse. The game here has as many, if not more players and significantly more government funding than any other country in Europe.

So what are the hard questions? Well, even if you look past Germany and Holland, there surely needs some frank discussion as to why Belgium and now Spain are doing so much better.

Did I just say Spain, the country with far fewer players and barely any funding since they were decimated by the economic crash? Absolutely. In 2016, Spain finished fifth in the men’s competition in Rio whilst their Junior World Cup teams finished an encouraging sixth (men) and fourth (women), some two and three places respectively ahead of England.

At the KO16 round of the EHL, the Dutch and the Germans predictably provided three club teams along with, you guessed it, Spain. The only English flag in Eindhoven was Wimbledon’s, flying alongside the other lone qualifiers from Poland and France.

So, it’s time to stop bluffing ourselves that all is well and grasp the nettle of catching up. One area in particular that causes me concern is in the national junior age groups where there seems to be a compulsion for coaches to continually cast a positive spin on poor results rather than just being honest. If, for example, you’ve conceded seven goals and scored none or one, it’s not, as I’ve read, down to a few unforced errors, some poor defending or a bit mental toughness, it’s about a difference in class.

That’s the honesty that everyone, not just the players, needs to start the process of raising the standards and expectations. Of course it’s critical but it’s the positive, honest focus that this task requires rather than the distraction of a peripheral excuse.

Only then will we create the generations with the desire and ability to close the gap to the teams ahead and then go past them.

11 COMMENTS

  1. Your reference to the junior system in England is very valid. Consistently the age group squads focus on athletic selection rather than players talented in their chosen sport. Apparently we don’t want talent and flair we prefer to select athletes who are technically weak and ‘show potential ‘ . There is little movement within these squads as the coaches believe they can develop players better than those that can deliver in the first place.
    The governing body wholly supports the under performing Single system and the lack of junior performance all the way through to U21 level – just look at where we finished in both male and female junior world cups let alone the recent age group results from Easter versus Holland. Not one match won across the two age groups – male and female!
    We lose too much talent from our game from talent being overlooked. Such players already play at a higher standard in the adult game instead of age group schoolboy/girl and aren’t possibly as well connected as their coaches who don’t coach in the junior single system! When the children themselves can see such nepotism and bias selection they lose their appetite to represent their country as they see those awful results!

    • Very well said. Hockey is a small sport and the England selectors need to get out and watch the 16, 17 and 18 year old actually playing for their clubs.

  2. It strikes me that one of the major things that holds hockey back as a sport (and I don’t know if this is the case abroad, or if they handle it better) is that a lot of youngsters won’t look at being a top level hockey player as being a realistic choice in life or consume enough information and news about the sport to even consider it.

    How many young hockey players can name many international stars? Most of them can probably name a few, mostly from their own country. How many can name a top league player who should be pushing for selection? Probably none. If a sport isn’t easy to get involved in supporting then you are also limiting the amount of people who will seriously participate.

    Beyond The Hockey Paper, England/GB Hockey and the weekly highlights package from Galvanised hockey/Barrington Sports, there are very limited avenues to get information on a regular basis and that can only stifle interest.

    I find myself reading more about football than I do Hockey simply because I don’t want to always have to sit down and hunt out the stories. You guys are making a great effort, but the sport needs to be more accessible on all fronts if we want to hit the levels we would all expect.

  3. IRO the EH NAG’s my take is that the selection process is flawed because it is almost impossible to get into the programme if you are not playing for the ‘right’ school or club. If the pool is limited by this bias you are limiting the chances of EH doing well at Youth levels, and consequently at Seniors levels.

    Similarly, it seems that should you be ‘marked’ as talented in the NAG programme you are automatically a real contender for the Senior programmes, and more importantly if you are never part of the NAG’s/previous Single System you have little to zero chance of breaking in as an Adult even if you play for your Club’s First Team in the PL.

    I believe there already are/have always been players with the desire and ability to fill the gap and excel at International levels; eggy are just not all being given the chance.

  4. Good straight talking. At the top level, one might wonder how it is that England’s men’s national coach was rapidly re-appointed, so soon after the team’s frankly embarrassing performances both at the Olympics and at the European Championships a year before.
    It’s not as though England hockey have lacked either the financial resources or a fair share of talent (with at least two world-class players), but the team has failed to make the most of them ever since the superb Eurohockey Nations Championships win way back in 2009. How is it that tiny Belgium (Belgium for heavens sake!), with infinitely smaller resources, have managed to rise and stay at the top of men’s world hockey while England have continued to flatter only to deceive year after year (I say this as someone who’s travelled to watch England and GB at many major events since the Barcelona Olympics).
    We can see from the fantastic Olympics performance of the ladies, excellently exploited since then, what an impact international success can have on new audiences, many of whom had only been dimly aware of hockey previously.
    As indicated by Todd, a more rigorous coaching structure is the primary requirement, starting at junior levels (as Belgium have put in place), and employing the best coaches from around the world. Whether there’s the collective will in English hockey to agree and implement the necessary strategy is another matter.

  5. Yes, straight talking but I’m guessing a lot of this article was left out. There are far more pressing points than a juniors coach putting a positive spin on a bad result. Plus, there can’t be that many occasions where a coach has blamed a 7-0 drubbing on luck or unforced errors… Not in the grand scheme of things and not enough to be the main basis for this article surely?

    General quality of coaching and how a coach interacts with his players.

    If a coach can get away with using bad luck to justify a thrashing it’s obviously not the standard or age group we are talking about. Yes, we start young and talk straight, I’m all for that but the player quality at the top IS there.

  6. A great article…. in my opinion the problem is, and always has been that hockey in England has been purposely reserved for the elite. If your children do not go to private school they are unlikely to fall in to hockey….. if they do fall in to it, they are likely to be stunted in their progression by clubs who are run by people who want to keep hockey (or certainly their club) away from riff-raff.
    This is and has always restricted the pool of talent available for England. England hockey as an organisation are guilty of the same policy, unless they change it, they will never move forward.
    England has always been a nation that punches above its weight. There is a competitive spirit in every Briton, if more people where attracted in to this game rather than the limited (and ever decreasing) pool from public schools and certain elite universities, the game would be better still.
    I imagine it won’t though

  7. Why is there no mention of the GB women winning hockey gold in the 2016 Olymipcs? Doesn’t seem very below par to me..

  8. 1) Too many small clubs, not enough super clubs as per on continent
    2) poor coaching at club and school level (albeit the new approach is a massive improvement)
    3) private and grammar school dominated
    4) county system conflicts with club and overload of hockey in spring. Hockey should be year round.
    5) Belgians and Dutch don’t compete so much with cricket and rugby
    6) Irish are superb in terms of results relative to population size, again why is this?
    7) not enough pitches and many are shared with football and other sports limiting training time
    8) university hockey effectively neutralises the system for 3-4 years
    9) no need for NAGS just recruit from uni hockey later: many go to uni and play to a much higher standard
    10) hIpac and NAGS may create burnout if players have been in since 11 (at JAC).
    11) system doesn’t drop players at jrpc /PC and NAGs: I’ve seen many come back in automatically blocking others who have overtaken them: 14-15 yrs old is too early to start streamlining and writing others off.

  9. Another good article Todd.

    As an overseas coach, I must point out that there does appear to be a lot of positive developments with British hockey, so it should not be all ‘doom and gloom’.

    With regard the recent England u16/u18 results: the Dutch have always been years ahead of the English in terms of youth development. In Holland there is a huge focus on technique, where children in clubs are trained by hockey players/trainers; technically able trainers with an ability to ‘entertrain’ young players. I do not think it is a problem that the English select ‘physically strong/quick’ players because this is in line with a strength in the British game that might win over the Dutch (might). The gap does close once the players get older, as physicality becomes a necessary skill.

    The Belgiums: they have simply duplicated the Dutch training model, with their top players training together once a week during the season (in addition to clinics in holiday times). These teams are trained by the top coaches/trainers (not necessarily coaches from the system). If you look back 6+/- years on the results of u16 and u18 European Cups, you will see that the development and success of their senior teams is a process that they have worked hard to achieve.

    It appears British hockey does put a lot of money/resources/focus on increasing participation. This is great, and a lot more advanced than many of the other nations in the worlds top 10, but this maybe where British hockey is losing out. If more energy is spent on making your top teams stronger, than this should inspire people to participate and follow the sport; just as we have seen with the success of the GB women at the Rio Olympics. How many of the top coaches/trainers in the UK have played or coached overseas? Maybe you become a bit 1 dimensional without this broader experience.

    There appears to be a lot of focus on the ‘single system’ and all the other terms used to ‘pimp up’ regional training. Are these just tools to convince children/parents that they are on the pathway to greatness? What was wrong with county and divisional hockey? Maybe these new systems are a useful way to help develop new trainers and coaches, but not sure if this is how you find international level trainers/coaches; trainers/coaches who are able to produce/develop international players.

    Does the UK have an active process of identifying the top coaches/trainers and bringing their level to the top? It is great to see Russell given an opportunity; at least now the players have someone who ‘has a story’ and experience beyond the Island. The top players in the UK also need to be inspired/improved/challenged. In my opinion, this might be the greatest weakness in the British process; an inability to grab the top trainers/coaches (from schools, clubs or overseas) and developing these to the highest level. Who cares if they come from the single system or not; focus on what inspires the top players to be better. Hoping this happens once players arrive in the senior international team is too late.

    PS.
    I do think it is also a little naive to place blame on the school system; it appears most the top coaches are based in private schools with most clubs unable to provide meaningful salaries for youth trainers/coaches.

  10. So the latest England age group squads are announced, I can only speak for U18 girls, but does anyone else think it strange that the team that won the Futures Cup, supposedly the key selection competition only got 6 players into the 35 strong squad? The teams that came 3rd, 4th & 5th got 9, 11 and 9 respectively. Less than 1/2 a dozen that were not part of the system already were selected. Which would be potentially understandable if the teams were highly successful, but we know they weren’t.

    Frankly it feels like we wasted a lot of time, effort and money on a predetermined situation. So much for a new single system. Same old faces over and over. But as they say “if you keep doing the same things, you get the same results ” so I look forward to hearing about more “unlucky” thrashings.

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