ParaHockey in the UK is booming – and is already set to beat its target of 50 Flyerz clubs up and running by 2023 – as the sport sets its sights on a future World Cup for the sport.
One of the leaders in the field is at Flyerz Tunbridge Wells HC, with head of the pan-disability programme Francis Bridgeman the driving force behind the first Regional Flyerz Festival (South), which takes place at Old Georgians on Sep 5, delayed from April last year due to Covid.
With around 15 Flyerz sections at UK clubs in 2017, that number has grown exponentially in the last three years and Bridgeman says the growth is critical for the “greater visibility” of the sport.
“It is important that clubs get involved in Flyerz – it’s much easier than many think, particularly for clubs that already operate junior sections,” says Bridgeman.
Covid, he says, has not been a stumbling block for the sport either. Much of the lockdown period was spent with Access Sport, which champions the delivery of Flyerz alongside England Hockey, working with interested new clubs and utilising the experiences of existing clubs to help raise awareness.
Bridgeman says there are also several models which work to get involved with Flyerz, be it a single club starting its own section, several clubs coming together to offer something jointly, or clubs working with an external school or organisation that supports sport for the disabled.
“As the number of clubs grow,” he adds, “so the extent of both fun and competitive opportunities grow, building a base from which can develop a pathway that will allow stronger players to progress to representative and even international level, whilst also offering the general enjoyment and experience of being part of a hockey club to the vast majority.”
For many working in ParaHockey, Flyerz should be a “critical part” of a club’s offering to make the sport accessible for all.
“There are many lessons to be learned from the successful growth of Flyerz which can be shared to help promote Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) generally,” says Bridgeman.
For example, mainstream schools that have a high percentage of Special educational needs and disability (SEND) pupils will frequently have a higher percentage of pupils eligible for the Pupil Premium).
“At our club we are looking to work with this in our outreach to schools to broaden our entry level playing base and opportunities to those who traditionally might never have had the chance to pick up a stick,” says Bridgeman. “At the same time, we are trying to work with other main sports in our town to ensure that “sport” and not just hockey is accessible to all in our area. This is reflective of the community nature of most hockey clubs.
“We have not yet got to the levels in this area that is the case in a number of other countries, but our progress and growth in recent years have been significant and we have to accept that we started on this journey many years behind other countries.
As a sport Bridgeman adds that this will depend on getting the basics right at entry level to ensure competitiveness and sustainability at higher levels. “It will inevitably take time for this progress to make its way through to higher age groups and higher performing teams on the national and international stage,” he adds, “but the building blocks are being rapidly laid to help ensure this is where we will get to.”
As far as the section he oversees at Tunbridge Wells, Bridgeman has taken seven players from the Kent club to ParaHockey ID tournaments in Barcelona and Antwerp, while he also sits on the National Flyerz Steering Group.
“Flyerz is hugely important at Tunbridge Wells HC – it is important to the players who are given an opportunity to participate in normalised sport, be part of a club and a team,” he says. “it is as important to the families of these players, frequently siblings or parents will join in and play as well; and it is important to the coaches who are involved in it.
“We have seen the many talents (not just hockey ones) of our players and have watched them grow confidence and develop life skills alongside their hockey prowess.”
An expanding world game
According to the FIH, when compared with other formats of the game, including indoor, Hockey5s and Masters, ParaHockey ID has shown the biggest increase in participating nations over the past two years, rising from 9% to 22% in that time.
Norman Hughes, the Olympian and one of the leading figures in ParaHockey, is working to link national associations that have strong traditions in ParaHockey ID with new entrants to the sport.
With the Special Olympics set for Berlin in 2023, Hughes is keen to ensure that as many national associations have the opportunity to participate as possible. Beyond that, he is aiming for a future World Cup.
He said: “When I heard about the Hockey5s World Cup, I said ‘fabulous news’; the only gap in the portfolio now is aParaHockey ID World Cup. We need a FIH ParaHockey ID World Cup where every continental federation is challenged to put up three representatives, because then it is truly global and truly inclusive.”