Thursday, July 25, 2024

Will there be quality assurances under England Hockey’s new talent framework?

The Hockey Paper has canvassed several coaches and hockey insiders across the UK as the new talent development strategy begins to roll out ahead of 2022 first intakes of Talent Centres.

What is the reason for this change?

Hockey has been through many iterations of performance development over the years.

The Junior Regional Performance Centre was possibly the most inclusive, while the Performance Centre system favours the public school players who are ready made to a certain level, owing to 4-5 sessions a week of coaching and games. Yet it could be said that, overall, junior talent probably lacks that flair or desire to progress to adult elite hockey.

This has led to many believe that there has been a lack of quality control, coupled with a reliance on a few quality coaches to maintain these standards. After a difficult 18 months, several hockey insiders have told THP that there has been a lack of empathy and respect towards the existing PC coaches, volunteers, parents, players and administrators. According to one coach with knowledge of the PC environment “coaches have been made to feel undervalued and disheartened, so why would they ever work in the system again?”

Moving PC’s to weekday evenings seemingly took the best University coaches out of the system. Under the new talent framework, fears over quality assurances remain. If this can’t be achieved for the existing 16 PC centres, how can this be done with Talent Centres or Academies? The question remains over how much will be monitored by England Hockey to ensure that the framework works.

After canvassing current club coaches across the UK, key takeaways have also surfaced:

  • Would a different system really find and develop more elite players?
  • Why effectively wreck the club system and hockey family when the outcome is unlikely to be very different?
  • Will participation fall down the line?

Diversity and inclusion 

The intentions and principles are commendable, however the execution of this strategy may unintentionally do more harm to inclusion and diversity within the sport and make what is an elite sport more entrenched. It will weaken those clubs currently offering participation in small communities.

Developing elite players

The top group of players are usually identified correctly; it’s how they are nurtured that matters and how the sport keeps them at that level in the game.

Coaches who have been in the game for years can usually identify that rare special player between the ages of 11-13. Yet it’s how they are developed and whether they have the desire to compete at the highest level, along with the physical and mental conditioning to succeed at that level, which is key. Desire is clearly the most important aspect here, along with careful mentoring of each player as they find their way.

Preparing for the elite: GB women’s EDP in action PIC: England Hockey

The ‘Super Club’

Some people accept the idea of clubs becoming super clubs. In effect many Talent Clubs exist in certain areas, while talented players naturally migrate to those clubs when they are ready and developed. 

Super clubs may appear to have larger resources and by linking academies to these clubs talented players will believe they need to be there to progress in the pathway. Indeed, ambitious parents will sign up children at a very early age instead of going to local clubs. Players will not get the opportunity to play in higher teams and may well end up playing lower league and not of the required standard. The concept of players returning to their own club to play a higher league is tenuous and unrealistic. The idea is that these players will then play for their Talent Centres against the other England-based Talent Centres. 

Talk of super clubs also raises the spectre of ‘tapping up’ in the sport. This has always been around the game, but will this policy become more prevalent as England Hockey’s framework develops and club officials coax parents into guiding young talent to their clubs? Surely this must be policed.

The plight of the ‘other’ clubs?

Smaller clubs will find it harder to progress their junior sections, who usually feed the higher-performing clubs in areas and accept this when the players are at the right stage to move to play a higher league. 

If all potential talent moves to the larger clubs, then these smaller clubs will struggle to stay viable. Many may have to merge and communities may lose their club and ultimately the player base will diminish. It’s not only 3G which threatens the very future of the smaller, community clubs.

Was there a way forward (without Talent Academies)?

Simply put, yes. The overriding feeling from a raft of coaches is that the framework and future of junior hockey could have been guided by putting together a working group of experienced, passionate coaches and administrators who understand the pathway and requirements from club to elite. 

This could have paved the way for improving the system England Hockey already has. Surely, it would not take much to keep talent as separate from club regional development, instead of what one coach said was “meaningless excellence with no purpose”.

Canvassing coaches from North to South, it was also clear that indoor hockey needs to be part of the programme. Without question, it offers and enhances skill. However, England Hockey seem to still keep the indoor version at arm’s length at junior level.

Copper Box success in February for Buckingham PIC: Will Palmer

Responding to THP’s question on whether indoor hockey would play a part in the talent framework, a spokesperson said: “Whilst the majority of the changes are detailed and documented, there are a few areas where we have to finalise plans. This includes things such as the competition structure and format for Talent Academies – we’re looking forward to working with future Talent Academies on this detail.

“One of our key aims is to create a more accessible and inclusive talent system and with this in mind, formal indoor hockey isn’t critical to the current plans. Where there is an opportunity to use indoor facilities cheaply to aid frequent, high-quality contact time through the winter months, it would be exciting to see this.”

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