Saturday, May 18, 2024

England Hockey: It’s only with the community that we can build a great Talent System 

Heather Williams is head of Elite Talent Development at England and Great Britain Hockey, and is currently part of the team leading the development and implementation of England Hockey’s new Talent Development System. 

I get asked a lot, ‘why’. ‘Why change our system if we were able to win medals?’, ‘Why take away the Performance Centres and introduce Talent Academies and Talent Centres?’ or ‘Why do such a large percentage of all the talented players come from independent schools?’

Like any process of change, it’s only natural to encounter lots of these types of questions – and even more so in hockey, where I’m continually blown away by how passionate the volunteers who provide opportunities for people young and old to play the game are. 

It’s certainly true that ever since the London 2012 Olympic Games our sport has experienced significant international success; with our women’s team winning medals in each of the past three Olympic Games, our U21 men won silver at the last European Cup, and our U21 women won their first World Cup medal in April. Much credit for these successes must go to the hard-working people in the current system working to develop our  juniors up and down the country. 

So – if it’s not broken, why try to fix it? Well, we want to make sure we can continue to repeat these levels of success and broaden the diversity of our international teams, with the standard of play continually evolving and improving. To compete with the best, we’re going to need to develop more, and better, players. Speaking plainly, our talent pool is relatively limited, so to grow that, we’ll also need more coaches who can provide more of the best environments for talent to flourish. 

The challenge we saw with the existing Player Pathway System with counties feeding into regional performance centres was that the system was primarily a filtering system heavily constrained by time and too ‘one size fits all’.

Fine if you fit in that ‘one size’, but less good for late developers, players who have had less access to coaching and training, or players in some geographic locations. Put simply, we needed a more flexible system, one where we can strive to find and develop high potential players in any and all environments, and players can move through and up each level in our talent system from any route. 

Our challenge became one of re-aligning the focus of our system, towards talent development and away from talent ‘sifting’. 

To achieve this, we wanted a greater focus on talent development and the system to be more closely aligned to the club and school systems which offer more time to develop players.  

Talent Centre accreditation will recognise clubs which offer high quality early talent development environments. If Clubmark is the ‘gold standard’ mark for clubs who provide a good, safe junior environment, Talent Centres are this with added talent development requirements. 

It was often noted – even by the coaches working in Performance Centres (PC) – that their contact time was so limited, with players experiencing their club and school environments far more than the ‘performance’ environment.  

At the higher levels, the limited contact time and opportunity to stretch the best players in the squad – realistically at best once per fortnight – meant that we were placing a ceiling on what could be achieved by the players and coaches in these environments. 

Furthermore, players were – inadvertently – being pulled in too many directions, with schools, clubs, counties and England Hockey pathway all placing different, and sometimes competing demands on them. Our younger athletes are often quite eager to do as much as they can – but this does mean they also often don’t yet have the skills to manage their workload effectively. A big role of Talent Academies is to work with the clubs and schools in their local area to join up players’ overall hockey load.  

Repton’s Bronte Brough on the ball for England at the recent Junior World Cup PIC: Worldsportpics

Clearly, we needed a way to get the best players to work in the best environments with the best coaches, and as often as possible. Looking at what we had available, we found that many of our clubs either already had, or with a little guidance could soon establish, environments in which players could prosper. 

However, this is where we’ve probably not been clear enough from the start. We don’t expect players to transfer to talent academy clubs, we expect clubs to host Talent Academies. Whilst it’s a subtle difference, it’s a vital one in our thinking. We’re aiming to create places where the best players can work with the best coaches, in clubs where parents are confident that their children are in excellent development environments. 

This doesn’t mean that the talent system should be seen as synonymous with encouraging more juniors to play hockey and widening access to the sport – whilst we want our most high potential 15-18 year olds players, around five hundred per gender, in the best environments for them to develop, we don’t want take away from the many fantastic clubs, or the army of volunteers, who drive junior participation of hockey. 

Whilst we’ve had initial reviews, consultations and have already tried to engage with the many communities working in hockey, we’ve also had in mind that we’re not going to be exactly where we want to be from Day 1. That’s partly why I’m writing this today, and why we’ll be publishing a series of these columns, to encourage feedback and hopefully provide clarity into where our plans are at present. 

It would be unrealistic for me to say that this will be a completely smooth process, and like any change, there are likely to be some further problems as we move forward, but my hope is that by understanding our motivations, the hockey community will come together and help us to build a truly world class talent development system. 

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  1. It’s just repackaging the old system with the Clubs funding the majority of the expense it does not go anywhere near solving the problem of talent in State schools

  2. Still not clear how – if you don’t play for one of the handful of clubs that are a Talent Academy – you actually get selected/invited to join a Talent Academy.

  3. All the problems that were outlined with the AC/PC system are acknowledged. BUt the solution shouldn’t be to form an elite cabal of clubs.
    Putting the talent system into clubs will drain talent from smaller junior clubs.
    The knock on effect for coaches is that the talent of coaches will drain towards the talent academies. The clubs who are getting talent academies and talent centres are already big clubs. Sometimes the best development happens at a small club which is friendly and there is less pressure at least initially to make the best teams and compete with your peers.
    By putting this system of super clubs forward England hockey are inadvertently (or perhaps not) putting the future of small clubs at risk. AND playing hockey as a hobby or for pleasure is compromised at those clubs and the bigs clubs. What happens if everyone tried to join the talent centre/academy because kids don’t want to be left out of the talent system. Then do people who are less “talented” at playing hockey get asked to leave when there is no capacity left at that club.

    I kind of get what you’re aiming for but making a super league of clubs and schools who are big enough to offer a talent scheme creaming off all the hockey talent is just not making sense to me at all.
    I guess we will all do it because we have no choice but it disrespects small clubs.

  4. The concerns I have are that at present only the larger clubs have the Talent Academies- rumour is that they are going to charge a fortune for people to attend so this might price kids out, hence throwing out the hockey for all theory. Also, even if you are nominated for a Talent Academy at another larger hockey club, what is stopping that larger hockey club from giving preference to its own members and stuffing its own academy with its own players all the time. Will there be a limit in numbers for their own club players? If not then this will be grossly unfair to all the smaller hockey clubs who can’t become academies and they will be left scrabbling for the odd place. This whole process sounds very flawed at present.

  5. Isn’t 500 of each gender less than the number in the current pathway system and therefore shrinking the pool size available to national team selectors, not growing it.

  6. The funding situation around talent academies is unclear. I’m a world where cost of living is a major concern asking parents to pay club subscriptions, talent academy fees, plus additional kit (?) and travel plus additional seems to do little to increase the accessibility of hockey. Just not convinced that this is the right programme, or see how the risk of the larger talent academy clubs ‘recruiting’ the better players at the expense of non-talent academy clubs

  7. I find myself in the strange position of agreeing with nearly all of the ambitions of this new system – increase diversity, grow the talent pool, cast the net wider to catch late developers and those who might otherwise be overlooked, and help talented and committed players more rapidly, and to develop to a higher standard – whilst at the same time disagreeing with the means to achieve these aims.

    Others have noted that players will concentrate within ‘super clubs’ which will reduce the chance for kids to play hockey. This is in fact a recipe for shrinking the talent pool since there will be fewer clubs with kids to develop. It will also have a debilitating effect on those clubs not selected. many of whom will wither and die without a junior section.

    I cannot agree with the characterisation of the player pathway as a sifting mechanism. I have been a lead coach at DC and AC level for 10 years, and have found the emphasis to have shifted more and more toward development. Those coaches currently involved in player pathway are unanimously mystified as to the need for such major administrative change when the delivery will be so similar – good players training and playing with each other.

    I think the hope that players will play less often for club and school to make more time for representative hockey is at best optimistic. And in any case, what does it matter ? The kids are playing a lot of hockey, much of it at a very good standard. Private schools won’t budge, and players already move to seek out a better standard of hockey if they want it.

    This document is philosophically flawed, self contradictory in content, and its only certain effect is to alienate coaches like myself that it claims to hope to recruit.

  8. As the parent of a state school child who has thrived moving through DC, AC and PC levels I cannot see how this will be anything but damaging for his chances of progressing further. Increased travel and expense will stack on top of the disadvantages he already faces of not being at the ‘right school’ or being known by the right coaches.

    Big clubs may host TAs for all, but it is highly likely they will favour players from their own club or at best, encourage talented players to move there.

    I simply do not see how this system achieve this stated aims and fear my son will miss his chance because this change has come right at the worst time for him.

  9. We don’t even have access to a talent academy in our region of the country and my son feels really let down by the lack of opportunity he now has. He was selected to trial for a TA but not practical as over 2 hours away on a school night. No option to do any weekend training with them and just feels PC ended and now nothing, he’s in limbo.


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