Friday, July 12, 2024

Is junior hockey in England fundamentally flawed?

TOM KIPLING assesses the state of play of youth hockey in England and asks whether talent academy format needs a rethink

There are three outlets for playing hockey as an under-18 junior. This is through school, club, and the England pathway. All of these pathways are limited in their own individual right.

Hockey as a sport has far fewer players and attention than the rest of England’s domestic sports, such as football, cricket, rugby, and tennis. This is largely due to it only being played at private schools. 

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28 COMMENTS

  1. I wonder whether the way forward is a franchise system (including Junior Pathways) similar to the relatively new Super League teams in Netball?
    Or perhaps a return to a stronger emphasis on the county system and regional level above this?

  2. Is the article really consistent in its findings? You have to go to a private school to play good hockey, but then a state school wins “despite having some of the best sporting schools in the country”? I fully agree that more hockey needs to be played at state schools, but the arguments sound a bit odd.

    “Most universities don’t have social hockey teams” – is that really true? Larger set-ups offer options to try out the sport and join one of the lower teams for beginners. So do quite a few clubs.

    And isn’t the TA system designed to keep players in their home clubs and get additional training in the TA rather than having to switch clubs to get better/additional coaching?

    • Exactly true for your last point.
      Our local TA has been brilliant at this, and we (as a small club) have benefitted massively with players who would previously have left staying with us as they can now get top level training while still playing for us.

  3. Too many of the TA and Player Pathway coaches also coach/teach at private schools which leads to (probably) unconscious bias towards the kids they know well

  4. It is not true to say that you have to join a big club to get into a Talent Academy.

    Previously the only way onto PC was through the County AC system. Now any coach in the country can nominate any of their players for Talent Academy trials. This is much more open and accessible to all.

  5. There are plenty of flaws in the new TA system, (e.g. the wide age band now penalises opportunity for younger players in my opinion), but I don’t feel that accessibility is one. Open trials, with absolutely open nomination from any school or club, intense pressure from EH (rightly) to reduce player migration to the TA host club from other clubs in the catchment area combine to make it more equitable than in the past. There is always unconscious bias, and I say that as a selector into TA, but being aware of it, and making group decisions on selection are some of the ways we use to address it. TA is far from perfect but the principle of putting the Right Athletes in the Right Environment is one I can get behind, and by being a part of it we can work to improve it.

    • This is completely right.

      I say this as the Junior Chair of a small club which has benefitted massively from the openness and accessibility of the TA system.

  6. Strangely, among the strongest European hockey nations – Germany, Holland, Belgium, Spain – very little sport is played/coached at school. Hockey is almost exclusively a club-based activity and much more emphasis is placed on coaching from an early age than in most English clubs. To expect English state schools to provide adequte facilities and coaching expertise is wishful thinking.

  7. In our area, state secondary schools do play hockey competitively, but only girls teams. Boys can only play in Years 12 and 13. Similarly, many of the local clubs put a lot of effort into developing their girls teams but the boys are a bit of an afterthought.

  8. I would say the price is the biggest difference! £15 for a football camp for a day during school holidays (8:30-15:00) – £50 for a hockey camp for a shorter day (10:00-15:00). It’s the lack of access for all that I think is the limiting factor…

  9. It’s a system which works well for those that get in it and can afford the large fees associated with it. The reality is that the spaces are so limited that England Hockey are missing out on very talented youngsters that aren’t picked out in a three hour trial and which would have been picked for the PC (and therefore have been developed) previously. The TA has made England Hockey even more elitist, even more exclusive and much less likely to develop talent. Unfortunately, the knock on effect is that more youth than normal will be (and are) leaving the sport for other options as a result the exclusivity of the TA. The majority of the discussions in the County which I am from are around how England Hockey will regret this recent change in the not too distant future.

    • This will depend on how well the TAs are run.

      Our experience as a small club working with a local TA has been entirely positive for us as a club. It has enabled us to retain players we mgith otherwise have lost.

      Our local TA runs a Future Stars programme underneath the TA – effectively a reserve squad – which has been brilliant for us.

      • TA’s are nothing more than a glorified scouting network for the big clubs who apply pressure to younger players to join their club. How many TA coaches work outside of the influence of National League clubs?
        Soon there will be superclubs and nothing.
        EH flit around with ideas to appease the big clubs and to and have offered nothing really innovative – re package old failed systems and methods.
        Hockey is controlled by too few who have too much control over everything and will never become a common state school sport, there will be the odd exception but it is an Independent School / priviledged back ground sport.

    • When Fleet and Ewshot Ladies 1s beat Guildford 4s in the League this season, half of the Fleet team were receiving advanced training from the Guildford National League coaches.

      This is what improved access looks like. This is EHs vision in action, and it is beginning to work.

      Obviously it will take time, but it should be given time.

  10. Most of the comments left have already identified how fundamentally flawed this system is and I can only agree.
    But what no-one has mentioned yet, is that the way EH have abandoned the Player Pathway so completely, has now led to countless players, who were previously in the PC, having nowhere to go. Previously we would have nominated them to the PC, either during or after the AC cycle, and while the PC wasn’t the greatest in terms of organisation, at least the players were receiving appropriate coaching. EH is so fond of saying ‘Right Player, Right Environment’ but here they have simply removed that environment entirely.
    So, with nothing to do, these players started signing up for the DC in our county which was just not appropriate. We have now introduced a new level in our pathway and last night saw the start of our very own PC centre. Almost a 100 players, led by experienced performance coaches, receiving higher level coaching appropriate to their level.
    Where this is not available, are we losing players to the sport?

    • Previously only County coaches could nominate to PC, so if you weren’t in the AC system you were stuffed.

      Now any coach at any club or school in the Country can nominate direct to NAGS trials, or TA trials, or (in our local case) a programme for those not quite at TA level – which parents can also apply for independently of a coach or club.

      The ability to access is vastly improved on previously. There are more TAs and PCs (with more coming) so access will continue to improve.

      This may (of course) depend on how well the TA is run, and we may just be lucky to be in the catchment of an unusually good one.

  11. Not sure it’s fair to say that Hockey not played in state schools. Pretty sure EH had a state school tournament recently. Try telling Sir William Borlase that there’s no hockey in state schools. I’d also take issue with the Uni Hockey comment. I know many have multiple teams in BUCS and weekend leagues and the lower teams are highly social! The TA’s seem to be working way better than the piece suggests. I’m sure none of these are perfect, but I’d challenge anybody to design a system that would please everybody!

  12. Of course the other side effect of the old system was that because only a relatively small number of coaches had the ability to put people forward for PC we had the situation where players would follow their county AC coach. One local club to us lost 6 players one summer when they all moved to the club their AC coach was because he (and only he) had the power to get them into PC. This was not at all helpful to clubs or players.

    By democratising the system so that power is taken away from individuals and distributed across every coach in the country it becomes much, much fairer.

    EH should be being praised for creating a new system which opens up access to all, makes it much fairer for all, and makes it completely unnecessary for players to move club to get to the higher reaches of the system.

    Anyone who thinks that you have to join a TA club to get noticed has completely failed to understand what is going on. The exact opposite is true.

    • It’s good to see that someone believes in the system. It’s also clear that you are the minority as I agree with the overwhelming number of people who see much fewer talented youngsters receiving coaching. There seems to be little democratising when coaching is made more elite and less available. The TAs are still run by club coaches. It would be interesting to see the proportion of youngsters that they put into the TAs from the clubs with which they are associated.

  13. The lack of state school hockey is a major problem and not easy to resolve due the shortage of astro pitches

    But our club juniors mostly start before they go to secondary school, so I am not convinced that school hockey is the most important factor. Any child can play hockey if they have a club with a junior set up nearby

    Whilst the routes to elite hockey for the small proportion of best players is not necessarily straightforward, the bulk of players aren’t in that situation and what matters is having a nurturing club that will train and develop them into the senior game. My club is packed with junior players at every level, a few are at the top level, but the ones who play for the 8XI are just as important

    • William the issue gere is that so few clubs near local schools now have their own pitches so it is a postcode lottery of opportunities to play hockey, those clubs with pitches have the bigger youth set ups. Soon there will be superclubs running 10 plus sides and not much else, big clubs get bigger and richer, small clubs disappear. Secondly the sport is too damn expensive, trainers, mouth guard, shin guards, stick, playing kit, fees, transport etc etc. football so much cheaper and cooler with kids due to main stream exposure.

  14. Surprised at the knocking of TA hockey. PC was, in my area at least, total rubbish with no coaching whatsoever and third rate coaches loving the power trip. Funnily enough none of those coaches have made it anyway near a TA run by the proper coaches in the big clubs. And from what I have seen and heard they are properly coached, counselled and supported – whether or not they are a member of that club. If anything the big clubs running TA Academies don’t need to tout for players and are often keen to strengthen other clubs too – without opposition the game will die and that is recognised. Of course it may bet that not all PC were as I witnessed and not all TA are as good as the ones I have heard about – but overall the system is being run by the better coaches. That can only be a good thing.

    I also don’t think it is healthy to bemoan private school hockey. We would all like more school hockey but some of the reasons for lack of state school hockey cannot be remedied overnight – all we can do is make the best of the situation and try to improve it over time. It has to be better for English hockey that standards in at least some schools are good and improving. And one of the ideas behind TA is to negate the need for every child to attend a hockey playing school.

  15. I have first hand experience of the PC system being overtly biased, with private school coaches selecting girls from their own schools, this was rife in the SW. This is a self fulfilling prophesy as these girls improve at a faster rate then those left behind, benefitting the school in both advertised results and UCAS applications all helping the schools with the attraction of new students! I can now clearly see the decimation of smaller cubs in the West country and South due to the better players from smaller leaving to play for the main TA centre clubs. Often these are private school players whose parents can afford the time and cost of driving great distances several times a week, that are training and playing at school as well as at club, Often a minibus with famous private school names along the side will arrive with half a team of boarders on board to these clubs. I am pleased to hear that this isn’t happening elsewhere, but in my experience of the S and SW it is blatant and a major problem for the future of the game..

  16. There definitely needs a rethink. You have talented young people who cannot access opportunities to further their playing . If you look abroad, the support is unparalleled. I agree with a lot of the comments made. The future of Hockey is not as bright as it use to be. What does that say about the future.

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