Cinderella sport lacks the edge

2010-08-21 00:00

THERE has been a question niggling at the back of my mind for a few years now.

Hockey being a Cinderella sport in comparison with the Big Three — football, rugby and cricket — one is loathe to be too harsh on errant players, coaches, administrators and the like considering it is essentially an amateur sport dwarfed in every sense by the highly professional ball-sport codes.

A relative lack of money is a huge hindrance, but that’s not the sole reason why the SA U17 girls’ squad (four PMB schoolgirls in the team) has already lost 7-0 and 13-0 to Argentina and Netherlands at the Youth Olympic Games this week.

“Our structure as a team has been bad. We worked on it prior to the event, but each player has not made it easy. They have all come in to the event with poor fitness and training/match preparation. This they have admitted to, which has not helped,” SA U17 head coach Rob Pullen told The Witness from his Singapore hotel room on Wednesday.

To their credit, the SA girls gave South Korea a torrid time on Thursday and were very unlucky not to get at least a point.

Pietermaritzburg Girls’ High School goalkeeper Zimi Shange made a number of blinding saves, while Durban’s Jacinta Jubb got SA’s goal. That said, there’s still the little matter of 23 goals against with just one scored — and not even a point to show for it.

“Going forward, a group of players who will be U21 and eligible by the time of the 2013 Junior World Cup will have to follow a very strict fitness programme while learning technical skills that will help us compete against the best. Players that do not comply will automatically be dropped from the programme.”

Pullen said he’s not blaming the results purely on bad preparation.

“But it has been one of our main flaws trying to keep up with the other teams’ intensity. I will take the blame as well. Going forward, if I am included, then I will make sure to keep strict control of players and reward those who want it more and are keen to learn.”

That degree of honesty from a coach is rare — and the director of sport at St Andrew’s girls’ school in Johannesburg, who also serves as SA men’s selector having played with great distinction for SA and coached the national men’s side, knows what he is talking about.

This confirms my fears that, despite its robust health in playing numbers, school hockey standards are dropping. The SA U17 side (also containing a number of PMB schoolboys) didn’t even get to Singapore, having lost in the final of the Africa Qualifier tournament to Ghana six months ago.

It’s not to say the youngsters don’t have talent — far from it, but the edge so necessary against the best is clearly missing. This is no personal attack on anyone, school player or coach, but despite the quantity of hockey, I question the relevance and quality.

Further, these players must all be exposed to top club hockey against adults to adjust to the required pace and intensity so vital against girls from Holland and Argentina, who only play club hockey.

The SA senior women’s and men’s teams have woken up to declining standards, which saw them struggle mightily to hold on successfully to a top 12 world ranking.

Humiliating thrashings by world champion Australia men aside, the SA men are far more competitive now while the women under new coach Giles Bonnet are on the right track.

The SA U21 men did better than their 15th placing at the last Junior World Cup suggests, but there were already signs at U21 women’s level that the top sides were streets ahead of us at the equivalent event.

In a Witness interview a couple of years ago, KZN Schools hockey vice-chairperson Charmaine Koekemoer, the director of sport at Voortrekker in PMB, spoke of the high hockey drop-out amongst matriculants.

She cited how everything is done for school players to the point where all they have to do is pitch up. Everything else, from transport to practice facilities, coaching and so on is organised for them to the nth degree.

They hardly need to think, while the shock post-school club hockey which is very much a help-yourself-or-forget-it thing, turns them way off the game by the thousands.

KZN Inland vice-president, SA Hockey Association executive and head of hockey at PMB Varsity, Reggie Smith, told The Witness in an informal chat recently that the quality of coaching at school level concerns him, which perhaps explains to an extent the shocking results in Singapore.

An honest, constructive and ego-less Saha/SA Schools’ Hockey think tank is urgently required. There is simply no time to waste.

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