Any sports development is tough. You are battling against all the other national sports for participants, funding and facilities. PAHF, as part of its mandate, seeks to grow hockey across the entire continent. This means strengthening existing national associations, in some cases reintroducing the sport where it has died out and in other scenarios, starting from scratch. Plans, policies and strategies are drawn up, courses and workshops are held, accreditations are put in place but at the heart of any such process lies one thing – a few enthusiastic people who will get things moving.

Across the PAHF region the development of hockey is varied, to say the least. With Argentina men currently atop the world rankings and Argentina women (World Ranking: 3) and USA women (WR:6) both in the top six nations in the world, PAHF is well represented among the elite teams. In the next tier, Canada men (WR:11) and women (WR:19), USA men (WR:26), Chile (WR:20)  and Uruguay (WR: 23) are all making good progress and more than hold their own at HWL Round One and Two. However, there are also many PAHF nations that currently languish in the bottom quartile of the world rankings, with Ecuador men (WR: 85) third from bottom and Porto Rico women (WR: 71) second from bottom. The aim of the PAHF development team, headed by Laura Macchiotti, is to change that.

Macchiotti is PAHF Events and Development Coordinator, and contemplating the current situation she says: “These countries [of Central America] work in block, they have similar cultures, are very close geographically, speak the same language and struggle with similar problems, such as low budget and little or no hockey  infrastructure”.

“All of them started their development journey through the indoor game, as there are high number of gyms available for practice. Of course they still face the problems of sharing the place with other sports, paying a rent for the use of the gym. But still they keep going, each at their own pace.”

Macchiotti is particularly impressed with the approach of Guatemala. Growth here has been rapid and the national association was brave enough to enter the men’s and women’s national teams into this season’s HWL Round One, knowing they would suffer heavy losses but gain much experience. The men’s team went into the HWLR1 event in Mexico as the lowest ranked team at 62, while the women were ranked 64. Yes, they lost their matches but such an experience provides a huge learning curve and an insight into how international success is gained. The Guatemala contingent will also have seen at first-hand how such tournaments are run – knowledge they can take back to their own country.

Costa Rica is another nation that has earned praise for its development work. Macchiotti says: “With small steps, steady work and serious planning of their development they gave a hard time to their neighbours.”

It is not just the coaches and players who are being taught and developed. As the teams get better and play with higher levels of skill, so the umpires must be able to match that standard. Throughout the developing countries of Central America, recently retired international umpire Soledad Iparraguirre is pushing the standards of umpiring through her work with officials in Panama, Honduras, Costa Rica. Iparraguirre, who umpired the final of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, has been running a series of workshops for new and promising umpires throughout Central America.

For nations where facilities are either difficult to find or non-existent, Hockey5s has become a great pathway for hockey players and officials to develop their skills. Panama is a nation that has taken the small-sided game as a foundation to build from. Cuban coaches Guillermo Stackemann and Alex Hernandez and Cuban umpire Reinier Diaz have been central to planning and implementing a national competition, both men working hard to coach both the players and the officials in readiness for the tournament.

The newest member of the PAHF hockey family is Nicaragua. The national association’s aim is to be at a point where they can enter two teams into the Central American Games later this year.

This multi-sport event – also known as Juegos Deportivos Centroamericanos – will be hosted in Nicaragua in December. This will be the first time Hockey5s has been included in the event and to prepare its team, as host nation, the Nicaragua Hockey Association has hired a Venezuelan coach. His job? To start both a men’s and women’s national team from scratch.

A test event prior to the actual Games will take place in July. This will be supported by PAHF, who will host an umpiring and technical course running alongside the competition. Participants will be officials at both the July and December event, and they will work alongside two experienced umpires and an umpire manager – supplied by PAHF. The Tournament Director and Technical Official will also be PAHF qualified and will be responsible for the local technical officials’ education.

This will be the first Hockey5s Championship in Central America, and the ambition is for the event to become annual. The biggest problem facing the organizers is a common one to hockey – a lack of finance for such a project – but this is offset by a huge level of enthusiasm among the organizers.

Looking further afield, Bolivia, in South America, is a country working hard at its hockey development. A few years further along the development pathway than Nicaragua, Bolivia is hoping to get a men’s and women’s team into the South American Games (ODESUR). This multi-sport competition will be held in Cochabamba, Bolivia in 2018, and is a qualifier for the Pan American Games in Lima 2019. New facilities for an 11-a-side competition are being built and the hard work of a small team of people, led by Valeria Pardo in Santa Cruz de la Sierra and Florencia Sanchez in La Paz, is encouraging more people to join the hockey project.

One way that coaches and umpires can access information that they can take back to their national associations is through attending PAHF courses. These are held at major international events, one such event being the Junior World Cup in Chile. Here, coaches and officials took part in Academy courses supported by both FIH and PAHF. A similar course will be held during the Pan American Cups in Lancaster, USA in August this year. These are perfect opportunities for people involved in hockey at all levels to meet and discuss issues with representatives from other nations. It is at meetings such as this that best practice ideas are shared. Finding a solution to a problem common to nations across the globe is a step forward for the whole sport.

Time and again, national associations come up against the problem of little or no funding available for development, but the good news in Pan America is that all of these exciting hockey projects are being carried out on tight budgets but with maximum innovation and enthusiasm.