Xiomara Flores (GUA)

The Pan American Youth Championships for both men and women is taking place from 11-17 March. The games act as a continental qualifier for the 2018 Youth Olympic Games, which take place in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in October.

The Youth Olympic Games are so often the launch pad for a young hockey player’s international career and so the continental qualifier, which takes place in Guadalajara, Mexico, is eagerly awaited by the players who are now in the final stages of preparation.

In line with the Youth Olympics themselves, the Pan American Youth Championships started in 2010 and take place every four years. To date, Argentina has walked away with the gold medal at both the 2010 and 2014 Games in the men’s and women’s event. In 2010 Argentina women beat Canada, while the men beat USA; four years later, the women beat Uruguay and the men beat Canada. 

Already, some of the stars of the triumphant 2014 Argentina teams are now making their names on the senior circuit. Eugenia Trinchinetti and Maria Ortiz both played in the Hockey World League Final in Auckland. Meanwhile for the men, Santiago Tarazona and Maico Casella are among those transitioning very successfully from the youth team to the senior squad. 

While the junior stars of Argentina slot into a system that has been rolling out Olympic and World Cup players for decades, for other nations, international events such as the Pan American Youth Championships are a new challenge. Where Las Leonas and Los Leones see the Youth Championships as part of a planned and familiar process for their talented youngsters, for other nations this is their first taste of top flight competition and all the challenges that come with entering the international stage.

Gathered at Guadalajara will be a diverse range of teams. From the old campaigners such as Argentina, Canada and USA to the up-and-coming nations such as Uruguay and Mexico – who have been enjoying success at Hockey World League Round One level - to the debutant nations such as Dominican Republic (men), Jamaica (men and women), Paraguay (men and women), Brazil (men) and Guatemala (men and women).

We caught up with Pablo Reyes, President of the Guatemala Hockey Association and he  explained how and why hockey has grown in Guatemala in recent years and how the Guatemala men’s and women’s youth teams have been preparing for this event.

Reyes explained that hockey in Guatemala has really taken off since 2012. Prior to that, the sport had been slowly growing in the country but in 2012 the governmental body, the Sports Confederation of Guatemala, recognised hockey as a viable sport and funding was released to help develop the sport. As Reyes says: “This was such an important moment as it let us to play in international events, allowed us to run sustainable development programmes and helped to promote hockey outside Guatemala City.”

Since then, Guatemala has entered the Central American and Caribbean Games for the first time and also competed in the Hockey World League Round One in Salamanca, Mexico. The men’s team also won the 2015 Central American Indoor Hockey Championship, with the women’s team finishing in second place. 

The strategy of the Guatemala Hockey Association has been to build from its youth section, so the Pan American Youth Championships will be a great test of how far this ambitious hockey nation has come. 

For Reyes, the forthcoming event is bringing back some fond memories: “Travelling to Guadalajara is great because our first international experience was there for the Pan Am Junior Cup of 2012. We have been there twice, for that event and then for the Hockey World League Round One in 2014. The Pan American Hockey Stadium is the best one in Mexico.”

This is especially exciting for the travelling teams from Guatemala as there is a dearth of pitches in their country. As Reyes had explained in an earlier conversation, “this is a country that loves football. Everything is geared up to football.”

But that is changing. For a start, the men’s and women’s hockey teams have the support of the National Olympic Association (NOC). The expenses involved in travelling to the tournament and competing have been met by the NOC. The National Association has enough expertise within its ranks to cover all the administration that goes into sending teams to an international event. You get the impression that this is a hockey association that is confident and ready to step up a grade.

The players have been part of a long selection process. The potential team members were told about the tournament back in July 2017 and they have been pushing for selection ever since. A Hockey5s tournament held last August helped the selectors pick a number of likely candidates and final selection of the nine players in each squad has just taken place. Between August 2017 and now, the players have been competing against senior teams from across Guatemala. As Reyes explains, there was not the opportunity or the finance for the players to travel abroad for competition so all their preparation matches have been against older, stronger players from local clubs. 

One advantage that the Guatemala teams will take to Mexico is their complete immersion in the Hockey5s game. They don’t get the opportunity to play full 11-a-side, because of a lack of full-size pitches, so their knowledge of this version of the game is unsullied by any other versions. In many ways, what can be seen as a disadvantage has been turned to the good. There have been recent rule changes to the game but Reyes is certain his players have the nous to adapt quickly. 

One area in which the Guatemala teams might be found wanting is their physical endurance. This is something Reyes is very keen to improve in the future but as he says: “There is no point taking too many steps at once.

“Our players have worked hard on the core skills and qualities of the game. They know what is required: to be fast; to react quickly to the rhythm of the game; to have a good hit because you can score from anywhere’ and to understand the tactics of the team and its rotations.”

The squads have been training five times a week in preparation for this event but the training sessions are often limited because of a lack of facilities. The teams are often left having to rent soccer pitches with synthetic turfs for any extended training sessions at weekends. “This is not ideal,” says Reyes, “but for now that is what we have to do.”

So what are Guatemala’s ambitions for the Pan American Youth Games?

“Our country will play the tournament with the main aim of learning this discipline and to improve our skills,” says Reyes, once again displaying the sanguine philosophy that underlies his approach. “ We compete with the ‘Olympic spirit’; that is part of the philosophy of our country.

“This generation is expected to win the Central American Games in 2021 in Hockey5s, as we did in 2017. Obviously if we get a ticket to Buenos Aires 2018, we'd be extremely excited and our NOC would establish a plan to prepare the team to have the best performance in Argentina.”

For many of the young Guatemala players on route to Mexico, this Pan American Youth Championship provides a platform from which they will launch their international careers.