If Argentina are the royalty of hockey in the PAHF region, then their northern neighbours, Canada, are the young prince and princesses seeking to overthrow the rulers.
While Argentina men and women have booked their places in Tokyo for an assault upon the Olympic title, both Canada men and women have one more hurdle – the Olympic Qualifiers – to overcome in order to join them in Japan.
But, even if both teams make it to Tokyo, in a land where the ice version reigns supreme, there is still a long way to go before hockey becomes a widely-recognised sport across Canada.
To discover what the field hockey landscape looks like in Canada, we caught up with two people heavily involved in women’s hockey – experienced coach Jenn Beagan
and national team player Hannah Haughn
Jenn Beagan is a former provincial and national youth team player who recently became the first – and so far, only – certified Competition Development Coach, a course piloted and then ratified by Field Hockey Canada.
Multi-capped midfielder Hannah Haughn is currently playing for HC Victory in Belgium and will almost certainly be heading to Ireland to compete in the Olympic Qualifiers.
The coach’s story
Hockey has been a major component in Jenn’s life since she moved to Vancouver, British Columbia from Calgary at the age of 10. She played for provincial and regional teams and then earned a place on the junior national program before her progression towards the senior team took a sharp detour.
A group of the Canadian youth team, including Jenn, went on a hockey tour to Florida, where they were subsequently offered hockey scholarships to study in the USA.
“A whole bunch of us went to play field hockey in the USA. We couldn’t believe it – we were being paid to play field hockey while we studied, that was so cool,” says Jenn as she reflects back. “The issue was that it meant a whole lot of promising athletes were completely out of the Canadian system for a few years. Most of us stopped training with the national program.”
The result was that Jenn didn’t play for Canada again but she did spend a wonderful four years playing at the highest level of US college hockey at Kent State while qualifying as an architect. The intensity of both the architecture course and the demands of fulfilling a hockey scholarship meant that Jenn was known to spend occasional nights sleeping under her college desk before rolling onto the pitch first thing in the morning.
Once Jenn graduated she returned to Vancouver and took up position with an architecture firm that specialised in sports structures and facilities. “A perfect match of my two passions,” she says.
At the same time, she was playing hockey in the Canadian women’s league and had just started coaching through the Field Hockey BC provincial organisation. She found the coaching filled a gaping hole that had been left when she stopped playing college hockey.
“Once I had stopped playing at a high level, I hit this patch where I just didn’t know what to do. My whole life had been so structured around hockey. As a player I knew I was training at this time, had to be at this place at that time. Coaching filled that need in me and allowed me to reframe.”
What the newly-recruited coach discovered on her return to Vancouver was a coaching system with very little development within it. The need for coaches meant that people were running hockey sessions who either had very little knowledge – they were often parents who were just invited to take on a team – or they were coaches whose ideas and habits hadn’t changed in years.
This was certainly not Jenn’s way of doing things. She enrolled on the National Coach Certification Program and took a heap of courses to develop her own knowledge of coaching - both technically, tactically and in the ‘soft skills’ such as communication, leadership and personal organisation.
As Jenn became more immersed in coaching, so her love of architecture began to diminish. By 2008 she had started her own sports company which was running alongside her career in architecture and her time as a hockey coach. It was just a matter of time before the architecture got the boot and coaching became the focus.
It was a brave move as Jenn was leaving a potentially lucrative career and stepping into an area that was unstructured and not greatly resourced.
However, through a combination of self-education and some guidance from other, senior coaches, Jenn began to develop her own coaching philosophies and, importantly, to recognise the gaps in the coaching pathways available to aspiring leaders.
She also tapped into the world of business, quickly learning that leadership skills that work in the boardroom can, with a little imagination, be equally applicable on the sports field.
Jenn joined Field Hockey BC and was appointed head coach at a high school academy. It was the perfect job. She was running the program alongside the school academic program and also undertaking all the other tasks that surround a coaching role – such as administration, logistics and timetabling. It also meant she was financially stable in a world where paid, full-time work was a rarity.
The beauty of this course, says Jenn, was the amount of student contact time she was able to have. Where most programs allow for 30-40 hours/per year, this one allowed for 140 hours. It meant Jenn could test her coaching skills and outcomes over a long period. Within the course, the students didn’t just learn hockey skills, they were also taught, nutrition, strength and conditioning, mental preparation and a host of other skills.
While this was a great challenge, Jenn was never someone who was going to settle into a role without pushing herself further. In 2015 she enrolled on the Advanced Coaching Diploma, run by the Canadian Sports Institute. It was a two-year program and it was the highest level of certification available in Canada.
She finally gets her Diploma in October but already she has finished the Competition Development Certification. As mentioned earlier, she is the first and only person in the country to have received full certification at this point. Coaching in Canada
While Jenn has gone out of her way to make sure she has pushed her coaching career as far as possible, she identifies a lack of structure and a clear pathway as an obstacle to developing home grown coaching talent. A common trend in elite coaching in the country has seen overseas coaches, mainly from Europe. These coaches take on a head coaching role, get some great results and then depart. This means they take all their knowledge with them and the next group of players has to start from scratch.
It is this situation that Jenn and others within Field Hockey Canada are seeking to change.
“We want to provide pathway for coaches in Canada who want to make coaching their career,” says Jenn. “Take my own case as an example: My goal is to become a top coach. I was a national athlete, I bleed red and white and I want to grow a good foundation of athletes and coaches. To that end, I have been looking for a strong hockey mentor to guide me.”
She says there are a handful of really top coaches in the country who are potential mentors but a system is needed to make sure that aspiring coaches can tap into their knowledge in a structured way.
Field Hockey Canada is working to address the issue but, as anyone working in hockey development knows, it is a slow process.
“We are still in such early stages,” says Jenn. “Even being able to provide the opportunity is still lacking. There are a lot of coaches would love to get more education and move up the coaching ladder.”
One area that has not been fully explored is that of funding. With women’s sport high on the agenda at the moment, Jenn says there are grants and funds out for coach education in women’s sports – it is just a question of knowing how to go about accessing it.
To that end, Field Hockey Canada recently ran a hockey camp in which a group of under 16 hockey players were matched to a roster of coaches who wanted to be mentored on the field. After the sessions the coaches were all given feedback, as well as advice on the next steps they should take to progress their coaching. Jenn says this was the first time many of the coaches had been given advice on where they currently are and where and how they can move up. But this is the way coaching needs to develop.
Looking purely at her local area of Vancouver, Jenn says there are definite signs that things are changing. Clubs willingly work with schools to develop grass roots hockey. Parents are being offered coaching courses so they can run more structured sessions, rather than just being handed a whistle and asked to ‘get on with it’.
At high school level in the province, it is a mixed bag. There is a league but it is largely recreational. The standard of coaching depends upon the personnel involved. If a teacher has an interest in field hockey or there is a connection with a club through parents, then the standard of coaching and the opportunities to play will be greater. But says Jenn, it is the case that most schools are starving for qualified coaches.
Jenn Beagan is a pioneer in field hockey coaching in Canada. She is one of a team of people building foundations so that aspiring coaches can get on a pathway that will, one day, lead to Canada’s hockey coaching network being sustainable and no longer needing to take its lead from Europe and beyond.The player’s perspective
When Jenn Beagan talks about where Canada’s coaches of the future will come from, one obvious source is the current national squad. The team that is currently preparing for the FIH Olympic Qualifiers is awash with talent and they have experienced some top coaching over the course of their playing careers.
The squad has had the benefit of South African Giles Bonnet leading the coaching programme for the FIH Series Finals campaign and he is continuing in this role for the Olympic Qualifiers. The players have also been experiencing European coaching as they have all been representing clubs in Belgium and the Netherlands. That is a lot of experience that could be fed back into the Canadian system.
Hannah Haughn is one of those players and she shared her thoughts on coaching at home and abroad.
“Over the years, I’ve had a number of good coaches, each bringing their own philosophies and expertise. I would say early on in my career, there was a heavy emphasis on tactical awareness, and the importance of structure. This made us a difficult team to play against because we defended as a unit.
“However, in the last several years, with the introduction of Australian, South African and European coaches, there has definitely been a large shift in a focus to technical skills and decision-making. I believe it has been these changes that have given us the confidence we need to play a more attacking and spontaneous style of hockey. Of course, to a be top team, you need a high degree of technical as well as tactical ability which is why we have been seeing more positive results recently.”
In line with Jenn Beagan’s comments, Hannah’s coaching experience includes a veritable United Nations of coaches. Giles Bonnet is a South African based in Belgium and over the past year, while centralized in Belgium, the Canadian squad had sessions with coaches from South Africa, Belgium, the Netherlands, Argentina and Italy.
At the beginning of their careers as hockey players, most of the Wolf Pack squad learnt the basic foundations and tactics from their Canadian club coaches. The European and South American influence added a lot of flair, and creativity to trainings.
Observers of the game in recent months will testify it has transformed the way Canada play hockey.
“Many of the skills they introduced us to we hadn’t either seen or used before while growing up in Canada,” says Hannah. “These skills can be used in unlimited game situations and have allowed us to improvise and play more freely.”
But, she adds, there is no doubt that the basic tactic, such as the concept of 2v1s and identifying where space is on the pitch is something that is taught well in Canada.
And in a nod to the changes taking place within Canadian coaching, Hannah says: “While the amount of female coaches I have had so far in my playing career can be counted on one hand, I think this trend has been changing. This is exciting because female role models are vital to inspiring the next generation of Canadian hockey players. I know this as the few female coaches I did have, including Andi Shannon, Sarah Saddler, and Steph Andrews, became, and continue to be examples of strength, confidence and leadership.”
From talking to both Jenn and Hannah, it is clear that the winds of change are blowing when it comes to coaching. But progress is frustrating slow at the moment and there is little doubt that a triumph for Canada in their Olympic Qualifier matches against Ireland would be a game changer in the drive to develop a coaching network fit to serve this hard-working hockey community.