Season's Greetings from PAHF

Since the early part of 2020 hockey, like every other sporting activity, has been hit hard by the global pandemic. Matches, tournaments, leagues, international fixtures – every form of the game has suffered disruption at best, complete closure at worst.

For everyone involved in the sport, this has been a time of varying degrees of frustration, disappointment and sadness. For organisers and administrators from school, club, regional and national level, events which have been in the planning stages for many months have been cancelled; work on projects have slowed or halted; any development work has been in a hiatus of uncertainty.

For athletes, the chance to train, improve, perform and impress has all passed by and, for many players, the past few months have halted their progression from junior to senior or B team to A team.

The temporary stoppage caused by the virus has reminded everyone that an athlete’s international career is short lived. Eight to ten months is a long time to take out of the game and for many athletes, this may well be the end of a hockey playing career.

With the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo cancelled, spending another eight months training at such a high intensity in the twilight of a career is just a demand too far. One such athlete is the genius forward of Argentina, Carla Rebecchi.

Rebecchi, who has been a shining beacon for Las Leonas throughout her 16-year international career, has announced her retirement and will not be taking to the field in Tokyo next year. While Rebecchi, who has played for Argentina 317 times, did retire once before in 2017, this time, she says it is for good.

“I really wanted July 2020 to come and then retire after the Games. The idea of waiting another year was very uncomfortable. I don’t want to miss my daughter for long. The issue of quarantine is very complicated, it is difficult to concentrate when I am away from my daughter.”

Rebecchi’s influence on both the Argentina team and the wider international hockey scene has been huge. She is renowned for her skills, flair and scoring ability and, since her return after the 2017 ‘retirement’ had lit up the stage in FIH Pro League appearances. There is no doubt that she will be missed at the next Olympic Games by both the Argentina fans and international fans of the game alike.

For the hockey community, there is now light at the end of the tunnel, with vaccines becoming available and nations getting the virus under control, but there is little doubt that life in general and hockey in particular, will not be returning to ‘normal’ for a long while yet.

However, as with any situation, there have been positives and in 2020, the positives have been provided by the widespread adoption of digital communications.

From supportive groups chatting to each other on WhatsApp, through to online training videos offered by elite athletes, the digital world has expanded exponentially. USA athlete Erin Matson was notably busy offering advice to other young hockey players on staying motivated and continuing to train hard. Argentina’s Delfina Merino shared her training sessions at home with her thousands of fans on social media. Canada’s Hannah Haughn used her social media platforms to share advice on mental health issues as people struggled with isolation. This became a time when the stars of the game became far more approachable to their fans.

While the athletes tended to use their social media platforms in an informal setting, national organisations, continental federations and the international federation suddenly spotted the opportunity to use this time to increase levels of knowledge within the hockey workforce.

In February and March, coaches, umpires, technical officials and administrators were all suffering from a lack of hockey as much as the athletes were. Coaches were not able to work with their squads to improve their own coaching skills and knowledge. For umpires, a lack of game-play would lead to an inevitable deterioration in game readiness. Technical officials and administrators were not able to be involved in the very activities that gave them so much satisfaction.

“This time last year, I had umpired over a 100 games, this year I can count the games I have umpired on one hand,” said Ayanna McClean of Trinidad and Tobago on the recent hockey podcast interview for the FIH. For McClean, this is particularly tough as she will be officiating at the Tokyo Olympics and needs high level match play experience to prepare for the challenge.

And so, the hockey organising bodies started to explore other ways of maintaining momentum within the sport. A proliferation of online courses, webinars and conferences offered the hockey community a new way to come together.

PAHF adopted the new technology with relish. A series of webinars and courses were organised to take place throughout the year. These were run by PAHF and tailored to the specific need of the national associations. The courses ranged from umpiring level one and two courses, coaching courses, training for facilitators, courses for technical officials and workshops concentrating on specific hockey topics. Some courses were invitational only, offering the chance for people working within national associations a chance to update and enhance the skills and knowledge they already had. Other courses were offered out to anyone interested in increasing their hockey knowledge.

The course facilitators were people at the top of their own game. Goalkeeping legend and top class educator Laura del Colle ran online goalkeeping training courses for aspiring goalkeepers and goalkeeper coaches. Internationally renowned umpire Soledad Iparraguirre facilitated courses for level one and level two umpires. Among the host of highly qualified providers who turned out in their droves and gave up their time to facilitate the courses were Willard Harris, Roger St Rose, Diego Barbas, Soledad Iparraguirre, Gus SoteriadesRene Zelkin, Lorena Rinaldini, Maureen Craig-RosseauChiche Mendoza, Pablo Mendoza, Veronica Planella, Ernesto Lucero, Virginia Casabo, Nico Tixe and Juan Casas.

Just as the athletes were making themselves available to the fans, some of the most qualified people in the areas of coaching, umpiring and officiating world were now in regular dialogue with people who wanted to progress their knowledge in these areas.

While some courses were one-off sessions, others paved the way for more development work in the future. The FIH webinar on Gender Equality offered PAHF a way to start dialogue between national associations within the Pan American region. Trinidad and Tobago’s Maureen Craig-Rosseau was one of the guest speakers who emphasised the need for national associations to start to plan a strategy for ensuring equality within the sport.

But, of course, the online courses will never replace the physical, interactive courses that existed pre-pandemic. As Laura del Colle was quick to point out, the courses “cannot ever replace the important work that is done on the field.”

The natural development now is for organising bodies to use both means of knowledge sharing. While the majority of training will take place via physical courses, with all candidates physically together at a central point, there will also be times when the most cost- and time-efficient means of delivering information is online. When the information can be delivered online, then that leads to a huge saving in terms of travel and time for participants.

As we move into this brave new world of hybrid hockey development, it is worth reminding ourselves just what reach PAHF achieved in a year when the sport could have been forgiven for retreating into it’s shell.

There were 41 courses, comprising a mix of Spanish and English. More than 2,400 people took part in PAHF courses, with a further 75 people taking part in the new Open Space courses. Coaching and umpiring courses were by far the best attended – 573 people took at least one Spanish-speaking umpiring course, a further 778 people attended the Spanish-speaking coaching course and 345 took the English speaking version.

The geographic reach was enormous, with people logging into the courses from across the continent. The most popular course was the Spanish-speaking coaching course which saw representatives from 27 different national associations sign in.

Talking about the success of the online program, PAHF President Alberto ‘Coco’ Budeisky says: “The willingness of the facilitators to provide such a breadth and wealth of information has been astonishing. No less astonishing has been the enthusiasm with which the hockey community has taken up these courses.

“By adding an element of online education into our coaching and training in the future, we are opening up opportunities to a far greater audience. This is the sort of inclusivity and accessibility that will help us move hockey forwards across the entire PAHF region. It is also a measure of the hockey family’s ability to adapt and innovate at times of real challenge and uncertainty.

“On behalf of PAHF, I would like to thank everyone who has given their time to either deliver or attend our courses.”