NEW OLYMPIC BID STARTS AT BISHAM
While the majority of hockey players have been running off the Christmas excesses or dusting off their indoor sticks over the last few weeks, the Great Britain squads are finally back out on the pitch together at Bisham Abbey.
Both UK Sport and an expectant British public will have high hopes for our hockey teams throughout the three-and-a-half years leading up to the Tokyo Olympic Games. With 2018 World Cup qualification up for grabs in six months, it is essential that both the men’s and women’s teams hit the ground running on their return to full-time training.
A new Olympic cycle means a new GB squad. As always, this throws up both challenges and opportunities for individual players, coaches and the squads as a whole. Now that fitness testing is done, house shares arranged and induction meetings completed, the real business begins: train hard, become a team again and start to focus on the upcoming tournaments.
On the women’s side, a few of the returning 2016 Olympians have spent more time on the red carpet than a blue or green one in recent months. The gold medal in Rio has written the GB women into the history books, but top level hockey moves on very fast. It’s crucial that these players quickly readjust to the physical, mental and emotional demands of daily training if there’s any chance the success is to be replicated.
The new faces will bring enthusiasm, freshness and some exciting talent to both squads. In a centralised progamme, this is critical to maintaining healthy competition for places but also in preventing the culture from becoming insular. There is power in a tight-knit squad, but there is a very fine line between a close group and a closed group.
A new pressure of expectation will now be evident for the women’s squad. Some of the newer players will head to their first senior international tournaments this summer with the tag of favourites. Internal and external expectations of the squad may differ, but this will be a slightly different challenge for the coaches and players to manage compared to the start of previous Olympic cycles.
The GB men will be raring to go after the disappointment of Rio. If a number of players can replicate their recent form at club and Under 21 level, there is a lot to be excited about moving forward, but new leaders will have to emerge quickly within this group. This is an area where being centralized can accelerate a squad’s development. Being immersed in an elite sports training environment is exciting and inspiring, but it also allows potential leaders to be recognised and nurtured more quickly.
Both squads will also include a number of players who endured a difficult 2016, but who have bright hopes for the coming months. Those players who missed out on Rio – whether injured or not selected – will have a point to prove. Their experience, playing ability and mental strength can be extremely valuable to the squads if the coaches are aware enough and skilful enough to draw them out.
The GB programme also creates wider challenges for domestic hockey. Both the men’s and women’s teams will travel to South Africa for training and practice matches in February, which will have a direct impact on player availability for meaningful league matches for many National League clubs.
This is another indication of a complete lack of coherence between the domestic and international programmes. I continue to believe this issue must be addressed by England Hockey as a matter of urgency for the long-term health of club hockey. The elite end of our sport cannot become too narrowly focused on the GB teams.
Being part of the GB centralised squad is a privilege and those players who have received a call up will be excited and motivated by the challenges ahead. The responsibilities, hopes and expectations may look or feel slightly different for new players compared to the multiple Olympians in the squads, but the fact remains that the players who make it look the easiest in the big games are usually the ones who work hardest and focus most on the training ground. Beckie Middleton is a former England & GB hockey player, Commonwealth and multiple-European medallist, currently playing for Surbiton. She writes a regular sports blog: www.thatinkingfeeling.wordpress.com @inkingfeeling
All together now: The Great Britain squads are finally back together on the pitch at Bisham Abbey