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South African national team captain and goalie, and TK International GM, Rassie Erasmus (front) and Dylan Swanepoel in action in the 2017 test against Germany. Peter Wright of K&T Sport, distributor of Malik, is the umpire (right). Photo: NICOL DU TOIT
Q3 2017

High hopes for hockey

Hockey is continuing its good run of the past few years, especially at school level, a Sports Trader survey shows. With bonuses like the hosting of the prestigious Hockey World League semi-final in Johannesburg and the R10-m sweetener the Premier Hockey League (PHL) brought to the sport last year, can things get better? asks LINZA DE JAGER.

A story about hockey in South Africa has to address two issues: hockey at school level, where there is healthy growth, and hockey at senior level, where — like in most other sports — a drop in the number of hockey players occur.

According to the South African Schools Hockey Association (SASHOC) there were 125 633 primary and high school players in South Africa last year.

Boys’ hockey, especially, has had a massive growth spurt over the past few years. Nearly half (49%) of the schools that responded to a Sports Trader survey on hockey participation at school* now have more boys’ teams than five years ago. This is in comparison with 8% of the respondents who say they now have fewer teams than before and 22% that say that the number of boys’ teams stayed the same.

There has also been steady growth in girls’ hockey. Nearly a third (32%) of respondents’ schools have more girls’ teams than five years ago, while 27% say that the number of girls’ teams have stayed the same and 14% report that the number of girls’ teams has gone down.

“The sport is growing very fast at primary school level too,” says Marli Klynsmith of Vastrap Primary in Rustenburg, in the North West province. “But, because it is one of the newer sports at this level, we are in a constant battle against the other sports that the learners are interested in.” On the other hand, the learners at Universitas Primere Skool in Bloemfontein “are very interested in playing hockey,” reports Philip Marais. Mo Pearson of Auckland Park Preparatory School in Johannesburg concurs. “Hockey is at a good level in our school,” he says.

Only one respondent, Mervyn Mooi, who represents all township schools Southwest of Johannesburg, reported that unfortunately none of these schools currently have hockey as school sport, but that they did five years ago. “Lack of funding and school coaches are the reasons why they no longer offer hockey,” he reports.

Greater interest

The growth in hockey participation at school is mainly driven by a demand from parents and learners, 22% of the respondents report, as well as access to better coaches. Not surprisingly, an inspiring coach is an important factor why learners want to play hockey, report 38% of respondents.

“Hockey, like any sport, will grow depending on the level of enthusiasm put into the programme by the school and the coaches,” comments Dean Dollenberg of Hatfield Christian School. “We have put in high amounts of energy and have reaped the results with both our boys’ and girls’ hockey exploding.”

But, playing opportunities is still the main driver, as 49% of respondents say the number of hockey tournaments they can play in, influence participation.

“There is a very strong ability level among the top schools in Cape Town,” says James Peverley of SACS, where the number of boys’ teams have grown over the past few years.

Hockey shown on television also has an impact on participation numbers, report 30% of respondents. This is good news for the future, in the light of the high-profile coverage of the FIH World Series semi-final played in Johannesburg in July this, as well as the coverage of the colourful PHL (hopefully) later this year.

Last year the live broadcasts on SuperSport [of the PHL] have had a major impact, says John Wright, former top FIH International umpire and director of hockey and cricket at Tshwane University of Technology.

His brother, Peter, agrees. “The TV coverage from SuperSport has been great for the game, it has inspired many people to play hockey.” He is also a FIH International umpire, president of the Northerns Hockey Association and local distributor of Malik hockey via K&T Sport.

“The PHL has definitely engaged the non-hockey community and many more people were watching hockey because it was televised,” agrees Basil Gasparis, Operational Manager at TK Sports in South Africa. “It has created a buzz in the hockey and non-hockey community, with many people enquiring about the sport.”

International hockey, however, plays a minor role in gaining converts to the sport: a paltry 3% of respondents say their charges are influenced by the performance of the national team, while only 5% is interested in the performance of international teams.

To a lesser extent factors like ‘facilities have improved and that they can now use them’ (8%), ‘other schools in the area against which they can play hockey’ (5%), and more funding for the school to offer more sports (3%) encourage learner interest in hockey.

Feeder school impact

But, where learner numbers in a school are low and girls have to choose between playing hockey or netball, player numbers go down, as V. Jonker of Hoerskool Nylstroom experienced.

Hockey coaching at primary school level is very important for future interest in the sport, several high school respondents pointed out.

“The hockey coaching in the primary schools (our feeding area) is not up to standard,” says Jonker. The result is that they now have fewer girls’ teams than five years ago.

“Our primary school feeder schools are no longer offering hockey as a sport, hence fewer players at high school,” explains Andrew Gifford of Norkem Park High in Gauteng. “Dominant sports like netball and basketball are attracting more learners.”

The non-development of hockey players in the primary schools in their feeder area, puts a damper on hockey participation in their school, especially among boys, Kyle Talbot of Sutherland High School found. They do, however, have more girls’ teams than five years ago.

On the downside

Lack of funds to provide coaches, facilities, and playing opportunities, seem to be the main reasons why hockey participation declined in some schools. Facilities that have deteriorated so much that they can no longer be used resulted in less interest from learners, report 14% of respondents, while less funding (8%), no other schools in the area to play against (5%), and coaches who left the school (3%) are other reasons why hockey participation dropped, others reported.

In the schools where participation is down, learners rather want to play more dominant sports, report 30% of the respondents – especially where peer pressure to play another sport is strong (27%).

This often goes hand-in-hand with lack of funds to buy equipment (27%), problems created by having to stay after school to practice (16%) and lack of transport to matches (11%). A further 16% say that their disinterested learners know little about the sport.

“The need for an astro field is becoming essential if you wish to stay competitive, and many schools cannot afford one,” adds Ian Kennedy from Rob Ferreira High in Whiteriver, where the demand for more hockey teams has grown among boys and girls.

Most learners have to buy their own hockey equipment, report 84% of the respondents. In 57% of the schools learners pay for their own team wear and 51% respondents say their learners have to provide their own protective wear as well.

Hockey sticks and shin pads are predominantly individual players’ purchases, with only 8% respondents saying that their schools buy these items in bulk. Their schools would, however, provide equipment and clothing for players who can’t afford to buy their own, 16% said.

The majority of the schools, however, buy goalkeepers’ protective wear (81% of respondents) and more than half of the schools (59%) purchase hockey balls in bulk. More than a third (35%) also provide the team kit for their hockey players.

Nearly a fifth (19%) of respondents’ schools have their teamwear donated by sponsors, while 5% get equipment from sponsors.

“Only our first teams are sponsored,” qualifies Talbot – an occurrence in most other schools. Their school also buys shorty masks. “Learners must buy their own gum guards, shin pads, etc.”

After school participation

Senior hockey has significantly smaller numbers than school hockey, but the SA Hockey Association and many players have high hopes that the Premier Hockey League (PHL) will not only raise the level of play, but attract more senior players by providing more playing opportunities.

It’s too early to be able to say whether the PHL has made an impact on the number of people playing hockey, says John Wright. “The PHL is critical for hockey in South Africa at the moment,” he continues. “The need for a high performance competition to allow players, coaches and officials to perform, is of paramount importance. There is currently nowhere near enough top quality competition for our players. The PHL provides for this.”

The fact that there are more than 120 000 South African youngsters playing hockey, indicates that there is vast interest in the sport. “One just has to observe how many schools are making major capital investments in artificial hockey surfaces to realise the interest in the sport,” he adds. “At senior level, however, this number is greatly reduced.”

While he believes the PHL has improved participation, it has only been held once — and there was no news yet if, and when, the second addition would be held by the time we went to print.

“I think if the inaugural PHL was anything to go by, then we are on the right track,” says Wright. “It’s not only about the athletes, but more so around the spectator experience, and the 2016 tournament did that.”

Many more players have been exposed to a high level of competition, which is critical for the top echelon of players. “They need to play tougher, more competitive hockey, more regularly,” he adds.

While the hockey televised during the first PHL would have inspired young players to take up the sport, “the PHL will have to continue for a number of years before it can be considered a success,” says Gasparis, “This has been a good start to a new era of South African hockey,” he adds. “I was at a junior tournament (U5-U13) a couple of weeks ago and there were easily 1 200 girls and boys running around and playing hockey. It was great to see!”

He believes that the standard of hockey has improved across the country. “We saw this at the senior inter-provincial tournaments (IPT) this year, where a B-team (Witsies) reached the finals and the KwaZulu Natal Raiders winning both the men’s and ladies’ IPT for the first time in several years.” Many of the KwaZulu Natal players also played for PHL teams, he points out.

The PHL created a competitive environment for our top players, and it is important that this is a yearly event, adds Peter Wright. “It has exposed fringe players who were given a chance to play in this tournament. So yes, it has made and will continue to make a positive impact on hockey in South Africa.”

He believes it can have a major impact on hockey, if used constructively. “It exposes players to a competitive structure and enables them to be part a professional set up, so it can only add massive value.

* Sports Trader invited a large number of schools to participate in our survey on Survey Monkey on hockey participation in schools. Most of the respondents (78%) were from high schools and 35% were from primary schools. Respondents could remain anonymous and only those who gave permission were quoted in the article.


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