KEEP your head down, take a swing, and hammer the ball towards the goalmouth – how hard can it be?
Hockey had long been a game I thought I could easily associate with. Two goals with nets, eleven players per team, penalties, goalkeepers – in my eyes the sport was essentially football with sticks.
Unfortunately for me, this brisk notion was about to drastically change as I arrived at a Fishguard and Goodwick club training session for my seventh Commonwealth Games challenge.
The club, with more than 100 members, has female teams at mini, junior and senior level, and hosts three hours of training on the astroturf at Fishguard Leisure Centre every Tuesday.
The senior side currently lies fifth in the South Wales Hockey Development Division, with eight wins from their 13 games this season.
“It’s important to us that everyone enjoys themselves,” said head coach Julie McAdam, who has been involved in the game as a player or coach for 25 years.
“With our under-9 to 14 sides, it’s all about taking part and having fun.
“When it gets to under-15s to 18s, that’s when focus shifts slightly and we want to be competing well and winning.
“But even with the first team squad, although we train seriously and it’s great when we win – if we lose then it’s not the end of the World.
“And we are not just a female club. Boys are welcome to train with us and we have 12 male members at the moment.”
Furthermore, Julie explains that the club will happily provide a platform for those with the potential to play at a higher level.
“We have a good working relationship with other clubs in Pembrokeshire.
“For example - if we have a player who we feel needs to be at a better standard then we will release her to Haverfordwest, who currently prelay in the Premier Two Division.”
Indeed, Chloe Sinnott, a former player of the club, represented Cardiff Met at the Hockey Wales Cup Finals last weekend.
As I tried to get to grips with the warm up – I sensed there was little possibility of me being recommended to a higher level club by the end of the session. But what did strike me immediately was that while Julie oversaw the senior side, a host of club youngsters were on hand to assist with coaching the mini and junior players.
“We are lucky in that we have Amelia Davies and Carys Owen here who are Gold Ambassadors for Hockey Wales.
“While Chloe Campbell, Ffion Price, Carys James, Carys Thomas, Ben Leahy and Elliott Colley are all Silver Ambassadors.
“They are great with helping out with coaching and really represent us well – and we also have other members who will voluntarily assist with training and running the club.”
A common theme throughout my Commonwealth journey has been the boundless enthusiasm with which youngsters have buzzed around and trained – but Julie told me of an interesting measure that ensures they remain disciplined during games.
“We have a great system in hockey that prevents back chat and foul play,” she said.
“Umpires can either give verbal warnings or show a green card.
“If a player infringes after that he or she will get a yellow card, and have five minutes or more in the sin bin.
“A red card is given for more serious offences.”
Fortunately for me, no such card can be issued for poor technique, as I struggled early on to control passes.
But after some guidance from Julie, a re-adjustment of my grip helped me slowly get the hang of things, as I took part in a series of passing and shooting drills. Like any sport, performing under pressure in a live situation was a different ball game from performing in warm up drills – although I escaped with just one ‘air shot’ to my name early on.
What I also discovered was that being able to sprint quickly was vastly different from being able to sprint whilst controlling a hockey ball. This was despite the slick astroturf surface, that seemed light years apart from the grass divots and mud patches that I remembered on local hockey fields as a youngster.
“We’ve had this facility for three years now and it’s helped enormously,” added Julie.
“To put it into perspective, the season after we started on here we went through the whole campaign without losing a game.”
The session culminated with continuous attack versus defence situations – and it was then I realised just much I had underestimated the intricacies of the sport.
In hockey, you can only score from inside the area, which negates the temptation to fire in long shots. Therefore, attackers need speed and spatial awareness to work shooting chances – while defenders have to be constantly on-guard against sharp turns of direction.
Canny attackers will also play the ball against a defending foot to win a ‘penalty corner’ – considered one of the prime opportunities to score in hockey.
And as I soon discovered to my cost, when a chance on goal does come, no small amount of skill is needed to place the ball past the keeper into a tightly sized net.
However, I managed to ensure my contribution to my teammates at least resembled useful, as I tried to cover extra yards to compensate for my lack of technical and tactical nous – before Julie called time on a thoroughly enjoyable session.
And I learnt that the obvious camaraderie and spirit extends into the community – as members recently helped raise £380 for Cancer Research by bag packing at a local Co-op store.
It’s clubs like Fishguard and Goodwick that are essential to the grassroots of Pembrokeshire sport. Youngsters and seniors have the opportunity to learn the game in an enjoyable and non pressure environment, but at the same time, have the platform to play competitively and go on to a higher level if they wish.
And one thing that newcomers will soon find out – there’s a lot more to it than keeping your head down and having a swing.
Bill Carne's verdict:
Our trip to meet up with members of Fishguard Hockey Club was enjoyable one because Fraser and I encountered a complete cross-section of players, from senior ladies through the teenage girls who play and also some very good young schoolboy players.
All of these were there under the watchful eye of coach Julie McAdam, who not only gives enthusiastic support to developing their hockey skills but was in the midst of a huge buzz of excitement because she was organising their end-of-season trip to play ten-pin bowling!
Julia also used the gold and silver ambassadors appointed by the Welsh Hockey Association to take responsibility for the warm-up session and although I told them to push Fraser extra hard he coped well – other than the first time he produced an ‘air shot’ enjoyed by those of us lucky enough to witness it!
Julie was patience personification as she showed Fraser the correct way to stop a ball hit hard at him, using the whole shaft of the stick, rather than just the curved business end – and Fraser showed his ability to learn quickly.
All went well until the game situation, when he clearly found it easy to run down the flank with his stick but hard going when he needed to focus on keeping the ball under control whilst also checking to see where would-be tacklers were lurking!
But there were clear signs that he was beginning to shape up by the end of a two-hour session held in freezing cold weather – but with definite warmth of a great camaraderie amongst those taking part in a friendly club where all youngsters are made more than welcome!
Tune into the Radio Pembrokeshire Friday Night Sports Show to hear Bill Carne speak to Fraser about his hockey sessions, as well as Fishguard coach Julie McAdam and some of her players.
For more on hockey in Pembrokeshire, visit the Sport Pembrokeshire Facebook page or www.pembrokeshire.gov.uk/sport.