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Q1 2018

Can hockey grow new markets?

Over the past few years hockey has grown well among non-traditional players like boys and in Afrikaans schools. But, can it now take the next step by growing in disadvantaged communities? asks ANTOINETTE MULLER

If you were to rank South Africa’s favourite sports in order of popularity, hockey wouldn’t make the top three. If you judged it by participation at school level, hockey doesn’t even make the top five. Yet, in many sports retailers hockey will top the sales table.

According to statistics from the Department of Sport and Recreation (SRSA), around 9% of schools (both primary and senior) in South Africa offer hockey as a school sport. But, while those numbers might sound small, it has been one of the fastest growing sports in the country for a few years now.

A Sports Trader survey from last year, for example, found that almost half (49%) of schools who responded to the survey had more boys' hockey teams compared to five years ago.

But, while the sport has been rapidly growing non-traditional market share among boys and Afrikaans schools where it is a faily new sport, it lags exposure in disadvantaged communities.

As is the case with many of South Africa’s sports, facilities remain the biggest barrier to entry. Schools in rural and disadvantaged communities simply do not have the funding resources to construct astro turfs. Teams form poorer areas having to travel far to practice, or play their home games, is not unusual.

Langa’s hockey heroes

But there is hope. Langa Hockey club is at the forefront of finding a way to engage aspiring black players, even if the club did not have its own astro facility until 2014.

Last year, the men’s and women’s teams won promotion and Lungile Tsolekile, who plays for the club and has 105 caps for South Africa, has seen a steady increase in interest — both from Langa and surrounding areas. “I’ve seen a shift in how people respond to Langa hockey’s success. We go out in Langa and we’re recognised as the hockey guys and girls. I get messages on Facebook asking me when we train — people from Khayelitsha, Gugulethu. And I encourage those who want to join to come train with us,” Tsolekile says.

His enthusiasm about hockey and its potential is infectious. “I don’t believe in creating obstacles. When players ask me about challenges from transport to money, I tell them we’ll find a way.”

Booming interest is one thing, retaining players is another. While a huge drop off usually comes after school, Tsolekile says he notices a big drop off between the ages of 15-18, with reasons ranging from something as simple as a change of interest, to the grim realities of drugs and gangsterism.

For those players who want to continue playing after school — and do so in conjunction with earning a living elsewhere — he has seemingly taken it upon himself to ensure the club’s participation does not drop.

“If a guy is working somewhere and still wants to play hockey, I will call his manager and ask him to arrange his shifts so that he can be available to play. Every single time, managers will be accommodating. The player might be too scared to ask, but I ask because I want to make sure players get the opportunities,” he explains.

Coaching is another challenge, but not for a lack of will. Lungile says that there are many volunteers who want to coach, but struggle to obtain their qualifications because courses are not offered in languages other than English.

But not everyone is so upbeat. Langa's chairman, Lunga Tsolekile is less upbeat and says that not much is being done to promote the sport in poor communities.

“I think it’s a disgrace that 30 years after the first black club was established you still look to just Langa and Khayelitsha players. We have over ten townships that remain untapped. There is just no will from the authorities to go into these townships and introduce the sport,” he says.

He adds that Langa HC, started in 1988 by the late Bob Woolmer, remained the only black hockey club in the Western Cape for over 20 years. Khayelitsha HC became the second, but Lunga says it was not an initiative of the Western Province Hockey Union or the South African Hockey Union.

“It was started by a dedicated lady called Gloria Baartman, a player who lived and learnt her hockey in Langa, but had moved to Khayelitsha. She single handedly started with a few boys and old sticks. Only after seeing the progress she made the authorities jumped on the bandwagon,” Lunga says. “There is just no will from the authorities to go into these townships and introduce the sport.”

Hockey SAs grassroots plan

Hockey SA, though, is singing a different tune. In 2017, it launched a plan to promote and grow the sport from grassroots level, focusing on primary schools across the country. Still in its pilot phase and run by former educator and hockey player Gary Dolly, the programme combines the teaching of basic sport skills with the requirements of the national school curriculum.

The aim is to grow participation at primary school level by 100 a year. And this programme is not bothered by lack of facilities.

"Over many years we never penetrated any new areas because of lack of facilities in certain communities," Dolly told the Herald last year. “But this approach enables us now to go into any school where there is a smooth surface, such as a class room or a school hall, to introduce hockey as a fun activity.”

They try and piggyback onto the physical education classes teachers have to provide, asking teachers to promote skills like hitting and striking a ball on a smooth surface. A stick and ball is therefore the only equipment needed as each school would have a smooth surface, for example in the school hall.

SA Hockey hopes that the approach will be adopted by the Department of Education, as well as the Department of Sport to help boost exposure to the sport to help them reach their goal. The pilot programme is currently focussing on Port Elizabeth with 24 schools, mostly from disadvantaged areas, taking part.

But the sport’s governing body admits that the drop off rate after school remains one of its biggest challenges. That is evident in the number of players: there are over 100 000 players at school level and around 11 000 in the club system.

If even a fraction of those players are retained, it would be a huge boost to South Africa’s talent pool — and organically aid transformation at national level in the long-term.

For Langa Hockey Club’s Lungile, though, there is a simple answer to the lack of players of colour in the national set-up. “Right now, the South African team is not doing too well. We’re not in the top ten. What’s the worst that can happen if we take ten black kids, pair them with some older guys and stick with them for the next eight years? Look at Argentina who won the Olympics in 2016. They followed that model of consistency.”

For SA Hockey, it’s about the grassroots development and Dolly hopes to pick the fruits of grassroots development not just on the field, but off field too. “I believe that we will be able to increase our base of players and it will also have a massive impact in terms of the social cohesion and countering the social ills that are bedevilling our community at the moment,” he said.

From the captain’s chair

Rassie Pieterse, multi-team captain and goalkeeper, is upbeat about the future of the sport in the country. The veteran player believes the establishment of the HPL has played a huge part in helping grow the sport.

With over 100 caps for his country, many of them as captain of the men’s national team, plus as captain of two-times Hockey Premier League champions the Crossroads Baropeng Cavemen, and in between captaining provincial and club teams, he has a good understanding of what is happening in local hockey on all levels.

On the plus side “you see more and more hockey on TV,” he says. “SuperSport has done a great job for the sport in South Africa. Televising games also has a knock-on effect on the quality of hockey. Players can now see replays to help improve their game. These are the things we never saw back in the day.”

As global general manager of TK Hockey he gets an overview of hockey growth across the world and he believes hockey is growing more in South Africa than in other countries in the world.

But despite the growth, the sport remains amateur and earning a living as a player in South Africa is impossible. Even the country’s national team members cannot play professionally.

Our teams also struggle to regularly play against quality opposition due to the travel cost involved, explains Pieterse. That is why players who can afford to, play for European professional clubs.

Provincial teams — and lower — have to fork out form their own pockets when playing in inter-provincial and other tournaments.

This lack of funding support is a big deterrent for players from disadvantaged backgrounds who want to play hockey beyond school level.

Transformation in hockey — or the lack thereof — has been raised as an issue by both SRSA as well as SASCOC.

South Africa did not send a hockey team to the 2016 Rio Olympics — chiefly because they did not view continental qualification of high enough standard to warrant the expense. But the Olympic body also raised concerns about the absence of black African players in the squad. Fairly representative teams will travel to the 2018 Commonwealth Games in April, but the demographic of the national teams will no doubt come under scrutiny.

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