How Spalding hockey bucked trend with primary school sport success

Spalding Hockey Club’s Fred Morris on how he built his primary school tournaments with the help of youthful umpires and the willpower of the club

We had to smile when we read that Guildford HC had been given three pitches free of charge by Charterhouse School for the first tournament. Spalding (population 35,000) is based in rural South Lincolnshire and has only one all-weather pitch which the club rents and pays commercial rental fees for all its activities. If there is a spectrum in hockey, I believe we represent opposite ends.

However, Spalding HC has a massive family-based ethos and we can tell a story of the development of young hockey players and umpires from primary school age through to the club’s A-Teams over the past decade.

Our story basically begins in 2009 when Spalding relocated to a brand new site in Surfleet just north of Spalding. With the move came an opportunity to further develop the youth department of the club and we decided that we should aim to do the same at the primary school level. We reached out to the organizers of elementary school sports and received backlash early on when they said hockey was not in demand at all.

Luckily we had a couple of elementary school teachers at the club who were more receptive to the idea of ​​inter-school ice hockey games. We started on a small scale in 2010 with a few games on playgrounds, but then generated enough interest to host our own primary school tournament on the all-weather pitch.

Eight teams from seven local schools competed in two leagues on quarter-sized pitches. Teams consisted of six players, boys and girls, with no goalkeepers and no gender restrictions. With a recommended squad of a maximum of 10 players, around 60 young players would have played. The referees in the early days were senior club members.

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This tournament laid the foundation for years to come and word got around. Year after year more schools participated and by 2016 we had reached capacity for this format. We now ran five tournaments during the school year, each full with 20 participating teams from 14 local schools. At this point, the number of participants had risen to over 150 per tournament.

With some teams coming and going all tournaments were fully subscribed until the Covid lockdown. There was concern that the momentum built up over the years would be lost but after a few tournaments we are back to full capacity for the 2022/23 season and now have a waiting list.

Teams play in four tiered leagues, advanced, intermediate and two novice leagues to encourage year 5 and year 4 players, which helps build continuity into the system. Promotion and relegation between leagues is not automatic, but is flexible enough to keep leagues competitive and at roughly the same level.

There has been a gradual move away from the senior umpires and now all games are officiated by 13-17 year old umpires who all previously competed in the tournaments during their elementary school days. The club’s Senior Referee Development Officers are available to provide direction if required.

Not only do the tournaments give more than 150 youngsters the opportunity to compete in a tournament, but for many it is a huge confidence booster to represent their school. They are also well supported by a good group of teachers and parents who get carried away with the excitement, even if many don’t fully appreciate the rules of hockey.

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All teachers and parents will receive programs with a schedule and details on how to join the Spalding HC Juniors. That’s often a steady uptake after each tournament and has proven to be a major factor in the club’s continued success. The otherwise strongly football-oriented local press now also reports well on the tournaments.

As an example of the success of the primary tournaments, the club can highlight the following from the playing and refereeing side.

Last season, Spalding won men’s 1St Team won promotion to the East Men’s Premier League and the Women’s 1St Team promotion to East Division 1 North. The club is very proud that around 20 of the players in the rosters of these two teams started their ice hockey careers in the preliminary tournaments.

As is the case here, about a third of those players have now gone on to college, making life at the higher level challenging for those who remain. While the club welcomes new older players, they rely heavily on the development of their own youngsters and will continue to do so, striving to play at the highest possible level. The conveyor belt of players returning from the preliminary tournaments has allowed the club to maintain its number of A-League teams. We’ve had to drop a team due to Covid but plan to move back up to eight A-League teams in the near future.

We currently have 10 youth volunteer referees available for the tournaments. Some of them are now playing in the eastern senior leagues and we have some outstanding success stories. Tom Pilgrim (now 14) became the youngest in England to qualify as a Level 1 indoor referee aged just 11 and now regularly officiates East League matches. Mia Dewing first officiated in the primary tournaments at the age of 14 and has risen through the ranks at phenomenal speed and now, just three years later, is the referee of the women’s national league, junior international matches and is now at the European Board of Appointments.

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We would love to hear from other clubs currently running or planning to run primary school tournaments.

As a caveat, please don’t think that this route is a quick fix for every club. They are trying to promote a minority sport in direct contrast to readily available football with all its benefits. Even if you start a program in 2023, you won’t see real rewards for your senior club-level work until the end of the decade. Cooperation between schools, teachers, parents and the young people themselves is an essential starting point. Once you’ve attracted the youth, you need a dedicated coaching staff to take them to the adult teams. And you will have to do this for many years.

Nobody said it was easy, but at Spalding Hockey Club, we’ve found that the rewards are worth the effort.

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