Fred Morris, of Spalding Hockey Club, on how it built its primary school tournaments, with the help of teenage umpires and club willpower
We could not help but smile when we read that Guildford HC had been provided with three pitches free of charge by Charterhouse School for the initial tournament. Based in rural South Lincolnshire, Spalding (population 35,000) has just the one all-weather pitch which the club rents and pays commercial hire charges for all its activities. If there was a spectrum in hockey, I believe that we represent the opposite ends.
However, Spalding HC has a massive family-based ethos and we have a story to tell in the development of young hockey players and umpires from primary school age and up through the club’s senior teams over the last decade.
Essentially, our story starts back in 2009 when Spalding relocated to a brand new pitch at Surfleet, just north of Spalding. With the move came an opportunity to develop the club’s youth section further and we decided that we should also aim to start this at primary school level. We approached those whose job it was to organise primary school sport and received an early setback when they said that there was no demand whatsoever for hockey.
Fortunately, we had in the club a few primary school teachers and they were more responsive to the idea of inter school hockey matches. We started on a small scale in 2010 with a few games on playgrounds but then generated enough interest to set up our own primary school tournament on the all weather pitch.
There were eight teams from seven local schools participating in two leagues on quarter-sized pitches. Teams were six-a-side, boys and girls with no goalkeepers and no gender restrictions. With a recommended squad maximum of 10, there would have been about 60 youngsters playing. The umpires in the early days were senior club members.
This tournament set the foundations for the years to come and gradually the word spread. Year by year more schools participated and by 2016 we had reached capacity in this format. We were now running five tournaments through the school year with each being full with 20 teams from 14 local schools being involved. Participating numbers by this stage had risen to over 150 per tournament.
With a few teams coming and going, all the tournaments were fully subscribed until the Covid lockdown. There was a fear that the loss of momentum that had built up through the years would be lost, but after a couple of tournaments we are back to full capacity for the 2022/23 season and now have a waiting list.
Teams play in four graded leagues, advanced, intermediate and two beginner leagues to encourage players from years 5 and 4 which helps to build continuity into the system. Promotion and relegation between leagues is not automatic but flexible enough to keep the leagues competitive and of roughly equal standards.
There has been a gradual move away from senior umpires and now all the games are officiated by 13-to-17 year old umpires all of whom have previously played in the tournaments in their primary school days. The club’s senior umpire development officers are on hand to direct as required.
The tournaments not only give 150 plus youngsters to play in a competitive tournament but for many representing their school is a great boost to their confidence. They are also well supported by a good crowd of teachers and parents who get caught up in the excitement even if many do not fully appreciate the rules of hockey.
Programmes are given to all teachers and parents with a match schedule and details of how to join the Spalding HC juniors. The is often a steady uptake after each tournament and this has proved to be a major factor in the club’s continued success. Even the local press, normally strongly football orientated, is now giving the tournaments good coverage.
By way of example of the success of the primary tournaments, the club can highlight the following from the playing and umpiring sides of the game.
Last season, Spalding men’s 1st team won promotion to the East Men’s Premier league and the women’s 1st team promotion to the East Division 1 north. The club is very proud that around 20 of the players in the squads of these two teams started their hockey playing careers at the primary tournaments.
As is the way here, about one third of these players have now moved on to university making life challenging at the higher level for those remaining. Whilst the club welcomes new senior players it relies heavily on developing its own youngsters and will continue to do so and strive to play at the highest possible level. The conveyor belt of players coming through from the primary tournaments has enabled the club to maintain its number of senior league teams. We did have to drop one team due to Covid but plan to get back to eight senior league teams in the near future.
We currently have 10 teenage volunteer umpires available for the tournaments. Several of these are now officiating in the East senior leagues and we have a couple of outstanding success stories. Tom Pilgrim (now 14) became the youngest in England to achieve the indoor Level 1 umpire qualification when just 11 years old and now umpires East League matches on a regular basis. Mia Dewing took up the whistle for the first time at the primary tournaments when aged 14 and has progressed up through the ranks at a phenomenal rate and is now, just three years later, umpiring women’s National League, Junior International matches and is now on the European panel for appointments.
We would be happy to hear from other clubs who are currently running or plan to run primary school tournaments.
As a caveat, please do not think that this route is a quick fix for any club. You are trying to promote a minority sport in direct opposition to readily available football with all its advantages. Even if you start a programme in 2023, it will only be towards the end of the decade that you will see any real rewards for your labour at senior club level. The cooperation from schools, teachers, parents and the youngsters themselves is an essential starting point. Once you have attracted the youngsters, you will then need a committed team of coaches to take them through to the adult teams. And you will have to do this for many years.
Nobody said it was easy but we at Spalding Hockey Club have found that the rewards make the effort worthwhile.