Giving up the day job for hockey

Roddy Mackenzie talks to Fiona Harfield, who is taking a company sabbatical to give hockey a future in the Forth Valley

Fiona Harfield, the captain of Stirling Wanderers, a Scottish National League third division hockey team, has been given six months to try to secure the future of hockey in the Forth Valley area.

Until last month, the 36-year-old was an account manager with American Express, but she has been granted a paid sabbatical to rejuvenate hockey in an area which has not traditionally been one of the strongest in Scotland and nurture children in the game.

Miss Harfield, who plays right half, started in her new role last week and after six months, when she returns to her job, she hopes to have set in place a structure that will last. It is an experiment that will be monitored closely as she is aiming to achieve in six months what sports development officers have three years to do.

Miss Harfield is starting from scratch and there will be many obstacles to overcome, not least the lack of facilities in the area. However, the local children's enthusiasm convinces her that there is untapped potential.

"There are some good volunteers in the Forth Valley area," she says, "but unlike traditionally strong hockey areas, such as Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow, there has been no full-time development officer.

"My company offers paid sabbaticals as long as you do work in the community. So I was able to approach Scottish Hockey to say that I could work at no cost to them and they jumped at the chance. I'm working closely with them and with the Stirling Sports Council and its sports co-ordinators.

"The big problem I'm finding is that there are so few sand-based artificial grass pitches, such as AstroTurf, in the area. There are pitches at Balfron High and Dunblane High but that's about it. There was one at Forthbank Stadium in Stirling but that has since been given over to football.

"The traditions of the area are more in football and rugby than hockey and I'm finding that many of the children have never picked up a hockey stick."

In some cases, Miss Harfield has to use the school gym hall to coach pupils, which is not ideal as the hockey ball rolls as if on ice.

In addition to teaching basic skills, she has introduced games such as bean bag races where children stoop to pick up the bags, thus keeping low and moving fast, mimicking running in hockey.

"I think the important thing is to make hockey fun and that's what I'm trying to do," she says. "If you can get children to play a game where they are not aware they are developing hockey skills, it gives them a good grounding.

"It's quite a challenge for me to go back to the basics and I've had to get new qualifications. I've been accustomed to coaching 14 to 18-year-olds at my club but absolute beginners is very different."

Miss Harfield says that when she attended school in Gosport, Hampshire, there was a lot of extra-curricular sport and she could pick and choose what she wanted to play. Returning to school after 18 years has been an eye-opener, given that there are comparatively few after-school clubs in sport.

One of her remits is to start an after-school club at Balfron High, which has eight primary schools feeding into it. A festival is planned for the week before the half-term break next month, to which the eight primary schools will send teams. It is estimated about 100 children will attend. From there, Miss Harfield will set up an after-school club one day a week and hopes that players will feed into the Stirling club, where there already is a strong coaching framework.

After the mid-term break, Miss Harfield will concentrate on the secondary schools in the area - Wallace High, McLaren High and Stirling High - and go into Falkirk, where there has been little hockey activity in recent years.

In addition to recruiting players, Miss Harfield has to enlist more volunteer helpers. This is a priority to prevent the flurry of activity coming to a sudden stop when she returns to her job.

"We have to put people through leadership courses and get parents involved so that they can run and coach the Balfron club," she says. "That is one of the main objectives so that the new club runs by itself and does not need to rely on coaches from other clubs."

The club must be self-perpetuating so that it can become a focus for schoolchildren in the area.

"I haven't sat down and worked out how many children I'll be in touch with over the next six months but it is likely to be in the hundreds," Miss Harfield says.

"If even 10 per cent of those go on to play hockey then it would be an achievement. If it ran to 40 per cent, that would be excellent. But just to get 30-40 children playing the game in an area where there are no strong traditions would be something. After all, that would be three new teams and the foundations for a strong club."

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you