Scotland hopes to improve its hockey prospects by not rushing youth players into international competition, writes Roddy Mackenzie
Scottish hockey's first rung of the international ladder - at under-16 level - now involves only limited competition, in a move to ensure that youth players hone their basic skills before taking the plunge to play abroad.
Brent Deans, the Scottish Hockey Union's performance manager, has placed the emphasis for that age group on development and working on skills learned at school, rather than taking part in European Championships.
It was felt that the value of taking such a young team to a structured competition in Europe was debatable, when many were experiencing international competition for the first time, with all it entailed. If results did not go well, it could perhaps sour a player's taste for the game.
A rolling programme for the development of the under-16 national squad now involves bringing in players at an earlier age (one player in last year's squad was just 13), so that they can ease themselves into the international arena.
Its international matches are now being kept to a minimum, with fixtures secured against north-west England, Belgium and Ireland, but these will not take place until next May to July.
An open trial for the squad will be held on November 27 at Strathallan School in Perthshire, with an open invitation to any players and coaches interested. Players will be selected as much for the future as for the present, because the emphasis will be on getting them accustomed to a squad set-up and how it works, so that they are better prepared for the jump to under-18 level.
"Having one team for the Europeans every two years and then cleaning the slate to start from scratch was not ideal," explains Kevin McNab, who will continue as the Scotland under-16 boys' coach for another two years.
"I think the idea of a rolling programme works much better, as the players are eased into an international programme. It certainly seems to be working, as nine of the last 18-strong under-16 squad are now involved at under-18 or under-21 level for Scotland."
Mr McNab, who is one of eight full-time development officers for the SHU, believes the youth game is in good health and has been encouraged by developments in Grampian, the area he oversees.
The SHU has a strong club development programme, which national league clubs are encouraged to follow, and school-club links are high on the agenda.
The majority of players who filter into the Scotland under-16 boys' squad now come from the clubs. The others come mainly from private schools.
In Grampian, for example, Mintlaw Academy and Ellon Academy filter into the Ellon club and Robert Gordon's College supplies Gordonians with players.
The wisdom of handing the youth development initiative to the clubs is illustrated by the fact that a recent teaching change at Cults Academy, which fed into the Bon Accord club, has led to a drop in hockey at the school.
"Hockey clubs are quite well organised now. A lot of them have under-10 and under-12 teams and the link to schools is strong," Mr McNab says.
"Some clubs have been working with youngsters from mini-hockey at primary schools and some get involved with individual schools and run after-school clubs.
"For the last two years in the north-east, we have had leagues at under-14 and under-16 level and they bring in teams from the Dundee area. This gives players experience of travelling to away games and feeling part of a team, whereas in the past teams were only playing other sides from the same area.
I think it helps them identify more with their club."
Hockey is competing with other sports - most notably football - when it comes to recruiting young players, but the numbers coming through in the past couple of years have been steadily increasing.
"Football does hurt us," Mr McNab admits. "But we are quite fortunate in that many children get to 15 or 16 and decide they are not going to make it as footballers and are looking at another sport.
"Hockey fits in quite well with that and we get a lot of children at that age who feel that football is not working for them.
"One of our selling points is that children can play mixed hockey up until the age of 14."
Mr McNab is also keen to preach to new recruits that it is a sport that does not have to end when school days are over.
"You can play the game from the age of six right up until your 70s." he says. "It is a sport you can play for life, as it has many different levels.
"You can play at entry level right up to the top national league and international level and also play social hockey, which has a wide appeal."