Rich, how did you become involved in England Hockey and what’s your role there?
Firstly, I’ve always had some sort of involvement in the sport since picking it up when I was a teenager. After university, when I first started to look at a career my first role was at England Hockey as an Administrator. Then I moved away and worked for Oxford Sports Partnership. After that, I spent several years as the manager of the Senior Women’s International Hockey Team before moving to Sports England as a Relationship Manager. I came back to England Hockey when the Business Development Director role became available – so I’ve been doing this role now since 2013.
As the Business Development Director I basically oversee all the development activities the organisation does. At the moment, with COVID, my role is a bit broader with COVID guidance and looking after the competition team being in my remit.
Sitting in my department at the moment I have:
- The competition team.
- The workforce development team.
- The facilities team.
- The clubs team.
- And the participation programme.
So, I’m really responsible for everything to do with trying to grow the team and the sport.
All the Directors at England Hockey are Executive Directors so I spend time sitting on the Board as well.
What’s England Hockey’s role in the sport? How does it feature and work?
We like to think we’re very close to our clubs and players and the ins-and-outs of the day-to-day working of the sport.
We’re undertaking a governance review and looking at the way the sport is structured and realigning our leagues and the way our competitions are run.
The clubs we work with every year, in one way or another, are direct members of EH – which is about 70% of England’s clubs which represent around 90% of our players. So we have a very close relationship with our clubs who run the most of the games – because it’s obviously a club based sport. The majority of where it’s played is either at clubs or educational institutions (schools, universities). So we like to think we’re very integral to the sport’s grassroots.
One thing to point out is that the most clubs don’t own their facilities – only around 10% do. The rest are owned by local authorities or by schools, colleges, and universities etc. This can present us with some problems though.
Despite our limited resources, we like to think we give as much support to our clubs as we can.
What sort of support?
We have three Facilities Relationship Managers who cover the work that goes on around facilities over the country.
There are around 1,000 pitches and the Facility Managers work on the playing pitch strategies that each local authority has to identify the needs for their area. That covers every single club in the country and their facility needs. We offer advice and support to these playing pitch strategies to make sure that, as far as possible, the right pitches are provided in the right places. Alongside that, we offer advice and guidance to anyone developing facilities.
The same is true across the breath of what we do. We train thousands of coaches every year with both face-to-face and online courses. We offer club forums where we get clubs together to talk about how to develop themselves and the sport. We run national knockout competitions and set up the framework through which junior and adult matches are run and delivered.
With the changes we’re making, we’ve taken overseeing the governance of the sport right down to a local level too.
One of the things we’re doing this year is developing a new game IT management system that all the fixtures and results will be organised through. This will massively streamline the amount of admin club officials have to go through.
So we do a huge amount to try to support clubs to develop themselves and their role in their communities.
The wider community?
The range and size of our clubs varies massively. Our largest club has on the way to 1,800 players. It’s run like a business and is out there developing the game in the community around it. Our support really focuses on trying to help clubs to be part of the local community and to develop themselves. Our clubs are highly motivated and do an outstanding job doing that.
We see everything really. The energy and drive of our coaches and volunteers, a mix of paid and volunteer roles, is incredible. The kind of things you see them doing? Open days, junior activities, school outreach work. We’ve got a programme around learning disability hockey called Flyers Hockey that’s being run by our clubs. There are around 50 Flyers Hockey clubs around the country being run by our passionate volunteers trying to make sure hockey is for everybody. So we have brilliant activities going on.
All clubs are on that developmental journey and there’s an amazing amount of effort going on into keeping the game thriving locally led by the clubs.
What’s your relationship with GB Hockey?
GB Hockey is a vehicle for the International Teams effectively. The way GB hockey works is it’s a company with a board that delegates the delivery of the Olympic teams to what is called the ‘nominated country’. This is whichever team is highest ranked and usually that’s England. For most of the time the current structure has been in place England has been the nominated country and England will lead the GB Hockey programme.
Do England Hockey pick the Olympic teams or is it a combination?
The coaches that are selected for the GB Hockey programme pick the squad and the GB Hockey board oversee the selection. The nominated country’s head coach is normally selected as the GB hockey head coach and we carefully manage and negotiate the politics of the selection.
You’ve already got lots of partners – what role are they playing in strategy development?
We’re currently going through a strategy review at the moment. What’s an absolute given is that the clubs and participation are at the heart of the game for hockey. And we have other ambitions around growing the visibility and profile of the sport and using that to grow participation. But clubs are at the heart of everything we do.
Like everybody we have resource challenges and the beauty of partnerships we’ve struck up is that they extend our expertise.
I think that’s the real opportunity of working together with partners like Midstream. Your specialist knowledge is something we haven’t got the capacity to have within ourselves. Being able to work closely with a partner allows us to mutually develop an understanding, knowledge, and expertise of a marketplace. On our own as EH we’d never be able to get to the level of detail we can with your support. That allows us to stay up to date with technological developments, guidance, and expectations which is a huge opportunity.
We have a great relationship with the FIH (International Hockey Federation) and Alistair Cox, the Facilities Leader there too. So between the relationship we have with Alistair, and our own relationships with our partners, we really feel we are able to give a lot more support to our clubs that we’d otherwise be able to.
Is it going well – any success stories?
The first thing we can be sure of is our team, who offer the first line of advice for clubs and facilities, is that they can go to partners such as Midstream with any challenges or issues they have. So I feel that our own team is being developed by these partnerships and that ultimately means the level of service to clubs is improving.
I think that in turn the partnerships can deliver things clubs need. Many clubs and organisations, like schools and universities, benefit from partners coming in and giving them advice and being on call. I think we’ve been able to work with partners to understand what the market needs. E.g. So working with Notts Sports and the FIH we’ve developed our Gen 2 programme. This is focused around giving clubs a choice away from the less environmentally friendly 3G surfaces that football is played on.
I think that these types of things are exactly what we want to strike up with partners like yourselves and deliver to improve our service and quality offering to our clubs and the hockey community.
Why did you choose Midstream Lighting?
Well firstly, it was a competitive process with other lighting suppliers in the mix. I think that’s healthy. It’s what business do. We were keen to find a company that shared our longer-term ambitions. That’s been key to developing relationships like the ones we have with other partners. We want to sustain a partnership for a very long time. We want partnerships that are built on the added value for both ourselves and our partners in the relationship.
I think that the discussions that were held with Midstream Lighting and our Facilities and Partnerships teams it was felt there was a good alignment with what we want to achieve. I think that was the most important thing for us. Midstream Lighting is our newest partner in the space but I think the ambition and ability to deliver shone through very strongly in the discussions.
We want to build a brand awareness and trust within our community of our partners too. And so we wanted to make sure we were making the right choice. And the early days of this partnership is that there’s definitely the right intent on both sides of it – which I think is really positive to hear from the team.
How do you see Midstream Lightings role in supporting England Hockey?
I think firstly, from a direct perspective, the provision of lighting on synthetic pitches is mission critical. We’re a winter sport, people train in the evenings, matches are played through into the early evenings. So, in terms of maximising the capacity of facilities, lighting is vital and everybody needs it. The ability to provide that to clubs and give them good choices to allow them to ensure what is delivered is to a good standard and a good quality is essential. You can’t get away from the fact that we need lights and Midstream provides world-class floodlighting. A perfect match.
I think more broadly that the educational role that partners have around things like maintenance, choices, sustainability, and asset management are all things that add value and provide the support we need to give to our clubs and facility operators. We want to grow this and then we’d like to look, as the relationship develops, into more broad roles that MS can provide and play in the game.
Notts Sports, our sports surface partners, found a good way to operate in this space by building a brand relationship with clubs by supporting some of our programmes like Schools Championship. This gave them a good brand awareness but also gave them a chance to feel like they’re also really a partner with us on so many levels.
What are the challenges facing hockey clubs and yourselves at the moment?
One of the biggest challenges we faced came after the Olympics in Rio in 2016. Following our success there too many people were signing up to play. This meant many clubs needed to expand their capacity and facilities. It’s still a great challenge in the game for us as a whole.
The financial viability and sustainability of facilities, the ownership of facilities, the maintenance and standards of facilities are all at the heart of what clubs face every day and challenging. So it’s absolutely at the heart.
As I mentioned we’ve been, and still are, challenged with the conversion of pitches to 3G pitches where they need to be used for football.
But to move back to Midstream territory the quality of light at venues is a huge challenge. The maintenance of leisure centre contracts and the contracting out of facilities from local authorities is challenging where people are reaching the end of their contracts and don’t want to spend anything on improving things like lighting.
Generally in a university setting facilities are well maintained because of the budgets available. But when you’re talking about schools and local authorities, their budgets have been really squeezed in the last five to ten years. Despite the fact that many of our clubs have been paying £15,000 to £20,000 a year to rent out those facilities often they won’t have been suitably maintained. When you’re a leisure centre trying to keep a pool warm and the gym open, the outside space gets neglected.
So there are a huge amount of challenges we face and the more we can provide in the way of guidance, help, quick responses to challenges the better the game can carry on without getting interrupted.
How has COVID affected clubs and the sport? Do you think these partnerships can help?
Firstly we’re incredibly grateful for the support Sport England and UK Sports throughout the pandemic.
There’s no doubt COVID has ‘bitten’ everyone. We’ve come through it fairly well in the circumstances and our focus now is on recovery as much as anything.
But last season we cancelled all our league games and all our spectator events. We haven’t run a spectator event for two summers and the whole of last winter. So we’ve had a significant challenge there in terms of keeping the game going.
Our clubs have been amazingly resilient though. When they’ve been told they can play, they’ve got out there and played. We’ve given COVID guidance as quickly as we can and offered support.
In terms of the health benefits, physical and mental, the importance of people getting out there and playing team sports has been evident during this period. People have been desperate to get out there and clubs, particularly outdoor sports clubs like hockey, have when possible provided environments where people have felt safe.
We now need to concentrate the most on the opportunities COVID has presented to make improvements to the game. Improvements such as embedding our new governance changes and technologies we’ve invested in to help take the sport forward.
What’s that process going to be?
There’s a bit of waiting and seeing if there are going to be any more interruptions and how much this season will run normally. We’re all set up to run this season as usual. We’re out there selling tickets for events and trying to get the sport back on the go. But there’s still a lot of uncertainty about international travel for our international teams, there are concerns about whether there will be further restrictions and things like that. We are waiting to see on some of them and constantly having to adjust our plans as we have for the last 18 months. But feeling resilient and focusing on the opportunities now.
What is the future of hockey in England going to be?
One thing I can be sure of is that, from a grassroots perspective, the clubs are incredible and the health they’re in and the work they do continues to drive hockey forward. This will go on because there’s such an outstanding infrastructure of clubs. There are local challenges and local issues but the core of clubs have developed incredibly robust and strong plans and are extremely ambitious about how they want to progress their clubs.
The game is very strong at a grassroots level. It all starts with the grassroots and that’s where our focus is and should be.
We’re changing our talent programme too. So whilst we think we’ve had great international success, we think we can and we want to be even better. We’re looking to develop a slightly more club based talent model. This will be based on leanings we’ve taken from other team sports internationally, not just hockey.
We’ve got some really ambitious plans to keep moving the sport forwards and growing through to a sustained period of international success
Sports in your life
I went to a state school where you played a few sports, but not that many. We played a lot of basketball for example because the teacher liked it. So, most of my personal experience has been from joining sports and playing in the local community.
I grew up playing ball sports with some friends on the outfield of the cricket club my dad played at for the local working men’s club in the middle of Swindon. I’d even play for the Extra 2nd team when they were short of players.
When I was 13, I decided to try something different and got into hockey. I was hooked. I’ve played all through my school days right through to university. After university I played at my local club in Oxford where I ended up as chairman at a very young age. That’s the brilliant thing about hockey. It’s so inclusive. When I was fourteen and played for the 4th team in Swindon there was a guy in goal aged 78.
I personally feel strongly that sport in the community is really important. It’s where you meet people from different backgrounds. If you only play sports at school, you don’t end up with the memories and stories that will stay with you for a lifetime. Local clubs help develop communities and your own understanding of life.
And finally… how was the Olympics for you?
It was weird watching the Olympics being held from behind closed doors. When I was the Women’s International Team Manager, I went to the 2010 Commonwealth Games which was amazing. My current role though doesn’t require me to attend events like this in person though now.
I think it was very different and hard to be there in Tokyo for the athletes and everyone involved this time around. But they went there with the mindset that it was the right thing to do – which I think was the right approach to have.
The women’s hockey team now having won medals in the last three Olympics is unbelievable. As a nation, we rarely do well in team sports – outside of cycling. So, the team’s achievement is phenomenal.