In the supposedly sports-mad Australian culture, it’s rare to hear from the amateur sportspeople. But local sport has a lot to offer all of us. Maybe we should hear more about it.
It had been fifteen years since I played any organised sport when I decided to sign up for hockey this season. Over the years I've jogged a bit, cycled a bit, played some squash and had a short term relationship with the gym but, since I left university, the idea of a weekly commitment to a team sport had never really occurred to me. There were lots of reasons why I'd dismissed playing sport; clashes with work, losing the freedom to do as you please each weekend, the cost, and then the difficulty of managing it when two kids came along. There was always a good enough excuse not to join up and, despite having played sport since I was eight years old, once I broke the pattern it seem very hard to go back.
What finally prompted me to go back was the 2012 Olympics, not because they provided me with any particular kind of inspiration, but because they did so for my eight year old son, who was transfixed by the hockey. He watched every game that he could, asked about the rules and the positions, and decided that this was a sport that he'd like to try. After some less than successful attempts at Auskick and Milo Cricket this was an exciting development, although not a well-timed one - the hockey season was all but over.
Fate intervened in the shape of a hockey coaching substitute teacher, who overheard my son discussing the Olympics at school and invited him along to training so that he could see if he liked it. It was there that the bait was laid for my own return.
“Have you ever played hockey yourself?”
I admitted that I had, although it was some time ago.
“You should sign up for third grade then, get to know the club a bit better.”
And so the seed was planted.
Over the summer months I thought a bit more about playing hockey, I found my old stick so that I could practice with my now keen nine year old and went through the list of reasons why I couldn't do it. Work? Not really a problem now. Money? Ditto. Kids? Both at sport every Saturday anyway. Freedom? Already gone. And so with all of my excuses gone the last hurdle to overcome was my own fears about the potential to embarrass myself with my lack of fitness and skills.
I had never been a super athlete, though I was often on the fringe of being “good” at Hockey. I'd be selected as a “Possible” rather than a “Probable” and never make the cut for the team. But that was fifteen years ago. Add to this the fact that growing up in the country meant that I'd played almost exclusively on grass fields of differing qualities, while the fields in my present home town are much faster, and more unforgiving, synthetic turf.
What finally sealed the decision was the same thing that had seen me take up motorcycling, hiking, fishing, and running: the opportunity to buy some new gear. Hall cupboards, garages and back sheds all over Australia point to the fact that, despite shopping being stereotyped as a feminine activity, the truth is that guys like accumulating every piece of equipment that you could conceivably want for any endeavour they undertake. My old stick was too shabby and not suitable for turf, my runners couldn't compete with a new pair of cross trainers, my shin pads were long lost and of course I'd need compression shorts in addition to the club uniform.
Although training is optional for third grade I decided that I'd go along the week before our first game to meet some people and get a bit of practice. Naturally, rather than taking it easy and working at my own pace, I tried to keep up with the first and second grade guys, all many years my junior, who had already been training for the last three weeks. My lungs burnt as though Satan had set up a holiday retreat inside them, my thighs ached and my feet hurt, and this was just from the runs and sprints before we got on the field. With stick in hand things were a little better, until I managed to spectacularly trip over my own feet and land square on my chest, pushing a rib into a spot where it shouldn't be. The first game was three days away.
For the next three days my muscles relentlessly screamed at me to curl up in a ball and never use them again, but sheer bloody-mindedness pushed me back to the field on game day. The game was nowhere near as intensive as training had been, and our opponents were more appropriately skilled, with fitness to match our own. After the first five minutes of aches and soreness the adrenalin finally kicked in and I began to remember why I used to love hockey so much, why I'd play as many games as I could, regardless of which grade or position was offered. It's not just about the sport, or the physical exertion, or the camaraderie of being part of a team, the whole feeling is greater than the sum of its parts. Sport makes you feel alive.
Seven weeks into the season and I'm wishing that I'd gone back years ago. My match fitness has returned, along with most of my skills, I have a fantastic group of teammates, and I'm setting a positive example to my kids about making a commitment to a team and giving your best, even when you're outgunned.
We sometimes lament the 'sports mad' nature of our nation, and it can be easy to see why when the professional codes dominate our media and our mindshare to the exclusion of so many other fields, but the level of grassroots participation and the communities that are built around local sporting clubs are an amazing asset. The health and social benefits of playing regular sport are a great antidote to our increasingly sedentary and isolated lifestyles, whatever the game, whatever level you play at.
There are another twelve weeks to go before our finals, plenty of time to keep improving, and I'm starting to wonder what I should play to keep fit through the off season.