OPINION: AMERICAN FIELD HOCKEY COMMUNITY NEEDS A DOSE OF SELF-EXAMINATION
By Al Mattei
"Even if the Americans finish third or fourth in its pool, it still has a chance to win the final spot in the Olympic qualifier by winning one crossover game and the fifth-place game which will be played on April 1 -- April Fools' Day. Team USA should certainly hope that this bit of scheduling is not an omen. ." -- TopOfTheCircle.com, January 3, 2000
April Fools Day played a cruel joke on the American field hockey community with the U.S. women's team dropping a 2-0 decision to China in the playoff for the 10th and final Olympic berth to the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia.
It was not for the lack of effort on Team USA's part. Reports from the Olympic Qualifier at Milton Keynes heaped praise on the team's individual efforts. One story compared forward Michelle Vizzuso's speed and grace to that of a gazelle. Another reflected the complete shock amongst the world hockey intelligentsia when Kris Fillat scored a corner on a drag flick.
Cindy Werley, the TopOfTheCircle.com Player of the Decade, scored three crucual goals for the Stars and Stripes, and a German report opined that captain Tracey Fuchs -- the National Federation's all-time leading goal scorer -- deserved a better fate.
But the Americans eventually failed to get to Sydney. It is easily this country's most devastating setback in field hockey since the 1980 Olympic boycott deprived that team of an excellent chance of winning the gold in Moscow.
All sorts of questions -- some more pointed than others -- now have to be surrounding the United States Field Hockey Association's offices at One Olympic Plaza in Colorado Springs.
Some will want to question whether the work of our federation is worth both the tax and corporate dollars.
Others may make the case that the merger of the men's and women's hockey federations some two decades ago may have led to poor results on the field.
Still others will try and place blame on the Futures program and its efforts for distracting the focus off of national-team duties.
But from this corner of cyberspace, it is hard to argue some of these points. Instead, the unsolicited advice here is, "Stay the course."
The U.S. Field Hockey Association has been, in the past couple of years, been going in the right direction. It hired a personable coach in Tracey Belbin who knows the way to winning, having been a member of Team Australia. She has been willing to take the right risks in order to get her players to do the same on the field.
The federation has sought sponsorship opportunities and corporate partnerships in order to decrease its reliance on membership and the Futures program for its annual budgetary requirements.
Developmental efforts have been taking place in non-traditional field hockey areas like Georgia, Alabama, and the state of Washington, as well as inner cities like The Bronx.
USA Field Hockey has been working on ways to get the game in front of the public a little more, thanks to the United Airlines Field Hockey League on the women's side, and the California League on the men's. Domestic matches allow fans to come out to watch their heroes and heroines up close, rather than past years when national-team development and training were low-key.
These days, however, the attitude has changed. American women have been dominating international competition in team sports, and more is expected of the field hockey team in order to keep up with the successes in soccer, basketball, gymnastics, softball, and ice hockey.
But even in this new "win now or else" era of sport, where wild, major changes are often imposed without long-term thought, USA Field Hockey would be wise to not do anything rash in the short term. After all, a new executive director, Sharon Taylor of Lock Haven, is ready to take over.
Changes which have been made in the past cannot be undone or adjusted for immediate gains. Futures, for example, is just beginning to develop committed players for national-team duty. You cannot blame Futures for the U.S. national team's failure at Milton Keynes; Futures was not around when the majority of the players on the 2000 roster were in their formative hockey years.
In upcoming years, however, the well-trained and extremely strong players coming through Futures -- including some superb athletes in the high-school classes of 2000 through 2002 -- will have an impact on the national scene.
Until then, however, the rank and file of American field hockey community can and should be asked to do more.
First of all, those who love the game of field hockey can do more to encourage the development of the sport simply by talking up the sport -- at work, at school, wherever. The game should not be a secret society: it is a game with a rich history and, when played well, is great to watch.
Second, get involved. There is a dire shortage of people who keep field hockey going in this country -- volunteer coaches, camp counselors, and especially umpires. In some places in this country like northern Virginia, central New Jersey, and in some pockets in New England, the umpiring shortage is beyond the critical level.
Third, get informed. The more you understand about the world field hockey diaspora, the better you understand what the United States -- both the federation and the country -- needs to do in order to take the game to another level.
Finally, become a card-carrying member of the U.S. Field Hockey Association. There, you can at least have some informed input into what you believe needs to be done.
As this site said in an opinion in late 1999, "It's up to us."