IN 1966, at the tender age of 11, I picked up my first hockey stick. Little did I know it then, but it was to be the beginning of a passionate interest which has been part of my life ever since.
I had just begun attending Kingston Grammar School, which was unusual among boys’ schools in that the only field-game played during the winter was hockey. This meant that my footballing skills were limited, and my rugby skills non-existent, but I did manage to become very proficient at hockey.
During the autumn term, the school side played only against adult teams (universities, clubs, banks, and hospital doctors). By the time the spring term came, we were well and truly battle-hardened.
I have been fortunate enough to play at several levels — England under-19s, University of Oxford, and British Universities, but most of my hockey has been at club level. I am glad, now, that hockey is my main sport, because you can keep playing far longer than might be the case in other sports, certainly rugby and football. And when you can no longer play, you can umpire.
Most games take place on a Saturday, in one of the many leagues that run across the country. I play for the Old Kingstonians Hockey Club, alternating between the 3rd team and the veterans. A team-game brings the satisfaction of combining well with others; everyone plays to the strengths of the whole team.
Hockey has always had a good social side. It brings together people from all sorts of different backgrounds, and is a great leveller. It does not matter what your job is — that information can follow later. You are known as a player first. There is always food and a few drinks after the game, mostly in one of the many clubhouses around the country. There are other social occasions each season, such as an annual dinner-dance. Most clubs have both ladies’ and men’s teams, so it is by no means an all-male or all-female preserve, but a good mix. It is one of the few team-games where a mixed game works well.
When I began playing, we played on grass, but hockey is now mostly played on Astroturf pitches. This makes it much easier to stop the ball, as it travels very smoothly.
All you need is a stick (about £50-plus), suitable trainers, shirt, and shorts — and a readiness to get stuck in. If you have never played before, most clubs hold training sessions. Start in one of the lower elevens. Most clubs charge an annual subscription of about £150, and a match fee of £5 to £10. That is cheaper than many other leisure activities.
For many people, the thought of two opposing teams of 11 players chasing a small hard ball around a field for 70 minutes, in the hope of making it go through two posts at either end of the pitch, might seem mildly absurd, if not totally pointless. But I hope you might be encouraged to give it a try — you might be pleasantly surprised.
For your nearest club, try the England Hockey website, www.englandhockey.co.uk. Or, better still, find a friend who plays and get them to take you along.
Richard Cheetham, Area Bishop of Kingston-upon-Thames, in Southwark diocese