October 12, 2006

Field Hockey Capitalizes on Stereotypes and Opportunity

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If you were to ask your typical American what they knew about field hockey, you might get a response along the lines of, “oh, isn’t that the sport where all the girls wear skirts?”

While there is certainly nothing false with that generally held stereotype of field hockey in America, it is merely a small part of a much larger picture. Even here at Cornell, with a team that is in the upper echelon of field hockey teams in the country, it still plays second fiddle to other, more traditional American sports, like basketball and football.

“Worldwide, it’s actually more of a men’s game,” said junior goalie Shannon Prescott. “Especially in Europe. It’s really only here that field hockey is only played by girls.”

Head coach Donna Hornibrook, who grew up in Canada, was raised as most Canadians are, playing hockey.

“I loved playing ice hockey growing up,” she said. “In middle school one day, though, I saw these people playing with what looked like hockey sticks. I joined in and I was hooked. I just love the outdoors, and I love the running element of the game.”

While each player on the team probably has a similar story of vague curiosity becoming a lifelong passion, none of them bought into the idea that it was a game that, for some reason, appealed to girls over guys.

“The U.S. just has sports that are more indigenous to its society,” Hornibrook said. “The way field hockey was introduced to the United States was through the school system. It developed there like it did because the guys had their rugby and things, and the girls had their field hockey. So it’s more socialized into our society than anything else.”

Indeed, most of the players said that they found themselves tossed into field hockey just by chance, not realizing until later that they had found something that would define a large part of their lives.

“I didn’t play until eighth grade, but I started playing because my friends played,” Prescott said. “I was pretty terrible when I started. My friends told me, ‘you should try playing goalie because you kick the ball anyway.’ I saw the goalie might be moving up to high school, so I gave it a try. Once I got to high school, I also realized that I wanted to continue playing sports in college, and if you look at the relative amount of girls who go to division one programs from field hockey, it’s a lot higher than in other sports.”

Sophomore Katlyn Donoghue was actually also initially turned off by the game.

“I started playing in sixth grade,” Donoghue said. “I had friends a grade up who played and I looked up to them. I actually didn’t like it at first because I thought it was boring and slow. In tenth grade, though, I started to like it. My high school coach had a lot to do with it, but mainly I realized it’s one of those games where everyone has to be very skilled at it to make it good.”

Donoghue was just one of several who specifically pointed to the fact that field hockey requires so much skill, making it unique to the collegiate sporting landscape.

“The fact that it takes so much skill is great because it means there is always a way to get continually better,” Donoghue said. “People don’t realize how much skill is involved in receiving passes, passing, dribbling. … I feel like with other sports you might pick up these skills quicker.”

Prescott says the team play required off the field permeates itself to off the field as well.

“I don’t know if it’s just my teams, but the ones I’ve been on have been really close,” Prescott said. “I played on every kind of team in high school, just for fun, and none of the other teams were as close as my field hockey team was then, or is now.”

Despite the way that most of the players gush about the game (Donoghue even admitting she “loves going to practice”), the fact remains that men have been shut out of the game in America in much the same way women have been shut out of sports like football and wrestling.

“If you look in Europe, much of the field hockey is played in the club system,” Hornibrook said. “The club system here is just not as developed as it is there. The nice thing about that is that allows you to continue playing continuously, as long as you want. In the U.S., college is the highest level possible, so there’s not as much incentive for guys to get into it. In Europe, field hockey players will peak around 26, where here, it’s either in high school or college.”

Donoghue took another, lighter, yet serious angle on the subject.
“Then there’s the whole kilt thing,” she said. “The boys have to wear them too.”

“I remember in high school this guy wanted to try out for the team,” Prescott said. “So our coach said, ‘okay, as long as you go back and change into the kilt.’ So he just said, ‘okay,’ and left. He didn’t come back.”

While field hockey is expanding, spreading out from the East Coast, California has seen many high schools begin to produce quality men’s teams, although Hornibrook concludes that it may be a while yet before the men’s game catches up with the women’s version.

“There are just so many other options out there for guys,” she said. “And it’s been established for so long. We are seeing a rebirth, but it will take a while to change.”