As part of my semi-professional match schedule as a county and university hockey umpire, I was asked last week to officiate the semi-finals and finals of the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate cup. This was seven matches, two days, and a real eye-opener.
Many of the players were already familiar to me from umpiring British Universities competitive matches featuring both Cambridge universities (including the one which feels a need to remind people through signs at the station that it exists). The gameplay was competitive and lively, if polite.
What was new to me as an umpire was seeing these very competitive young people playing as part of a mixed team, as they did for two of the semis. Much as they socialise as a club, and know one another quite well as a result (inevitably, given the initiation rituals at many universities – more on this in future), they only play together for mixed cup matches.
When players form a team, and compete in a league, they come to know and expect certain things from one another. This is usually a strength, and helps them to intuitively know where they’ll find their teammates, where to pass to, and when to support one another. However, in these mixed games there had been far less of an opportunity to form these teammate connections, so sometimes individual skills or basic assumptions came to the fore.
It was very rapidly apparent to both me and my colleague what determined the success of each mixed team. There were very talented players on each team, and moments of brilliance from individuals, but unsurprisingly the best mixed teams were the ones which used all eleven players on the pitch, rather than only trusting established teammates or other people within the same sporting gender. Revolutionary idea, I know, using a whole team, rather than playing 6 v 11 and 5 v 11 on the same pitch…
One team, for instance, had several highly talented male players. They passed almost exclusively to one another, made some mazy dribbles, and created lots of chances. Yet they were constantly held at bay by the combined sticks of male and female defenders from their opposition. The latter team, when attacking, passed to the players in the best positions or open space, regardless of gender. Sure, some plays didn’t come off. Yet the overall pattern of play was far more effective and led to greater opportunities, ultimately winning them the match.
On balance, I was very encouraged to see how putting faith in all players on the team, irrespective of gender, created a more harmonious and successful experience. I frequently advocate for more mixed team sports, and it’s always heartening to see this work out in positive and rewarding ways, not just with younger children, but into adolescence and beyond.
Questions arising from this week – what experiences of mixed sport have you had? How has playing with people of different genders changed your experience of a game?
Image is from the Norwich Dragons HC website