In her first piece for The 52, England and GB international Tess Howard reviews her favourite hockey moments of 2019 and explains why they show the sport has a blueprint for gender equality that all other should follow.
To legitimise women’s sport, it is often perceived as an add-on to its male-counterparts: ‘rugby’ and ‘women’s rugby’; ‘cricket’ and ‘women’s cricket’ etc. But hockey, whether you’re a man or woman, is simply just ‘hockey’.
It is a flagship team sport and pioneer for athletic equality.
Our world of hockey is a game of 50-50 representation. We move towards equality without the need to separate the sport in events, media or communication. There is no need to artificially construct a social hierarchical divide.
We appreciate the game for the sake of the game; a meritocracy. Viewed in this way, our sport separated by gender becomes a categorization much like weight classes in boxing; not a tool for prejudice.
As a human geographer, studying remotely with Durham University, my degree addresses the symbolic, historical and political cultures which influence our society, economy and environment. I am fortunate to be situated in elite sport whilst studying the academics of feminist movement. This has inspired me to critically reflect on highlights for women’s sport and, for me personally, revealing how sport can be a deeper indicator of contextual social progress.
The first two of my ‘women’s sporting highlights’ should probably be reworded as ‘greatest GB Hockey moments of the year’, where hockey is appreciated as the game where both men and women compete equally in their respective competitions. Perhaps a sport marking a movement ahead of its time.
1) Making history at The Stoop
This was an unprecedented event. A crowd of nearly 12,000; an enclosed and covered stadium; a hockey pitch laid down over a rugby field. And two wins, the men with a 2-0 victory over New Zealand (securing their spot in the FIH Pro League Finals) and the women then recording a 3-1 victory over the same opponent.
I was lucky enough to play in this and it was doubly special as the team put in one of our best performances in the FIH Pro League and showed that despite a tough year, we were evidently growing.
What an incredible day! pic.twitter.com/Gxu8CMuO5n
— Great Britain Hockey (@GBHockey) June 23, 2019
2) GB secure their places at Tokyo 2020
That feeling – to be part of that moment in our squad’s journey, helping secure our spots at the Tokyo Olympic Games – is easy to essentialise and reduce it to a single word, either ‘relief’ or ‘elation’.
But in reality it is extremely difficult to give an honest, straightforward account of what it means. Overwhelmingly, it was a feeling of achievement: successfully completing a job we simply had to complete. Happy, but realising we were always going to qualify because there was no way we couldn’t.
Within the squad there was a steady calmness, a conviction to stick to our game plan and deliver what we believed would unfold. To share the event with a rallying crowd, our fans and supporters at Lee Valley, reminded us it was more than just a match we had both won.
The reality of the event inspires reflection. A lot was shared. The huge pressure felt by both teams, the understanding that both men and women had to independently qualify. You share the relief, the elation, the experience, the event. We are grateful to GB Hockey and the FIH for hosting hockey in this way and hope this continues as we keep making positive steps to achieving true equality in events and operation. EuroHockey’s #EquallyAmazing campaign is one demonstration of how we empower athletes as athletes, nullifying performance discrimination based on gender categorisation.
— Great Britain Hockey (@GBHockey) November 3, 2019
3) The game that had it all
My final highlight is slightly unconventional. As well as England and GB Hockey, I also play for East Grinstead (EG) and one sodden October afternoon we found ourselves playing away to Hampstead & Westminster (H&W) in what was to turn out to be an all-time classic.
Given we went 3-0 up after the first quarter, it was a game we really should have won. As an EG player it was hard to concede three goals, score again to go 4-3 up but eventually draw 4-4. However, from a reflexive feminist standpoint, after the game I think my only comment to the media was “it was epic”.
The game was a clash of two top teams, fuelled by adrenaline and healthy rivalry. Both were coached by women excelling in their professional fields; H&W’s Kate Richardson-Walsh and Sarah Kelleher as well as EG’s Mary Booth.
What the H&W coaches or players said at quarter-time to ignite a three-goal comeback, the first scored by inferno-attacker Lily Owsley, we do not know. How the EG girls found it in themselves to score a flames-worthy goal, put in by Laura Unsworth, to go up 4-3 we do not know. And how H&W equalised in the last few minutes, we will never know. This game is an incredible advocate for women’s sport.
What sticks in my mind about this game is that we were able to share this moment. Standing pitch-side was not only a dedicated rain-saturated crowd, but more than 30 U12 schoolgirls from The Perse School. They had taken a school trip to play matches against a local school and then to watch elite level hockey. The Perse is my old school so afterwards it was fantastic to see them all, chat about the game and be intoxicated in their enthusiasm despite being drenched.
“Ohh my word, Tess, did you see there was Owsley, Unsworth and Bray playing… What a match – why didn’t you win?! They are all soooo fast… I wanna learn how to do that thing Bray did… Did you see Kate Richardson-Walsh is one of the coaches… You’re so muddy – are you playing rugby or hockey? When are you coming back to school to coach again?!”
These were just some of the quotes I can remember when talking to them, my white kit soaked in mud from the horrendously slippy pitch.
Sharing that moment reassured me we are part of something greater than a scoreline when we play high level hockey.
As female athletes, we constantly challenge the patriarchal ideology upon which sport was originally based; we negotiate what athletic femininity means and we are part of discovering, as Dr Alison Enever asks, “how the modern girl attains strength and grace”.
Elite sport and their athletes afford the power to legitimise knowledge around their sport, and play a part in affecting culture for the benefit of equality.
As athletes, we perform on a stage where our performance can be understood quantitatively: in the scoreline. But it is the qualitative, intangible meaning of our performance as an individual, with our intersectional identities and complex cultural tendencies, which continually construct the society we are part of.
The fight, bravery, determination, passion and excellence on display during these matches, led by brave and passionate women, and shared with young people discovering their own passion and bravery in sport is continuously contributing to the equal society we all want to live in. And I hope 2020 will bring many more moments like this.