From pitch to classroom

Alex Williams, PE teacher, Hockey Specialist and Head of Year

What playing Elite Hockey has taught me and how I bring it into the classroom

Hockey has been a staple in my life since before I can remember. I began playing when I was six or seven and haven’t looked back since. My mum and dad both played (and mum still plays!), which was how they met. A lot of my ‘childcare’ involved being sat on the side of a pitch watching mum and there came a point where I decided I would give it a go – I was there anyway so why not play!

I began playing Hockey for Rover Oxford Hockey Club, which later became Oxford Hockey Club, and played there from under 8s right up to under 18s, and for the men’s teams as well. I played Men’s Hockey from 12 years old and then went onto the University of Exeter, a famously sporty and successful university, particularly for Hockey. I had a brilliant three years there – I studied BSc Exercise and Sport Sciences – and spent a huge amount of my time on the Hockey pitch and being involved with the Hockey Club. I was involved in the club committee and it helped develop my confidence and leadership skills, having to organise and lead large groups in a variety of different situations. I did a lot of public speaking and this regularly serves me well in school, be it leading assemblies to pupils or addressing parents at any of our various academic, sporting or celebratory events.

Sport opened so many doors to me. When I was young I played Football at county level too – as well as Tennis and some other sports – and had to juggle all the various commitments. This organisation really enabled me to thrive when I picked up the Head of Year role. It is one of those gigs where there often feels like there are not enough hours in the day but sport taught me to prioritise and to manage my time efficiently. That has been a huge asset in balancing my various pastoral and teaching responsibilities (whilst maintaining my own wellbeing and endeavours).

After university I played at Oxford Hawks Hockey Club for a while before playing for Hawthorn Hockey Club in the Victorian Premier League, in Melbourne, Australia. This was my ‘gap year’ and Hockey enabled me to travel to the other side of the world. The club was amazing and I was set up with accommodation, a car, additional work and, importantly, the environments in which to meet people. Moving to Australia was initially overwhelming – I had only flown once before and that was to Spain! – but Hockey provided me with the platform to excel, to make brilliant friendships and to learn about myself and again become more confident. I enjoyed teaching in Australia and it was a great way to hone my skillset and to become a better teacher. I feel really fortunate to have enjoyed this opportunity and got so much from it both personally and professionally.

I then returned to complete my MSc Psychology of Exercise and Sport and shortly after began working at Headington. During this time I moved to Southgate Hockey Club. They are a club with a real pedigree and reputation for success and at that time were in the second division nationally. I had a great four years and was fortunate to work with some great players and coaches. This time saw my game progress hugely and I grew into a senior player and was scoring a significant amount of goals. Southgate was invaluable in developing my leadership and communication skills. People were relying on me to perform and I learned the value of thorough preparation, seeking feedback and relentless hard work. These traits continue to serve me well to this day; I know working towards any goal diligently will enable me the best chance of success. I will always try and instil these traits in those I teach and coach. Little things like being on time, if not early, so you can prepare right and make the most of the session make a big difference. I would hope that all my pupils, and players of the teams I coach, come away understanding the need to be thorough in the pursuit of success.

At 26, I made the decision to move to Surbiton. Surbiton is a premier league club and has consistently been one of the best sides in the country, as well as a competitive force in Europe. This was a nervous time. I was putting myself outside my comfort zone. Some questioned why I would leave when I was performing well and was popular at Southgate. For me, I felt like a bit of a ‘big fish’ and, though I loved Southgate unconditionally, knew I would learn more and could only achieve my potential at Surbiton.

Things at Surbiton started well, having a few good pre-season training sessions and breaking into the squad. Quite quickly however, things went very wrong. A couple of weeks in I slipped at the end of a session and tore my hamstring. I could barely walk and had a 3cm indent in the back of my thigh where the muscle had ripped. I went from feeling confident and flying high, to suddenly being in significant physical pain and emotional limbo. To make matters worse, I had not officially signed to the team and so I did not know if they would keep me on. They could have easily said ‘on your bike’.

A huge part of my identity was being a Hockey player and all of a sudden I did not have this. My mental health took a bit of a dip as I was not able to play or do any significant exercise for a while. It also made my day job, as a PE teacher, a bit of a nightmare. Hobbling around when trying to teach an energetic bunch of Year 7s was not really ideal. This was a tough journey for me, as I worked through my rehabilitation at what felt like the most painfully slow speed, I did not feel like I was getting anywhere. Fortunately, I had done enough in those first training sessions and so Surbiton kept me around. I haven’t taken a first impression for granted since! From there, I had to make an extra effort to get to know the guys in the team as I was not training with them which meant it wasn’t happening organically. I would be togged up and stood by the side of the training pitch trying to show my enthusiasm. It took huge motivation to persist with my rehabilitation, particularly when I had a couple of setbacks (returning to play too early, slipping when walking up the stairs). It was hard to remember, when I was doing the most boring and slow rehabilitation, that this would help with the bigger picture; getting me back to playing Hockey. I learned about the importance of breaking a massive challenge down into tiny, daily, achievable challenges to stay motivated. Being able to do a single unassisted squat became the first goal. This gently graduated into bearing weight, and then cycling, and running, until I was able to build up to playing Hockey again.

Something this experience taught me was the value of surrounding yourself with an excellent team. My immediate support networks offered endless encouragement and empathy – and tough love too, when I needed it – but also getting specialists who knew more than me. I am fortunate to have a great physiotherapist. My teammates were great as well, and this was how I knew I was in the right team for me. Having a strong network is one of the best coping mechanisms. We are fortunate to provide this in school, with super pastoral systems and some excellent personnel, and I would encourage pupils to surround themselves with those who add value to their own self and goals.

I believe that failing early and failing often is key toward long term success and happiness. I believe failure gives us resilience and forces us to reflect inwardly and what we can change (or what we should persist with)

Fast forward to March (seven months since becoming injured in pre-season), and I was back playing Hockey. That first game – what a moment! I have always been quite a reflective person and have to admit that I was proud of myself for getting back to playing. I played six league games in the weeks to follow (having missed twelve), being fortunate enough to score and assist and put in some good performances. I was back and it felt amazing! The hard work and persistence and dedicated hours at the gym had paid off. I felt my teammates had a newfound respect for me, having seen me work through this period with a real desire to get back, and they trusted me as a result. We then went to Europe for the EHL (European Hockey League). This is the equivalent to the Champions League, for Football, or the Heineken Cup, for Rugby, and sees the 16 best teams compete to be crowned champions. We had a brilliant tournament and, incredibly excitingly, we finished third. We are only the second English team to ever medal (the last was 11 years ago) and it was an amazing achievement and experience. 

Hockey has not always been an easy journey for me, but I have gained so much from it. It was tough at times growing up and playing Hockey, because it is very much a private school dominated sport played by majority white people. At regional junior trials in particular I often felt out of place and as though I had to work harder to be seen. Coaches were often Heads of Hockey at private schools and so knew some other players already. Hockey has given me lots of opportunities to fail. I did not make it into the under 12 county team – which, for an 11-year-old Hockey enthusiast, is the worst thing in the world! I did not make any junior international teams and after my first month of university Hockey I was dropped from the men’s second XI to the third XI. All of these things at the time were heartbreaking! Failure is always relative and context specific. Failure to one might be success to another individual. I see now how valuable these ‘failures’ all were. They all tested my resilience and my dedication to Hockey and to improve. These, and my recent injury, caused me to ask ‘why am I doing this’. Being able to find the answer to this question gave me renewed motivation and confidence. I truly believe failure is only a loss if we do not learn from it. If we use it correctly, failure can catapult us to major success. “Minor setback, major comeback”.

In teaching I always try to promote the importance of failure. Though this initially sounds counterintuitive when our aim as teachers is to get the best out of our pupils, I believe that failing early and failing often is key toward long term success and happiness. I believe failure gives us resilience and forces us to reflect inwardly and what we can change (or what we should persist with). Sport has been such an important part in this learning curve and I will always try and instil a growth mindset in my pupils, so that they take risks and are willing to fail, so that they may succeed.

Hockey has taught me to be reflective. It has taught me the value of hard work and dedication. I have learned the importance of ‘why’. I have developed leadership skills and organisation, teamwork and independent work and huge amounts of confidence and self-esteem, all of which I would not have had the chance to do without sport. I have made amazing relationships all across the world and had the most incredible experiences. Hockey has given me a platform to thrive and enabled the privilege of travel and opportunity. I would love everyone to have the chance to enjoy Hockey but, whatever their ‘thing’ might be, I know sport can give us much beyond what we might see on the surface.