Rhys Smith: The England and GB hockey player trying to improve diversity in his sport

Rhys Smith: The England and GB hockey player trying to improve diversity in his sport

Lessons are over and 40 wide-eyed children are crowded around their new idol, waiting for instructions. The session, held before the second lockdown came into force, is part of a project called Hockey Inner City, set up by Smith to give more children the opportunity to play his sport.

"Hockey is very much dominated by people from privileged backgrounds and people that have gone to private schools," says Smith.

"It's not a very accessible sport for people within inner-city areas and so the aim is to improve accessibility by going into schools and providing coaching for them."

England Hockey chief executive Nick Pink does not think the sport is deserving of a reputation for being a middle-class white sport, dominated by people that attended private schools.

"I think it's a perception in some cases that that doesn't really give the reality of the situation. I think in other cases it does," Pink explains.

"I just think it's about the visibility of the sport and I think invariably the visibility of the sport is seen through the eyes of those that participate at the Olympic Games or the World Cups or the European Games. And, you know, those are the best players in the country.

"When you start to look at what exists at clubs right across the country and the hard work that those clubs do and the volunteers do, you do see a very different picture.

"I played most of my life. I haven't played perhaps most recently in the last few years, but actually one of the things that really attracted me to the sport was that sense of community that comes out really strongly and the sense of the diversity within the game.

"Can it be better? Oh, yeah, absolutely. Of course it can. And can we engage better? Of course we can."

The reason the sport is so dominated by those from private schools, Smith explains, is because it requires lots of equipment, which can often be expensive, coaches or teachers that are familiar with the game, and to be played properly, access to an astro-turf pitch.

For Smith, this project is personal, with coaching sessions taking place at his old primary school.

The 23-year-old always showed natural athletic talent but only picked up a stick for the first time at the age of 10 after winning a bursary to attend Whitgift, a private school in Croydon known for its sporting prowess.

That eventually led to a hockey scholarship at Durham University, where his eyes were opened to the lack of diversity within the sport, compelling him to take matters into his own hands.

"It came from a sense of frustration from my university experience," he said.

"I realised there was a huge lack of representation of people from inner-city areas and BAME backgrounds and this wasn't due to lack of ability - it was due to lack of opportunity.

"I didn't just want to complain about it, I didn't just want to be frustrated, I wanted to actually do something to act on it."

Smith's university experiences have continued throughout his hockey career and he is currently the only black player in the Great Britain senior men's and women's squad.

"It's been like that throughout my whole life - within England U16s, U18s, U21s, there has always been very few people from BAME backgrounds, inner-city backgrounds so I've been normalised to the fact that it's going to be like that," he added.

"You need more of a diverse pool in the grassroots level, in the club level, and that will allow - if players are good enough - to get into and diversify the national squad.

"At the moment if there aren't very many people from BAME backgrounds, inner-city backgrounds at grassroots. Then you can't expect there to be many people in the national team."

According to research from The Hockey Museum, Smith is one of an estimated 21 ethnically diverse men that have represented England or Great Britain at international level in the last 50 years, with the majority of those players of South Asian origin. Four diverse ethnic females have featured for England or Great Britain since 1978, with Rio 2016 gold medallist Sam Quek the most recent among them.

At a grassroots level, only six per cent of those playing at hockey clubs came from diverse ethnic communities, according to the most recent Sport England survey.

Pink is convinced the sport is heading in the right direction in terms of diversity and says 2021 is the ideal time to address hockey's under-representation issue.

"I'm positive about the future," he said.

"Of course, we want more people to participate in the sport from more diverse backgrounds. And actually, what I think we've recognised is that some of the systems that perhaps have been created over a period of time just need to be changed and adapted.

"They've worked effectively in terms of perhaps performance gains and performance opportunities, seen obviously with Rio gold etc. But actually, this is an opportunity for us to sort of change some of that up a little bit and make the changes we feel are necessary."

Hockey Inner City aren't currently receiving any financial support from England Hockey but Smith is hopeful they will get behind his plans soon to try and make a sustainable and "large-scale impact".

Smith, who is hopeful of making the GB Olympic squad this summer, acknowledges he was fortunate to attend a school which opened a world of new opportunities - opportunities he is now determined to give other children like him.

"We have a lot of very talented children here that are already more talented than I was at their age, just because we've given them that opportunity from a young age, and that can only bode well for the future of the national team," he said.

"These children shouldn't need to be lucky to become successful. If they have the talent and are willing to make the effort, they should be able to achieve success irrespective of their social background."

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