The UKPA held its annual Club Council meeting on the 22nd of March to hear the views of its clubs and to update them on developments and plans for the forthcoming season. At the start of the meeting the UKPA held a minute’s silence in memory of their former chairman Tony Shearing, who passed away two weeks ago after a long illness. Tony brought polocrosse back to the UK in the 1980’s when he moved to the UK from South Africa and in the next 30 years did a huge amount to help develop and grow the sport in the UK. As well as acting as chairman of the UKPA for a number of years, he coached a great number of players, ran Equineweb (the polocrosse equipment company) and then in recent years he acted as a coach educator and assessor for the UKPA as part of their role out of UKCC coaching qualifications, training up the next generation of coaches.
The UKPA Executive uses the Council meeting each year to update clubs on developments and plans in areas such as coaching, umpiring and sport development. This year they also faced criticism from a couple of clubs over their recent decision to pay Barry Amor, their current CEO, to supply administrative support to the UKPA alongside his CEO role. The idea of paying for this administrative services is to allow there to be sufficient time available to fully develop and deliver the plans they have in place for 2015. The criticism they faced was not about the creation of a paid role, which people felt is a positive step forward and necessary for the future growth of the sport, but there was unhappiness that the role had not been publicly advertised before the UKPA Executive had decided to set up the agreement with their chosen candidate.
The UKPA has said that paying for administrative support is only a trial in 2015 and it will be reviewed throughout the year to see if it is working. The Executive say that they believe it will be easier to develop the sport with this arrangement and ensure that the necessary detailed work is done in 2015 to move the sport forwards. There is little doubt that a lack of time from its volunteers is one of the main things which seems to have also held back the sport, for all the dedication of its officers and officials there is a limit to how much a new sport can be grown and improved when people are only working on a volunteer basis.
However, aside from that one area the Club Council meeting was positive, with discussion around a couple of possible rule changes, concerning squad selection and first aid cover at one day tournaments, and then updates regarding areas such as sport development, player grading, coaching, umpiring and other officials training. In all these areas the UKPA plans to produce more resources and support for their officials and members. There are plans to develop a version of the rulebook with clarifications of interpretations of rules included, a player grading matrix to allow clubs to grade their players more easily and less subjectively, a coaches’ folder to act as resource for new coaches and Barry Amor has already produced a new field marshal training course and pack to help support and train field marshals. In order to grow and develop the sport the UKPA have also produced a detailed sport development plan, which has a number of different areas of focus from obtaining more media coverage and sponsors to linking in coaches into new groups of riders who are interested in trying the sport.
So with all this areas seemingly moving forwards is 2015 a year that will be remembered for the sport of polocrosse taking a big leap forwards in the UK? The signs are good, there is increased activity in all the key areas, there has already been an increase in media coverage and then there is the possibility of confirming themselves again as one of the top sides in the world. The UKPA would seem to have a plan to develop the sport and are now spending money on delivering that plan, both via paying for administrative support and also by continuing to fund the training and development of its UKCC coaches.
However, there is one thing that the sport really needs if it’s going to finally take the next step forwards in its development and that’s a significant and sustained growth in membership. The UK Polocrosse Association’s membership has fluctuated around the 400 member mark since the early 2000’s and any gains were cancelled by subsequent losses.
One of the biggest problem for the UKPA has been the lack of an infrastructure to aid its desire for growth. Unlike its better known and more established cousin polo, polocrosse lacks professional clubs where people can learn how to play and hire horses to play on. However, the UKPA has been taking steps to try and address this over the last couple of years and there is more and more interaction with the world of polo and with riding centres in general around the United Kingdom to try and establish places for people to play. There is still a long way to go though before there is proper network of centres to cater for people who don’t own a suitable horse of their own.
The UKPA probably hopes for quicker results in the world of horse ownership. It is estimated that around 500,000 people in the UK own at least one horse and the UKPA wants to attract more of these people to come and play their sport. Some of this is done by getting the existing polocrosse clubs working on attracting new members and also by looking to work with groups such as Pony Clubs and Riding Clubs to get more groups of new riders involved and more clubs established.
In order to get more people playing there has to be coaches and this has been an area that the UKPA has been quietly developing for the last few years, mainly thanks to the hard work of Ursula and Laura Scott, and it now seems to feel it has reached a point where it will hopefully start to see the benefits. The UKPA has been fully funding and arranging for polocrosse coaches to obtain their UKCC coaching qualifications, which is a national, cross sport qualification, for the last few of years. In 2014 they took the step of saying that all coaches at UKPA training events should be UKCC coaches to try and ensure that their coaches committed to doing the qualification. This was done to ensure that both new and existing players were being trained by coaches holding nationally recognised qualifications which are comparable with other sports, so as to ensure the quality of the delivery. Three years ago the UKPA only had a few qualified UKCC coaches, they now have 20 fully qualified coaches and a further 30 currently going through their accreditation process so the plan does seem to be working.
Coaches are one thing but for coaches to be coaching new players there has to be interest in the sport. The sport of polocrosse has benefited from some good press coverage in the UK equestrian press lately through stories about the forthcoming World Cup team and also about the development of the sport. Awareness of the sport in the UK has also grown since they hosted the World Cup in 2011 and it has also benefited from players such as Jason Webb now enjoying a higher status in the equestrian world in general. Jason now regularly blogs for Horse and Hound, one of the leading UK equestrian publications, and appears at a number of top demonstrations as a horse trainer and a behaviour specialist. Debbie Harris, their World Cup Captain for 2015, is now also blogging for Horse and Country TV in the run up to the World Cup in July.
The UK will also hope for some further good press coverage and some good news when their team go to the World Cup in South Africa in July. They only managed a sixth place at the last World Cup and they will be desperate to improve on that. Half their team has changed from the last World Cup and Jason Webb is now player coach, with Debbie Harris taking over the captain role that he previously fulfilled. They have called up Max Pedley to the Men’s section at 16 years of age, primarily it would seem to play Number 1, and they have also recalled Kerry Bean to the Ladies section, to try and deal with the always troublesome number 2 spot. The team defeated both Ireland and the USA in 2014 but to truly improve on 2011 they will have to topple some of the top teams at the World Cup itself. As a minimum they will have to get through to the semi finals and that means finishing at least second in their group. In their group they have the double world Champions Australia, Zimbabwe (who finished second in 2011) as well as their old rivals Ireland. However, Zimbabwe have lost key players across the border to Zambia since 2011 and in truth the UK might rather face them in the group stages rather than the Zambia team. On the basis of last year they would hope they could overcome Ireland and so if they can beat them and Zimbabwe then a second place finish in the group is a distinct possibility and really the minimum that their army of travelling fans will expect. If they were to go one step further and defeat Australia in the group stages for the first time in their history then their fans would be ecstatic.
So there are many encouraging signs as the UK begins to gear up for its 2015 season but there is undoubtedly a lot of work to be done this year and if a decent amount of progress has not been made by the AGM in November the UKPA Executive could be receiving a few more critical comments.