Playing overseas, is it for you?

When I travelled to India for the Hockey India League or HIL for short I introduced myself to the team as a South African with a British passport who was living in The Netherlands. Unfortunately most of the guys couldn't speak English so they didn't really follow the joke. I'm often asked by young South African players especially what it's like playing overseas and if I recommend it. So here are some things I've learnt from training, playing and living abroad for the past 9 years!


Why?
Firstly what reason do you have for going to play hockey or any other sport abroad? The chance to learn new skills, train with a better team, for your own personal development as a person? There are many reasons why players choose this option and it's something people often ask me so hopefully I'll be able to explain what I learnt and how playing abroad changed me as a player and a person.


Austin (1)

Growing Up
I still remember the first time I left to live overseas (photo right), destination Reading Hockey Club, England. As I wasn't paid to play at that stage in my career I was also working full time at a local school just outside of Reading. I lay in bed that first night with tears in my eyes wondering why I'd chosen this, or rather why I'd let my coach persuade me to. It was the first time I had left home for longer than a week or two. I'd had to say goodbye to my girlfriend of two years, quit my university and started up with UNISA (which was hard enough on its own dealing with their 'help centres'!) and for the next four months up until Christmas I was going to have to work things out on my own. I grew up so much in those first few months away from home. It sounds simple enough but until you have lived on your own, away from friends and your family it's hard to explain how lonely you can feel at times. I had to actually learn how to feel comfortable with just myself for company. I also perfected the skill of how to take "selfies" with my camera!

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Training while no-one is watching
You often hear elite athletes talking about training alone or training harder and longer than any of their competition. I liked the idea and challenge of being away from South Africa for an extended period of time. My goal was to return in 2006 after a year abroad and prove to the SA coach I was good enough to make the 2006 World Cup and Commonwealth teams. Unfortunately or fortunately depending on how you look at it I wasn't selected for either team. Disappointed but even more determined I returned to England and worked harder than ever before. I recall a fitness session I did in the sleet and freezing cold on New Year's Eve 2008. That session summed up what I achieved in my years in England. I trained so many times on my own when I knew I could stop at anytime and no one would know except myself. Half way through the session your mind starts telling you to stop, and evidently the older I become I notice the sooner that voice creeps into your head! So what stopped me from quitting sessions early? Well, it's quite simple, if you have a powerful enough goal when your mind starts feeding you exit strategies you return fire with the strongest mental image you can of your dream. I've never allowed myself to quit a session early unless it's for fear of injury. As you can see from the above picture, as a team we also trained no matter what!



Proving yourself
Moving to Holland in 2009 was another big decision for me. I had finally settled in England after four years and my professional career as a teacher / director of hockey was developing well. Honestly I can't even remember what made me make the final decision to go to Holland, a mixture of wanting to know if I could make it in the best league in the world or the chance to play semi professionally. I had written to all of the twelve Hoofdklasse clubs asking if they were interested in having me for the coming 2009/2010 season. Aged 24 and after my recent success as a player at the Beijing Olympics, being named SA's Player of the Year and also Reading Hockey Club's MVP I thought it would quite easy to pick up a contract in Holland. I was sorely mistaken…
I didn't even receive a reply from most of the clubs I emailed but after some months of waiting I finally got an offer from HC Den Bosch. I quickly researched the club, signed my contract and that August I arrived in Holland for the first time. The idea of being paid to play hockey seemed incredibly strange to me and with it came a whole lot of pressure, a kind of pressure I wasn't used to. No-one from Den Bosch had ever heard of me. In the past they had had some big name signings so to see me arrive at their first training session was I'm sure a disappointment for them. I may have been given a contract by the board of Den Bosch but fitting into a new team is something I would have to do myself. I could feel the eyes of everyone on me at training asking questions like; is he good enough? Does he deserve to be here? Will he make any difference? Why did we buy him? Dealing with this pressure isn't easy and something players coming abroad need to anticipate. As someone who is quite shy and unimposing with new people I found this difficult. I made sure I had the basics in place, I made a conscious effort to learn everyones name in our team and those of the supporters as soon as possible. I made sure I trained at my best every session to prove I was good enough and not just here for a paid holiday. Five years on (2013) and I'm still at HC Den Bosch and enjoying it more than ever.

Den Bosch Heren1 2009/2010 included 2 x Dutch, 1 x Great Britain, 2 x Argentinian internationals, a Spanish Coach and myself.

Learning
I can't believe looking back how much I have learnt about the beautiful game of field hockey. I love South Africa but club field hockey is just not developing quickly enough at this moment in time. Growing up in Cape Town I attended great hockey schools with brilliant coaches but once I got to club level I felt my development was beginning to slow down. Playing abroad truly broadened my hockey horizons. I learnt so much in the first few years especially and I felt I was continually being challenged with new styles of play, different techniques and just an all round different approach. This is a huge reason why I chose to play abroad!

Fun, Mates and Tourism Wednesdays
Part of living abroad is meeting new people, hopping over the border to visit other countries, learning all the quirky cultural differences which make a country unique and if you're really lucky finding a really great Dutch girlfriend;) In Holland if you travel two hours north, south or east by car you are in another country. In contrast to living in Johannesburg where you are probably still trying to get back to Pretoria after a days work.
A nice routine Jacques le Roux and I started when he was still playing at Den Bosch was Tourism Wednesdays. Time seemed to be flying  by and neither of us had seen much of the country we were living in so we made a pact to go somewhere different every Wednesday come rain or shine. We had some epic drives together talking about life and saw many of the beautiful attractions which are in Holland. If you are in another country for a limited amount of time don't take it for granted, before you know it you'll be on a flight back home without ever having experienced any of the local tourism or traditions. So make sure you get out there and explore, it's key to find a balance between focussing on your hockey but also having something else to keep your mind fresh.

Tourism Wednesday - On a tour of the Amsterdam canals with Jacques and Rhett

My girlfriend and I on one of our many travels together

Grateful
Along my travels around the world, England and Holland especially I have met and worked with some fantastic people. I'm not going to mention everyone because the list is very long! I would like to thank all the staff at Bradfield College who were especially accommodating in covering duties and classes while I was off training or touring. To the members of Reading Hockey Club who made me feel so welcome at 'The Ding', I will always remember winning the league with you twice and of course the brilliant Christmas and awards dinners.

Finally to the members of Den Bosch Hockey Club where I'm currently playing, I truly feel at home at this family club and city. Let's hope we, the Men's1 can bring back the former glory the club saw over ten years ago!

Thanks to the supporters 2


If there are any South African players back home thinking about travelling abroad to play and have any questions please feel free to drop me an email at info@austinsmith.co.za.


© Austin Smith 2014