Never heard of field hockey before? That’s ok, it’s a relatively obscure sport, and I received confused looks all throughout high school when I would tell people that I played it. Even in the US, it’s very regional, being popular in states such as California, Virginia, and Pennsylvania and played almost exclusively by girls. Internationally, Holland, Argentina, and Australia are known for having good national teams… and in most other countries you’ll just have people wondering why you would pick field hockey over soccer.
Nevertheless, the sprawling public school system in Northern Virginia where I grew up had a great network of teams, and as a scrawny kid who didn’t get an early start at soccer, basketball, softball, or really any other sport, joining the field hockey world in 8th grade is one of the main reasons I’m at all athletic. Looking back at the feeling of breaking 13 minutes, then 10 minutes, then 8 minutes on my mile time, I can’t thank my supportive parents and incredible coaches enough for the positive influences they had on my life.
Some quick shout outs to two of the many people who helped me grow as a player: My high school coach, Coach Ehrsam, taught me the value of perseverance, hard work, and a positive attitude, and she showed me the meaning of teamwork and “being on time.” (Early is on time. On time is late. Late is unacceptable.) My indoor field hockey coach, Coach Starr Karl, taught me discipline and encouraged me to get tougher skin. (She basically scared the crap out of me.)
In Alicante, I accidentally discovered the University’s teams – and in order to meet more Spanish students and get some exercise, I asked if I could play with them. The girls’ team has been more than welcoming, and I join them for practice twice a week.
Compared to the culture of the teams I played for in the US, this team is, like Spanish culture in general, more laid back. There’s no team sprints awarded as punishment for anyone showing up late, no sweltering summer two-a-days or 4+ hour practices, and no penalty corner plays and corresponding code names taped to our sticks. Luckily for me, there were no tryouts or cuts, either. Nonetheless, we run drills and play scrimmages like any other team.
Another big difference is that the relationship between the players and the coaches is much more informal. This could be because the coach, Fer, plays on the boys’ team and is the same age as most of the girls – but I was definitely surprised when, at a post-indoor-season team talk (about a week or two after I had joined), the team got into a shouting match with Fer about who was getting play time and who was being put on the “PUTO BANQUILLO” – fucking bench! In the US, I’d expect an argument like that to leave lasting tensions, but in this case, when the argument was over, it was over, and we proceeded to play a scrimmage as if nothing had happened.
Playing with the team has had an effect on not only my fitness, but my Spanish, too. Following conversations in big groups still isn’t effortless, but with a few hours a week of listening to the constant chatter among the girls on the team, it’s getting much less overwhelming to hang out with a group of Spaniards. On the other hand, my host parents might argue that they’re actually a bad influence on my language, because I’ve definitely picked up a lot more slang and vulgarity by spending time with them.
When the whole team gets together to go out, they’re quite a riot. For this birthday-celebration-combined-with-going-away-party, we were rowdy and full of joyful energy. One of the many sing-song cheers of the night went like this:
Queremos que [alguien] nos baile la pelusa!
Queremos que [alguien] nos baile la pelusa!
We want [someone] to dance the “fluff!” The group targets someone and repeats this line until that person agrees to dance the “fluff” dance. The song then continues:
Pelusa por aquí, pelusa por allá, pelusa por delante, pelusa por detrás! [Cheering]
“Fluff” here, “fluff” there, “fluff” in front, “fluff” behind! – The chosen person does a little jig with gestures in each direction, and then the spotlight turns to someone else.
My friend from home and former roommate, Nick, was visiting town during that weekend, so he spent the night as the only guy in a group of almost twenty friendly and beautiful field hockey girls. Lucky guy!
After dinner, we bounced between bars and clubs and had a grand time going out, Spanish style.
I’m thankful that I’ve gotten so much more out of joining the field hockey team than just some exercise each week – even though I can’t always keep up with the conversations, they really have embraced this American teammate.