Faith Gong: Dispatch from the field hockey sidelines
Field hockey season ended yesterday.
Cue: Angel choirs, rainbows and unicorns, my husband and I holding hands and skipping towards the sunset through a field of wildflowers.
Ever since field hockey season started in late August, we have clung to the promise of October 18 like a life raft on a stormy sea. To hear my husband and me talk, you’d think that after October 18 the peaceable kingdom would reign on earth: our family would be well rested and content, our calendar would have empty spaces, our vehicles could go more than a week on a tank of gas, and the lion would lie down with the lamb. “After October 18, everything will be easier,” we promised each other all fall.
My daughters love field hockey, so they will be sad. And because we love them and want them to be happy, we will be sad, too. A little bit.
Like most things that take over your life, field hockey entered our family gradually. My four daughters began playing in 2019, in a youth clinic run by my friend Chelsey Giuliani. Chelsey, who played field hockey herself and coached at the high school level before turning her focus to grooming the next generation of players, is to field hockey what my mother-in-law is to the InstantPot: Its biggest evangelist. After one season under her tutelage, my girls were hooked. “I’ve found my sport!” one of my daughters announced after the first practice — and the others agreed.
I never thought it would be field hockey. Field hockey has a long history and is believed to have originated in ancient Egypt or Greece. It took hold in European countries, where it was predominantly a male sport. An Englishwoman, Constance Applebee, brought field hockey to the United States in 1901 and founded the United States Field Hockey Association in 1922. In the United States, the sport is almost completely female dominated, and it has never gained much traction. The Wikipedia entry on field hockey begins: “Field hockey in the United States is a sport which has only limited popular support.” An article in the October 12, 2006 Yale Daily News notes field hockey’s limited regional focus: “The most intense support and popularity extends from Massachusetts down the Eastern seaboard to Virginia and pretty much stops there.”
My high school in Northern Virginia had a girls’ field hockey team. It was dominated by the popular girls who were distantly nice, smart and athletic, and had beautiful hair. I still remember them gliding down the halls in their plaid kilts on game days. To me, a nerdy drama club kid with a bad perm, they seemed completely inaccessible.
So it took me by surprise when my very own daughters chose field hockey over all the other sports they’d sampled (soccer, swimming, lacrosse — to name a few). Still, I was glad that they’d found a sport that they loved to play; a sport that would help them develop things like Coordination, Teamwork, Discipline, and other Important Life Skills! I was also grateful for the simplicity of field hockey, compared with other sports. Practices were only twice a week: Even when my eldest daughter graduated from the youth league and began playing with our local middle school team, the fall 2020 season involved two weekly practices and a single home game due to restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. We received some hand-me-down field hockey sticks from friends, so the only gear that my daughters needed were shin and mouth guards.
But this year, field hockey started to get real for our family. In the fall of 2021, my two oldest daughters played on the middle school team, and practices returned to their pre-pandemic schedule of every day after school. There was a game almost every week, and half were away games – some as far as an hour away. To complicate things further, my daughters don’t actually attend the school for whom they play; they go to a school 20 minutes away, up the mountain. A school that doesn’t offer field hockey. A school whose day ends at the exact time their field hocky practice begins. “Until I can figure out how to teleport,” I emailed their coaches, “they will be late for practice.”
To be honest, I didn’t think it would last: I was sure that after a week or two of racing straight from school down the mountain to practice, my daughters would be begging to quit field hockey. But they didn’t. In fact, about halfway through the season, one of my daughters commented on how nice it was to get outside and moving at field hockey practice after a long day at school.
I am proud of their perseverance, but mostly I’m just tired. “At least it’s a short season; it ends on October 18,” I repeated to anyone within earshot as I clutched my car keys and chugged my tea.
Let me tell you: It’s a long way from late August to October 18 when every afternoon involves a 40-minute roundtrip race up and down a mountain — often with three younger children in tow — during which I toss snacks at my athletes, check in on their day, make sure they have all their gear, and drop them at a 90-minute practice.
And those were the days when they didn’t have games.
Having now sat on the sidelines of a dozen field hockey games, I could still not explain the rules to you with any coherence. Because I looked it up, I know that the game consists of two teams of 11 players, who use curved sticks to move a ball across a 100-yard field in order to score goals. I still don’t know why the referee blows the whistle every couple of minutes; there are, it seems, an endless number of ways to earn a foul in field hockey, including crossing sticks, touching the ball with your foot, and putting any part of your body between your opponent and the ball.
I expect that next fall you’ll find me on the sidelines again, still scratching my head over the rules. By then I’ll likely have daughters playing at the youth, middle school, and high school levels, which will make the logistics even more exciting. I will have helped my daughters walk through all twelve steps necessary to fit their mouth guards properly (Place in boiling water for exactly 60 seconds! Press mouthguard into teeth for exactly 20 seconds! Failure to comply will necessitate you buying another $20 piece of plastic!) I will have made sure that they packed their sticks, shin guards, eye protection, bottled water, and uniform shirts. (The kilts of my youth are a thing of the past, since my daughters and their teammates successfully petitioned for the option of replacing the regulation skirts with shorts).
I will do all these things out of gratitude, having seen how much my daughters love this game, and how this game helped get them through some of the darkest, most difficult times of pandemic isolation.
But for now, I’m going to enjoy spending a little time staring at the blank spaces on our calendar.
Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her “free time,” she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.
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