Report: Youth Field Hockey Participation Rates Soaring
In recent months, major media outlets have reported on youth sports participation rates around the United States. Some sports have seen gains, with ice hockey, lacrosse, and volleyball all reporting sizable increases in their respective participation rates.
One sport that has reported a sizable increased in its numbers over the past decade is field hockey. According to Statista, the number of girls playing field hockey has more than doubled since 2006. To better understand how the youth field hockey landscape has evolved and what elite club teams are doing to grow the game, we sat down with Darren Smallhorn the co-owner and president of HTC Field Hockey Club. The New England powerhouse is making significant strides both for their club and the sport as a whole.
To put it lightly, Smallhorn is a field hockey expert. He’s lived and breathed the game as a player, coach, umpire, and administrator. As a player, he was a member of the Men’s Junior National Team. As a coach, he served on UConn’s staff and led the university’s club team to a pair of national titles. Since its inception in 2010, Smallhorn has been a Swiss Army Knife for HTC. He’s coached HTC teams on a national stage, laid the groundwork for expansion as an assistant director and championed the HTC brand in his current role as president.
As an advocate for the game, Smallhorn believes they’ve only begun to see the positive returns. “The sport is definitely growing, however, I think it’s not growing as quickly as it could be. Sports like lacrosse and soccer are exploding. But you need to keep in mind, field hockey provides the most college scholarships of any of the female sports. That alone should signal an opportunity for young athletes who have aspirations of playing at the college level,” said Smallhorn.
Parents and players seeking out scholarships have created demand in the club ecosystem. “We have seen the goal of securing a college scholarship play a factor in club expansion. Right here in New England there were 5-7 club teams a decade ago, and now you have closer to 20 popping up,” noted Smallhorn.
Taking it from the big picture down to the individual level, Smallhorn makes it clear that HTC’s success is directly linked to their overall philosophy of player/person development. “We want to develop the whole person, not just the field hockey player. So that means we’re encouraging them in every aspect of their life. I have former players that have come back to coach, and we still have a strong relationship. That is the kind of support and bond we’re talking about. Our success as a club is tied to the fact that what we’re teaching and supporting is bigger than the game on the field,” said Smallhorn.
HTC has grown from an upstart into a champion in short order. But how do they do it? “As we’ve grown we’ve had the internal conversations regarding our marketing. Do we need an outside firm to help with our marketing? From the get-go, we saw significant growth in our numbers from 20 kids the first year to 300+ in the second and third years. In the beginning, it was all word of mouth. As we’re coming up on our ten year anniversary, we have to decide if it’s worth it to invest in formal marketing or if the current rate of growth is good enough. Before we make that decision, we still have the opportunity to control our growth by winning. When you win, people want to be a part of that. And we can impact our chances of winning by attracting, cultivating and retaining quality coaches. The majority of our staff are current college coaches, and that fact alone puts us in a great position to win and by association be noticed,” said Smallhorn.
Word of mouth is also sparked by specific tactics. “We partner with high schools, we encourage our alumni to come back to HTC, and we highlight the fact that so many of our players have gone on to college via our website and social media. All these little things add up and impact our reach. By focusing on developing players, making parents and players happy, and providing the best possible product, in a lot of ways the marketing takes care of itself before we invest a single dollar in an outside company,” said Smallhorn.
Quality control, focusing on the customer and allowing the product to speak for itself are far from novel ideas in the business world, but as it relates to youth field hockey it’s a formula that works. Just ask HTC.