University Of Exeter Adapting From Covid Challenges

University Of Exeter Adapting From Covid Challenges
To say that the past few months have been fraught for university hockey sides is an understatement. This is particularly true of those teams that compete at elite level. Continuing to train to a high standard and with regularity; travelling long distances to matches; and all while attempting to live something resembling a normal student life has been made difficult, if not impossible, by the impact of Covid-19.

As Head of Hockey at Exeter University and Head Coach to the men’s first team, Harry Jones has been at the forefront of the battle to keep hockey at the University operating at the highest level possible under current restrictions.

“It has been an extremely tough start to the season what with Covid-19 causing all sorts of logistical nightmares,” says Jones, who has been coaching at Exeter since 2014.

“We weren’t able to have our usual pre-season start date as this had to be delayed due to a gradual opening of our sports facilities and grounds. Exeter’s geographical location continues to be problematic but even more so now. When it comes to long away journeys, University protocols stipulate we have to travel with reduced numbers in cars, temperature checks, face masks and windows open. All things which must be done but now are adding to the uphill struggle we face for away matches.”

For Jones and his team of coaches and players the biggest challenge, both in terms of physical preparation and mental readiness, is the uncertainty and the lack of control over the situation.

He says: “As an example, it was out of our control not being able to play some of our league games thus far but you learn to overcome and deal with whatever you’re faced with.”

Covid aside, the University of Exeter has not started the season as the coaching team of Jones and Simon Tyson would like. Four matches have resulted in four losses and the team currently sits second from bottom in the England Hockey League Men’s Premier Division, with only fellow university team Durham below them.

However, despite the lack of points on the board, Jones remains upbeat.

“The games themselves have been largely positive. While we haven’t had the results that some may have wanted, we are a process driven side who are focusing on small wins at the moment.”

Like any university side, Exeter faces the annual problem of a mass exodus as students graduate and an influx of new players arrive. This lack of continuity or established players in the team brings its own challenges. Jones and Tyson have to ensure that the team clicks and gels as quickly as possible, and that makes for a challenging start to any season, even in non-Covid times.

For Jones, however, it is not all about results. Seeing players develop and learn is something that delights his coaching mind-set.

“The most pleasing moments have been when the players have put in well-rounded performances against well-established premier division teams who have a host of senior internationals in their side. The highlight for me is seeing our players develop from game to game and from season to season. This is a real joy and privilege to be a part of.”

While the challenge of integrating a lot of new players is felt particularly keenly by university sides, Jones says that one big advantage over some of the other teams in the league is the fact that the students are able to commit more time to preparation than many of their counterparts. Where most players juggle full-time jobs and family commitments, the students can spend more time either training or doing online preparations.

As Jones points out however, there is only so much work that can be done remotely: “Online video analysis sessions sat on your sofa are great but we miss the personal interactions that you get from standing in front of someone. Personally I have been blown away by how conscientious and diligent our players have been to not let all these ‘speed bumps’ and disruptions get in the way of our progression this year.”

Jones and Tyson have been supported in their battle to mitigate the impact of the pandemic by both the wider Exeter University Hockey Club and the University.

“We are very fortunate to have great strength and depth within our club and throughout our squads which allows us to play competitive internal games,” says Jones. “This has been important, especially when we haven’t been able to play matches due to public health restrictions. 

“We are also extremely fortunate that the University of Exeter has supported us to get back on the pitch and allowed us to train with all the necessary signage, sanitising stations and one-way systems. The university has enabled all high-performance athletes to receive asymptomatic tests on a regular basis and we also have a fantastic Rapid Response Team who work around the clock advising any incoming students who are symptomatic or needing a test.”

“The players and the committee have been fantastic,” he adds. “Everyone has jumped on board to help with the daily logistics of running a club under these new conditions and everyone has ensured we are adhering to the safety procedures put in place at all times.”