Sam Ward tells the story of his hockey career!
As you can see I was a pretty kid. Back in the day I didn’t like wearing clothes and I still don’t now!
I started playing hockey when I was about 4 or 5. I actually played for Leicester Ladies Hockey Club with my sister. They had a junior section and I basically turned the ladies junior section into a mixed section; I was the only male and this resulted in me playing quite a few games in a skirt!
At around 8 or 9 I then switched over to play for Beeston, who were a very good men’s club. Heading over to Beeston meant a lot of travel but Mum and Dad were great and would drive me over there. I played for the club until I was about 18 and during that time I played a lot of regional hockey. I did quite well and scored a lot of goals but I was a short fat kid. I didn’t get picked for England U16 or U18 because I wasn’t fit enough or quick enough, despite scoring a lot of goals. No matter how I approached it I was told I wouldn’t make it because I wasn’t big enough, even now I’m obviously not the biggest out there!
I was around 17 when I didn’t play for a year, due to a knee injury. During that time I took to playing some local league football, which I actually enjoyed quite a lot. It’s a different world and a lot of fun.
After a break I played an indoor tournament for Peterborough and shortly after that I got a phone call from Matt Taylor from Beeston and he said do you fancy coming and playing again. I said I’d come to a few sessions and see if I enjoy it, then take it from there. So I went back trained a few times, played a few pre-season friendlies and that resulted in me doing quite well. In the first season I scored 15 league goals that year; the following was 20.
At the same time as this I had a full time job. I was a car salesman at a Volkswagen dealership in Loughborough. I am a bit of a car salesmen as you may have noticed? I decided I would focus on that for a while and decided to play for Loughborough students after my first couple of years at Beeston, where I was playing Premier League. It was local travel and I could kind of enjoy the student lifestyle. I had a full time job but I would go out on a Wednesday night with Loughborough students, I’d get a taxi straight to work and I’d sleep under my desk in the office. So that was me, in a kind of boystrous, enjoying life kind of way, which I did for 2 years!
One Last Shot!
After that period I decided to knuckle down and give hockey one last shot, so I went back to Beeston, where I scored 24 goals in the first season. We then won the league and the playoffs. The following year I got a phone call from Bobby Crutchley (England Coach) asking if I would come in for a trial. So I got time off work (work were brilliant) and I went down and did a couple of training days. Later in the year I got invited to join the programme.
To- date I’ve played for England / Great Britain 124 times and scored 69 goals. I joined the programme in September 2014. In the early months I kept getting a hamstring injury as I was still a heavy lad. I hadn’t really seen a gym before, so it was a big lifestyle change and I really struggled when I first joined the programme. If I’m completely honest after about a month I thought I would quit it. I just couldn’t cope with the day-to-day life and I was permanently sore and kept getting a hamstring injury that I couldn’t seem to get over.
We had a selection coming up and I just about got fit enough to be out on the pitch and available for selection, but I didn’t get picked. I remember going into a meeting where I got told and Bobby was just like ‘You’re not fit enough’. I won’t forget that weekend because I didn’t actually want to play after I’d had the news. I had a game that Saturday night at Cannock and I was travelling up on Friday night. I had these two sides to me of ‘oh I don’t want to play’ and the other side of me that grew up with people telling me I wouldn’t make it and I wanted to go and prove them wrong. I remember playing the game on Saturday night and beating them 3-1 and scoring a hat-trick. I typed a message to send to the coach, that was the kind of mood I was in, to say ‘Point proven’ but luckily I sent it to the psychologist instead who replied saying ‘Good lad!’ I’ll never really forget that.
Getting that call...
So that was that. There was about 3 weeks to go until the tournament, we had found out quite a lot earlier because we were going to India and visas needed to be applied for. The week before the boys were due to go off to India I had got a bad elbow so I was booked in for surgery on the Monday when they were due to fly on the Saturday. It was Friday afternoon, I remember it as clear as anything, I was driving down the M40, I’ve got Ollie Willars sat next to me who was picked and going to the tournament and my phone starts ringing through the car and I look and see Bobby Crutchley. Bobby, I can assure you, is not the kind of bloke that is just going to ring you for a chat. I look at Ollie who was one of my best mates growing up, and said what do I do?! He obviously said answer! So I answered the phone and he said ‘are you on your own, is there anyone else around you?’ I obviously said ‘no’ and gestured to Ollie to keep quiet. His opening, which I will never forget was ‘We’ve had another injury. I stick by what I said, you are not fit enough but I’ve got no one else! I’ve got a 28 man squad and you are probably number 28 but you’re coming to India at 7am in the morning!’
That was where my career started. We flew out to India that Saturday morning. I went out on the following Saturday, where we played Australia, which was my England debut. Before the game Bobby was like good luck, it’s going to be a tough challenge for you, we haven’t beaten Australia for x number of games. Well we went out, we beat Australia 3-1 and I scored 2 goals on my England debut. I remember him calling me in after the game and he said ’don’t think International hockey is easy - you’re still not fit enough!’
We came back and I actually had the operation that I was meant to have while the boys were away. I remember first day back in January I got called back in by Bobby and I’m thinking I’ve just done a tournament, I’ve done alright so what does he want to see me about? He sat me in a room with the SSE coach and himself and said ‘I just want the best version of you, so you do not play hockey again until you are fit enough’. That was the time I got fit. In 10 weeks I lost 2 stone and became a completely different athlete. After about 6 weeks they broke me. At that time the boys went back on the pitch because we had done a 6 week physical development block. I was thinking I’ve lost a lot of weight, done really well I’ll be back on the pitch but then they told me I had to do a fitness test on my own. I did terribly! I broke down in tears, I was an absolute mess. I was leaning up against the fence thinking I’m going to be stuck here for a while. Bobby made me run every day with the SSE coach for 4 more weeks while the boys trained on the pitch next to me so that part was quite demoralising. What I would say is that is the bit that made my career. It’s given me the fighting spirit and since then I have been picked for every tournament and the only one I’ve missed was the World Cup in December last year due to concussion. I’ve had what I would describe as a quite a nice, plain-sailing career, had a few bumps in the road but generally it’s been good.
Don't Mention Rio!
Obviously Rio is a pinnacle of my career, it was amazing and I have a tattoo on my chest to say I’ve been! But it still has the disappointment around it, as we were expected to medal, but went out in the group stage.
It still carries a very negative thought for me and I would describe the period of 4 months after Rio as the darkest, toughest stage of my career. I actually flew back after 2 days of being knocked out, I paid for my own flight. I was on the same flight with Barry Middleton, we paid a lot of money to get home and when I got back I didn’t leave the house for 10 days. I didn’t leave my bedroom for 10 days and I just couldn’t face how badly we’d done having put everything into it. Eventually I told myself I’ve got to leave the house so I went to my local café in Marlow. I thought this can be a baby step to getting back to everything and I walked in and the first person that saw me said ‘Well the men were s%$t at the Olympics weren’t they?!’ I trotted back to the house, went back to bed and thought I’d try again in a few more days!
At the moment we’re working so hard and there is so much pressure on this Olympic qualifier in 2 weeks. You can see it in everyone’s faces. These 2 games literally mean everything. On the 4th November if we don’t win and don’t qualify then we don’t have a job anymore. That is the world of sport and that’s how it is.
I would mentally prime for a game and we have full time psychologists, so any major underlying issues that you can’t shake off quickly then you have someone to speak to. I’ve learnt how to deal with things and move on. The mental side of things is massive. The biggest thing I learned is that no matter how high things are or how low, that you should just stay balanced. We use the expression ‘Never too high, never too low’ in order to try and stay on an even keel as much as you can. How often do we have a game where we know we’re playing one team for 8 weeks? We get that time to prepare for how Malaysia play. No matter who we play in that period we would try and do things that would work against Malaysia. So when we get a penalty corner against Spain we flick in the areas that we believe will score against Malaysia.
You don’t want to be too outcome focused because then you can strangle yourself. You can’t think if this happens I’ll lose my job or the other side you can’t be too relaxed about it so there needs to be a balance. You just have to be very aware about how hard you’ve prepped.
It can’t be life or death. We rated how important it was out of 100 and people that have had family tragedies are scoring it really low and younger players that maybe haven’t had that experience score it as 100 - this is their everything. To me I value it straight down the middle. It’s very important and I’ll give it my best shot. As long as I can leave knowing I’ve given it my best shot I’ll get over it in time.
The one thing I’ve learnt through my whole career, no matter what happens, through thick and thin , these are the people that have supported me and help me do what I do and make me work as hard as I can.