South Africa captain Austin Smith.
South Africa captain Austin Smith.
(Photo: FIH / Palito Aguirre)

Inspirational South Africa captain Austin Smith, a player who has spent the last nine years of his life playing hockey outside of his homeland, is often asked by young South African players if he would recommend the experience.

Here are a few of the things that the Netherlands-based star has learned from training, playing and living abroad for nearly a decade. The full story can be found on Austin’s website – www.austinsmith.co.za

Why do it?
Firstly, what reason do you have for going to play hockey or any other sport abroad? The chance to learn new skills, train with a better team, for your own personal development as a person? There are many reasons why players choose this option, so hopefully I'll be able to explain how playing abroad changed me as a player and a person.

Growing Up
I still remember the first time I left to live overseas, destination Reading Hockey Club, England. As I wasn't paid to play at that stage in my career I was also working full time at a local school just outside of Reading. I lay in bed that first night with tears in my eyes wondering why I'd chosen this, or rather why I'd let my coach persuade me to.

I grew up so much in those first few months away from home. It sounds simple enough but until you have lived on your own, away from friends and your family it's hard to explain how lonely you can feel at times. I had to actually learn how to feel comfortable with just myself for company. I also perfected the skill of how to take 'selfless' with my camera!

Training while no-one is watching
You often hear elite athletes talking about training alone or training harder and longer than any of their competition. I liked the idea and challenge of being away from South Africa for an extended period of time. My goal was to return in 2006 after a year abroad and prove to the SA coach that I was good enough to make the 2006 World Cup and Commonwealth teams. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) I wasn't selected for either team.

Disappointed but even more determined, I returned to England and worked harder than ever before. I recall a fitness session I did in the freezing cold on New Year's Eve 2008. That session summed up what I achieved in my years in England. I trained so many times on my own when I knew I could stop at any time and no one would know accept myself.

So what stopped me from quitting sessions early? Well, it's quite simple. If you have a powerful enough goal, when your mind starts feeding you exit strategies you return fire with the strongest mental image you can of your dream. I've never allowed myself to quit a session early unless it's for fear of injury.

Proving yourself
Moving to Holland in 2009 was another big decision for me. I had finally settled in England after four years and my professional career as a teacher / director of hockey was developing well. Honestly I can't even remember what made me make the final decision to go to Holland, a mixture of wanting to know if I could make it in the best league in the world or the chance to play semi-professionally. I had written to all twelve Hoofdklasse clubs asking if they were interested in having me for the coming 2009/2010 season. Aged 24 and after my recent success as a player at the Beijing Olympics, being named SA's Player of the Year and also Reading Hockey Club's Most Valuable Player I thought it would quite easy to pick up a contract in Holland. I was sorely mistaken.

I didn't even receive a reply from most of the clubs I emailed, but after some months of waiting I finally got an offer from HC Den Bosch. I quickly researched the club, signed my contract and that August I arrived in Holland for the first time. The idea of being paid to play hockey seemed incredibly strange to me and with it came a whole lot of unexpected pressure, a kind of pressure that I wasn't used to. No-one from Den Bosch had ever heard of me. In the past they had had some big name signings so to see me arrive at their first training session was I'm sure a disappointment for them. I could feel the eyes of everyone on me at training asking questions like; is he good enough? Does he deserve to be here? Why did we buy him?

Dealing with this pressure isn't easy and something players coming abroad need to anticipate. As someone who is quite shy and unimposing with new people I found this difficult. I made sure I had the basics in place; I made a conscious effort to learn everyone’s name in our team and those of the supporters as soon as possible. I made sure I trained at my best every session to prove I was good enough and not just here for a paid holiday. Five years on, I'm still at HC Den Bosch and enjoying it more than ever.

Learning
I can't believe looking back how much I have learnt about the beautiful game of field hockey. I love South Africa but club field hockey is just not developing quickly enough at this moment in time. Growing up in Cape Town I attended great hockey school with brilliant coaches but once I got to club level I felt my development was beginning to slow down. Playing abroad truly broadened my hockey horizons. I learnt so much in the first few years especially and I felt I was continually being challenged with new styles of play, different techniques and just an all-round different approach. This is a huge reason why I chose to play abroad!

To read Austin’s blog in its entirety, click here.

To follow Austin on Twitter, click here. 

Source material:  www.austinsmith.co.za