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Red Centre camp that moulded Jillaroos

Published Wed 24 May 2023

As the Jillaroos’ preparation for December’s FIH Junior World Cup ramps up, there was a time last year that could prove to be a key instigator in Australia’s U21 Women’s Hockey Team’s chances of winning the showpiece event for the first time.

In the early stages of 2022, Jillaroos Head Coach Stacia Strain sat down with Hockey Australia National Pathways Manager Andrew Collins and Women’s National Athlete Pathway Coach Mark Hager to plan a Jillaroos schedule leading up to the 2023 Junior World Cup.

Upon her appointment, Strain wanted to not as much as give the national junior women’s hockey program an overhaul, but build a culture, values system and expectations of what the Jillaroos stood for. To establish a legacy platform so any athlete that came into the Jillaroos program had a clear understanding of what being part of the Jillaroos was about and the privilege that comes with it.

During these planning discussions, an opportunity arose to take a group of athletes and support staff for a camp in Alice Springs in Australia’s Red Centre.

Strain jumped at the chance and in late August, 22 athletes came together in the heart of Australia for a combination of hockey, personal and team development sessions.

The purpose of the camp was based around the overarching aims of the Jillaroos program which include:
•    winning the 2023 Junior World Cup,
•    helping to develop and transition athletes into the Hockeyroos program,
•    developing players holistically and equipping them with skills to develop character and a sense of team, in turn enabling the athletes to positively contribute and be successful in any high performance environment.

The camp was also about encompassing the Jillaroos’ way of play and principles, building a team culture and growing connections and chemistry among the group.

This onus on a Jillaroos identity and unity was accentuated with an intention to positively contribute to the growth and development of hockey in the Northern Territory, coupled with an opportunity for learning and education about Aboriginal culture and what it means to be Australian and represent the country.

The camp took in cultural education at Uluru and Kata Tjuta, and learning about bush tucker and bush medicine at Standley Chasm.

To tell the story of the Jillaroos and its values, local Indigenous artists painted two hockey sticks for the Jillaroos to take on all camps and trips as a reminder of what they are part of and what the Jillaroos represents.

Strain said the camp was one of the most enjoyable and rewarding hockey experiences she has had in her life.

“We wanted to re-think how we develop our athletes and what we prioritise in their development,” said Strain.

“While nurturing future Hockeyroos is our goal, our responsibility is much more than this. It is to also provide an environment where our young women can grow and develop with a greater understanding of themselves and each other.”

“Alice Springs is a magical place and the heart of Australia in both a geographical and metaphorical sense and it provided an opportunity to create strong, meaningful connections. Connection with each other and connection to country.

“This camp was a huge part of beginning to create our identity, purpose and belonging to the Jillaroos.”

“The athletes and staff totally embraced all aspects of the camp and left with positive memories that will last a lifetime, coupled with a greater awareness and understanding of themselves, each other, Australian history, and culture.”

“There was noticeable growth in the knowledge, understanding and execution of skills in the hockey component of the camp.

“Off the pitch, the activities and environment provided the opportunity for the staff and athletes to get to know each other away from hockey and build deeper connections, which in my opinion, is crucial to team success.

The majority of the camp was held at the Earth Sanctuary World Nature Centre, a venue dedicated to inspiring change through the education, ecotourism and events market.

“I cannot recommend Earth Sanctuary and the staff highly enough,” said Strain.

“Earth Sanctuary is run by a hockey family originally from Victoria, so there’s no doubt their genuine love of hockey contributed to the energy and commitment they had to our group.

“In addition to organising the cultural activities, food, campsite and overall experience, they went above and beyond to give the group a memorable and lasting experience.”

Three of the players who attended the camp (Grace Young, Maddison Brooks and Alana Kavanagh) have since gone on to play for the Hockeyroos. Current Hockeyroos squad member Tatum Stewart, who missed the camp because of injury, could also be added to that list, highlighting the strides being made in the national junior women’s program. The experience in Central Australia arguably also had a positive impact.

Seeing the amazing impact the camp had on the travelling party, Strain said taking a Jillaroos group to the Red Centre is something she would love to start making a tradition of.

“Hopefully this is something we can continue to do in the future as the personal and team growth within the Jillaroos squad was obvious for all to see, along with an authentic interest and desire to learn about Indigenous culture and Central Australia,” said Strain.

“It was unique and invaluable with both mental and physical aspects that we will all carry forward to future Jillaroos camps in the lead up to the Junior World Cup, as well as life in general.”

“We noticed a commitment, energy and focus from players at all hockey sessions, noticeable improvement in the understanding and execution of Jillaroos principles and way of play. There was a real enthusiasm and engagement of the group to all aspects both on and off the pitch.”