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Grace O’Flanagan, Darkness into Light.

“How do you manage to fit in all the practice and still be a doctor as well?” Daniel, aged 9, to Irish goalkeeper Grace O’Flanagan.

The hand-written letter landed in her mailbox at the end of a 14-hour shift before heading into a weekend of training with the Green Army.

The letter landed in February 2020 as she was working her way back into Olympic contention having taken a year out in the wake of the 2018 World Cup silver medal run.

As second choice goalkeeper behind Ayeisha McFerran, O’Flanagan’s role was an understated but absolutely crucial one. But it was perhaps her intervention a year before which was the most vital save of all, denying Rani Rampal from the penalty flick spot with her first touch of the qualifiers.

McFerran had been sent to the sin-bin and India were one up; lose and Ireland were likely set to sit out another major tournament. She guess right, Ireland fought back and the bandwagon’s wheels started to roll.

In the wake of London’s heroics, though, O’Flanagan had to take a year out to focus on her job as a surgical trainee, soon to be a specialist registrar, before thinking about whether or not to battle for a place in the Tokyo squad.

“Safe to say, [that letter] brought a smile to my face!” Indeed, it’s a question the Railway Union shot-stopper has been trying to work out for the guts of a decade, marrying an intense career on and off the pitch.

“I love to try and balance it all but the reality is I had jobs where the hours were too much, I wouldn’t make training sessions. It was looking after my mental health, there’s only so much you can do, so I took the decision after the World Cup to take a break because I had been doing so much.”

When the pandemic hit and Tokyo 2020 postponed, it meant all hands on deck and she spent six months working frontline in COVID hospitals.

Gradually, though, international hockey came back into view in the autumn and now, with the vaccine roll-out in place, O’Flanagan has been able to take the decision to take work-leave and solely play hockey for the coming months with June’s European Championships and the reset Tokyo dates a month later.

“My availability for work would have been too little really. I didn’t want to leave my colleagues stretched or short-staffed so the easier thing was that I would focus on training especially considering the quarantine issue every time we travel.

“It would have been just too much time out of work had I been in and out. I’m definitely glad I’ve made that decision, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. 

“I think I would always have looked back and wondered ‘what if’ if I hadn’t given it everything I have, so that was my thinking going in to this. I’m enjoying every minute of it, but I’m looking forward to getting back to work. But this is an opportunity I had to go for.”

As such, it puts her in line for another loop on the rollercoaster of emotions. Eighteen months before the World Cup, she was diagnosed with cancer in her neck.

Her medical intuition suggested it was more than tight muscles after a tough training block. It allowed her to a catch an aggressive type of soft tissue sarcoma — an epithelioid variant of myxofibrosarcoma to be exact — early enough.

“I knew the kind of cancer they suspected and knew it had a poor outlook,” she said of that moment. “All of a sudden, I went from being a healthy 26-year-old to maybe not being alive in five years’ time. That was daunting!”

It is why she has an empathy with the powerful Darkness Into Light message and the ability to come back from your lowest moments, a central reason why she is delighted to be among the Pieta House fundraiser’s ambassadors.

“When I was asked, it was something I absolutely jumped at it,” she said. “My experience as a doctor and an athlete gives me a unique insight into the importance of mental health. 

“It is definitely part of everyday life for me in work and in my sport. As athletes, we have to pay really close attention to our physical but also our mental well-being, looking at how our mood is every day, our sleep, all those things make a difference to our performance.”

At work, meanwhile, she spent the first six months of the pandemic working in COVID hospitals where she saw all kinds of strain among her patients and colleagues.

“I see a lot of patients with mental health issues coming into hospitals in crisis. The reality is most of us know someone who struggles from mental health issues, most know someone affected by suicide. 

“That’s the importance of Darkness into Light and Pieta, helping them. The idea of 200,000 people coming together at one time for sunrise to show support, to show we are standing up for mental health issues, to show we are fighting against suicide is a really important message.

“It has been a difficult year for healthcare workers, for the health service, for our patients and the general public. Thankfully, we are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel with the vaccines rolling out, numbers going down, things opening up. That’s really positive and we are seeing the relief in hospitals.”

Four out of ten people who access Pieta’s services cite loneliness as a trigger for seeking suicide prevention counselling, making it more important than ever to unite for ‘One Sunrise Together’ this weekend

Join Pieta, Electric Ireland and the thousands of people already signed up for Darkness Into Light this Saturday, May 8th by signing up now at www.darknessintolight.ie

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Hockey Ireland Covid-19 Update – 06th May 2021

Hockey Ireland Coronavirus (COVID-19) UPDATE regarding Changes to COVID-19 Restrictions.

06 May 2021

The following changes have been made to the Hockey Ireland Covid-19 guidelines given the latest announcement on Covid-19 restrictions made by the Irish (ROI) Government.

Please see the following link for more information: gov.ie – Level 5 (www.gov.ie)

Updated Guidelines:

Please note: These guidelines are applicable from 10th May 2021.

  1. Outdoor training for adults in pods of 15 (including a coach) may resume. This includes contact training.
  2. Contact training for underage players may also resume in pods of 15 (including a coach).

From 07th June 2021:

  1. Outdoor (non-elite and club) matches and competitions may recommence.
  2. These should be played behind closed doors, with only essential personnel in attendance.

Please be advised that the ‘Return to Training’ guidelines continue to apply.

For Northern Ireland (NI), there following guidelines continue to apply:

From 23rd April:

The following relates to non-elite level outdoor sport:

  1. Outdoor sport organised by a club, individual or individuals affiliated will be extended to include squad training.
  2. Competitive outdoor sport can be organised by a club, individual or individuals affiliated, with numbers (including participants, officials, management and essential support personnel) not exceeding 100 and no spectators permitted.

The ‘Return to Training’ guidelines should continue to apply.

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The SoftCo Bucket Challenge

  • The Challenge

    Using the hockey stick, the ball must be passed by all players in the air without it hitting the ground, with the last player passing the ball into the bucket (see age categories below for details on the number of players). Your Challenge must be recorded & timed. The winner is the team who complete the challenge in the quickest time. There can only be 1 entry per team, but a club or school can have multiple entries from different teams within the same age category.

  • Challenge Entry Dates

    Challenge is open to entries between April 30 to May 31

  • How to Enter

    Each recorded Video Entry must be posted on twitter or Instagram by an authorised teacher or coach with the hashtag #softcobucketchallenge and tag @softcogroup on Twitter and @softco_life on Instagram. The winners in each group (see age categories below) will be the team who complete the challenge in the quickest time.

Want to see how the GreenArmy handled the challenge? Go to: https://twitter.com/SoftCoGroup/status/1388099470550839301 

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Cees Koppelaar tribute

Kindly written and supplied by Stephen Findlater.

“The beauty of life is movement” – Cees Koppelaar

The Irish hockey community joined the wider world of Dutch sport to remember Cees Koppelaar last week following his death on Monday [April 26th] at the age of 81.

He could tell someone’s talent from the way in which they ran and he saw plenty of talent in his colourful life, one which brought him to Irish attention from 1987 to 1997 as senior men’s coach and, ultimately, Honorary Membership of Hockey Ireland.

Before that, Koppelaar had already achieved more than cult status in his homeland where he ran internationally in the 800m and 4x400m.

But it was in the coaching realm that he truly made his name, starting off at the Sagitta club, home to Fanny Blankers-Koen. Her husband, Jan, recommended his talents to Ajax coach Rinus Michels, initially with a second team that featured future legends Ruud Krol and Arie Haan.

After an initial trial of 10 sessions, Michels kept him on and he was soon refining the running techniques of Johan Cruijff all the way through to the 80s with Frank Rijkaard and Marco van Basten.

Cruijff would discover his hard but fair methods when he tried to move a training cone a little closer to shorten the pain in a running session: “You don’t steal from uncle Cees, you steal from yourself!” was the lesson.

He settled in Bloemendaal at the end of the 1970s where his passion for hockey was ignited, working with the village’s famous club, immersing himself in the game. He was installed as coach, bringing the club back to the upper echelons of the Hoofdklasse.

He had hoped to be co-opted to the Dutch national team but when his application for that role was turned down, Ireland stepped in. George Treacy had met him at coaching courses in the Netherlands and helped hatch a plan to bring him over to Ireland.

Along with Dixon Rose, they flew him over to Dublin and a deal was signed in the kitchen at Grange Road to make him the first paid men’s head coach in 1987.

Rose explained: “He wasn’t really thought of as a hockey coach in Holland, more of a physical trainer. His connection with hockey was tenuous.

“It was big for him to get [the Irish job] because he was frustrated not to get the Dutch job and he was hell-bent on proving to the Dutch that he could coach. That was why he was keen to take it and we really got the benefit from him!

“It was a seismic shift. Cees had a great personality. He wasn’t a hockey person per se but he had a major insight to Ajax and saw it like football with sticks. His legacy was he put Ireland on the map in European and world terms.

“He could tell when he saw a hockey player when he was running from behind whether he would be any good or not!”

Koppelaar was famed for his affability, his ability to tell a story and to engage with allcomers. And he was also known for what some called his distinctly Dutch way of calling a spade a spade, knowing his own mind and what he wanted.

“He could be a very volatile person,” Rose added. “When I initially told him George [Compston] was going to come in to join him as manager of the team [in 1988], he flew off the handle.

“He wanted to appoint his own manager; I said he could accept our recommendation or go back to Holland. I asked him just to try it, meet George, have the craic with him and see what you think.

“They just gelled immediately. George was perfect for him; he was pragmatic, quiet and very efficient and so they became the perfect partnership and that is when the success came.”

The outcome was plain to see; a place at the 1990 World Cup in Lahore and a fifth place finish at the European Championships in 1995.

And he relished helping Ireland land their first – and, still, only – win over the Netherlands, a 2-1 success in 1995 in Dublin. In total, he was head coach for 127 games, with 52 wins.

More than that, he travelled the length and breadth of the island to support the sport, running coaching clinics ­­wherever called for one.

Following his Irish stint, he returned to his original job as a running trainer with RKC Waalwijk football club and, always, with Bloemendaal and the Dutch national setup. In 2012, he was included in the KNHB’s Order of Merit, and he would remain involved at the highest level until just two years ago.

He famously gave the country’s best ever player, Teun de Nooijer, his first start at club level at the age of 15, and he encapsulated his influence.

“You read everywhere that Cees was a running trainer, but he was so much more than that,” de Nooijer said. “He was tactically strong and often acted as mentor to the group. He was someone with the gift of striking the right chord with players. 

“Hard, but fair. He had a perfect sense of what it took to get a team up and running again. He often saw from a distance whether someone was not feeling well. He immediately started working on it. Always with a lot of enthusiasm, anecdotes and humour, and with an enormous empathy.”

*Pictured about in his role as running coach with HC Bloemendaal and then back in the 70s with Johan Cruijff