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Hockey: From sitting on sidelines to leading from them

THE importance of having the correct equipment is a familiar theme in sport.

John McKnight left the security of a job as a PE teacher to become one of three full-time hockey coaches in Scotland, but he has no regrets
John McKnight left the security of a job as a PE teacher to become one of three full-time hockey coaches in Scotland, but he has no regrets

Be it wearing the right footwear, using the best bat or ball, or applying the requisite amount of strapping, liniment or lotion; having the right kit and administering it the proper way matters.

The humble shinguard, for instance, is charged solely with protecting the tibia, yet has somehow managed to also have a defining effect on the life of John McKnight. Without the protective pads, the 28-year-old would have never played hockey; never moved to Australia; never become a teacher; and never earned himself a position as one of Scotland's first full-time hockey coaches.

The sport was always familiar to McKnight in his formative years, many days having been spent frolicking around the pitches at Clydesdale Hockey Club while his father and grandfather enjoyed the benefits of their social memberships. Playing the game was never really a consideration for the keen young footballer, though, until one epoch-defining afternoon.

"I was carrying on in the grass and the men's fifth-team captain came to pick up one of the other kids for a game," the Glaswegian recalls. "He said they were one short and asked if anyone wanted to play and I just so happened to have shinguards in my dad's car because I'd been playing football that morning -"

The 12-year-old was handed a stick and has barely put it down since. Within a couple of years, he had developed to such an extent that he was awarded a first-team debut, then went on to represent his country at under-16, 18 and 21 level, combining playing with coaching to lead Glasgow University's men's first XI to promotion from the Aberdeen Asset Management National League Division 3.

That experienced fuelled a desire to become involved in education and, having enjoyed a holiday there a couple of years previously, McKnight decided to pursue his teaching qualifications in Australia "despite knowing just two people when I got off the plane". While there, four fulfilling years were spent playing for Melville City Hockey Club in what is considered to be one of the most demanding divisions in the world before he returned home for family reasons in 2011, representing Clydesdale a couple more times before injury curtailed his career.

"That's me, I'm done now I think, and coaching is the next step," he says. "It's very different from playing because although you're part of the team, you're not their brother any more. You're no longer everyone's mate because you're making decisions and some of them, naturally, will hate you at times. Sometimes they'll not like what you say but they've got to hear it for the good of themselves or the team and as long as you are fair and consistent then it's fine."

It might not make him popular, but McKnight certainly impressed the selectors when Scottish Hockey interviewed for three full-time coaches last autumn. Backed by a substantial three-year investment from Aberdeen Asset Management, the governing body first selected three clubs to part-fund and accommodate the new appointments – Clydesdale, Grove Menzieshill in Dundee and Aberdeen's Granite City Wanderers – then invited applications for the posts, with McKnight joining Chris Anderson and Sandy Keith in being named as the successful candidates.

All three have been lured from secure employment – McKnight from PE teaching and the others from banking and finance – and commenced their wide range of duties in November. For example, as well as attempting to haul the men's first XI into the top two places in the national league and secure a place in continental competition, McKnight will also oversee every other team down to under-16 level, develop a junior section, preach the gospel of hockey in local schools and take a role in training the national performance squads.

It is, he accepts, a demanding schedule. "There are pressures and targets but it's been really good," he says. "The transition from going to teaching, where you are working a set school day, to having the more flexible nature of this job took a little getting used to because you could be coaching morning, afternoon and night, but ultimately it's still teaching and I'm relishing it because it is a huge opportunity for me and for hockey in Scotland."

Some, inevitably, will carp about three clubs reaping the benefits and the subsequent risk of creating an imbalance in the domestic game but, at the same time, the pressure on those teams to perform is heightened by their status. Besides, McKnight insists he has experienced nothing but positivity since his appointment. "If I bump into people they've wished me all the best because I think they all see it as a great thing for Scottish hockey, regardless of which clubs are involved," he says.

"It moves us on to similar lines to what happens in the top European countries, such as Germany and the Netherlands. They've actually got an array of staff rather than just one head coach, mind you, but this is a start and hopefully we can move towards where they are by raising the standard of the domestic league and, then, the national team."

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Education

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