Young field hockey coach takes over Canada after helping Spain rise up the ranks

·6 min read

While just 33, Andrew Wilson paid his dues en route to becoming Canadian women's field hockey coach.

Originally from Kent in southeast England, Wilson went to university in Exeter and Canterbury before moving to Spain in 2008 to teach English during a year abroad.

"I was very lucky to be posted close to the city of Terrassa which is the heart of hockey in Spain," he said.

Terrassa is about a 30-minute drive northwest of Barcelona. Wilson, who had been working on his coaching qualifications in England, wrote to the nearby Club Egara, one of Spain's elite field hockey outfits, to ask if he could help.

He began as assistant coach on the under-12 girls' B team, working his way up the club ladder as he juggled coaching with his teaching job. It wasn't easy — at times he would get up for work at 6 a.m. and not getting home until 10 or 11 p.m.

"I wasn't having a very good time," he said of his initial time in Spain.

But the coaching jobs got better. And it was at Egara that he eventually got to work with countryman Adrian Lock, who took over the Spanish women's team in January 2013.

Wilson offered to help for no charge, knowing the national team was cash-strapped. He went from watching to setting up cones but gradually was given more responsibilities.

In 2014, he served as team analyst for the Spanish women at the Champions Challenge in Glasgow, filling in for an unavailable coach. At his suggestion, they started one-on-one briefs with players after every game.

He became the under-21 assistant coach, "and it just snowballed from there."

Wilson went on to become co-ordinator for Egara's senior women's sides and an assistant coach under Lock with the national team. Together they helped Spain, known as the Red Sticks, rise up the ranks and win bronze in a 3-1 win over Australia at the 2018 Women's World Cup in London.

It was a turning point for the program.

"Without a doubt," Wilson said. "And it was a result that we knew we were capable of getting. But we knew that very easily we could have not got that result and we could have gone into obscurity again:

Spain, currently ranked seventh in the world, showed it was no flash in the pan when it also won bronze at the 2019 Women's EuroHockey Championship in Belgium. Then Wilson struck out on his own, leaving his comfort zone in Spain.

"For a long time I've wanted to be a head coach of a program," he said in an interview. "I was very comfortable in Spain with Adrian. Very comfortable. And I knew that if something were to fall through in me becoming the Canadian coach, I would still be very happy in Spain.

"I think very happy would be an understatement because I've working with some of these girls since they were 16 years old and we've come through the program together. We've shared a lot of experiences as a team and we were going to the Olympics. We had a home World Cup as well in 2022 (the tournament is being held in Terrassa, Spain, and Amstelveen, Netherlands), so were already qualified for the next major world event.

"The next generation of Spain is going to be a very good generation as well."

Wilson arrived in Canada in mid-December, serving out his quarantine before starting daily training sessions in West Vancouver. He is currently working with 18 senior and junior players, with others spread across the country and a few in Europe during the pandemic.

"The girls are working very very hard," he said. "They're extremely well trained. The coaches in the past have done a very good job with them. It just makes it so much easier to implement new concepts."

"The seniors are confirming what I had seen when I competed against them … And the juniors are showing some promising individual talent but need to be trained in a high-performance environment consistently to make any improvements," he added.

Wilson's experience with Spain should serve him well in Canada.

Field hockey is down the sports' pecking order in both countries and funding is hard to come by. But there is a pool of talented, committed women willing to do what it takes.

"Football is king and basketball is the prince," Wilson said of sport in Spain. "Beyond that everyone really shares out the rest of the support from people."

The 14th-ranked Canadian women have had to make sacrifices in recent years. Having lost their Own The Podium funding, they turned to family, friends and supporters to fund their Tokyo Olympic qualifying journey.

On then-coach Giles Bonnet's suggestion, the women moved to Belgium in September 2018 to join club teams. It gave them access to elite coaches and trainers while allowing the Amsterdam-based Bonnet to work with them regularly.

The move worked and the Canadians rose up the world rankings. But Field Hockey Canada gave notice to Bonnet, saying it could not afford to pay the South African's salary. Once again, supporters stepped up to pay his wages through Olympic qualifying,

Under Bonnet, the Canadians made it to a two-legged Olympic qualifying showdown — only to suffer a heart-breaking 4-3 penalty shootout loss to Ireland in Dublin in November 2019. The women have sat out the last six Olympics, last competing in 1992 when they finished seventh in Barcelona.

The Canadian men booked their ticket to Tokyo, dispatching Ireland in West Vancouver in October 2019.

Wilson believes the players' move to Europe was a good one. The team jumped from No. 21 rankings to the mid-teens and "every single nation saw Canada as a threat."

But he plans to keep the team in Canada for the moment.

"I think right now that's not the road we need to go down with the team, because the negative side to that was they weren't able to be with family. They weren't able to work They weren't able to study whilst they were there."

There have been critics of Field Hockey Canada.

Former Vancouver Canucks GM Mike Gillis, whose daughter Kate Wright Gillis has won more than 200 caps for Canada, has called for a forensic audit of the organization. Susan Ahrens, CEO of Field Hockey Canada, says the governing body has made changes in the wake of an independent review of its operations.

With Spain, Wilson looked to make the most of the available resources, working with the players to ensure training would fit in their schedule. He wants to do the same in Canada.

"I want to respect and reward senior players," he said.

A nutritionist and psychologist, who work with the FC Barcelona soccer club, are now part of the Spanish field hockey setup.

In Canada, Wilson is already working with high-performance director Adam Janssen and newly hired men's coach Andre Henning of Germany so their teams can pool resources. They are also combining on funding presentations.

The women's focus will be making the 2022 World Cup. The regional qualifying tournament has been pushed back from November 2021 to January 2022 in Santiago, Chile.

Wilson plans a carding camp in March with the hope of getting some games in during the summer.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 28, 2021

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press