As Korea Coach Huh Sang-Young prepares his players for the Vitality Hockey Women’s World Cup London 2018, we caught up with Kim Ji Eun, a long-serving member of the Korea national team.
The long-serving player recently announced her retirement as an international athlete and was able to share some insights into life as a hockey player in a nation that has consistently held its own with the top 10 teams in the world.
Korea are currently ranked ninth in the FIH Hero World Rankings and, since they first fielded a national team in 1988, they have never failed to qualify for either an Olympic Games or a World Cup, winning bronze in the latter event in 1990.
At the Vitality Hockey Women’s World Cup London 2018, Korea will be contesting Pool A where they face a baptism of fire in their opening game against the world number one side Netherlands. They will also play Asian rivals China and Italy in the pool stages.
Like all the Korean athletes, Kim Ji Eun started playing hockey through school and then university before she became a professional athlete on the national squad. Once players make the national team, they become professional athletes, supported by the Korea Hockey Association, which in turn is run by the Korea Sports Council.
Their lives become a round of training, matches and rehabilitation. Kim Ji Eun suffered an injury that kept her out of the game from 2011 until 2015, but throughout her recovery, she was on a programme of nutrition guidance, strength and conditioning and anything else that would aid her return to action.
On retirement, athletes are put on a retirement player support programme. This helps them study in a completely new areas or develop a career within sport – either in management, leadership or officiating. Kim Ji Eun explains that support from the government comes in the form of education and training rather than ongoing financial support.
Moving to umpiring was an obvious choice for Kim Ji Eun. “I thought being an umpire, I could use the knowledge I have as a hockey player. My experiences as a player and a leader will allow me to see the game from a number of different perspectives. I will also be able to think like a player when I am umpiring, which will help my insight into the game. It is also important that I learn English so I can communicate with players and fellow officials from around the world.”
One of Kim Ji Eun’s strengths as a player was her attention to detail. This is something else that she feels will translate well into the world of umpiring.
When Kim Ji Eun started playing hockey, it was a very different sport. The school pitches were just soil-covered playgrounds and, as a result, the ball would bounce all over the surface. “It is thanks to the state of the ground that my ball trapping skills are so advanced,” the Korea player jokes.
Kim Ji Eun says the biggest change in the game itself has been the introduction of quarters, which has made the game much faster. “The final quarter in particular can often turn into a real power play," she says.
In Korea, children normally start to play hockey at about 13 as they enter middle school. Kim Ji Eun says this is a little later than the children in nations such as Netherlands or Argentina, but she says until that age, children are given more general training in basic physical strength and simple generic skills that provide a great platform from which they can develop the specialist skills of hockey. These basic skills stick with the athletes throughout their careers, says Kim Ji Eun.
Once a young player has reached a certain level they will be signed up to a club. This is where the competitive spirit is really honed, explains Kim Ji Eun. “There are not so many players in Korea as some of the ‘hockey powerhouses', but the domestic leagues are strong. And I think it is a system that works because the national teams are always high in the world rankings.”
There is no doubt that Ji Eun will miss being part of the national squad. “The national team is a great place for athletes and to have played for my country is such an honour. When I play for the national team, I feel that I am able to play almost above my natural level of performance. This is made possible by the strong and experienced players around me. A strong group of players makes the team perform even better than expected. I will miss these things intensely but I have very happy memories.
“I've been involved in hockey for half my life. I can't say for sure what's going on in the future, but I will certainly be very involved and participate in the hockey world. I want to keep contributing to the sport in some way.”
Kim Ji Eun’s desire to remain involved with the sport that means so much to her is being answered. In May she will travel to the Women’s Asia Champions Trophy where she will be a member of the organising team. She can already see a future of sports-related travel and networking.
“You can go anywhere in the world with the internet and aeroplanes, and you can meet people from all over the world. Now, I cannot play on the international stage, but I want to have a lot of opportunities to communicate with hockey-loving people from all over the world. I am looking forward to experiencing hockey in many new locations.
Korea women start their campaign at the Vitality Women's Hockey World Cup in London on 22 July versus the Netherlands.
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