Joined up Junior Polo?
In a recent letter to the HPA, Pony Club Polo Chairman, Charles Whittington expressed a desire to see “a more coherent strategy for youth polo” between the HPA, Schools, Universities, the polo schools hires, the HPA coaches and instructors. He argued this would “allow a wide base of new players to rise to the top of the pyramid which encourages genuine talent to emerge”. Of course this seems like an idealistic pipe dream, especially when you consider that the Junior HPA, the main competition to Pony Club Polo in youth polo, is still a relatively new creation. However after disappointingly low turnouts in some of the Junior HPA levels this year, most prominently
Buckmaster, and the continuation of relatively low numbers of teams across most of the higher levels of Pony Club polo, it may seem that the chairman’s aspirations of a more joined up Junior polo scene are more necessity than wish list.
“a more joined up Junior polo scene may be more necessity than wish list”
Although we may be considering low turnout across youth polo, it is worth noting that 39 teams attended this years Pony Club Polo Championships at Cowdray. This is, in any other context (discounting SUPA, because their numbers are exceptional) a fantastic haul of teams. However the issue seems to be more localised in the upper echelons of both the Junior HPA and The Pony Club’s respective levels. Jorrocks, Surtees and Hipwood continue to soldier on almost unchanged. However Buckmaster, Gannon, Rednell and Langford seem to be under much more threat. It is with relative certainty that I can say that the main issue does not seem to be the competition between Junior HPA and Pony Club, but with the adult game itself. This is an hypothesis only further strengthened when you consider that even if the Junior HPA and Pony Club simply melded back into a single entity, they would only have 52 teams, still considerably below the figures reached in the Pony Club’s heyday.
It seems that as the kids are getting better they are increasingly likely to opt to play adult polo, abandoning youth polo all together. And from their perspective it makes absolute sense. They will probably get free or even paid games compared with expensive Junior polo entry fees. Not only that, but the standard of play will mostly be better in the adult games, allowing them to learn more from their opponents and teammates, as well as providing opportunities for them make new connections and get invited into higher and higher level games. There simply is no competition for many of the better kids, youth polo is simply just too much of a dead end for the more serious players. And the demand for these kids is not likely to end anytime soon as well. Kids almost always learn faster and improve at a greater rate than adults of their ability. This means many kids are constantly under handicapped, making them an absolute steal for any competitive teams. If Junior Polo is really going to fight back against the draw of adult polo they need something on the line which makes it worthwhile for these kids and parents to invest their time and effort over such tough competition.
Money? Money is always a good draw. People will rarely pass up the chance to compete for an actual financial reward. After all, the introduction of prize money recently rejuvenated the US high goal. However I am not convinced this is the correct way for either the Junior HPA, Pony Club, or a system that sees the two sides joined up, to go. First of all, although more of the serious players may be drawn back for the finals and if required qualifiers, it is very unlikely they would opt to travel around the country playing the friendlies. This means that, bar the final few tournaments, attendance would still remain small, something that is already an issue for many of the Pony Club friendlies. Furthermore, although both the Junior HPA and Pony Club have benefited from a reasonable amount of sponsorship, it is unlikely they would be able to sustainably put up an amount that makes all the traveling and playing worthwhile, especially across all the different age and pony requirement classes. Finally, and not to be overlooked, this kind of system could see Junior polo becoming too serious for its own good. As soon as money is on the line things may get far more serious, sucking the fun out of it for many of the new teams and players. New kids are just going to become demotivated with the game if top kids from polo families, on all the best ponies are clearing up and stamping them into the ground on a regular bases to get their hands on a cash prize. Youth polo needs to be fun, and this endangers sucking it out of the game for these up and coming players.
So what else? Perhaps something as simple as a national title could attract the teams. Not only does this not require any kind of substantial investment, but should offer a significant draw for new and established players alike. Let’s face it, which egocentric child doesn’t want to be crowned the “National Champion”? It certainly has a ring about it. And, what’s more systems like this already exist in a majority of other sports, where players make up location based teams in each age category, and compete for a national crown against similarly aged players.
“Which egocentric child doesn’t want to be crowned the National Champion?”
However one issue still stands. Teams are still not incentivised to compete across an entire season. The end goal is there now, but teams will still take the shortest possible route to get to it. If we really want to implement a full championship campaign we are going to need a brand new system. Something that encourages teams to travel to different clubs. Perhaps something point based? Perhaps something like... like... the Victor Ludorum.
We already have a nationally accepted championship system where teams travel round the country competing in different tournaments to become champions of their particular level. Why can this system not be extended to include youth polo, much like it has done into Women’s polo? Could we not have under 12s, Under 16s, under 18s and U21s Victor Ludorms or something to this extent? Teams would be forced to stick pretty much together, as with the current Victor Ludorum rules, and different clubs could host all around the country. But I hear the screams of outraged parents “what happens if we can’t travel that far?” We’ll maybe have one or two drop rounds? Take the teams top results allowing teams to skip somewhere if it simply too far or they are unable to attend for whatever reason. This also means you could spread the qualifiers more evenly across the country, opening it up to more northern kids and clubs. “But why will people want to turn up to the finals when they can just drop its score?”. I understand that the finals, especially the Pony Club finals, are a special event for many. If it remained the final event it may become pointless to turn up at the finals when the result is already wrapped up, reducing the sense of occasion for many of the parents, kids and organisers. Well, offer double points then. The events prior are still as valid, as a team will be unable to win without scoring well there, but the big points and therefore, almost always the championship, will be on the line at the championships.
This is only my idea for a system that may fix some of the issues faced by Junior polo today. It has not been announced or even hinted at by either the HPA or Pony Club, so don’t hold your breath. But perhaps, just perhaps, someone is reading this who could actually make a difference. Perhaps the chairman is already thinking along the same lines or perhaps plans are already in the works. Whatever the truth, hopefully this year, as suggested by the Pony Club chairman, will be the year that sees everyone come together to strengthen and rejuvenate youth polo.