There are some sports that raise the odd eyebrow or two when you talk about them, and I think Octopush can be put into that category. The whole concept of the sport seems, at first, bizarre. But it is, in fact, great fun – once you understand the rules.
Octopush is effectively underwater hockey. It is a six-a-side game, and teams work a plastic puck across the bottom of a swimming pool, through the opposing team and into a metal trough, or goal, that is also known as a ‘gully’. Players wear snorkels and fins, and it requires real fitness and stamina to play it at the highest level. I hope you are still with me.
As one of York’s smaller clubs, Octopush is on the rise. Not only has it had what some might call a breakthrough season in terms of performance, but the club’s ethos seems to be spot on. Last week Octopush was shortlisted for Most Improved at the York Sport Awards. This was just recognition for the immense work the club’s committee have put in since the start of the year.
Martina Pentrella, the club’s new President, is certainly ambitious for the future of the club, but also wants to maintain the club’s identity as one of the friendliest and most relaxed sports clubs on campus.
“We’ve had a 40 per cent growth in membership this year which is fantastic,” she says. “We now have a Saturday training session and a midweek session on Tuesday. Attendance at the midweek session has grown by 53 per cent. Our fresher intake this year was huge. These are such brilliant statistics and show just how much the club has moved forward.”
Indeed, since the opening of the York Sport Village last year, the club has grown enormously from where it had been before. But sports clubs are not just a numbers game, and Pentrella is keen to stress that.
“We’ve also seen a real improvement in the performance levels,” she continues. “At the nationals [which happen annually] we had our best performance for five years. The Nationals is the biggest fixture in the club’s calendar, and last year we came fifteenth out of sixteen. This year we came ninth out of sixteen.”
This is a phenomenal achievement. So how did this vast improvement come about for the club?
Pentrella explains. “We really focussed on selling Octopush to the freshers. Freshers week was really successful for us. The taster session was so oversubscribed that we had to ask people to share kit because we didn’t have enough. Off the back of that we received more funding as well. We are part of a scheme called Sportivate. We had a set target to meet for new membership, and we broke our set target, so Sport England and North Yorkshire Sport gave us a grant so that we could buy more kit.”
This all sounds very promising, and I’m interested to hear more about the club’s values, which it is clearly well known for.
Matt Horry, the A team’s new Vice-Captain and a first year with almost unrivalled fitness levels in the pool, speaks very highly of the club’s inclusiveness, “What I liked about the club when I joined this year was the friendly atmosphere. It’s a very accommodating club,” he says. “There isn’t a heavy lad culture, like with say rugby, it’s relaxed and everyone just gets on really well.
“The great thing about the environment is that you can make the sport as serious if you want to be. If you don’t want to take it too seriously, then that’s cool. But if you want to really take it seriously then there are fitness sessions you can attend and other things as well.”
Often students are accused of living in a ‘bubble’. But, as a result of the values that the Octopush Club holds to, the University team have managed to build strong links with the local community in York. Pentrella re-iterates this. “On Saturday we train at Yearsley, which is the local swimming pool in the city. We have people attending our sessions who are in no way affiliated with the University. It’s great for building strong links with people living in York, especially families.”
Before the Sports Village was finished, the club used to train at Yearsley and regulars at the training sessions were frequently not part of the University. When the club moved the majority of its training to Hes East, there were worries about whether this link would be maintained.
But this doesn’t seem to have been a problem at all. Since moving to Hes East, local residents in York of all ages have come along to the training sessions at the new Sports Village.
Indeed, in last week’s training session, the age bracket went as low as 14. This is a great figure and shows that the club have clearly struck up a good relationship with the residents of York. There is also a balance of PhD and Masters Students as well, with these students making up 30 per cent of the club.
Now the conversation turns to the global game. Great Britain has an elite team, a masters team, and under-23 and under-19 teams. The showpiece event of the international game is the World Championships, which are held in Hungary. The top levels of Great Britain seem to be performing to a reasonable standard, but the under-23 and under-19 ladies teams are struggling. I ask why.
“The problem is that both teams are too inward looking,” Pentrella explains. “Naturally, the national ladies teams focus on performance; however, they seem to not be receiving much support with regards to recruitment. As a result the under-19s in particular have struggled. The men’s game on the other hand is flourishing. They are playing to a very high standard.”
It’s a rather strange situation to be in if you ask me. York Octopush club is flourishing thanks to its outward looking approach, whilst the international women’s teams are struggling because they are too inward looking. Perhaps the women’s team should take a look at the York model.
“The under-19s and under-20s are trying to solve the problem by starting up university clubs. But these aren’t really working because the culture is too competitive, and this seems to be turning people off.
“Octopush isn’t one of those sports where you can really force first timers to push themselves to the limits. It’s not popular enough. You wouldn’t choose to go to York, for example, to play Octopush, whereas you might to do for rugby. It’s very different.” Blunt, but true.
But all the success this year for the club means that the club will need to get off to a good start next term in order to build on it. Pentrella, Horry and the rest of the committee already have plans in place.
“Next year we are aiming to maintain the culture and not get too hung up on our performances,” Horry says. “Membership for freshers will again cost £15 a year, which is great value and includes five free sessions and a free T-shirt. We are also doing a raffle with membership.
“We’ll get more kit next year as well so we don’t have the same situation [with the kit] as this year.”
In order to achieve this, ex-President Torris Rasmussen has set up an Alumni fund, which aims to raise money for new kit. He has also managed to get the club a sponsorship deal with The Charles pub.
Horry describes Rasmussen’s contribution to the success of the club as “enormous.” It seems under both Rasmussen and Pentrella, the club has come on leaps and bounds.
Next season, the Octopush club look set to make an even bigger splash.