Growing the game of field hockey in the United States is a shared, never ending goal among USA Field Hockey and enthusiasts of the game. It comes in all shapes and forms, and for Elizabeth Hitti, what started as an introductory clinic has grown the Atlanta Field Hockey Club into the first of its kind in the greater Atlanta area and state of Georgia.
Founded in 2019, Hitti and the Atlanta Field Hockey Club has introduced the sport to more than 40 boys and girls and has grown to 25 regular members. In just a few short months, the club has taken U-10, U-14 and U-19 squads to two 7v7 tournaments and increased practices from once a week to twice a week in their second season this spring. While it will take time and intense commitment, the goal is to continue to increase exposure to the sport of field hockey and grow to be a nationally competitive club.
“The Atlanta area is ripe for field hockey,” said Hitti. “The weather is nice enough to play outside 10 months of the year, schools only offer three team sports for girls in the fall with volleyball, softball and cheerleading, and football for boys. Many families move to Atlanta from other areas of the country where their kids grow up playing field hockey.”
Hitti, who grew up playing through USA Field Hockey’s Olympic Development Pathway, founded Atlanta Field Hockey Club as a 501(c)3 nonprofit status, with the mission to create a fun, competitive team environment for young girls and boys to learn the sport and open the door to future collegiate opportunities. As a student-athlete at the University of Pennsylvania, she led the NCAA in assists per game her senior year in 2015.
Following graduation, Hitti began coaching with the Boston Field Hockey Club while working as a full-time consultant. Last summer, she moved to Atlanta to pursue a Masters of Business Administration (MBA) at Emory University while being in contact with USA Field Hockey to help lay the groundwork for the club and clinic beforehand. Upon arriving, she was quick to note that youth field hockey was virtually non-existent in the Peach State. Drawing on her passion for the sport and her desire to give young athletes the same opportunities that field hockey gave her, Atlanta Field Hockey Club was born.
“After graduating [college], I knew I couldn’t leave the sport of field hockey behind,” continued Hitti. “I started coaching with Boston Field Hockey Club and immediately fell in love with it. When I decided to move to Atlanta to pursue my MBA, I was devastated to learn that there was no field hockey in the area. Part of going back to school to me meant that I’d have the extra time and energy to focus on coaching, both for a team and my own development as a coach. So, I decided to create it.”
To get the ball rolling, Hitti teamed up with USA Field Hockey’s Sport Development Department to connect with Adult Members in the state. A ripple effect soon followed as her network quickly grew around the region among adult players. As she puts it, the youth movement quickly followed suit. In addition to the nonprofit status, Hitti developed an initial business plan and fundraised to cover startup costs. She also teamed up with USA Field Hockey to kick off a Discover Field Hockey clinic last September.
“One of the biggest challenges the club has faced growing the game in the South is that schools don’t offer field hockey,” said Hitti. “Educating parents and new athletes on the game has been an extremely important aspect of spreading the word and building the program. The Discover Field Hockey program was crucial, providing new athletes with the gear they needed to play – sticks, balls and shin guards – while introducing them to the sport in a low-cost, commitment-free way. The clinic was a success, with more than half of the participants signing up for the six-week fall season.”
“Affordability and accessibility are common initial barriers in our sport and Discover Field Hockey eliminates those from the start," said Jenna Ortega, USA Field Hockey's Sport Development Manager. "At a $30 entry fee, every kid receives a full equipment package, USA Field Hockey Membership and participate in the 90-minute clinic. USA Field Hockey is excited to partner with clubs like Atlanta Field Hockey that are looking to grow the game across the community.”
The club took part in two tournaments last fall, the first time many of its participants had played, let alone seen lined fields, goals and uniformed umpires. Despite the closest “local” teams being four hours or more away, Atlanta Field Hockey Club strived to give the athletes many opportunities to play real games, including competing against Atlanta-based university and adult club teams and traveling to North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia for all-day tournaments. Playing in these tournaments has generated an increased excitement for the sport, made practice “real,” and inspired immediate improvement in the teams.
One of Hitti’s biggest lessons she wants everyone to understand is that regardless of skill, games are why they play.
“No matter the experience level, we emphasized the importance of real game experience, early and often, putting our teams into local and regional tournaments as soon as the end of our first season,” said Hitti.
Today, the club’s athletes range from 5 to 18 years old, with many having played previously in other parts of the country, as well as Argentina, England and The Netherlands. The coaching staff features former NCAA Division I and III athletes, including former U.S. Women’s National Team athlete, Elle (Stone) Race.
“Our coaches were easy to find, women excited about their sport coming to their city,” said Hitti. “I’ve found former collegiate field hockey players in Atlanta through Instagram, the Georgia adult field hockey club and Emory University’s club team, word of mouth, at business school networking events, and more. I even met someone at my gym whose wife just happened to play four years of Division I field hockey. Race has also used her local school and lacrosse networks significantly to generate attention on the new sport, and many of our athletes have also joined because a parent played growing up.”
Although the club’s spring season has been put on hold due to the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) situation, Hitti and the Atlanta Field Hockey Club are proud of their growth after less than a year of operation. They have an incredible group of girls and boys, who are passionate about the sport regardless of how long they’ve been playing. In addition to starting online live practices, the club plans to offer two camps this summer to expand its exposure and prepare for the fall season. She is confident her club numbers will continue to expand as more athletes around the area fall in love with the sport in the same way all of us have.