• International

Phil Roper: A balancing act of hockey and fatherhood

Hunched over, cross-legged with his eyes glued to the television, a dream had been realised.

Pictures from over 10,500 miles away captured the imagination and ignited a hereditary ambition.

This wasn’t Phil Roper’s first taste of hockey; he’d been digesting the sport ever since he could hoist one foot in front of the other.

His weekends started with hockey, and they haven’t changed since. Albeit a minor tweak being instead of dribbling around cones on the sidelines, he’s traversing through the best midfielders in the world.

“My Mum and Dad both played hockey, so as soon as I remember we were at the side of a pitch knocking the ball around. Weekends were spent playing hockey, it was the done thing,” Roper said.

“I got to see high-level players all the time as Saturdays were spent with Mum and Sundays were with Dad.”

His mother was a North of England player, and his father was an international hockey umpire, who’d officiated at the 2002 World Cup in Malaysia, but perhaps his greatest call was selecting BBC One to see the Sydney 2000 Olympics unfold with his son intently watching on.

From that moment on as a bright blue-eyed eight-year-old, a future-Great Britain and England captain’s path had been set.

The following years were spent at Chester HC, a club at the heart of the Roper family, before being selected for the invitational UK Lions squad aged 13.

Roper continued to excel, going from strength to strength captaining his university team Sheffield Hallam to a British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS) title.

In the months leading up to his graduation, Roper’s trip to the Sydney Olympic Park with the under-21 GB squad for the junior Olympic festival earned him a centralised contract to join the international set-up.

After missing out by one spot for the 2014 World Cup, Roper’s moment came in Glasgow as he adorned England’s strip for the first time at a major international event at the 2014 Commonwealth Games where he returned with a bronze medal.

As Rio 2016 rolled around the corner, Roper’s dream of representing GB on the Olympic stage was in his grasp but the call never came.

“After missing out on The Hague (2014 World Cup) it reignited a fire that I just couldn’t miss the next one, I couldn’t. Getting picked for the Commonwealth Games and coming away with a medal gave me even more of a thirst for it.

“Then I didn’t get picked for Rio. I had a few injuries and I struggled to find form with the pressure of being picked for an Olympics, with it being my dream for so long it only added to it,” said Roper.

However, a cog in his mind had turned and the feeling of ‘Fomo’ quickly evolved to what he describes as ‘F-You’.

“Everything changed in my mind. I went away and played in New Zealand and that’s where I found this new attitude,” added Roper.

“I decided that I was going to play my game and do what I do because I believe in it, and it took me to new heights.

“I’m a believer that it’s way more in your head than anything you do with your feet or your hands.”

That epiphany took him to being awarded captaincy of Great Britain and England alongside George Pinner and Ian Sloan in 2017 which saw him co-captain his country at the 2017 European Championship, 2018 Commonwealth Games and 2018 World Cup.

As Paris 2024 creeps up in the distance with under five months until the world descends on the French capital, Roper will enjoy a relatively less frantic stretch in the wake of an Olympics than he did three years ago.

“I had my first child, Indie, six months before Tokyo, and it was difficult. You never know what it’s like having a kid and no one can explain that to you. Looking back, it was a bit mental to have a child six months before an Olympics but that can’t stop you living life,” said Roper.

Since becoming a Father Roper’s perspective has pivoted again, he said:

“It’s given me a greater sense of what’s truly important and now it’s really easy to come home and completely switch off,” Roper said. “Some days you can train badly or have poor games, now it’s out my head very quickly.

“They don’t care if you’ve won or lost, had a good or bad game. It doesn’t matter if it’s the biggest game of your life or a training session, they’re just happy to see you.

“You can’t sulk when you’re being a Dad, and I’ve made a pact with myself to not spend any time sulking about hockey because life is too short for that.”

He finds himself in a rare position, balancing athlete life with fatherhood and acknowledges the challenges that come with it.

“It’s super hard because being an athlete and a Dad don’t naturally go hand in hand,” Roper explained “You’re not always getting the right amount of sleep, your prep can be a little affected as you can’t just go home, put your feet up and aim for perfect recovery.

“I’ve got an incredibly understanding and amazing wife, but it’s not easy for me to leave for extended periods. I remind myself a lot to take in the moments because they don’t stay young for long.”

Such was the fear of being separated from the family for too long, the whole Roper family uprooted and moved to Eindhoven in the Netherlands for him to achieve his goal of playing and testing himself against the world’s very best where he spent the 2021/22 season at HC Oranje-Rood.

After the season Roper promptly returned to British shores, signing for Holcombe HC as he looked to pay his family his back for all they had given him.

“My wife and children have made so many sacrifices for me and now I want to make sacrifices for them. As athletes, we’re all quite selfish chasing our own little dream but I need to think how they’re thriving as well,” said Roper.

With a settled home life, the addition of a second child, Luca, and the support of his family, Roper is full throttle on competing and earning his spot at Paris this summer.

“Leaning into selection there’s 35 of us going for 16 places,” said Roper. “Everyone is chasing their dream, and it can be difficult as you’re all after the same thing.

“I tend to look forwards instead of behind me. I know there are loads of young guns who are hungry for it, but I try to focus on myself and believe that I can add something. I want to win a medal and not just get picked.”

Despite the elephant in the room, the GB men’s squad finds itself in the ‘best place I’ve ever known.’

“We have so many great guys in our team” Roper added. “We just spent more than six weeks away together and it’s so easy to spend 24 hours with them.

“It’s not always an easy environment to be in, you’re training together, competing together, and living in each other’s pockets but it’s the easiest I’ve ever found it as we’re all pulling in the same direction.”

That direction leads them to Paris where Great Britain’s men will be hunting for their first Olympic medal since 1988.

And there is every chance that this summer there will be a child sat in front of their TV watching on and realising a dream of their own, as Phil Roper did 24 years ago.