(Photo: FIH)

When we think of New Zealand and its people, the first thing that springs to mind is invariably sports related. Whether it is the majestic sailing boats that grace Auckland Harbour, the mountains that produce some of the world's best climbers or the powerful and intimidating All Blacks rugby team. Sport has always played a vital role in defining New Zealand as a nation, and most Kiwis highly value an active, sporting lifestyle, whether competitive or recreational.

While the climate and geography make the country a natural arena for adventurous sporting pursuits – fishing, hunting, kayaking, horse riding, skiing, snowboarding and much more, Kiwis are also very big on team sports – rugby, netball, rugby league, cricket and, of course, hockey.

So what is it about this island with a population of 4.43 million people that makes it able to produce top-class sports players in so many sporting activities? It could be the fact that so ingrained is sport, that many babies are sporting black shirts with the silver fern before they can walk, and toddlers often learn to kick, throw or hit a ball before they can talk.

For many New Zealanders, sport is so much a part of their life that its almost a barometer of the health of the nation. And while that is usually good news if you are a rugby union fan, for hockey things have only been buzzing recently. 

In an interview with the Otago Daily Times, the Black Sticks captain, Dean Couzins, spoke about the Black Sticks improvement over the past few years: "It's fantastic. It's great for our team and for New Zealand hockey. The girls have really been improving, too. Hopefully, we can build on that and get some really good results in the forthcoming major tournaments."

Much of the credit for the New Zealander's excellence in sport goes to strong grass roots systems and players' loyalty to their community clubs. Young players are nurtured through the club system and there are good structures in place to support player development. And then there is that unwavering desire to represent New Zealand. Motivation and support are key elements here.

That motivation has been tapped into by the Black Sticks coach Mark Hager, who constantly reinforces the need for hard work. Kayla Sharland, who was part of the Black Sticks team that came fourth in the London 2012 Olympics, says not only does Mark impress on his group the importance of hard work, he also ensures that competition for places is always stiff and the players know they cannot afford complacency. "There have been lots of changes to the team since the Olympics so it is pleasing to see that they have been progressing so well – it's just good to see a bunch of players wanting to put their stamp on hockey in New Zealand," she said.

Mark Hager added: "We have a strong squad and some good young talent coming through - that means we can develop depth in the squad. We want players to really work hard to earn a spot in the team."

Both the men's and women's hockey teams are in for a busy few months. The men, who are currently ranked sixth in the world, are playing in the Pahang Champions Challenge 1 in a bid to qualify for the 2016 Champions Trophy, then both teams will be competing in the Rabobank Hockey World Cup and just a month later in the Commonwealth Games. The fifth-ranked women then have a trip to Argentina to contest the Champions Trophy. 

Does Dean feel that hockey players are short-changed when it comes to comparisons with the other team sports? "I don't think it bugs me too much. It would be really nice if we got a bit more publicity. It would make life easier. But that's not why we play. We've got a lot of guys who are just really passionate about playing for New Zealand. The best thing we can do is get good results."