Born in Getxo, Bilbao, Spain, Rocío Ybarra had her family name to play for. The legendary number 3 had a long trip between Olympic Games, World Cups, and experiencing German and Dutch leagues, and now she’s back to Spain and to her hometown. After 266 caps (the most capped player for Spain) had to decide between international hockey or a working career.
Words: Tiago Marques
“Playing with my sister was always an extra motivation to keep playing and getting better”
Rocío Ybarra is the true personification of the basque people. Born and raised in Getxo, Bilbao, the spanish international found love for hockey with her family and fought hard to be the best. In fact, field hockey comes for a long time in the family: “I always liked sports. Hockey was part of my life since I can remember as my grandfather, my mother and my older brother played hockey. My mother would take me and my twin sister to her games when we were still too little to play”. Ro, as she is also known, is the most international player for Spain women’s team after almost 15 years playing for her country, but she’s not the only Ybarra that ever played with «La Roja». In fact, her grandfather’s brother was two times olympician and even her mother was international. This besides her twin sister Lucía. Obviously, family context was vital to Jolaseta’s number 3 addiction: “They were and still are my motivation to play. They led me to understand sports and life. They did and do always support me all the way in my career”.
Rocío and her twin sister, Lucía, began together and went that way through their childhood. Being side by side made everything easier: “Playing with my sister was always an extra motivation to keep playing and getting better and better, especially when we grow up because we had the possibility to enjoy the national team together, a dream… Before achieving that, she was always the closer person helping and supporting all my decision and joining my dream of becoming professional”.
Their path separated at 17 years old when Rocío went to play with Real Club de Polo, in Barcelona: “We were 21, it was in 2006. For the first time we didn’t play together. Before going to play with Polo, me and Lúcia talked a lot about it. The first year was «easy» as Jolaseta went to the second division and that made it hard to keep on playing with my team. The second year with Polo wasn’t that easy as I had to play against Jolaseta. Apart from that, I enjoyed the experience and all was more than understood between all parties. It was exciting and fun”.
“I was never a player that would stand out by being more technical than my teammates or opponents”
The first dream, however, was to get to Real Club Jolaseta first team. Rocío achieved that at 13 even not considering herself as a skillful player: “I was never a player that would stand out by being more technical than my teammates or opponents. I wasn’t that good in the beginning but I’ve always worked hard. That made me get here I got in hockey.”
At 17, in 2002, Rocío left her family, her hometown, and went to Madrid were she could continue to develop her hockey in the spanish hockey development center and keep studying. “It was such a tough decision to stay that long away of all of them, but I knew this was my very best opportunity to do what I love”, states the former spanish captain that underlines that, even at distance, she always had all Ybarra’s support: “In the weak moments my family was also the first helping me”. Before going abroad, Rocío had an essencial learning path between Madrid and Barcelona, where she played, as we told before, with Real Club de Polo jersey: “I always had the desire to go abroad. Even before I went to Madrid and later to Barcelona. I learned a lot during my 5 years in Madrid and 3 in Barcelona where I have grown as a player. That was very important for what came next”.
“In The Netherlands, had the opportunity to play with and against the best players in the world”
After Madrid, and Barcelona, Rocío had the opportunity to go to Hamburg, Germany, and play with Uhlenhorster HC jersey: “My first experience abroad wasn’t easy. I was injured for a long time, 6 months I think. My «luck», if we can call it «luck» was that the winter break in Germany takes some time. In the end I didn’t skip any outdoor game, but I failed all the indoor matches. In Germany, and with Uhlenhorster, I did learn a lot. Even today I have a great relationship with the club and a lot of affection with all of my teammates. It was with Uhlenhorster that I went further in the EuroHockey Champions Club Cup. In 2010 we only lost the final against the Dutch club Den Bosch. I have great memories, we played excellent hockey. Although was hard to adapt myself due to injuries but still I learned a lot”.
After Germany, Rocío got to The Netherlands where she played for Kampong, HDM, and Oranje Zwart. Step by step, Rocío talked with Self-Pass about Kampong: “I had lots of fun with Kampong. It was really a professional club where all the players were also trully professional”. As for HDM, the Spanish international went to a distinct level: “It was a more familiar atmosphere. I was four years with HDM and I felt like home. I had good and bad experiences, as four years can give to you, but I felt at home and I enjoyed to play in such an ambience”. Finally, the latest step in Dutch soil was with Oranje Zwart: “It was in Eindhoven where I felt more at home. I liked all the places where I’ve been but I guess that the South of The Netherlands, like in most of the countries, it’s different. I don’t know, everyone’s way of being is more alike to what I’m used to. It was like home and all was more familiar to me. II was always well taken care of by the clubs where I played and I always felt recognised and valued, but Oranje Zwart, in the end, left a bigger mark on myself”.
In the total, the former Spain captain played abroad during seven years but she still can’t decide between the two countries that hosted her: “I like both, they’re completely different. Germany with their great tactics and The Netherlands where speed and power become the base. I can’t choose even if, in The Netherlands, I had the opportunity to play with and against the best players in the world. It was such a great experience, probably the best moment in hockey besides Spanish national team”.
“I had to perform either way and I worked hard to do so. In the end, I always loved playing, no matter where”
As a player, Rocío has always demonstrated to be a polyvalent asset in the team. She started as a defender but progressed as midfielder and as an attacker, both at club or national team level. The Jolaseta’s start has no problem where she plays: “I think that my hockey destinations, the clubs were I played or even the leagues where I was, were changing my hockey. I had to perform either way and I worked hard to do so. In the end, I always loved playing, no matter where”. Those experiences gave Rocío a learning platform. This doesn’t mean that she didn’t understand the game, but now she does that better: “I had to know how to play, how to position myself as a defender, a midfielder or an attacker. I guess that this experience gave me that but I still have things to develop. Now, I would say that I need to read better the rhythm of the game. That’s something that I need to develop, to learn. I still have a lot to improve, but this is my new goal”.
“The Spanish Championship, still has a lot to learn from other countries, but we are getting better”
Now she is back to where she started and she is happy about it: “I knew perfectly well that I was exposing myself. I put a lot of pressure on myself by wanting to help the team. I do everything I can, every day, but I found a different hockey. I am still adapting, but coming back taught me how to enjoy hockey in a different way. A hockey with a bigger social component. Here you are valued not only for your quality as a player, but for what you are as a person. I feel lucky for the teammates that I have”.
“Nowadays my objectives and prioraties changed. Hockey is no more one of them. I’m still in love with hockey and having the opportunity to play in the Dutch League as I was is an incredible thing and has no comparison with what you get in Spain”, states Rocío Ybarra, underlining that she changed her mindset to adapt to this new reality: “My mindset is to always play at my best level. I focus myself in order to be at the best level possible to help the team. I like to think this way and I don’t look that much to the competition itself. Jolaseta, as a club, has a big social impact and the goals sportwise are to guarantee the maintenance in the first league”.
The only regret that the 33 years old player has is the actual level of spanish hockey: “I think that we, as part of the Spanish Championship, still have a lot to learn from other countries, but we are getting better step by step. Providing the league with good international players from all around the World could help to improve our competition”. All of this relates with the economical crisis that affected Spain and almost every country from the south of Europe. Almost all sports were also affected and hockey is recovering from that: “I am confident in the process and I am sure that, as I said, bringing some more internationals would help to develop the competition and increase the level of the game”.
“Playing with my sister in the European Cup 2013 was a dream come true”
As a child, Rocío had two big dreams: playing for Spain and representing her country in the Olympic Games. She did both but she believes that it could have been better: “I would love to have the facilities that other national teams had and have. To practice more and more often together. That way, I trust the results could have been better”. Rocío was part of the Spanish team in Athens, Beijing and Rio de Janeiro, three distinct experiences: “The first Olympic Games were a dream come true but I think that I wasn’t able to enjoy it as I should. I was 19, still too young to understand what I was living. Obviously I knew that it was something that I’ve always dreamed of but I didn’t have the real notion. Apart from that, as a player, I was the youngest one, I only had to play at the best level I could and nothing else. I had no responsibility”. Then, in Beijing, all started to change: “In Beijing and Rio de Janeiro I think that I could enjoy the Olympic Games experience as I should, both in the pitch and off the pitch. I was able to show all my hockey and I got the opportunity to enjoy all the other experiences that are part of being in such competition. In Beijing I was already one of the more experienced players and in Rio I went as the captain, with a lot more responsibility”. Apart from the Olympic Games, Rocío has more good memories while representing Spain: “The World Cup held in Madrid (2006) is one of the great memories that I have. Obviously, playing with my sister in the European Cup 2013 was a dream come true”.
Between those, the legendary Spain’s number 3 emphasises the 2006’s World Cup: “Any competition held in your country is special. I have a great memory from the 2006’s World Cup because of that. Almost everything was perfect, I had my family around, we were able to have a decent preparation and all of that is fundamental. That is why it’s one of the best memories I have. Had the oportunity to enjoy it, to share those moments with my family and to show good hockey to the Spanish supporters, but it wasn’t enough”. In the end, or almost in the end, all went down in a dramatic way: “I ended up crying in the semifinals, it was surreal”.
We were playing for a place in the final against Australia and gave everything we had. Exactly 30 seconds before the end, we had a penalty corner in our favour. When all was set to play it, the lights failed. We waited around 20 minutes before the match could restart. When the game was on again, following the penalty corner, we should have had a stroke in our favor. It was clearly seen on the giant screens, but the referee didn’t want to take that call. We had another penalty corner, but we failed. The game went to extra time on a golden goal basis. Then, there was a penalty corner for Australia, which seemed non-existent…
They scored and went to the final. It was very hard and I ended up crying. The referee, herself, left the field crying as she realised the mistake made. We will never know if it would be a goal but a stroke is a clear goal situation”.
After a while that was digested and her path in the Spanish national team continued. For a long time, Rocío was the spanish captain, something she took with huge responsability: “I probably failed a lot, but I gave all that I had to the team. Being the captain was also a vote of confidence from the coaches. I tried my best”.
Having the opportunity to play at international level is something that money can’t buy: “Hockey, especially international hockey, opened a big door to live such a great experience in my life and to get to know different cultures. I have had the opportunity to enjoy many different experiences because of hockey.
I always recommend playing any sport, in any level. That’s a way to understand life, the biggest school I’ve ever had”.
“I love to deal with kids, they have an open mind and those big learning eyes, open for anything and anywhere”
After all the time invested in hockey, Rocío had to make a hard and probably unfair choice for someone that still has a lot to give: hockey or a working career?
“I am now working as a teacher, which was also one of my passions. I love to deal with kids, they have a open mind and big learning eyes, open for anything, anywhere. It is an honour to be part of their lifes. Unfortunately this is incompatible to play at the highest level”, says the Real Club Jolaseta player that had no easy task to get her degree: “I started studying to be a teacher in Barcelona. Then, I was following the studies at distance during my period in Germany. After the «Bologna process», I had to almost start from zero. In that time I signed myself in Madrid and then I finished it in The Netherlands. Looking at it, it seems like if it was an engineering process (laughs)”.
Rocío hopes to be one of the last players to have to make this choice, “hopefully this will change in the future, but, right now, being able to conciliate both things is not an option”, “The Spanish government helps and supports a lot, but there is still a gap between when you are an athlete and when you want to work. I guess that the best solution would be helping the companies, who have top athletes working for them”.
What do you think about the Self-Pass crew and work that has been done so far?
I love Self-Pass project. I’m a follower and a fan of your creations. All the initiatives that allow hockey to get bigger and more global are things that I like. I don’t have any contact with the boys but I like what they do!
What would you do if you weren’t a hockey player? Or if hockey didn’t exist?
I would have definitely play any sport. Specially group sport.
Indoor or outdoor?
Both!! Can’t choose between my right or left hand.
Who is your hockey idol?
I don’t have an idol, but I’ve learn from many players like, Luck Lopez, Erdoitza Goikoetxea, Lidewij Welten, etc.
What are your future plans as a player and in hockey?
I’d love to help hockey and people while playing hockey as this sport helped me in my life.
What do you think of hockey nowadays? You support the way the game has been changing and developing?
Yes, I like the progress and hockey is growing which is lovely to see.
What do you think is lacking hockey to get into even more audiences worldwide?
I believe that marketing is the key.
Do you think that social media are important for that? Is that something important to you?
Yes I think that’s very important. We need to be visible to make the hockey greater.
What do you like the most about hockey?
The speed is what I like the most.
What do you like less about hockey?
I don’t like that rules change every year.
Would you change something in hockey?
We need to make it easier to follow and easier to watch on television by using more and better cameras.
Any message that you want to send to the hockey fans worldwide?
Just enjoy hockey and enjoy playing at any level. The more you give the more you get!