“Pressure, pressure, pressure.”
Watch any Indian women’s hockey match – the classic 11v11 or even the 5v5, as we did recently, – and you can hear coach Janneke Schopman’s voice loud and clear on your broadcast. The former Dutch defender, a world class one at that, is vocal and involved even from the sidelines. You can see her give out instructions, show her frustrations when she sees a refereeing decision she doesn’t agree with, high-five players when India score a fluid attacking goal... she is all in.
And that is what she will expect from her side at the FIH Hockey Women’s World Cup when India step out to face England in their first match. It is the women’s team first major assignment since the fantastic fortnight in Tokyo. They have played the Asia Cup (through which they qualified) and then the FIH Pro League, where they impressed and finished third.
But the World Cup, is a different beast.
Yet, as a coach first but also someone who has won the tournament as a player (2006), Schopman knows that taking that extra pressure doesn’t help. Instead, she has driven home the point that she wants the players to take ownership, trust the training they have done and reproduce it on the field. The pressure, so to speak, has to be only the technical one we speak of in hockey, not the mental one that hampers their game.
“The players know, you know,” Schopman told Scroll.in on the pressure of being at a World Cup.
“So, then speaking a little bit from my own experience, I think, as players in general you put a lot of pressure on yourself when you know you’re going into these bigger tournaments. And I’m actually trying to do the opposite and saying, ‘Okay, can we do there what we do in training everyday?’
“There’s the saying ‘you don’t rise to the occasion, you fall to the level of your training’ and that’s something I use quite a lot. Let’s train at this high level. And then that’s our baseline and then if we play like that, we should be fine,” she added, speaking before the team’s departure for Europe.
“One of the mysteries as a player is how you want to play for an 8/9 (on a scale of 10) in those big tournaments. From experience I can say, I rarely did that. But if everyone can play for, say, 7 then we actually will go quite far. And that’s kind of what I tried to instill in the players. Be confident in all the work you’re doing (in training), be confident in knowing what your job is. And then just do that and then we’ll see what happens.”
It’s a mantra that has stood the Indian team well in Pro League. The team’s journey in Tokyo, overseen by Schopman’s compatriot Sjoerd Marijne, was attributed largely to just how fit the players had gotten in recent times, the tactical awareness in defence, and knowing their roles. Keeping that as the foundation, Schopman – who has been with the team even since Marijne’s tenure as the analytical coach – has worked on adding attacking weapons. And the core of that mantra is: speed and combination play.
“What we’re really trying to do now is to get everyone to play a little bit shorter and together. Play more 10-15 meter passes... combine and connect. We have so many players with attacking skills... we’re trying to get everyone involved and when we do that, we start playing better,” Schopman said.
India fixtures during Phase 1
July 3, Sunday, 20:00 IST, Amsterdam: England vs India
July 5, Tuesday, 20:00 IST, Amsterdam: India vs China
July 7, Thursday, 23:00 IST, Amsterdam: India vs New Zealand— Matches live on Star Sports network in India
One of the things that some of the players feel has been impactful in Schopman’s tenure so far is the fact that she provides all the information she can to them but lets them take ownership for it. Compared to, say, the 2018 World Cup, you will find that India play with a lot more flair and that has come with more tactical clarity.
“Even when we speak amongst ourselves about our strengths, we discuss how our attacking hockey is good. We are a well-rounded team,” captain Savita Punia told Scroll.in.
“We know that attacking hockey is not just about strikers. The midfield, defence are also confident about providing outlets. We used to pass sideways a lot, now we play more forward passes so that midfielders and strikers have the ball more often.
“The players in our team with pace like Sharmila, Salima, Siami and Vandana can change the game, we are able to see that. We used to do this under coach Sjoerd too, but after Janneke has come we have worked a lot on 1-to-1 hockey, wrong-foot passing and so. The players are much more confident in our attacking hockey,” the goalkeeper added.
“Our attacking hockey wasn’t that impressive (around 2018), but with better fitness we are able to attack a lot more,” Neha Goyal, India’s attacking center-half told Scroll.in. “The more we attack, even if we miss a few, we will surely score one or two. We continue to attack in our matches as much as we can, while also keeping our focus on defence. To be 1v1, keeping the opponents in front, not let them get away, tackling outside the D more to avoid giving PCs away... all these are areas we work a lot on now.
“(Janneke) has worked with us a lot on tactics. Something we do a lot now is changing sides. We used to play on just one side, but she has taught us about changing flanks and how that tires out opponents. That helps us attack better.”
And that is precisely what Schopman had set out to achieve in training... that the players understand their tactical roles and play confident hockey. As an example, she spoke about defenders getting more involved going forward.
“We have been training a lot for using our speed with passing and leading ahead. Defenders have to first of all, of course, defend but think we have a couple of defenders that have the ability and the fitness to actually join the attack. So in training, I just encouraged them... just go how you know, you have the skill, you have the opportunity and you see them creating the numbers-up situations for us to score goals,” Schopman said.
“Of course we also have to be mindful of the counter if we turn over to ball and that’s there again... so for two weeks we trained for leading ahead. And then when we conceded on the counter, we started working on that aspect while doing the first. And then they started understanding ‘Okay, so that means someone else needs to drop back’.
“For me the fun part is that once they are at the end of a session we debrief for a little bit. But more importantly when they do their cooldown, you see them match up, they pair up and not mandated necessarily, but just discussing ‘what happened in the plays, what I need from you. What can you do better?’ So for me that that informal way of communication that shows me that they’re busy taking ownership.”
Group of Death
India’s group is a tricky one at the World Cup, possibly the group of death, as each of the four teams are capable of defeating each other on their day. New Zealand are a bit of an unknown, China are on the rise under former Netherlands coach Alyson Annan and, then of course, there is England. As Great Britain at the Olympics, they had ended India’s hopes for a podium finish.
“Abhi bhi lagta hai... woh medal chala gaya hamaare haath se (even now we feel like the medal slipped from us in Tokyo),” Neha said. “But now if we can win a World Cup medal, it will help us forget that. That is a motivation for us to do well. Aur haan, England se nahi haarna (laughs). But also, we just want to focus on every single match, and do the best we can.”
Ask coach Schopman what expectations she has set for the side, the answer is pragmatic.
“An interesting question. I, as a player and coach, don’t like these questions,” she said. “My dad used to ask me every morning at breakfast, ‘what do you think the score’s going to be today?’ I was like, I don’t want to talk about it, I don’t know, we are yet to play! I am very much like that now. If we have expectations to do really well, it doesn’t work. If I expect we won’t do that well, that doesn’t work either.
“For me, I am really happy with where we are right now. For me, the key thing is, can we bring that level from Pro League to the World Cup? That would be exciting for me. I know we will be doing fine if we bring that level we have trained at, and are capable of.”