Editor’s note: This interview was published before the Hockey World Cup in Spain & Netherlands. This is being reshared in the light of India’s bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games.
There was a huddle after India’s FIH Hockey Women’s World Cup match against Canada at the Estadi Olímpic de Terrassa, in Spain. Around 24 hours earlier, Savita Punia and Co were in tears after losing the crossover match against Spain by the narrowest of margins (1-0), courtesy a 57th minute goal. It was another night of missed chances, and the heartbreak was evident in the Indian camp.
But they had to pick themselves up to take on the North American side barely a day after their dream of a podium-finish ended. And it turned out to be another tough night, with the side minutes away from defeat in regular time, moments away from a loss in the shootout.
But, led by a driven Navneet Kaur in second half and the inspirational Savita Punia in the shootout, India won a match that, make no mistake, they would have hated to play in.
The players sang happy birthday to Savita, and there were some smiles finally on the faces of the Indian players. After a tough few days, they had something to cheer about. The camera got close to chief coach Janneke Schopman who was addressing that huddle. Among the phrases that one could hear were, “Do not give up, we have come a long way,” and “Understand what pressure does to you and learn more about it,” and finally, “This is what we are made of, be proud.”
The part about pressure perhaps felt the most significant.
“When you come into a tournament and we’ve trained very hard, you never know what pressure does to you as an individual,” Schopman said in a press conference on Tuesday.
“I think as a team, we dealt with it really well that night. And that is something that I’m quite happy with. On the other hand, when there is pressure on you as an individual, especially if the performance that you have envisioned for yourself at the start of a tournament... that’s not really how it’s going, so finding those solutions and understanding that this is what I can bring to the team – this is a little bit more difficult.
“I felt like all our players individually made some good steps during this tournament, figuring out what actually happens to then. And I thought that Canada game was an example where, yeah of course, we struggled because we were disappointed after the Spain game, but we had to show up. We didn’t give up and I think that’s something that I was very proud of as a coach.”
“The only thing you can do then is get yourself back up again. I told the players also, ‘look, you’re sad, I’m sad. You can be disappointed but look, we have to play again in 24 hours and be sad now and tomorrow morning, we’ll focus on Canada and that’s tough, but we can do these things. We know how to play and we know how to fight together. And we’ll show that we can can keep going’.”— Janneke Schopman on recovering for Canada game after Spain defeat
Indeed, in the first four matches of the tournament, apart from all other measurable metrics of performance, India perhaps did not quite handle the weight of expectations they had from themselves. The fight was there, the stats were good, but the goals eluded them when it mattered. But it is also worth noting that in every single match, India were not outplayed and stayed in it till the final whistle. The fact that England, New Zealand, India and China – the four teams in Pool B – finished in the top 10 of the final standings said plenty.
Now, as the team looks ahead to the Commonwealth Games on what has been a long European trip, there is obvious frustration but there are lessons to be learned from the World Cup campaign.
Paying the penalty
In a tournament that largely played out according to the teams’ standings at the global stage, India needed a spark from somewhere to produce an upset. But the scoreboard doesn’t lie. India’s finishing, from penalty corners or field goal chances, was not up to the mark.
Addressing the question regarding penalty corners, Schopman admitted the execution was not good enough but also pointed out India were not the only team to have struggled in that regard.
“Our performance in the World Cup was, in terms of outcomes, not good enough. We created a lot of PC chances, which is good. But that is also something that we’re not used to and our execution failed. I think there are many reasons for that. We struggled with the field a little bit, with our injections. It’s a different field than we typically train on and that’s something we had to adjust to and I don’t think we adapted that well,” she said.
“It has to do with just being perfect in your execution and that’s something we look to focus prior to the start of the Commonwealth Games. We were also not the only country to sort of struggle with the field, I do think it had a major role in it. Even the Netherlands scored after nearly 10 PCs in the semifinal. I take full responsibility saying it needs to be better and we need to train differently so we can execute better.”
While attacking conversions were an issue, the PC defence in the New Zealand game too was not up to the mark. That was a learning curve for Schopman as a coach, as she took responsibility for not calling the right PCs from the sidelines, something that left her frustrated.
Before India’s departure to Europe, Schopman had spoken about the PC options that India had, and was happy with where things stood. Especially when Rani Rampal was left out of the final 18, that was the obvious area of concern in the squad. Where were the goals going to come from? Rampal was not just a star striker in the circle, but also provided a solid hit option from PC routines.
The former Dutch World Cup winner however refused to entertain that suggestion, saying it was not relevant to speak about Rampal’s absence now because she believed in the squad she has picked.
So how does the team improve now? Taking more ownership and training smarter.
“I do think that under pressure, like against New Zealand, we played two or three variations that we didn’t execute well. And for me as a coach, that is very frustrating because I think we spend enough time in training doing it. At the same time in training, there’s no pressure and then you see that with critical parts, like a penalty corner, that pressure can be of influence, whether it’s a menial ball trapping versus ‘I actually completely forgot what my role is in this penalty corner’.
“So in that respect, I think we talked about it and the girls themselves came with a lot of good solutions to improve whether it’s focusing on your end or individual skill to train more deliberately with defenders. Saying, ‘Look, I’m actually not comfortable doing this variation’. Or maybe it’s better that Gurjit learns to say ‘I need this trapper and I need this inserter because then I know that I perform better and I have more confidence that my flick goes on goal.’ At the same time, it’s all about taking responsibility. Grace did that in the Japan game in multiple ways and converting her penalty corner. So there’s growth there as well,” the 45-year-old said.
While a fully fit Rampal’s presence in the team would have made a huge difference in converting chances, one thing that is worth noting is that the creation of chances was in itself not an area of concern for Savita’s team. Most of the World Cup campaign, the team played an attacking brand of hockey that Schopman has envisioned. India, unlike tournaments in years gone by, are not a counterattacking team any more, now looking to use the pace in their squad with combination plays.
Doing more with possession
The stats will tell you that India had better attacking metrics in almost all of their matches (except against Spain). Schopman believes this is a consequence of teams adapting to India’s style. While teams recognise India’s attacking threat now and sit back, it is also an area the team has to work on: how to do better with more of the ball?
“You see a small transition happening when we play teams now, that some teams prefer to play more defensively (against us),” Schopman said.
“Some teams are quite happily just defending in their own 25 and that means there’s 11 people around the circle. I think as a team, we have to get used to it mentally, that we have less space to attack. We have to learn that if we have more of the ball, how can we do more with it as well. So overall, I think this tournament has shown us that we’re on the right way. We have to now fine-tune some of our skills in relation to how other teams approach us.”
India would go on to produce their best performance in the tournament in the match against Japan to ensure they finished ninth - joint with China as the best Asian team at the World Cup. It was not where the Tokyo Olympics semifinalists envisioned being before the World Cup started. But it was important to pick themselves up and finish the tournament well.
The Dutch legend believes that the team is “90-95%” where she want them to be.
“One of the players said to me after the tournament, we win as a team, but we also lose as a team. And very often what happens in teams is that if you lose then it becomes an individual thing and I feel like we’ve come stronger together. The girls have had to put in everything they have. As a coach, then it’s just about accepting that you don’t always get the outcome you might want.
“I think we were very close to winning in any of the games we played in. Not one game were we definitely the team that should be the losing team. That means that we’re getting close to where we want to be and hopefully in the future, we win more games than we lose,” she said.
The World Cup, disappointing as it was, is now in the rear-view mirror. The Commonwealth Games presents a chance to quickly hit the reset button and move on.
The Indian women’s team won gold at the 2002 Commonwealth Games (Manchester) and silver in the 2006 edition in Melbourne. Birmingham presents another chance to impress at a big event. They will begin their campaign on July 29 in Birmingham with the game against Ghana (18:30 IST), before playing Wales (23:30 IST) on July 30, England (18:30 IST) on August 2 and Canada (15:30 IST) on August 3 in the opening round.
“I’m honest, it’s tough [to move on quickly] because we didn’t get what we wanted. But I was really happy how we finished that tournament, it took a lot of energy and efforts. Against Japan, it was a good team performance and also good individual performance. For me, what was really crucial is that the two-three days after that I took some time for myself and I purposely had the players also have some time for themselves. To hit that reset button,” said Schopman.
“Yeah, individually, I felt like I was tired. I was mentally a little bit, you know, all over the place, for lack of a better word. I really needed two days to just get my head wrapped around things and start focusing again on on the Commonwealth Games. After that, we had a meeting. And you know, the girls are great that way and they want to work, work hard and they’re ready to go again and I know they can.”
Two things that were evident at the World Cup overall was that the Netherlands women are still the best in the world. But the gap among the rest is not as large as it used to.
“Unfortunately, when there are 16 teams in a tournament, only one is going to win and in women’s hockey very often it’s still the Netherlands. I do believe after talking to all the other coaches that the rest of the world is quite close,” the coach said.
While the World Cup was one of wasted scoring opportunities for India, the tournament itself wasn’t a wasted opportunity. As Schopman put it, “With all these games, we learned more about ourselves and we’ve learned more about our team and will be the better for it. We have to be honest, and we have to be better and we’re trying to be better.”
India’s CWG squad for women’s hockey:
Goalkeepers: Savita Punia (Captain), Rajani Etimarpu
Defenders: Deep Grace Ekka (VC), Gurjit Kaur, Nikki Pradhan, Udita
Midfielders: Nisha, Sushila Chanu, Monika, Neha, Jyoti, Navjot Kaur, Salima Tete
Forwards: Vandana Katariya, Lalremsiami, Navneet Kaur, Sharmila Devi, Sangita Kumari