On Sunday, India won the junior hockey World Cup after defeating Belgium in a thrilling final on home soil. In an exclusive interview with Scroll, Roelant Oltmans, the head coach of the Indian men’s senior hockey team, reflects on the world title and the year that has been for Indian hockey.
What’s 2016 been like for Indian hockey?
In general we have progressed. We have taken steps forward. You have to be happy with that. There were a few disappointing moments, notably the Olympic Games. We did not achieve according to our own expectations in Rio, but the rest of the year we did quite well – second spot in the Champions Trophy, winner of the Asian Champions Trophy. The Under-21 team won, the women’s team participated for the first time in the Olympic Games. It’s an upward line.
Could India have done more in Rio?
Yes, I think so. We should have ensured that we had gotten a different opponent in the quarter-finals by beating Canada. I don’t say we would have progressed then, but we lost our rhythm a bit in the match against Canada. We were a bit too complacent in that match. That cost us. We could have been top six, but we finished eighth. That was disappointing.
On Sunday, India won the junior World Cup...
It was a great tournament for India. That is obvious. Step by step, every match was approached differently. After two games, we had reached the quarter-finals already. Spain were a difficult opponent. They play well and they defend well. They also had the player of the tournament in their ranks. We had to give it our all to win that match.
We managed that, but then we got Australia as opponents. Again, they have a strong team. It went to a shoot-out. In the final, we played an outstanding first half against Belgium – in terms of hockey that was the highlight. That first half, the way we played, was definitely a culmination – it was very good.
India trailed in three big games - England, Spain and Australia, but every time they reversed the score.
That was an indication of the mental strength of the team. Mentally, they were strong. There was no panic when India trailed – you just have to stick to the plan that has been determined before the match. That yields positive results. In the past, individual players thought they could equalise and solve the problem. But that’s not the way it works. That was un-Indian-like which was good in this tournament.
Do you feel that Indian hockey players in the past had a mental block towards winning?
We ran a program with this group for a good two and a half years – all the aspects of the game were touched upon, including the mental aspect. As a team, you need to be able to manage a game, and that includes sticking to the plan until you decide to change the course of action. If you are trailing with five minutes to go and you take off your keeper – that requires a different organization, but only at that particular moment.
They learned that. They understand how important that is. We gained a lot in that aspect, apart from the way we play. I was really impressed by our defending in this tournament. We didn’t allow a lot of chances. We didn’t give away many corners. Apart from two goals against England in the last phase, we didn’t concede too much.
Did India have the momentum after the semi-final against Australia?
Well, that’s difficult to say. Belgium had a good team. They proved that. They eliminated two excellent opponents in Argentina and Germany. That is not easy. We approached the final in a meticulous fashion and looked at Belgium’s weak points, or at least, the points where we could hurt them. In the first part of the match that really went well. Of course, we also enjoyed the enormous support of the fans – you win a few percentages with that support. But we played a very strong first half from a tactical point of view as well.
The win highlights the potential of Indian hockey.
The future, I think, is rosy. I expect that we will get a few more financial incentives and that will allow us to build our programs. You can attract more and better staff and get more technological support as well. We want to expand in that sense. We have a hockey lab in one of our training centers.
Those are positive steps together with the potential and talent of some players who represent either the junior or senior team. The Under-21 team has a good structure. Now it is of pivotal importance that we fortify our grassroots level so that we have a continuous supply of talents. The plans are there and so India could become a powerful hockey nation again, and that’s always been the long term ambition.
What are your plans for the rest of 2016?
My plans are quite straightforward. I will board a flight to the Netherlands and on Saturday I will go with my family to Austria to spend a delightful week in the Alps skiing, one of my favorite pastimes. It has been a long and tough year with a lot of competitions, but with two excellent gold medals at the end.