On a mildly cloudy, cool morning at the Sports Authority of India complex in Bengaluru, one could see the Indian skipper Rani Rampal, clad in sky blue Indian jersey, seated in a chair, talking to a Television channel from the middle of the green hockey turf. A camera person gestures her to shift a bit. He changes position and the shoot resumes. Near the sideline, coach Sjoerd Marijne’s being interviewed by a journalist, who’s holding out his mobile phone.

Rani, Marijne and other members of the women’s hockey contingent are gearing up for their biggest trip of this year thus far. In seven days, the Indian women’s hockey team will leave for England to participate in the World Cup, starting on July 21.

A medal-less return from the Commonwealth Games by the men and women prompted the Hockey India to swap the coaches of both teams. So, Marijne, once again, took charge of the team he used to coach before being tasked to handle the men’s team.

His ‘player-driven’ approach, wherein he enforces the players in the team to make key tactical decisions on the field, was criticised, especially after the Commonwealth Games. But ahead of the World Cup, speaking to The Field, he defends the approach, talks about the preparation, about the recently concluded five-match series in Spain (which India drew 2-2), and the 16-nation tournament in England.

Excerpts from the interview:-

Were you happy with the team’s performance in Spain?

They were really good, especially in the last game [in which India beat Spain 4-1]. They told themselves that they underperformed in the last few games. That they could do much better. They really did it themselves. Spain, despite ranked a place below us [No. 11 in the world], is a really good team.

You’d said that the Spanish tour was a good preparation for the World Cup. So, were you able to spot the strengths and weaknesses of the team?

Spain and other European countries are tactically strong. So, you have to adjust your game accordingly. We did that quite well. We maintained our positions in the pitch with and without the ball. Everyone was clear about what to do in every situation.

Before leaving to Spain, you wanted the team to get better in defence. But it conceded 11 goals in the tournament. What went wrong there?

No, not satisfied with the defence. But it’s good that it has happened just before the World Cup. So, we know why it happened. We know also what to do to improve them. This will make them a little more alert. So, we will take this in a good way.

And, Penalty Corners remain a cause of concern as well…

No, I am satisfied with our conversion rates. We have to improve while defending though.

Apart from Gurjit Kaur, are there penalty corner specialists for the team?

We train six days a week, it’d be strange if we don’t have more.

What changed from the fourth match on the tour, where India lost 1-4, to the fifth, in which they won 4-1?

The mindset. I didn’t have to shout at them, I didn’t have to be angry. After the [fourth] match, they sat together and told each other that they are capable of playing much better. And, in the next match they showed that.

So, are you adopting the ‘player-driven’ approach that you implemented when you coached the men’s team?

Players-driven or coach-driven, it’s about giving responsibilities on a few areas. And, that’s how I work. That’s what I do with the women’s team. And, I did the same with the men. I think the ‘players-driven approach’ was over-exaggerated, misunderstood. I read an article that I don’t do anything and players do everything. That’s wrong. Because I prepare the plan with my staff.

Hockey India
Hockey India

Can you elaborate on the player-driven approach, then?

Okay, I will explain this step by step so that everyone understands. There is a tactical plan. You want the players to understand that plan. So, you explain it to them. But in that tactical plan, there are always things that you need to adjust to. Because your opponents also watch your tactical plan. They think ‘Okay, they have closed the left side, so, we go over the right’. So, then, you have to adjust. During the match, I can shout but not always reach the entire team. So, they need to take a decision if the opponent does something unexpected. So, that’s what you want them to learn. Because there are so many tactical possibilities and I can’t prepare them for all of them.

If I don’t involve them in this process of learning to make tactical decisions, they will only do what I say. And, on the pitch, they need to make split-second decisions. I can’t be with them on the pitch. So, making the players get involved in making these decisions is what I call ‘players-driven’.

See the soccer World Cup, it’s the same thing. Players take decisions in the pitch. The coach can’t reach them. The coach, in the training sessions, teaches them to take the right decisions.

So, when you formulate your tactical plan, do you involve the players then?

I do that with my coaching staff. We make a plan of how we want to play. Then, we ask feedback from the players. ‘Do you feel comfortable in this system? Why? Why not?’ Because it’s important that they feel comfortable. And, then, we sit together and fix on the plan. We also give them videos of themselves during a match. And, then we discuss their observations. When they watch themselves play, they learn what choice to make in a particular situation. Then, we explain why their decisions was good or bad. It’s scientifically proven that your mind gets sharper when you learn things yourself than when someone teaches them to you.

Did you speak to (men’s team coach) Harendra Singh before you took over, again, as the women’s coach? Or, did he ask you anything about the men’s team?

No, he didn’t ask me about the men’s team. And, with the women, it was easy because the structure I implemented was the same structure.

Most players from the team haven’t been to England, they don’t know the conditions well. Will they get enough time to get acclimatise before the World Cup starts?

Well, Spain is hotter than London, yes. But it’s really hot in London as well. But these girls have travelled a lot. They have gone around the world. So, that won’t be a problem.

The World Cup and the Asian Games are going to be held back to back. Is there a concern about the players’ fitness levels? Or, will they be going all out?

We will go all out. Because the World Cup schedule isn’t that heavy. You get a good amount of break in between matches. For us, it’s an important tournament. I know a lot of Indians are focusing on the Asian Games. But the girls worked a year and a half to qualify for the World Cup. So, we are going to focus on that and doing well in the tournament.