The spotlight in Indian hockey, last year, was predominantly on the men’s team. It was commended – as it clinched the silver medal at Champions Trophy, defended the Asian Champions Trophy and broke into the top-5 in world rankings. And then criticised for failing to win a Commonwealth Games medal, failed to defend the Asian Games gold and exited from the quarter-final of the men’s World Cup in Bhubaneswar. Even after the World Cup, the men’s team was the talk of the town, thanks to Hockey India’s decision to remove coach Harendra Singh.
Meanwhile, away from the drama surrounding men’s hockey, coach Sjoerd Marijne guided the women’s team to its best World Cup finish in 40 years and its first Asian Games silver medal in 20 years. That the team accomplished these feats, in two high profile tournaments, within a span of a month, is a testament to the players’ physical and mental fitness and Marijne’s belief in his team.
With not many big tournaments this year, the focus of the team, according to its coach, is on qualifying for the Olympics. The Indian team under Rani Rampal will start the season with a four-match series against Spain.
Ahead of the team’s journey to Spain, Marijne spoke to Scroll.in about the year gone by, the goals for this year, the team’s fitness and more.
The spotlight was more on the men’s team in the last few months. What did you do off-season?
The off-season was, more or less, about recovery. We played a lot and trained a lot over the last two years. It was like they ran many marathons if you see the numbers. After the World Cup and the Asian Games, now the mindset is on qualifying for the Olympics.
What are the difficulties, if there are any, in restarting training after a long break?
It’s easy to train when you have a goal. After the Asian Games, there was no goal as there was nothing in December. Now, we have a goal. We have to work for the Test series [against Spain] and then the Olympic qualifiers. And from there, we hopefully go to the Olympics.
How has the training gone so far?
Yeah, we have to be careful. Few girls trained when they were home. But it is not possible for everyone in the team to do that. So, we had to be careful that the players took it slow and did not get injured. Slowly, we have to focus on fitness and re-look at our tactical plans for the Spain tour. We are playing six matches [four against Spain, two against Ireland], which is a lot. But it will help us get into the rhythm.
Rani and Co made history last year: the World Cup quarter-final, Asian Games silver medal. But did you think they were cases of missed opportunity?
Yeah, we lost the World Cup quarter-final (to eventual runners-up Ireland) in shootouts. I thought we were the better team in that match. We had more opportunities. But we didn’t execute our plans well. And, that’s painful. We did well in the Asian Games as well… But, of course, they were cases of missed opportunities. But it doesn’t mean we are not proud of what we achieved. We felt that we could do more. And, it is good that the team has that mindset.
Has the team moved on from those defeats?
Yes. This team is really professional. The players are always looking at the areas they can improve. We have to learn from the mistakes so we don’t to repeat them.
What was your best moment last year?
I was really proud how the team played in the first match in the World Cup against England. It was the first World Cup for most girls in the team. But I didn’t see even one, who was afraid to play. Yes, we drew that match. But for me, it’s about the behaviour – and, it was so professional that I was happy.
What is the focus for this year?
If you see, our defence is really good. And, we have to keep that up, improve in defence. What we can do, is more conversion of circle penetrations to goals. We have to come into the circle more and be more dangerous around the goal.
Glenn Turner (Australian hockey player) was here in December. Did the team learn from him about attacking?
Yeah, he was a striker who had 124 international caps and 90 goals. And, he was involved in the penalty corners only as an injector, which means he scored a lot of field goals. So, he is really good in attack. He spoke to the team about how to come into the right positions in the circle, how to use your body and about the mindset ahead of big matches.
Are you happy with your players’ fitness levels? Is India on par with the best in the world in fitness?
We can improve in every area. But considering where the players come from, and what they managed to achieve last year, big credit to Wayne Lombard, the scientific coach. A lot of people were worried if the team could play two back-to-back high profile tournaments [the World Cup in July and Asian Games in August]. But they did that – they didn’t lose the Asian Games final because of fitness issues. Of course, we aren’t at the top in fitness yet. But it’s just a few steps away.
Are you under pressure to get quick results because of what happened to the men’s team coach?
I don’t feel any pressure because Hockey India knows what I do with the women’s team. The results are good, the process is good. So, I am not worried. My goals are always bigger than what someone else tells me. In the Asian Games, I wanted to be first. If we achieve that, we have to get to the Olympics and if we make it there, we want to go for the highest goal. So, my expectations from myself is always high.