In January 2019, when Hockey India sacked Harendra Singh after just seven months in charge, it was the 25th time, in as many years, that the coach of the men’s national team would change.

For a coach of the men’s hockey team, time was a precious commodity. The results demanded were instant, the pressure of expectations was high and in the midst of all that, a new coach was expected to work wonders. It wasn’t easy. It still isn’t.

But in that context, the pandemic has a silver lining for the current men’s coach, Graham Reid. With no clear idea of when the team can return to the playing field and the luxury of having ample time with the team, the Australian is taking the opportunity to go back to the basics.

Usually, when the season is on, the players are constantly dealing with injuries, recovery, travel and the pressure that international competitions bring. There really isn’t the time to work on the little things – the perfect trap, the body sway, the reverse hit, the sizzling dribble, the trackback and more... little things which if done correctly can make a huge difference to the end result.

“Well, to be honest, I’m really excited about these next four months,” India men’s hockey coach Graham Reid told in an interview. “Because we really have an opportunity that we can build our foundation.”

“I’ve said to the players, ‘look, this is the time where we can work on the little things’. This is historically the time where you build the base for next year’s Olympics, even if we were in a normal situation. What we do now in our training environment determines a lot of the outcomes that happen in the months that follow. Little by little, bit by bit, we build ourselves up again. So, it’s a good opportunity to go back and restart and understand what we do want to do and what are the important skills that we need to have as a group.”

Group discussions

One of the obvious challenges of the lockdown was to keep all the members motivated and in the right frame of mind. After all, hanging around with the same group for days on end can be taxing in its own way. Reid’s solution for this was to try and get the players talking about themselves.

“I think it was around the second month where we sort of ran out of the patience of
talking hockey,” said Reid.

That’s when the 56-year-old Australian decided to get players talking about themselves.

“I got all the players to sit in front of the camera and tell their story about how they got there. And it was really interesting to discover all the backgrounds of players and it gave me a nice insight into the players. I think that’s a really important part of everyone understanding people’s backgrounds and how you know what’s the why behind why they’re here and why we’ve all sacrificed so much to get where we have.”

Discussions of such a nature can deepen the bond between team members and the stronger the bond, the better they will support each other in difficult times.

Slow and steady

For now, the team is slowly getting back into the groove. From August 19, they have been allowed to resume ‘sports activities,’ which means they can’t go full tilt but they are allowed to start training a little.

“At the moment, the speed in which we’re taking them has to be a slow and conservative recovery rather than getting out and going hard at it,” said Reid. “We’re into week three at the moment and I think some of them want to get more competitive but there is a limit to what we can do.”

But around the world, it is a similar story. Teams getting back together, picking up the pieces, getting started again. Just a few days back, Belgium were able to get together for the first time. They’re actually having two groups, one training in Antwerp and the other in Brussels. The Covid-19 numbers are pretty bad in Argentina too. In Great Britain, training will resume in the bubble. Australia have got most of their group together too while in Holland, they have just resumed the club competition.

Still, Reid and the team management have ensured that the players can’t slack off despite the lack of competitive hockey. He isn’t going to rush the return to the turf but the players have been made to work doubly hard on the mental aspect of the game.

“We’ve told them what we expect from them, what we want them to get better and all that. So they all have their ‘Get Better’ plans, as we’re calling it, that they can be working on it and it’s perfect because now they have an opportunity to actually do that. And, every 2-3 week block, we get them to really assess where we’re at with all the things that we are working on.”

New skills, new look?

The lockdown and the time it affords will also give Reid the opportunity to really stamp his style on the team. But does he really feel the need to do that?

“As a coach, ideally it’s always nice to have a four-week training block and then some competition and then repeat. That’s how you would normally build a programme but we are not in a normal situation,” said Reid.

But the coach isn’t looking for a completely new style at the moment. Rather he is looking to reinforce what he had been teaching them even more. Reid was an evolution, not a revolution.

“I felt like you know, the games that we saw the six games we saw in Pro League... there were some really good quarters of hockey there and that is exactly the way that I wanted. I want them to be playing with an urgency about them, with a bit of zing and looking forward and attacking and, you know, they were heading down the right path.

“So I think it will be more of a progression of that. Obviously, at the same time, we make sure that we develop further in all the different areas including our corners, for example.”

But the last six months have been all about planning and then changing the plans. So more than anything else, Reid is hoping that hockey can get back on the astroturf soon.

“We were hoping that we can go to Kuala Lumpur, early February and then maybe New Zealand for a Four-Nation tournament. And then there’s an Asian Champions Trophy in March, and finally the Pro League.”

Through this period Reid has attempted to not look too far ahead but he recognises just how important this time could be. If one lets the focus drop, it could be hard to recover. But focus too hard and you might exhaust yourself with few real outlets for that energy. And that is why he has chosen to go back to the basics because, as they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither are Olympic champions.