Sjoerd Marijne, the coach of the India women’s hockey team, clearly has a way with words.
So many times in the recent past, we have seen the team go into half-time looking out of sorts, outplayed, or even out of place. But, conversely, it has always been a surprise to see how often the team emerges from the locker room playing with an energy and a sense of purpose that was missing before the break.
The question that arises in those moments is a simple one: just what did Marijne tell them?
“Always something different,” said Marijne in a conversation with Scroll.in. “It depends on the mood. Sometimes I get really angry... sometimes you think I will be getting angry but then I stay calm. Everything’s about reading the mood. And the better you know your group, the better you are.”
Marijne added: “In the halftime with the qualifiers, I didn’t need to get angry because they were under too much stress and one could see it affect them. So I knew shouting won’t work. So there I tried to get them out of the mindset; about worrying too much; about trying to do everything right. That’s also the challenge of our coaching. And so far, it went pretty well a few times.”
Now, these very skills assume even greater importance as the team gets together after the pandemic-influenced lockdown. With no international hockey on the horizon, the coach and the team management will have to do their best to keep the team in the right frame of mind.
Marijne, though, is especially pleased with how the team has managed to maintain fitness and diet in their time away from the game. In the old days, they always seemed to come back with a few extra pounds but things have changed.
“When I first came to India, that was always an issue when they had a long break, but that’s not the case anymore,” said Marijne. “They have changed their mindsets. They know when they are back home, they also have to do their work. Michael Phelps worked 365 days a year, he didn’t have any day off. And that’s why he gets his medals. It’s not only because of his talent, and the girls know that, they have learned that in the past year... so that’s a good thing.”
The team’s fitness levels – their anaerobic and aerobic levels – were good when they came back. Power levels were less than normal but they are now slowly working towards the level they want to be at. The rest they have got is also a way of training and sometimes one needs to let the body recover too.
The next big challenge ahead of the team is to find some competition. Teams and coaches often try to make the atmosphere in training mimic that of a real game. But it is really hard to get the players thinking that way.
“That is a challenge,” said Marijne “We are doing our sport activity. So that’s the first step and then the big challenge is, of course, playing a match. Playing a match makes such a difference, and I can’t explain how much of a difference it makes. In the Netherlands, they have started their club competition and that means they will be pushing themselves every week.”
So would a larger group of players perhaps help? Would the Indian team then be able to have a more competitive camp even while staying within the bubble?
“We have enough players to play internal matches and the moment that is allowed, we can do that,” said Marijne.
“But more players is not the answer as you have a lot of different levels then. To reach the highest level, every match has to be a challenge. If you see, for instance, when the Australia men’s team became world champions in 2014, Graham Reid (who was Australia’s assistant coach at the time and is currently the coach of the India men’s hockey team) told me they played with an energy 1.6 times higher than the normal matches they played amongst each other. So we need to create that environment the moment matches are allowed because it all depends on the quality you have.”
Marijne also tried to make sure that the team is moving forward in the right away. He has used the time away to continue the team-building activities.
“It’s a continuous process, you cannot stop. Because one day you think everything is fine in the team and the other day, it’s not. It’s not easy, always being with each other, always being on top of each other, with a lot of little girls. You have to keep working.”
The other thing the team management has done to keep the team on its toes is getting them all to analyse the opponents they are likely to face at the Olympics.
“They do the analysis, then they share the analysis and then we all discuss. I asked them to learn better English too because the better they can understand me, the better we can compete,” said the coach.
And finally, Marijne feels that this is the perfect time to practice mindfulness, a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment.
“Normally, you have less time for this. You are constantly racing against time but this is a perfect time to make an asset in mindfulness. Because you have to deal with it right now in this lockdown. It helps us stay positive, it helps us stay in the moment and at the moment that is the best we can do.”