Express News Service
CHENNAI: The tour of Argentina was important for the Indian women’s hockey team. Not only because it marked the resumption of activities for Rani Rampal & Co but also because they were up against the second-ranked team in the world, with the Tokyo Olympics less than six months away. Despite not registering a win, they did compete decently against Las Leonas. After losing 2-3 and 0-2, they drew 1-1 in the final game.
Three years ago, when they lost 0-3 to the same team in the World League Semifinals, they looked like lost souls. They couldn’t match the speed of their opponents, nor create opportunities or penalty corners. Now, they are brimming with confidence. In an interview with TNIE, coach Sjoerd Marijne opens up on how the women’s team has a changed mindset and the areas to improve in in the next few months. He also touched upon the mindfulness exercises done by the side during the lockdown and its positive impact. Excerpts:
How was it to play a series after almost a year?
It was good to play after a long break, everyone was excited to finally play matches. We were curious to find out where we were at. We went there to see what the standard was and that worked out well.
How different was it to tour Argentina this time?
For us, it was more or less the same. We are used to being in a bio-bubble, so it was not hard to adapt. Our hotel staff were supportive. They ensured we had a comfortable stay. They had provided us with a meeting room exclusively for ourselves where tea/coffee was being served 24/7. Overall, it was well organised considering the circumstances.
What did you tell the girls?
First, I told them to enjoy it. But at the same time, I said this tour is for them to prove themselves to the coaches because we don’t know how many more matches we will have in the lead up to the Olympics. Only the tours will tell us what we are capable of.
What was the focus of this tour?
We have trained some new tactics. We implemented those in the matches. Besides that, we wanted to know our level against the No 2 team in the world. It was important for the entire group of 25 Olympic core probables — including those who don’t have a lot of international exposure — to experience how it is to play against a team like Argentina.
What are the key takeaways?
The biggest positive is that we are getting closer to the second-ranked team. The last time we played against them, we lost by a big margin (0-3). If I look at the last three matches, the margin of the results were close. We believe we can compete with them. It’s about making the right decisions under pressure. In some moments, Argentina were able to execute better. It is something we will work on because that will make a difference in winning these matches.
Secondly, the athletes no more don’t go into these matches just hoping to keep the score as low as possible like in the past. Now, they play to win and that mindset is a big change. It makes a huge difference in our performances.
We need more of these matches because it will help us in making better decisions under pressure, which will help us prepare for the difficult matches in the future.
How did you keep the girls mentally fit during the lull period?
It starts with your behaviour. You want and need to set a good example. I was and have always been very positive and energetic. We organised a (fitness) challenge where we helped the poor families during the Covid-19 nationwide lockdown. It helped us realise that we were in a good environment and that we can’t complain.
The team also did mindfulness exercises. It is to experience and be okay with the thought that sometimes, you can feel unhappy. The idea was to make them realise what they feel during difficult times and help them talk about it.
Which are the areas you would want the team to work on?
One thing that needs to get better is making decisions with the ball and without the ball. A match is all about making decisions constantly. Especially, when we get tired, we need to stay calm. Sometimes, we do things in a hurry and make mistakes. Moving forward, we need to ensure that in these moments we make better decisions. There are some more areas, but I don’t want to reveal it to the opponents.
Can you elaborate on the preparations for the Olympics?
It’s all about the adjustability of the team, Hockey India (HI) and the Sports Authority of India (SAI). We have plans but we have to look at what is possible in the current, changing environment. We have back-up plans and back-up plans for the back-up plans but we don’t know yet what is possible because our plans and the countries we want to travel keep changing due to the pandemic situation.
SAI and HI are doing a great job because it’s not easy to organise a tour overseas in these times. We hope to play more matches because it’s important. But we also know it will be hard to plan and ensure a safe competition. Hopefully, we have a few tours and continue to train in Bengaluru. It is important to keep the team mentally fresh. We also don’t want to play too many tours in the lead up (to the Games), as this was one feedback received from the team based on their Rio Olympics experience in 2016.
Ideally, how many series would you want the team to play before Tokyo?
I don’t have a number in my mind. As I said, it is important that the team is fresh for the Olympics and not feel fatigued, mentally. It is important to also see how playing tours would fit in our program. Just playing matches will also not help our fitness. It’s about finding the right balance.