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Friday, September 17, 2021

How going Dutch helped India beat Australia, enter Olympics semifinals

From the time he joined the Indian team in 2017, Marijne has been working to make the players mentally and physically tougher.

Written by Mihir Vasavda | Tokyo |
Updated: August 3, 2021 2:35:38 pm
Sjoerd Marijne, Sjoerd Marijne india women hockey coach, Sjoerd Marijne india vs australia, Sjoerd Marijne tokyo olympicsMarijne democratised team meetings and created an atmosphere where players could freely express themselves, both on and off the field. (File Photo)

Last week, as the Indian women’s hockey team stared at an early exit from the Olympic Games after their third loss in a row, a fuming coach Sjoerd Marijne called a meeting. The players expected a dressing down, but were in for a surprise. Marijne didn’t utter a word in anger. Instead, he screened an inspirational movie.

On Monday, after toppling Australia 1-0 to enter the semifinals, captain Rani Rampal recalled that session, and said it really helped the team regroup and make a roaring comeback.

The 47-year-old Dutch coach, meanwhile, kept his cards close to his chest — after all, there’s a semifinal to play against the sharp Argentines. “I won’t reveal the name (of the movie), you can read it in my book,” he laughed. It was a glimpse into Marijne’s coaching philosophy. “He knows when to push our triggers and how. If we lose, it won’t mean he’ll be hard on us,” said a player. “Similarly, if we win, there’s no guarantee he’ll be pleased.”

This was apparent after the team qualified for the Tokyo Olympics in late 2019. After making a meal of a seemingly straightforward match, India defeated the US to qualify for back-to-back Olympics for the first time ever.

But if the players were expecting their coach to be happy with the outcome, they were in for a reality check. When the team reassembled for the national camp at their base in Bengaluru, Marijne scheduled a one-off eight-hour training session. It started at 8 in the morning and ended at 4 pm, with a short lunch break being the only downtime.

After the Australia scalp on Monday, though, the coach was over the moon. He hugged the team, clicked pictures with them and, from the pitch side, was seen video-calling his wife and three children in Amsterdam. Later, he posted a happy team picture from the bus with a message for his family: “Sorry family, I coming again later.”

That heartfelt post drew a reply from Bollywood’s most famous “hockey coach” Shah Rukh Khan. And the real hockey coach’s followers on Twitter rocketed from 2,000-odd at the start of the day to 32,000 by late evening.

From the time he joined the Indian team in 2017, Marijne has been working to make the players mentally and physically tougher. He started with a largely disjointed unit, one in which most players couldn’t run, pass or score goals, and was not too happy with the individualistic performances of many who crumbled under pressure.

Fast-forward to four-and-a-half years later, and the historic win against World No. 3 and former Olympic champions Australia in the quarterfinals was reflective of the cultural change brought in the team. By now, Marijne had democratised team meetings and created an atmosphere where players could freely express themselves, both on and off the field.

This, in a way, was also redemption for the coach.

His appointment as the women’s team coach was a result of their last-place finish at the Rio Games, which marked India’s maiden appearance at the Olympics in more than 30 years. “When Sjoerd first joined the team, I think he would have thought, ‘oh my god, what is this team!’” Rani had said earlier.

But according to the man who had coached the World No. 1 Dutch women’s team before coming to India, what surprised him more was that the players called him “sir”. But then, he saw the team train. “There was no speed at all. And they did not have much understanding of tactics,” he said.

Marijne and his then assistant Eric Wonkink, both tactical nerds, along with South African strength and conditioning coach Wayne Lombard, became fixated on improving the team. Every training session since early 2017 was used to make the team quicker and fitter, which in turn helped enhance their understanding and implementation of structure and tactics.

The progress Marijne made impressed a hard-to-please Hockey India so much that when they were looking for a coach for the men’s team in September 2017, they ended up poaching the women’s coach.

Marijne was informed of this decision via a phone call when he was away with the women’s team on an exposure tour to Europe. And former men’s coach Harendra Singh was subsequently handed over the reins of the women’s team — he led them to a bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games last year.

The men, however, did not buy into Marijne’s ideas and as a consequence, returned from Gold Coast without a medal. Soon after, in what felt like a promotion for Harendra and punishment for Marijne, their roles were swapped.

But the Dutchman took it on the chin and since May 2018, when he rejoined the women’s team, the graph has only gone in one direction — upwards. Yet, the coach and his players will hope the peak is yet to come.

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