With a stubbled look, a grimacing face and a tyre resting on each shoulder, Sjoerd Marijne (pronounced: Show-erd Marine) resembles a battle-hardened warrior as he enters the caged hockey pitch at Bangalore’s Sports Authority of India Centre. In his tow, one of the assistants is carrying a thin plastic sheet, a gallon of water and washing powder.
The plastic sheet is spread just outside the ‘D’. Jugraj Singh, one of the assistant coaches, makes a puddle of water on it and mixes some detergent. The players haven’t an idea what their coach is up to. Since he took charge of the men’s hockey team two months ago, Marijne has had several sessions which haven’t had hockey at all. But with tyre, plastic sheet, soap and water as props, they do not know what to expect.
“Sliding challenge,” Marijne announces. They all queue up, and one by one, they run a couple of yards before diving into the slippery, shallow pool. It’s a fun but intense session. Some are scared that their skin will peel off if it brushes against the rubbery surface, and chicken out. Others fall flat on their bums. And then, there are some, like SV Sunil and SK Uthappa, who execute a perfect dive.
Marijne is crouching at the edge of the sheet, recording the whole session. “I am the director of this team. Those guys are my actors,” he says. “Sometimes you need to slide to block the ball or get a deflection to score. If you don’t do in train, you won’t do in match. A lot of players hadn’t dived before. Here everybody did it so it was funny and good.”
He has won over the players with his unconventional methods and infectious energy. But the Dutchman is still an outsider trying to work his way into hockey’s cosy club of coaches. In a sport where there’re only a dozen competitive teams, a handful few have held a firm grip over the cream jobs, constantly shuffling from one international team to another. India, too, has rather infamously been a pit-stop for many. Hockey India has generally chased renowned coaches with proven Olympic pedigree.
Marijne — who was appointed compatriot Roelant Oltmans’s successor in September — is neither renowned nor does he have proven pedigree. Instead, the 43-year-old is a failed tennis player, a club-level player, a school-level gymnastics coach, a professional motivational talker and a hobby golfer. “I was a tennis player in Holland. I was good but nobody helped me on the mental side. Eventually, I didn’t make it big because no one was there to help me with my struggles,” Marijne says. “If I didn’t win, I didn’t control the emotions. I threw racquets and did such things.” So at 18, he quit tennis and joined Den Bosch, one of Holland’s famous hockey clubs. And by the time he was 26, he’d bid farewell to his playing career to become a full-time coach. After a successful stint with the Dutch women, guiding their junior and senior teams to global success, Marijne was first appointed coach of the Indian women’s team in February this year.
But even before he could do something meaningful with them to make an impact, he was asked to take over the reins of the men’s team following Oltmans’ surprise sacking. The target set by his employers are borderline unrealistic — medal at the Commonwealth Games, gold at the Asian Games, podium finish at next year’s World Cup followed by another top-three finish at the Olympics. The next 10 days, however, should provide a glimpse into the true potential of Marijne and his players. The World League Finals, which gets underway in Bhubaneswar on Friday, is a virtual dress rehearsal for next year’s World Cup and for Asian champions India, a true test of their potential.
Marijne says he has modified the team’s playing style since taking charge but has resisted making drastic changes. “I didn’t interfere too much in the beginning. Style has to be player-driven than coach-driven. It’s like buying a house where someone else lived. Sometimes, you just need to paint it in new colour. At times, you renew it completely. With this team, I have to only change the colour but I have to be really careful with that,” he says.
For now, he wants the players to hold the ball for not more than two seconds. “If you need longer time than two seconds, then the pass is closed and the space is less,” he explains. The rolling substitutions, too, will be more strategic, with a player spending a maximum of three minutes on the field before being subbed for three minutes.
During practice, it’s a lot of give-and-go hockey – short, crisp passing instead of long, darting runs. His training sessions are high-pressure and he is actively involved, shouting and demonstrating.
A couple of senior players said the training is heavier compared to most coaches they’ve played under but his eccentric ways keep them entertained.
A few days before the ‘sliding challenge’, Marijne had an unorthodox training drill. He came for training armed with a stereo, playing loud music. Two teams were formed, one led by national captain Manpreet Singh. In that team, all players except Manpreet were blindfolded while the other side was given the licence to distract them – heckle, mock… anything but physical contact.
Amidst the loud music and heckling, the players had to avoid hurdles placed on the field by listening to Manpreet’s instructions. For a team that has subtle cliques, this was Marijne’s way to see just how good the trust was among the players. “You don’t need to be best friends to play,” Marijne says. “But you need to trust each other.” Through the course of the next week or so, it’ll be clear as to how much the players trust each other as well as the ideas of their new coach.
A failed tennis player, Marijne says the mental aspect is the most crucial for him. He uses a lot of motivational videos during team meetings apart from adopting some unconventional ways of team bonding. Recently, he had a training session where tyres, plastic sheet, water and detergent were used as props. After making a puddle of soapy water, Marijne told the players to slide, something which most hadn’t done before. “You need to slide to block the ball or get a deflection to score. If you don’t do in train, you won’t do in match,” he says. Before that, he walked into training with a stereo player and divided the players in two groups. One team, led by Manpreet Singh, was completely blindfolded apart from the captain himself. The other side was given the freedom to distract the players. Amidst the heckling and loud music, the players had to avoid hurdles by listening to the captain’s order. The idea was to build trust among the players, Marijne says.
The team, he says, will play give-and-go hockey, with the players being told not to hold the ball for more than two seconds unless the situation demands it. To ensure high intensity during matches, the players will be fielded for just three minutes before being subbed off, rested for as many minutes, and brought on again.
Hockey World League Finals
Pool A: India, Australia, Germany, England
Pool B: Argentina, Belgium, Holland, Spain
December 1: vs Australia
December 2: vs England
December 4: vs Germany
December 6/7: Quarterfinals
December 8/9: Semifinals
December 10: Bronze medal match/Final
India’s squad: Goalkeepers: Akash Anil Chikte, Suraj Karkera; Defenders: Harmanpreet Singh, Amit Rohidas, Dipsan Tirkey, Varun Kumar, Rupinderpal Singh, Birendra Lakra; Midfielders: Manpreet Singh (C), Chinglensana Singh, SK Uthappa, Sumit, Kothajit Singh; Forwards: SV Sunil, Akashdeep Singh, Mandeep Singh, Lalit Upadhyay, Gurjant Singh.