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Sports: The Coach Who Energized Indian Women’s Field Hockey

By Viren Mayani Email By Viren Mayani
October 2021
Sports: The Coach Who Energized Indian Women’s Field Hockey

(Photo: Hockey India)

An underdog going into the recent Tokyo Olympics, the Indian women’s hockey team pulled off a stunning victory in the quarterfinals, beating Australia, which is ranked number three in the world. Securing a place in the semifinals was a historic first. Coach SJOERD MARIJNE has been widely recognized for transforming this ragtag team into credible global contenders, and in the process, raising the profile of the game, especially amongst legions of young Indian girls.

In a wide-ranging interview with Khabar, Coach Marijne talks about communication barriers, his mindset, turning petite players into strong athletes, talent search and more.

Tears of joy came over Coach Sjoerd Marijne when he called his family to announce the stunning victory of India over Australia in women’s field hockey at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo. No one had seen this coming—India entering the semifinals. A nation of over a billion people was jubilant. As the coach himself described it, this was a real-life Chak De! India moment— reality mimicking the “victory against all odds” theme of the 2007 Bollywood movie in which superstar Shah Rukh Khan plays the coach of a similarly ragtag women’s hockey team that he leads to victory.

Coach Marijne spoke to me over a zoom call from the Netherlands where it was late at night.

What inspired you to take on the role of coaching India’s women’s hockey team knowing very well the odds against them?

It’s the challenge—the challenge to coach a team that was low in world rankings. I knew that if I was going to do this well, we needed to take big steps. It was one of the biggest challenges for me to consider at the time. I was approached by the director of the Indian team, following which I discussed it with my family. I knew how these girls were in the Junior World Cup 2012 in Germany, because one of my best friends, Maria Verschoor from the Netherlands, was their coach. She told me there is a lot of talent [in the Indian team]; Netherlands only won because they had a better [pc] penalty corner. So I knew I could take the next necessary steps. But the moment I saw them playing and training, I was like, OK, we have a lot of work to do with this team.

You were so committed to your coaching. Did you find the same level of commitment from the team? Did they give you what you needed to sculpt them?

Yes, absolutely. Big credits to the team because the players were always open to improvements. I asked a lot from them, but they were always willing and wanted to improve. That’s a big compliment for them.

How did you cross the bridge of communication? Many of the players, coming from various parts of the country, didn’t speak English.

Yes, that was difficult. Communication went through Rani (Captain) most of the time. She’s good at English. Monica (midfielder on the team) also speaks good English. They helped me translate. That really worked. Slowly we implemented English lessons because I think they will be mostly instructed by foreign coaches. I think it’s really important for the girls to learn English. The most difficult thing was that they could understand me, but I didn’t understand what they are saying to each other.​

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 [​Top] The jubilant Indian team after defeating Australia in the quarterfinals.

Overall, Indian women athletes are shorter and more petite than their international competitors who are generally taller and more muscular. How much did you have to work on their physicality in trying to bring endurance to their game?

Yes, that was one of the most difficult parts because of the physicality that you see nowadays. That’s really, really important. In hockey, you really have to be an athlete. All the credit goes to Wayne Lombard (scientific adviser to the team) in this process. Every moment he had, he was there for the girls, and to work on their fitness. They became faster but also more aware of what is not good for them. As for their height, that is something we can’t change. We used our short height to garner speed and that became our strength.

What changes did you have to bring to their diet regiment?

The challenge was that they didn’t understand what they ate and what it did to their bodies. We needed to educate them. We had Shona Prabhu, the team’s sports nutrition specialist, who did an amazing job. The girls took pictures of their food, especially when we were on tour, and then sent that to Shona who reacted, “OK, this is what you can eat and this is what you cannot eat.” She also told them why they couldn’t. That’s really important. They have to understand the reason behind it. Then they can learn to make their own decisions.

How committed was the Indian government to your coaching and to seeing the team succeed? Did you have any bottlenecks? Did they cooperate with you and your asks?

Yes, it’s a challenge and not only in India. It’s everywhere in the world with every organization and you have to make the best of it. For me, in India, it’s about accepting things the way they are, the way the administration works. Sometimes it’s frustrating but I realize that they also want to have the best. And then communication is the most important thing. Sometimes it was difficult but in the last four-and-a-half years, both sides have managed to do their best and I always felt their support. They always allowed us on tours. And I think it
was really important that it was the same with Hockey India. Of course, there was a difference between [their treatment of] men and women, and I hope that difference will get smaller or be gone someday.

There is still disparity between how men and women are treated in sports. They are not on the same footing, including in the U.S. Look at Megan Rapinoe who is still fighting for equal pay for the women’s soccer team, for example. From your perspective, did the Indian women meet the mettle?

In the beginning, they didn’t. There was no ambition because the administration didn’t take them seriously. Now, you can do two things. You can either start whining and finger-pointing; or you can change it yourself. That’s what I said to the girls—that these people don’t have confidence in you. In that way, I motivated the girls even more. Shouting doesn’t work. It’s also about showing because that really makes an impact. And I think now, that’s what has happened in India.

Because of the pandemic, there were no spectators at the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. How did you and the team feel without the energizing aura of crowds and supporters?

We had a match the next day, and there was so much focus from the girls for that first match. And if you focus on what you have to do, you are not so worried if there is a crowd or not. I think it would have really helped us extra if there was a crowd because the good thing about India is that there are Indians all over the world, so wherever we play, we will always have support from the audience. That definitely would have helped us, but it was the way it was. The good thing about this team is they have learned to deal with the situation and the circumstances. So, the focus was really good and everybody was happy to start.

How are the matches laid out based on international ranking, and how did it help or hurt the Indian team?

We were lucky on one hand and not so lucky on the other that we started with the highest rank and then the next highest rank and so on. We had to wait a long time to be able to win a match. For me, when there is something that works against me, I always turn it the other way around. I am a positive thinker. So, I was thinking ok, we didn’t play matches for five months, so we can use the match against the Netherlands as a practice match. Of course, you will never say that you are playing a practice match because you want to win. I also knew we could lose this match against the Netherlands because the difference is really big. But slowly, we were getting more in rhythm in our tournaments. And you saw that with every match we were improving, and we knew that we had to play the best matches at the end of the tournament. But the mindset of the team is important, they were prepared for this. They knew this could happen and stayed calm because the matches which were important were coming at the end.

How did the team react after the loss to Argentina in the semifinals?Sports_3_10_21.jpg

For me, the biggest loss was the semifinal. I think the match against Argentina was the one in which we were really close and we could have won. The team was very emotional because they knew they were so close to the medal. I told the girls they held nothing back. We made 1.3 billion people proud. Our big dream was always to improve the position of women, inspire young girls. And to achieve that, a medal helps. But now, we have also shown that it is not always a medal that makes a difference. Because of the way we played and because of the fighting spirit, we also achieved that. It doesn’t mean we didn’t want the bronze medal, but it helps a little bit to deal with it.

[Top]Coach Marijne has been widely acknowledged for making the Indian women’s hockey team a “mentally tough unit.”

I saw your conversation with Prime Minister Modi after the games. He was very congratulatory about your work. He told the girls that there was nothing to hang their head down for, they did their best, and there is always another time. What did you think of that messaging?

I think it was a really big gesture and it also helped the Indian people to see that sometimes, a medal is not the end of the road. And that is what showed with that phone call. That you did what you could do, you worked so hard, but in the end, only one can win and for now it was the other team. But you can be proud. I told the girls the same, but his words really helped the girls to realize what they had just achieved. And I think this is leadership. So, I really appreciate his words.

From your perspective, what are future prospects for women’s hockey in India?

I just hope that now that the girls are really popular and everybody knows them, they inspire other young girls. I hope that more girls are going to play hockey, that families in India are going to think a little bit the other way. At this moment, it’s first study, and then sports because people think that first you need your education, that will bring money on the table. And I understand. But if you now see, it can also happen with hockey. All the girls come from poor families. I don’t think they have to work in their life anymore. They have provided their families with houses and those kinds of things. So, there is a future in sports. And besides this, sports give you human skills. Learning to work together, resilience and to never give up. So, I just hope that education in India will embrace sports more so that you create a culture in schools where sports become even more important. I think the sky is the limit in India and they really can become a powerhouse in sports. Right now they say it, but it’s not there yet.

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 [Left] A huddle with the team during the Tokyo Olympics.

Now that you have brought India hockey this far, what do you think are the prospects for its future?

The challenge is talent identification in India. For instance, in Germany, you have a smaller country, but the talent always comes in the national team. In the cities where they play, it is more centralized. In India, the country is so big. So, talent identification is very difficult. You have to keep selecting and changing your team because you have to keep them fresh and also bring up the competition. And that is a challenge. What I think is really important is organizing tournaments in India and participating in the hockey pro league because these girls need a lot of matches. Without matches and only training, they will not make the next step. So, there are challenges for the new coach and for Indian hockey.

With so many accolades to your resume, what do you see yourself doing in the coming years?

I am now coaching a top men’s team in the Netherlands. I would also like to be an entrepreneur. I have hockey schools. Besides this, I also want to stay in touch with India. I think I can do a lot and I know the country now. We inspired a lot of Indians and I think I can still play a role. That’s why, for instance, I am also writing a book about my experiences in India, and it’s almost finished. India will always be connected to me for the rest of my life. To inspire more people outside sports, I am organizing webinars. That way, I can share the story of how we all can start believing. How do you deal with mindset? How do you create a high-performance culture? And how do I create ownership inside the team? And that is also what you want to create in corporate life. So many things that you use in sports life, you also can use in corporate life. For instance, my two captains are more my CEOs. I think there will still be roles for me to help corporates or people in personal life or sports in India.


Viren Mayani is a senior contributor at Khabar with a wide repertoire of interviews with leading personalities in various fields such as sports, entertainment, business and more.

 


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