When it comes to sports, reality can beat reel life easily. While the whole country is familiar with Kabir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan's character from Chak de! India, the man who is actually trying to script a turnaround in the fortunes of Indian women's hockey team is Sjoerd Marijne of Netherlands.
In his second stint as the coach of women's team, with a brief tenure with the men's side in between, Marijne is clear about the road ahead. Belonging to the hockey powerhouse nation of Netherlands, he tells Akshay Saraswat of International Business Times, India, what makes his country the best in women's hockey and what needs to be done in India for making its team champions.
You were with the women's team before being shifted to the men's side. When you returned to the women's team, did you find the side in the same state in which you had left it or improved?
Sjoerd: No, it was in the same state.
So, did your time away from the team retard their progress somewhat?
Sjoerd: When I came back, we immediately had a tournament in Korea – Asian Champions Trophy. Straight away, we felt good to be back together. It felt like I hadn't gone away. That's also the way I think the players felt.
Before we talk about Indian team, I want to ask you about the culture of women's hockey in Netherlands. While in men's hockey, 3-4 teams are constantly jostling for top position, in women's hockey, the Dutch team have been the best for a long time. Is there something about the culture of hockey in your country that is responsible for this?
Sjoerd: Yes, the coaching in Netherlands is completely different. The competitions for both girls and boys start from the age of 5-6. They (young players) also have examples to follow in sports, players they can look up to. I think that is a big difference. They follow that culture, they want to reach that level. And because that level is always the highest in the world, you always get new players.
Our country is not that big, so travelling from the north to the south is three hours. But you never have to do it. The longest you have to travel is hour-and-a-half. So, you can train more together in that country when you are younger. You play a lot of matches at the youth level. I think these things make a big difference.
Training, including skills training, is good. Playing matches, that is also very important for tactical awareness. I think these are some of the things that have helped the Dutch remain no. 1 for a long time. Besides that, the athletic skills are very good. They pay a lot of attention on that. Those things help them.
The Dutch league is considered among the toughest in Hockey. Would you like to see Indian girls play over there?
Sjoerd: There was only one player from India in the Dutch league and I never saw a woman player from India in Netherlands.
Is that something you would like to change?
Sjoerd: It's difficult because the international calendar of India is very crowded. We have a lot of tournaments and the players have to fly up and down. I think after the Olympics, it would be definitely possible and it would help a lot of girls. But before Olympics, it's impossible.
Also, the structure in India is a little bit different. The girls get paid by their companies. They also have to be allowed by Hockey India to get involved in these kind of things. We have seen that some men are going there to play. And they are playing for a club next year. But they are not in the international programme and their companies allow them to play there. That way, this sort of experience can definitely help.
It has been said by some of the players that while your team's aggressive play was good, you have also worked a lot on improving the defence. What are the main areas in the defence that you have tried to address?
Sjoerd: In the last year or so, I don't have big concerns regarding defence because I think we have done very well. But you always try to improve. It's not like, if we go into a tournament and concede a lot of goals, we are only focussing on defending. Every camp sees us focus on a mixture of things, some more than others, at times.
But the players know exactly the way we want to play – more ball possession. For us, it's now making the details better. What helps is playing matches. We are going to the Test event (in Tokyo from August 17) and there, we would play four matches. We would learn from that and this would help very much.
Besides that, we need to just keep improving their (players') physical fitness. We are doing very well. It's a big change what Wayne Lombard, the scientific coach, has brought about. It's already two-and-a-half years that he has been working but we can still make small improvements. That's our focus.
You mentioned fitness. The Indian men's team are as fit as any other side in the world. What about the women's team? Are they also at the peak of their fitness or is there room for improvement?
Sjoerd: The problem is, we don't have reports from all the other countries. So, it's very difficult to say if you are the fittest team in the world. Everybody is doing there measurements in a different way. So, you can't compare. Only those things that are published on a scientific basis can be looked at. If we see those results and find out that we are on the right track and level with some top countries or even better, then only we can be satisfied. But we don't know how other teams are being tested. You need to have objective testing.
Are you satisfied with your team's level of fitness?
Sjoerd: Yes, if you see the difference we are making, absolutely.
Last year, the disappointment of losing the World Cup quarter-final and the Asian Games final must have been very severe. The players have said that they found it very hard to recover. How hard was it for you, as a coach, to get your players out of the rut and up and running again?
Sjoerd: It took time. That takes time and still, it's painful. The only thing that's more important is that the girls learn. What happens in the past, you can't change. But what would happen in the future, you can control and change.
That's why, when we played Spain and Ireland, even though they were Test matches, we tried to prove that we can win against them. That's similar to what we are doing now. So, we can't stay too long in the past. That's a mental process and that takes time but I think we did it very well.
The Chinese team showed glimpses of talent in the World Cup last year and their improvement has continued through the FIH Pro League. Do you think your team will also benefit from playing against the top teams in the Pro League next year?
Sjoerd: This time last year, I would have liked to play in the Pro League. But only for one reason: for the points. Next year, I don't think I am ok with playing Pro League. Because we are not yet having the depth to play so many matches. I also hear how other countries are struggling with injuries after Pro League, and that too, before the Olympics. It will be interesting to see what happens. But what we can do next year is managing our own load.
Is the women's team getting less opportunities to play against top sides?
Sjoerd: Yeah, absolutely! Because the major teams have to play the Pro League. So, we never played, in the time I am here, Test matches against teams like Netherlands, Argentina, Germany, all those countries which I would love to play against.
As a foreigner, from Netherlands, when you joined the Indian team, did you find the cultural differences very vast? Have you tried to work within that culture or change it?
Sjoerd: People from India tell me that India is from a different planet. These are not my words. It's completely different.
Can you give us an example of how it is different?
Sjoerd: It's the way they (players) are educated. The girls in India are always away from their families, always in the academies, training six days a week. That's a big difference compared to where I come from.
Lots of girls don't study along with their training. In Netherlands, they would study because there is life after hockey. The way coaches treat the girls, when they are younger, is also different. Also, the way of training is dissimilar to what we do in Holland. So, those are few of the differences.
Are those differences good, bad or neutral?
Sjoerd: No, they are just different. Some of them are bad and some of them are not so. Being always in an academy can also be good because you can train a lot but there are always two sides to a story. If something is too much, it's never good. I think the way of educating and teaching children about hockey in India, can see a lot of improvement.
Last year, Japan won the Asian Games title and this year, China has shown improvement in women's hockey. So, is the level of Asian women's hockey getting better?
Sjoerd: Yes, China did very well in the Pro League. Japan is a strong, strong team and they are coming up nicely. They play with big squads, so they create more depth. I think Korea now has a younger team and good players. So, yes, that is happening.
In the last tournament you played – FIH Series Finals in Hiroshima – your team wasn't up against any major sides. Was there a temptation to rest some senior players and give chances to youngsters?
Sjoerd: No, that tournament was too important for us. There was too much at stake as we wanted to win all 500 points. So, you cannot take a risk. I think Chile was a good team and Japan, obviously, was a good side. Everything was about the semi-final and the final.
Besides that, you need to win the pool matches. We don't have to talk about Fiji, with all due respect, but Uruguay recently played against Argentina and the latter won by a margin of just 2-0, with their strongest team. We won 4-1 against the same side.
So, those matches, they are easy on paper but you need to win them and I think we did well. So, I am happy with the choices that we made.
One of the most important and talented members of your team is the striker Lalremsiami. When she first came into the team, she couldn't speak Hindi or English. Now, she has picked up a lot of Hindi so other players can communicate with her. What about you? Are you able to get your message across?
Sjoerd: Yes, because all the players help me with that. Because they help me, their English is becoming better. Even Sami (Lalremsiami) can translate.
It's about willpower. How much do you want something? Sami has the willpower to learn Hindi, to learn English. That's the same with the young girls that are coming in. They see that, okay, this is necessary for playing at the highest level. It (knowing English) is not only to communicate with me but also with referees, with international journalists. It's very important to learn English for their confidence. And I must say that with girls translating, everything goes very easy and smoothly.
With around one year to go for the Olympics, what are the main areas that you are focussing on?
Sjoerd: There aren't just one or two items that we are working on. We want to play fast hockey, we want to apply pressure on the ball. Those two things are very important for us. With that, come a lot of topics. What we need to improve? What we want to do better? But our focus is still on those two things. That's what we try to improve in every camp, with every Test event.
I saw you talking to the men's team coach Graham Reid. The men's team plays a very aggressive brand of hockey. Are you also trying to get your team to play in a similar style?
Sjoerd: We don't try to play the same system as the men. Because there are differences between men and women. When I was coaching the men's team for nine months, I also liked attacking, dynamic hockey. That's what we do the same, having pressure on the ball. In that, discipline is very important.
So, what do you think is the difference between the playing styles of the two teams?
Sjoerd: Men, generally, have more strength, more power and more speed. But nowadays, because of the higher quality of technical skills, they (girls) have more possibility of using different styles. So, that's one of the differences and of course, speed is another one. With women, you can play easier in the zone than with men. Those kinds of things are the main differences.
You have been in India for a long time. Are you feeling at home now and have you brought your family as well?
Sjoerd: No, I didn't bring my family. I feel comfortable where I am, as long as there are no cobras. But feeling of home is only at home.