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May 26, 2000


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Lessons Down Under

Cedric D'Souza

During my travels over the last few months, I was fortunate to accompany Nitin Kohli, a sports goods dealer-friend to Australia. Kohli is from Sports Specialists, the makers of the Vijayanti hockey sticks. The purpose of the trip Down Under was to check out out the market there as well as try and market Indian products. However, I used the trip as an opportunity to catch up with long-time coaching buddies, like Frank Murray, former coach of Australia's men's hockey team and present assistant women's coach; Dr. Ric Charlesworth, the current national women's coach; Terry Walsh, the current men's national coach, and Richard Aggiss, the former Australian national coach and now master coach of the International Hockey Federation.

We met several times over meals or a cup of coffee and discussed hockey at length. They were affable, warm and ready to share/exchange views and ideas, and, I must say, I really did enjoy the interaction. All were of the opinion that Indian players still have fantastic skills, and, with proper coaching/administration, India can again be back amongst the elite hockey-playing nations.

However, they were unanimous in their belief that we are lacking in key areas. Like a uniform coaching system and strong administration. They felt that our coaching standards are pathetic, our administration is way behind the rest of the world and there's too much politics in selection of teams. Without any structure in place and the reluctance to change with the times, they felt, it will always be an uphill task for India.

One must say that Australia faced the same scenario way back in the eighties (old school of thought not wanting change), but some of their coaches convinced those in power, changed the mindset and created a system that is in use today. Today, the proof of the efficiency and quality of their system is a well-known phenomenon that has entrenched Australia among the top four nations for more than two decades.

Both Frank Murray and Richard Aggiss, apart from others, were instrumental in formulating this structure. They could not believe that coaches in our country are not paid a farthing. 'Don't you sign contracts?' was their next question?

Now, it was my turn to scoff and say that coaching in our country as compared to the western world is an honorary post, where very little respect/powers are meted out to the man in the hot seat. I then did ask if any of them would consider taking up the job in India. Their answer was an emphatic 'No' - with an immediate question: 'Why aren't you there? How do you expect us to even contemplate taking on this job when the IHF has refused to sign a contract with you?.'

They did, however, say that India needed to get fitter both mentally and physically, tighten up in defense, and get more tactical in their overall approach to the game.

While in Australia, I watched the semi-finals and final of their women's national tournament. And what a championship it turned out to be. The girls, apart from being attractive, were robust, athletic, aggressive, committed, and displayed skills that would make some of our men's teams give an ovation. Counter attacks were lightning, closing down was fast and furious, re-tackling was a common sight, off the ball running, and playing the ball in the spaces was constant. Neither team gave the ball away softly, thereby ensuring total commitment and fighting spirit.

As one watched the likes of Alyson Annan (considered the best women's player), Rachelle Hawkes, Nicky Mott Hudson, Kirtsen and Julie Towers and Renita Gerard in action, it became obvious that Australian hockey has depth like no other country; at least 30-odd players who are ready for international duty.

The most startling fact was that even though the Olympics is their backyard, and around the corner, their coaching and development staff was all there in strength to witness the national tournament and select the players that can make the team after the Olympics. Yes, they have already started planning for the next two years. If this is not forward thinking, then what is?

Australian Institute of Sports at Perth

I did go over to the AIS and was amazed to see how much hockey is being played at all levels - - grass root development, juniors, seniors, clubs, national and veterans. The astroturf pitches are booked throughout the day, with one of the above categories either playing matches or training. The level of competitiveness is really an eye opener, as players, from tiny tots to veterans, really go for each other. Giving off your best even at practice sessions or winning during friendly matches is drilled into the minds from the early stages, and I guess that this is why the Australian team is considered the most aggressive in the world. Training sessions are totally match simulated, where the player does feel the pressures of a game, thereby ensuring total commitment. In short, it guarantees that the players are training to play and not playing to train.

I did witness a match here too, where a local club team played the AIS team, which had nine current national players. The match, although just a practice one, had all the makings of tournament game. Fabulous attacking hockey was on show, with power, speed and responsibility under the watchful eyes of Terry Walsh, the national coach, and David Bell, the AIS senior coach. The scoreline read 7-6 at the end. For me, this was a lesson to be learnt. By raising their domestic levels, they have been able to establish themselves on the international stage.

Let us look at how the AIS is structured:

The AIS is the main institute, situated in Perth, and has eight regional Intensive Training Centers around Australia. As all the programmes are under the Australian Hockey Association national coach, all the centers have a uniform format with the coaches having enough flexibility to be creative and improvise.

The coaches assist the national coach at the various ITCs, give him feedback while spotting talent and recommend names. The national coach then checks out the player and recommends him to the AIS for training with the AIS squad. Assessments are made, and if the player proves himself, a full scholarship is given later. This is subsidised by government funding. Thus, the player gets paid, specialized training, with the next stop for him being induction into the national squad.

The structure of AIS - floor plan:

The national team has 18 players, picked from a pool of 24-30 players. At any given time they have 8 to 15 additional players in readiness. These 30 players that form the core of the national squad come from the AIS and are selected from the eight Intensive Training Centers around Australia, which has players in the age groups of 14 to 20. Each of the ITCs have 36 players - 20 play in the national league, with 16 additional players waiting in readiness.

Thus, one can see that a great amount of thought has gone into structuring the sport. We must take a leaf out of that book. I do not say that we blindly copy what they have, but at least we can steal some points from them, as also from the rest of the world, and form a base. It will provide India a system it so desperately needs, and make uniformity the order of the day. This done, I am convinced, Indian hockey will once again steal the thunder.

Cedric D'Souza

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