Coronavirus Outbreak: Stuck in a pandemic, hockey coaches try and improvise game's future in post-COVID world

As sport waits for its spectacle to come back, hockey coaches sitting back, analysing, and reanalysing their own tactical formulae, figure out further tactical shifts and the need for change. Has hockey as a sport prospered? Have we graduated from being an amateur sport with an emotional wrench to a multi-million dollar professional discipline, up there with the big boys? Does anything need to change in a sport where rules are revised at the snap of a finger?

Sundeep Misra April 24, 2020 13:41:31 IST
Coronavirus Outbreak: Stuck in a pandemic, hockey coaches try and improvise game's future in post-COVID world

It is disorienting; but, we cannot run away from the fact that the world, at the moment, lives under a canopy of distress and hope, both almost in equal measure. The sporting world, grappling with new realities, is standing on the edge of the precipice – difficult to step back and no tangible way forward, at least for the moment. Days have turned into weeks and then into months, hope comes like a whiff of smoke and then disappears a second later. Yet, in these uncertain times where agony, misery and torment wait to be swept aside by joy, health, and comfort, the one element in abundance is time.

As sport waits for its spectacle to come back, hockey coaches sitting back, analysing, and reanalysing their own tactical formulae, figure out further tactical shifts and the need for change. Has hockey as a sport prospered? Have we graduated from being an amateur sport with an emotional wrench to a multi-million dollar professional discipline, up there with the big boys? Does anything need to change in a sport where rules are revised at the snap of a finger?

Terry Walsh, the 1986’ World Cup winner with Australia and former coach Australia, Holland and India has a few interesting suggestions. His first: “To stop confusion, deliberate infringement in the self-start ruling; ‘The infringing defender must move out of the line to goal and not influence the game until the ball has travelled 5 metres.’”

Those skilful forwards would be rubbing their hands with glee and at the same time watch space expand in the opposition half. But Terry’s most interesting point is on the aerial ball.

He says – “Any aerial ball landing in a contested area is penalised with a free hit to the defender from where the overhead was thrown. Forget about who was first etc…as this implies you must play a man to man style. No rule should dictate game strategy. Moreover many players just throw wild overheads from anywhere on the pitch. This will keep the ball more on the ground  - not so crazy when you think we spend millions of dollars laying synthetic surfaces.”

And to think some coaches scream themselves hoarse asking defenders to go the aerial route!!

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On top of the coaching tree at the moment sits Shane McLeod who coached Belgium to a 2018 World Cup win, the 2019 European Championships and the 2016 Olympic silver medal. Twitter @BELRedLions

On top of the coaching tree at the moment sits Shane McLeod who coached Belgium to a 2018 World Cup win, the 2019 European Championships and the 2016 Olympic silver medal. Shane believes hockey leads the way “to making changes for the good of the game.” The Belgian coach says changes will be seen in speed and power. “It appears as if the philosophy of these changes has been to remove all of the elements of the game that slow the sport down,” he says. Shane also speaks about the over-head, the aerial.

“The modern game is played at a pace and skill level that never been seen before but it will continue to develop,” Shane feels. “For me, the next area of the game, or at least the rule that still causes issue, is that of the throwing and receiving of overheads. The game has become more dynamic in the use of aerials but it is currently difficult to umpire the danger element consistently. The solution is not evident but an improvement in this aspect will assist in the flow of the game.”

Japanese coach Siegfried Aikman, who took Japan to a 2018 Asian Games gold, the first in their history, feels there should be no more changing of rules. “It's important that people can recognise what going on when they watch a hockey match,” Aikman says. “Now it's even hard for insiders to understand. If we watch football, the rules are long time unchanged and therefor the sport is very understandable for a big crowd.”

The Japanese coach is not a big believer in the 60-minute, 4-quarter format. “I hope hockey will return to the 2 time 35 minutes format,” he says. “I believe playing 35 minutes each half is more challenging.” Aikman also wants the Champions Trophy to return as “it has added value and a tournament format is also financial better for the countries and for the fans.”

Captain of the Indian team that won the 1980’ Olympic Gold and former Indian coach, Vasudevan Bhaskaran points towards referrals being an issue. “That’s where it needs to be full proof,” he says.

Terry goes further on the video review process. “The video review process is way short of quality control,” says the Aussie legend. “Solutions have been superficial and we have serious difficulties with process and presentation  - especially if we believe we are to positively present our product to the television world. Having umpires put their slant on what is being asked is frustrating and does the game presentation no favours.”

So what is the answer?

“Maybe this: No question - only a review signal,” says Terry. “Two video review experts then review with appropriate software tools and knowledge and a decision is provided in a timely manner.”

On how hockey would look after a vaccine is developed and, sport, the world over makes a comeback, Terry’s answer delves into the very functioning of the Pro-League.

“Hockey has done itself no favours in the manner in which we have poorly managed the Pro League opportunities, specifically in network financial management and delivery. On- line viewing will undoubtedly be developed but to be effective we must have quality commentary,” says Terry.

On the four quarters and the quarter-finals introduced at the World Cup and the Olympic Games, Terry puts a question ‘What has playing 4 quarters and quarter finals really achieved?’ and then answers it: “My honest reaction is that in both cases it has enabled lower level teams a much better chance of success…and that is counterproductive to elite performance.”

India’s former coach under whom we won the 2014 Asian Games gold believes COVID-19 provides the sport ‘with a moment for reflection, review and change where necessary.’ He is especially critical on the International Hockey Federation (FIH). “We need to closely examine the poor performance of FIH in recent years. The resources being spent by the National Federations to finance the FIH programming has led to serious deficiencies in funding available to development within countries. Our youth is being asked to pay more funding just to play our game. This will quickly reduce the numbers playing the sport. This requires immediate and drastic action if we want to grow our sport. It seems to me that National Federations should insist on a thorough review of our International governance from FIH. After all FIH has been established for the better interest of the countries playing our sport. To be concise, FIH is the servant of the countries, not the other way around!”

Shane McLeod clarifies his views do not represent Belgium or the FIH – “My thoughts here are purely my own.”

Shane praises the now defunct Champions Trophy. “I personally enjoyed Champions Trophy. I have watched this tournament as a boy and remember that this tournament was when the best of the best played each other. The tournament had 6 teams. A day consisted of such games as India v Pakistan, Holland v Germany, an GB v Australia. (Belgium were not in the picture in those days). What a great day of hockey. For sure now there are more teams that have reached that level and you could argue for 8 teams but the tournament itself was a special tournament. People understood it.”

“Currently there is so much hockey for a top international player. For me, the Pro-League is a great concept but should fall between years of the World Cup and Olympic Games. This would allow for the local aspect of countries to continue to develop their players locally. It could even open a window for a champions Trophy Tournament in the lighter years.”

Aikman votes for an Asian League. “I think we should invest more in local hockey. There should be more matches between India and Pakistan, Japan, and Korea, maybe an Asian League, the winners of the League can play a World League tournament. It will create more matches which are accessible for teams and fans and maybe more interesting for local sponsors.”

On how to secure the future of hockey and keep the sponsors engaged, Terry wants 8-a-side to be seriously considered. “Our present game is arguably too crowded, especially in the defensive circles,” he argues. “9’s still has the ability to defend with too many numbers  - 6’s will be the death of our game as skill sets will completely alter.”

His argument for 8’s on exactly the same rules and pitch dimensions are: “Looks and feels like today’s game but with more space and opportunity. Smaller squad size - say 14 in the squad, reduced numbers especially at the Olympics. Much enhanced environment for our best to display skill, speed and opportunity…just what spectators want to see.”

Terry also argues that 8’s would also be taken positively by the IOC and puts forward “two quarters X 25 minutes or 4 X 12 min allowing for quality rescheduling”. He also argues to “limit the interchange frequency to allow the best players more pitch time...best players are the ones spectators want to see.”

Shane believes in growing the sport. “Continue to create a product that appeals to fans and sponsors,” he says. “It has many aspects that are great for sponsors to align themselves with. It is a family sport with family values. It is a lifetime sport from 5 years to 85 years (master’s hockey). We have to be well led in this area and we need to have plan to achieve reaching an even greater market. Belgium is a great example of growing a sport. From small beginnings the Federation has taken a little sport and turned it into a sport that the whole country is starting to fall in love with. They did this step by step but are constantly looking at ways to do even better.”

Prodded, provoked, nudged are simple methods of generating opinion, an expression of sentiment from men who have played and coached at the highest level in their sport. In these times, nostalgia is also a balm. On the one moment that is Terry’s most treasured, his answer is: “In fact it is not any one moment although I can recall numerous highlights,” he says. “The real treasure for me is having been fortunate enough to be involved with so many people from around the world and had a career that has kept me in the international game for over 40 years. Now that can be really nostalgic!”

Shane’s is somewhat predictable. “I have two recent moments that stand out for me in these lockdown moments. Both of them I re-watched this week in my scouting homework. The first was the final of the World Cup in India. Winning the shootout after playing an incredibly tight match against Holland. What an amazing feeling to win such an event in (what I believe) is the home of Hockey.”

“The second was winning the semi-final against Germany in Antwerp (my home). It was a truly movie style match. Losing 0-2 and coming back to win against the odds. What made it so amazing was the event. Everyone that saw that game in the stadium will remember it always. That is why sport is so important. That is why (when it is possible again) it will be sport that will play an important role in bringing connect back in our world.”

For Aikman, it is the excitement of India Vs Pakistan and the ones that he saw in Holland, his home country. “Those matches in Holland were always sold out,” he remembers. “Always many goals, skilful hockey and high paced.”

Bhaskaran’s most memorable day “was representing India for the first time against England in a Test series in 1971 and playing alongside Ajit Pal Singh.”

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