Hockey World Cup 2018: Is the dice loaded against 'star' coaches when they join Asian teams?

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They come with almost impeccable credentials. Some have already proved themselves as world beaters both as players and coaches, others have guided their teams to the biggest prizes in hockey. Despite the abundance of talent in Asia from which they feel privileged to pick their squads, these star coaches often find the going tough once in the hot seat. That is the growing impression, so much so that some Asian teams now think twice before hiring these "star" coaches.

Is the dice loaded against star coaches when they join Asian teams?

India's coach Roelant Wouterthe Oltmans (R) looks on during the men's quarterfinal field hockey Belgium vs India match of the Rio 2016 Olympics Games at the Olympic Hockey Centre in Rio de Janeiro on August 14, 2016. (Photo by MANAN VATSYAYANA / AFP)

Roelant Oltmans coached India and Pakistan before taking up his current job as Malaysia's head coach. AFP/Manan Vatsyayana

And why? After all, they are head-hunted for the assignments and they arrive with a lot of fan-fair. Their word is almost the law when team selections are concerned – a privilege not available to their predecessors among local coaches. They have a number of assistant coaches from the locals as translators, so language barriers are not such a big issue – as some teams are recently making it to be. The facilities demanded for the squad by the coaches are provided as soon as possible – which again is not something the local coaches could have always secured in the same time.

So what goes wrong? There is a plethora of questions hockey followers keep asking as the debate gets surcharged.

Let's ask someone who has wide experience of across the continent and teams under his charge have often tasted success. But even he has had to shuttle from one nation to another in search of contracts. Who other than Dutchman Roelant Oltmans! He's been a popular coach in Asia and has coached the national squads of three leading hockey nations – India, Pakistan and Malaysia.

Having lived in Asia for six consecutive years, Oltmans ought to be quite familiar with the travails faced by foreign coaches and also possess an insight into the way the system works in these nations. After all, Oltmans has been the coach of Pakistan's squad twice. He had a five-year stint in India, first as the High Performance Director and then as the national coach; until he got sacked last year. And now he is in charge of the Malaysia national squad. Nice moves all, except the inherent bickering over decisions to leave the national squads that he had coached.

After being fired from his position as India's national coach, Oltmans moved to Pakistan and has now landed in Malaysia, which is a new outpost for him, but a choice where the officialdom is "quite patient".

Acknowledging that there is a vast difference in the manner a coach deals with the federations in these nations, Oltmans expectedly does not want to elaborate. "Yes, dealing with the officials in these countries is vastly different, but I do not wish to comment further," says Oltmans, who is heading back from Bhubaneswar to Kuala Lumpur after his Malaysian team failed to even qualify for the cross-overs. Asian Games silver medallists Malaysia, in fact, were the only Asian team failing to make the cross-overs from their respective groups while India, Pakistan and China performed marginally better.

For someone who has been pretty successful in Asia, Oltmans says: "It's got to be looked from both sides. People are also expecting wonders from foreign coaches. We're not wizards."

Pointing at the impatience being one of the factors, Oltmans says, "It takes time. That's something that the management has to understand, the people who are funding the program have to understand. If they do, then you can deliver."

The coaches, says Oltmans, must never give hints that they could do wonder in a week's time, or get impatient when things do not start changing immediately. "For us coaches, we have to understand that as well. Rome wasn't built in a day, it took quite a few years. We are building a system in a country and that takes time," he says.

The "star imports" begin their work with all praise being heaped on them, but soon they are the target of fierce criticism and almost the butt of all jokes concerning their sport – which may not necessarily be hockey. There seems something amiss when it comes to acceptance of foreign coaches in the Asian sporting culture. But things can change drastically for these hockey coaches in Asia when they come under fire.

"If you get the time, and you are willing to spend your time, then you can make a change. But you also have to understand what you can change and what you can’t change," says Oltmans.

Siegfried Aikman, a Dutchman of Indian origin who guided Japan to the Asian Games gold medal, feels success and failure of coaches in a foreign environment depends upon the inter-personal skills of people involved.

"The coaches often bring their coaching expertise to the foreign environment, but do not have enough local knowledge of how things get done there," says Aikman.

Citing his own experience in Japan, Aikman says he was more successful during his second stint in the country.

Oltmans emphasises that cultural issues must be understood by the coaches before expecting drastic changes. His own understanding of the Asian system perhaps was the key to his relative success compared to other coaches who did not last long in the new environment.

"You can't change the culture or how the system works," says Oltmans about the things coaches cannot change. "Once you accept it, then you can work better."

Barring a few exceptions, these coaches are seen packing their bags much ahead of the perceived deadlines – whether they quit or get sacked.

The sacking of coaches is such a touchy subject in the hockey world nowadays that some teams attract very few applicants when vacancies arise. And when this vacancy opens up, the top available talent is reluctant to head to Asia. It is not just about the senior national squads, but even junior teams and clubs can be confronted with the same difficulty if the assignment is long-term.

"Occasionally, foreign coaches end up offending people around them. That's where things begin to go wrong for them," says Aikman. "Also, the press often gets impatient and critical if progress is not evident soon."

"People management skills is what determines the quantum of success," adds Aikman.

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Updated Date: Dec 12, 2018 10:32:11 IST

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