Long read: How a common football training system is helping India’s women’s hockey team become faster and more accurate

It was not the finish, a point-blank contact, that pleased Janneke Schopman as much as the preparation.

The move started with a seemingly harmless pass from Sharmila Devi to Jyoti Gulia on India’s right flank. Jyoti, surrounded by three American defenders, took only one touch to control the ball and with the second sent it back to Sharmila, who had continued her parallel run inside.

Scanning the options in front of her while sliding towards the American ‘D’, the Indian striker drew two defenders towards her and, with her third touch, threaded a through ball towards Vandana Katariya inside the end zone . Vandana took a few steps towards goal and at the right moment Navneet Kaur arrived at the penalty spot to receive the ball and lead the move to its intended conclusion.

As the ball hit the backboard, Schopman gave all of his players in the dugout a high-five. “That’s what I want them to do,” said the India coach. “…seeing his teammate, deciding what to do and where to give the ball. I don’t want them throwing the ball just because someone asks.

For months she had been trying to instill that kind of telepathic understanding among the players. And after numerous ‘red sessions’ which involve high intensity training, importing training technology commonly used in football and countless hours of testing, they pulled off their penultimate game before the World Cup, where India’s campaign kicks off against England in Amstelveen on Sunday.

It’s not the kind of missing element in the team or something that will magically turn them into an overnight force. It is, in essence, another building block of a team that punches above its weight and aspires to do so until the Giantslayers become Giants themselves. (Hockey India)

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It’s not the kind of missing element in the team or something that will magically turn them into an overnight force. It is, in essence, another building block of a team that punches above its weight and aspires to do so until the Giantslayers become Giants themselves.

What made India’s fourth-place finish at the Tokyo Olympics all the more remarkable was that the team was largely a work in progress at the time. Nothing before the Games remotely suggested they were making their way to the semi-finals. But the underdogs defied odds by using the momentum of unwavering belief among the players and the stubbornness of then-coach Sjoerd Marijne to get them to do better than they were. really capable.

Over the ensuing year they have shown glimpses of what they are capable of, an example being the twin winning against the United States, but there have been occasions where the team has also faced to reality, like the 5-0 defeat against Belgium a few weeks ago. India is now at a very critical juncture and the next four weeks will be a trial by fire.

A deep run to the World Cup and the Commonwealth Games will go a long way to improving their reputation and giving new momentum to women’s hockey in the country. But Schopman, a double Olympic medalist with the Netherlands, including a gold medal at the Beijing Games, is also aware that if the performance drops, “we will drop very quickly, I’m sure”.

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One of the best defenders of her generation, Schopman knows that her players’ first instinct is to attack.

India have speed in the form of Salima Tete, the skills of Lalremsiami and the combination of Monika, Neha Goyal and Navneet Kaur, who are easy to find and play in triangles to unlock opposing defences. Marijne played these forwards in home-and-away hockey, in which a player passes the ball to a teammate and continues running forward to receive a return pass.

Schopman, who was the analytical coach of Marijne’s team before taking over as head coach, wants to push the concept forward but has demanded more fluidity, higher speed and better accuracy. She is aware that against the best teams, players cannot afford to depend on the coach to bark instructions from the touchline or delay a pass for even a second. “Good players are able to make split-second decisions on their own,” she says. “So we trained specifically to create awareness.”

This meant players looked at each other more often, pre-scanned the pitch, played with fewer touches – a maximum of three – and looked all the time so they could make a good pass. These aspects may seem very rudimentary, but let’s not forget, it was only five years ago that the women’s team began to evolve in a professional environment.

For India, who are regularly able to get a result against teams ranked closer or below them, it is paramount to challenge the top guns – the Netherlands, Germany and Argentina. of world hockey. In the split second between a player looking down to control the ball and looking up to spot a teammate and pass the ball, these teams are able to not only close passing lines, but also steal possession and run a counter.

For India, who are regularly able to get a result against teams ranked closer or below them, it is paramount to challenge the top guns – the Netherlands, Germany and Argentina. of world hockey. (Hockey India)

Take the next step

Most post-Tokyo attacking drills have focused on getting players to work while looking up and making the right decisions.

In the weeks leading up to the World Cup, the team’s management even imported a technology, called SmartGoals, to improve players’ game intelligence, reaction speed and vision. It is an interactive system in which signal lights, the shape and size of a practice cone, are placed as makeshift goal posts.

When a player runs, dribble or throws a ball through it, this smart goal light will turn off and jump to another goal.

“So basically we have to look up all the time to see which goal is on and play accordingly,” striker Sangita Kumari said. “We play using four of those goals in two teams of four and have to keep the ball moving while trying to spot which goal is open and attack accordingly.”

It is a training system commonly used in football and the manufacturer’s website lists Dutch clubs Ajax and PSV Eindhoven, Turkish giants Fenerbahce, Bundesliga side Schalke and Dutch Football Association, among others, as their customers.

It’s one of many crossovers between football and hockey, which are perhaps the closest sports tactically, but Schopman’s goal in using this tool is clear: “To improve their decision-making and awareness . You will often hear me pronounce these two words.

Sangita, a junior team star who seamlessly transitioned to senior level, says the technology has helped them build stamina given the fast goal switching, improved reaction speed and understanding the game while constantly watching, pre-scanning their pass options and improving their decision making.

“It will be interesting to see if we can do that in a game,” adds Schopman.

It could be a fascinating challenge, given that India will face three teams with contrasting styles of play in their first major assignment after the Olympics.

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India are in Pool B of the 16-team World Cup, alongside England, New Zealand and China. “It’s the group of death. Four good teams…” says Schopman.

Led by goalkeeper Savita Punia, India will open their campaign against England like they did at the 2018 World Cup, when the unimaginative Indians held the hosts to a hard-fought 1-1 draw in front of 15,000 fans in London .

This result began India’s rise to prominence, but when the two teams met twice at the Tokyo Olympics, including in the bronze medal play-off – England played with Great Britain. Britain but the majority of players remained the same – India lost each time.

“In Tokyo we didn’t play very well against them,” Schopman said. “Even the girls admitted that we just weren’t doing enough with the ball… we were just standing. They did something and we didn’t adapt. This time, they said we were going to adapt. Not seeing the game, but playing the game.

But playing against England, she admits, has been “difficult” for her side. England are one of the most dangerous teams when transitioning into attack, which they often do in the middle while committing plenty of forward numbers and using their speed well.

“They have great offensive players like Lily Owsley and Hannah Martin. They all attack through the middle and if we don’t manage as well I’m sure they’ll come into our circle far too many times than I would like,” Schopman said. “I know it will depend on how we defend and stay in the game.”

While England play through the middle, New Zealand, says Schopman, like to stretch the pitch. “For us it will be important to be ready to commit our squad and not fall with them because if we keep falling back we will invite these teams to come up. I really want us to be brave, to stay higher and that we put pressure,” she explained. “These two countries are just very good, nice attacking transitions, they like wide open spaces, like to run as a team… it’s something that we will have to manage .”

This will put the focus on the defense, which has often looked shaky and saved by Savita, a true big-game player.

India have taken over China in recent years, but to stem their decline, China pulled off a coup by bringing together two of the sharpest minds in international hockey. They recently appointed Australian great Alyson Annan, who took over from Marijne as coach of the Dutch women’s team and guided them to a stunning gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics.

After boarding Annan, China then appointed the legendary Ric Charlesworth as his assistant. And the duo, in no time, transformed China into an extremely difficult team to break through, as Belgium and the Netherlands experienced last month in the FIH Pro League.

Four years ago, it would have been hard to imagine that India would emerge unscathed from such a group. “But we have grown over the last four or five years. Few people took us seriously until then (2017-18),” says Savita. “But now we are a team no one would want to play.”

India schedule (Pool B, all matches in Amsterdam)

July 3: against England (8 p.m.)

July the 5th : against China (8 p.m.)

July 7: against New Zealand (11 p.m.)

Format: The group winners will qualify directly for the quarter-finals. Teams that finish second and third will play crossover matches of teams that finish in similar positions in other groups.

Crew: Goalkeepers: Savita Punia (C), Bichu Devi Kharibam; Defenders: Deep Grace Ekka (VC), Gurjit Kaur, Nikki Pradhan, Udita; Midfielders: Nisha, Sushila Chanu Pukhrambam, Monika, Neha, Jyoti, Navjot Kaur, Sonika, Salima Tete; Attackers: Vandana Katariya, Lalremsiami, Navneet Kaur, Sharmila Devi; Substitute players: Akshata Dhekale, Sangita Kumari

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