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Indian Express: Improving fitness, mental toughness key, says Coach Marijne Sjoerd (4/12/2017)
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Indian Express: Improving fitness, mental toughness key, says Coach Marijne Sjoerd

Marijne Sjoerd was appointed India’s coach earlier this year and in his first major assignment India returned home from West Vancouver after winning the World League Round 2.

By Mihir Vasavda

Marijne Sjoerd does not remember much from the only match against India he had been involved in. “Was it 6-1?,” he tries to recall. “It was very easy.”

The match witnessed seven goals, yes. But they were all scored by just one team – Holland. Sjoerd, you feel, is just being polite by ‘awarding’ India one goal during the last-eight encounter of the World League semifinals in June 2015. India barely made a foray into the Holland half, such was Sjoerd’s side’s dominance. As the coach of that Dutch side, easily the world’s best at the time, Sjoerd paid little attention to the struggling Indians. But he’d made one mental note. India, he sensed, had developed an inferiority complex, which resulted in them losing matches even before stepping on the turf. Two years on, Sjoerd views have been vindicated. The Dutchman was appointed India’s coach earlier this year. In his first major assignment, India returned home from West Vancouver on Tuesday after winning the World League Round 2 and progressing to the World League Semifinals, which double up as the 2018 World Cup qualifiers.

Sjoerd says the team can’t afford to go to the town celebrating the wins over Uruguay, Belarus and Chile. The tournament gave the 42-year-old a glimpse into the side he has inherited from Australian Neil Hawgood. “They’re skilful, no doubt about that. But I saw videos of them from the Olympics and now after seeing them here, there’s work we need to do. Especially with their fitness and belief,” Sjoerd says.

Sjoerd claims to have played tennis at a ‘high level’ before going full time into hockey coaching, where he achieved plenty of success with the Dutch women’s teams. He led their junior side to a World Cup title and followed it up with a gold medal at the World League semifinals in 2015, the same tournament where Holland thrashed India 7-0. But playing tennis, he says, helped him understand the importance of being strong mentally. “I have coached the world’s number 1 team. So I know what it takes to be the best. Belief,” he repeats, “is crucial. If you think you are number12 in the world, you’ll always remain number 12. I feel the players are worried that Argentina is better than them, South Africa is better than them… so at times, they lose a match even before they step on the field. But they don’t realise they are as good as, or even better than them.”

It’s an area which former coach Hawgood, too, had highlighted. The Australian had once indicated that his players lose the mental battle because they aren’t as strong and fit as their opponents. Sjoerd concurs with the view and points out at the rapid strides made by the men’s junior and senior teams. The gulf between the fitness of the Indian team and the rest was apparent at the Olympics, where they were often out-muscled and passes easily intercepted. They could not win even one match in Rio, returning with a wooden spoon. But the result was pushed into the background, with the team’s qualification for the Olympics after 36 years seen as an achievement in itself.

Sjoerd, however, views it rather differently. “Correct me if I am wrong, India qualified only because South Africa pulled out, no?” he asks. “Progress will be when we don’t depend on others.” His priorities are clear. Sjoerd wants his team to play ‘structured hockey’, which means to move together as a unit while attacking and fall back together. To ensure it happens smoothly and no player is caught out of position, fitness becomes essential. To reach that level of athleticism, Sjoerd says his primary focus will be on strength and physical training.

He will have two months to work on it before the women’s team embarks on it’s toughest test of the year – the World League semifinals. The quality of opponents will go up several notches. India will not play Uruguay or Belarus any more. World No.3 Argentina, USA (6), England (2), Germany (7) are some of the teams that await India for the July 8-23 tournament in Johannesburg.

And Sjoerd knows that apart from fitness, the team will also have to battle the psychological barriers. “I think they make themselves smaller than they are. I know what level the girls are,” he says. “Now is the time to beat big teams.”

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