Business, Olympic Edition Professional, skillful, ruthless: The Hockeyroos style
By: Adam Commens • 4 years ago •
I STARTED PLAYING HOCKEY WHEN I WAS 5 IN A SMALL COUNTRY TOWN NEAR JUNEE, NSW. WE CREATED A HOCKEY PITCH ON A LIVESTOCK RESERVE WITH THE COWS AND SHEEP. I PLAYED THERE THROUGHOUT PRIMARY SCHOOL, THEN EVENTUALLY MOVING TO SYDNEY FOR BOARDING SCHOOL AT 16. WHILE THE BOARDING SCHOOL WAS NOT PARTICULARLY KNOWN FOR ITS HOCKEY, IT ALLOWED ME TO GET CLOSER TO A HIGHER LEVEL OF COMPETITION.
played at Sutherland Hockey Club and my coach, Greg Corben, drove me back and forth, 45 minutes each way until I was able to drive myself. Greg was the U17 coach at the time and first grade men’s team coach. The commitment of the coach and club was one of the deciding factors in why I chose to play there. The club and members went out on a limb to make me feel welcome.
In 1995, I received an AIS hockey scholarship and I moved to Perth at 18 to train, study Physical Education at university and work to support myself. I was selected to make my debut for the Australian team on my 21st birthday, and was part of the Australian team that won the bronze medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Following the Games, I offered my coaching services to schools for 3-4 years in Sydney before moving back to Perth in hope of selection for Athens. Unfortunately, I broke my hand during a game against New Zealand, and, due to it being a very competitive group that year (they ended up winning the gold medal at Athens), I missed out on selection.
OFF TO HOLLAND
During university, I’d thought that I’d like to coach at an elite level, potentially as a national team coach. I’d had many coaches in my career and evaluated what I liked or didn’t, and thought about what I would do in their position. Having a background in sports science also gives you an understanding of how the body works and how you might prepare athletes, alongside the mental aspects of the game. I also had the technical and tactical aspects from being a player at a high level. But there’s a lot more to coaching that just that!
After the 2004 Athens Olympics, my decisions were geared towards potentially coaching for Australia in the future. I thought it would be great to able to be a full-time coach, but in Australia there are limited positions, such as at State Institutes. The other option was to travel overseas, which is what I chose.
A lot of hockey players choose to go to Holland as it is regarded as the premier club competition in the world with the most money. I thought there may be opportunities in Belgium, possibly even to coach a women’s side in first division. I hoped, if I proved my worth as a coach, there might even be a chance with one of the Belgian national teams.
I was fortunate to find a club who would take a chance on me as a ‘trainer’: Royal Antwerp Hockey Club. I went as a player and trainer for the first grade men’s hockey team. After a while I started as an assistant coach for their women’s team before taking over the following year as the Head Coach.
I also worked with their Juniors, which led to opportunities with the national team. I went from the U18 women’s team to be Head Coach of the Belgium men’s team at 31 years old. It was a team with a lot of potential, and we qualified for the Beijing Olympics 6 weeks after I took over. It was an absolute fairytale, as it was the first time Belgium had qualified in 32 years. We had to beat the world champions (Germany) to qualify – with 3 seconds to go in the match! It was very exciting and the crowd ran onto the pitch. I led that team to Beijing, ending up 9th, however I felt we performed very well overall.
HOCKEYROOS – CHALLENGES AND CHANGES
At the end of 2010, I applied for my now role with the Hockeyroos in Australia and started in January 2011 with an 18 month run towards the London Olympics. The Australian women’s team had been a little unlucky with some of their results, slipping down to 7th in the world rankings. The women’s game had become more professional and the international scene more competitive.
To ensure we had the right kind of hockey player for the modern game, we made selection decisions based on who we felt gave us the best chance of winning a medal, as well as building sustained success for the team. It did not relate to previous results or the commitment of the players. Those who weren’t selected initially were given opportunities to change their game and learn to play the style we were after. Some adapted very well, others didn’t, which then made room for some outstanding players that we have now to come through such as Jodie Kenny, who is probably the best central defender in the world, Anna Flanagan, Edwina Bone. They now play alongside some great stalwarts of the team: Casey Eastham, Madonna Blyth, Teneal Attard.
We were equal 1st in our division in London, only missing out on the semi-finals by goal difference. We ended up coming 5th only losing one game (0-1 to NZ). I was able to keep my position after the Olympics, and since then we’ve played in 11 major tournaments and made the final in 10. It’s been a really successful period for the group.
COACHING MENS VS WOMENS TEAMS
To me, it doesn’t matter if you’re coaching men or women. It’s about coaching the individual and getting the best out of them, helping them be the best they can possibly be. In the women’s game, the coach can have more impact due to the tactical things you can do. I coached men and women in Belgium and both versions of the game are equally as challenging.
You need to create an environment where players feel comfortable in performing and using their talents. They need to feel confident to try things that might get the result. It’s not easy as a coach, because you’re trying to create players who make better decisions, but also highlight and correct errors, which can make them afraid to make mistakes. This is especially important in the lead up to an Olympic Games.
We work very hard on establishing our brand of hockey and what is important to us. We must consider what decisions are made in the moment. If a player makes a correct decision but loses the contest, then it’s important that the coach doesn’t dwell on it. Making a correct decision is more important than correct execution. Obviously you want both, but along the way, when an athlete makes an error in execution, you work on in training so that in the future they’ll have the skill level to execute it.
One of the big changes in the last 5-6 years, is how we use different mental strategies in the lead up to tournaments and in how we prepare for matches. Each player has a routine that they’ve worked out over their careers, and we try to fine-tune that. We have a psychologist, Darren Everett, who has been instrumental in creating our culture and trademark behaviour, setting out the standards that we want to live by on and off the pitch. It includes looking at your lifestyle as an athlete. Quite often, you’ll find that’s the difference between top level teams. It’s not that you can’t switch off, it’s that you recognise that you’re an athlete, and the decisions you make are based around this.
MY RIO EXPECTATIONS
I would say that the girls are going into their Olympic campaign confident, but there are a number of teams who are going in with the same mindset. There are also a few who are continually improving and can cause an upset on any given day. Right now, we’re focusing on ourselves and perfecting our style of hockey. If we can play that way at the right moments, we can beat anyone.
While many teams’ idea of success is winning a gold medal, our team views success as playing an exciting brand of hockey that is recognisable as the Hockeyroos. Our play is uncompromising, professional, skilful, united, ruthless, all working for each other, at an elite level of skill. If we do that, the result will take care of itself. Much of this relates to behaviour and mental preparation. If the players are nervous, unsure, or not on the ball, they’re not going to play their best hockey. A great example is the Wallabies in the last World Cup – while they didn’t win, the style of rugby they played inspired the Australian rugby supporters to get behind them. It was a brilliant, attacking style of play, and you could see what they stood for as a team, reinforced by Michael Cheika.
When you’re working in a sport that you love, you don’t really see it as work. I do it because I love it. You do have to make difficult choices – I have a 7 year-old daughter who lives in Belgium, who I left at age 1 to take up the position with the Hockeyroos. It was a really difficult decision and I’ve decided to return to Belgium after this Olympics.
My difficult choice this time is leaving the Hockeyroos. I think that their best years are ahead of them, and it’s hard to leave when you can see a hugely successful 4 years leading up to 2020 Tokyo. But my daughter would then be 11; I would have been away for 10 years of her life. My wife Stephanie is also from Belgium and is expecting in June this year. You find that coaches of high-level sporting teams have to make family sacrifices regularly, and it’s not always easy for the people around you. It’s easy to be too focused on your work and not have a healthy balance.
I’m sure I will continue to coach in some form, either with athletes or in high performance working with coaches. I’ve been coaching internationally for 10 years and it’s very intense. You have a number of staff and 25-30 players that you’re on call for 24/7. It would be nice to have a break from that and refresh, but there’s nothing like standing on the side of the pitch, coaching your team to victory. I’d like to coach for another Olympic Games, if I get the opportunity.
3 TOP TIPS
It’s important to know what you want to achieve. Use all the development opportunities available and be open-minded to learn. When I first started, I thought I had a good grasp on how I wanted to coach and communicate, but in reality, how I coach now is worlds apart from my original ideas.
Everyone is capable of developing and learning, and creating their own style over time. You need to adapt and change the way you give messages to the people that you work with. To develop this skill, you need to think about it quite deeply, rather than expect it to develop organically over time.
Continual development as a coach is very important. I try to seek out other high level coaches and learn as much as I can from them. I’ve always been a big believer in using mentors and people that you respect throughout your career. I find that this style of personal development is more effective than going to one-day courses.
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