Indian Merry Go Round Continues As HI Ring The Changes

Change, it seems, is inevitable in Indian hockey. It has come again, this time way too quickly. In the latest of Hockey India’s trend of hiring and firing coaches, the federation on Tuesday removed Sjoerd Marijne as the chief coach of the Indian men’s team, less than eight months after he was appointed.
The Dutchman will rejoin the women’s team as the chief coach, while women’s coach Harendra Singh will be the new men’s coach. The decision to make the swap between Indian hockey’s topmost coaching posts is HI’s seemingly straightforward and obvious solution to the men’s team’s under-par performance at last month’s Commonwealth Games. And with three months to go for the Asian Games and India playing the hosts in the World Cup in December, it seems like the most practicable decision as well. It would have been hard for the federation to find a new foreign coach so quickly.

However, the events and the decisions in the last nine months have neither been straightforward nor obvious. Firing Roelant Oltmans with just over a year to go for the World Cup was unexpected and defied logic. The naming of then women’s coach, Marijne, a low-profile name in international hockey, came as a surprise. Despite two medals in his first two major tournaments, the 44-year-old Dutchman’s removal after one fourth-place finish seems extreme.

From the inexplicable decline in the men’s team’s performance to the meetings that have followed between the players and the officials, nothing has been clear.

Marijne’s philosophy, credentials questioned

The decision to remove Marijne, who has not yet returned to India after the CWG, might have been influenced by what some of the senior players said to HI officials during a meeting last Tuesday. The players were allegedly unhappy with some of Marijne’s decisions, including taking many youngsters to an event as big as the CWG. Also, most in the CWG squad had not played a tournament since December.

However, Marijne cannot alone be blamed for these decisions. High performance director David John and HI’s selection committee must also be questioned.

The main issue, though, was that the players had lost confidence in their coach, questioning his ability to strategise and to react in pressure situations. The players were also unhappy about his player-driven philosophy.

A current India player told The Tribune last week that Marijne had made groups and assigned leaders to each group; and the leaders discussed with the coach about what positions and roles to assign to players, match strategies and even the style to play. “Sometimes, he asked the players to make plans before matches,” the India team player said.

However, Marijne has defended his style, saying that while the players were involved, he was the one making the plans. The reason for his coaching style, Marijne wrote in a post on his website on Tuesday, was that “players learn to take responsibility for their actions because all the decisions which are taken they were involved and that means they were supporting the plan”. “…I prepare for the matches and after this I share it with the leaders so they can explain in Hindi to the rest of the team,” he wrote.

But it seems that not being a famous name also played a part in the players losing faith in Marijne so quickly. “The Indian team needs a renowned coach, like Oltmans, who tells us how to play,” said the India player.

Results matter, process doesn’t

Ironically, the same bunch of players had accused Oltmans of favouritism and being an autocrat. His aversion to trying new faces had also been an issue raised by the players and the high performance director.  At that time, HI had sided with the players and John, despite Oltmans having been involved with Indian hockey for over four years. He had played a major role in taking India to world No. 6, also guiding them to medals in major tournaments.  However, HI had lost faith in the Dutchman after two defeats to lower-ranked teams at the HWL Semifinals last year.

Interestingly, the current India player said that the team had “realised at the Asia Cup that the coach (Marijne) was not up to the level”. “After our draw (1-1 against South Korea), at our next team meeting, he went and sat at the back of the room and asked us ‘you tell me, how do you want to play’,” said the India player.

Why didn’t the players speak out earlier? “We couldn’t say anything because we won the Asia Cup and then won a medal at the World League Final. We figured the federation wouldn’t listen. If we had won a medal at the CWG, I am sure nothing would have changed,” the India player said.

Unfair pressure

After his removal, Marijne said he had faith in his player-driven style.

“We won the Asia Cup with dominating hockey, in the World League we have shown we can beat world class teams and with our New Zealand tour we made another step in our process to win the Asian Games and the World Cup,” he wrote on his website.

“Unfortunately, the Commonwealth Games we didn’t perform the way we expected but still we had good statistics… I had a lot of confidence that with this way of working we could win the Asian Games and Word Cup.”

HI’s expectations from the men’s team can be unfairly high at times. HI’s result-minded approach has put immense pressure on the coaches, and led to coaches such as Oltmans and Terry Walsh urging the federation to respect the process. Both have said that India needed a proper structure and a strong development program to become competitive at the top level.

Marijne had confidence in his process, and HI should have shown faith in him. Or, the federation should have created an atmosphere of trust and confidence among the players for them to speak their mind about the coach regardless of the result.

While saying that he would continue the process he started with the women’s team 14 months ago, Marijne wished Harendra all the best.

Harendra, who has become the men’s coach for the second time, will need all the wishes. The difference in pressure on the coaches of the men’s and women’s teams is evident from the disparity in the levels of expectations. Both the men’s and women’s teams finished fourth in the CWG, yet Harendra landed the high-profile job.

The Tribune | Images: World Sport Pics

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