The chief coach of the senior national hockey team and manager of the junior team, Dutchman Roelant Oltmans, talks about adapting to the Indian system, tackling language barriers and superstitious players, expresses concern over the decline of hockey in Asia, and underlines the need for packed stadiums
MIHIR VASAVDA: Where does India’s Junior World Cup victory figure in the larger picture?
Let’s take a look at the country that has won the most number of Junior World Cups — Germany. They have won it six times, and if you look at the past 20 years of international hockey, they are always in the top three or four. In the last World Cup, they finished fifth, but in all the other European tournaments, they have won a lot of medals. It is really great for Indian hockey that this young bunch of players have shown potential, and if we guide them properly, they absolutely have the quality (to become a top team).
I think even the senior team has come up to number six from 13 last year. Last year, we had two major tournaments where we won medals: a bronze in the Hockey League and a silver in the Champions League. That shows we are on the right track. We need to combine the talents of the youngsters with qualities of some of the more experienced players. And yes, I compare that to the team I was coaching in the ’90s—Netherlands. We were in a similar kind of situation and the team dominated the world for a decade, and it could be the same with India too.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: In the past, foreign coaches have found it hard to adapt to the Indian system. You have been here for a while now, how has your experience been?
If you make the choice to go to a foreign country, you have to adapt to that culture. It’s not the other way around.
If I feel that something is important (for the game), then I am very strict about it, and my players know it. I am very particular about time management; Indians are not very good with it, though my players are always on time. But there are certain things, such as the procedures here, that I need to understand. Many procedures are time-consuming. For instance, if I need equipment for the team, we have to start with a tender, then people apply for the tender and finally a decision is made. It takes time and the technology gets outdated by then. So you have to start all over again.
When I first came in, I was on fire. But now I understand this is how things work here, and now I try to push to get things done faster. But you have to accept the system, and if you can’t, don’t come to India.
MIHIR VASAVDA: While you appear tough, we often hear of your lighter side as well.I think you have to create an atmosphere where you can be focused when you need to be, and at the same time be relaxed whenever possible. I have seen that a lot of teams are over-focused. They are so tense that when the moment to perform actually comes, they fail. I don’t believe in it.
I have learnt it from motorsports. Once I was at the grid and until two minutes before the race, I was talking to this driver. And then they told me, ‘You have to leave now’. Few minutes later, the guy drove a fantastic race.
Of course, we have our days where we give information to players and discuss game plans. I always tell the players that this is the framework but within this framework, you are free to do things. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. Mistakes are part of the game and a part of our lives.
NIHAL KOSHIE: The team looks extremely fit. How did you get them to change their diet?
We worked with our scientific advisers —physical trainers, physicians and nutritionists. They take care of the food, supplements and ensure that the players take enough liquids. So, with the help of these guys we make a plan and tell the players what they need.We all know Indians love sweets. But it is not good as it does not give much energy to play on. We made it clear to the players that it (having sweets) is not a good idea. For this tournament, we told them that after a win you can have a small piece to celebrate. If you have a good result you should celebrate it, but in the right proportion.
DAKSH PANWAR: You have been here for about four years. Apart from hockey, how has your experience been in India?
I have to be honest with you—apart from hockey, there is not much that I do. You are in camps, and there it is hockey 24×7. There is some free time on Sunday, but mostly you are preparing for the next week. Sometimes I take time off to play a round of golf with Romeo James, one of the coaches of the junior team. That is all. We don’t have much time. I tell my wife that the day I stop, the first thing we will do is go on a long holiday to explore this beautiful country.
I often talk to players and staff about the Indian life, I am curious about it. I think we Europeans can learn a lot from it. The openness, the friendliness, the care people take of each other, it is so much more than we do. It’s really an eye-opener for me.
DAKSH PANWAR: How do you overcome the language barrier with players?
It is a problem and there is no doubt about it. I tried to improve my Hindi but that didn’t work out that well. So I have to work with translators and luckily, I have Tushar Khandker (former player and assistant coach) in the senior team, who is of help. In the junior team, there is coach Harendra Singh, who helped with the translation. But (this way) the communication is not direct and it is difficult to understand the real thoughts of the players. I always tell them I would like to get into their minds and understand why they make certain decisions.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: The Indian team has players from different regions. Have you understood the difference in the mindset of a player from, let’s say, Punjab and Odisha or down south?
Players from Punjab are very proud, but their English is poor. The Karnataka boys are extremely good with English and it is very easy for me to communicate with them. But with players from Punjab, it is difficult. Some of them are really working hard (on improving their English) because they understand it is not only important to communicate with me, but with the umpires as well. We have video referrals in our game these days and it is important that you ask the right question. We play matches in the Hockey India League where a lot of the players are foreigners, and you can’t communicate with them if you only speak Punjabi or any other regional language. At the same time, they (Punjabi players) love to dance. Music is always there and the players from Punjab create a good atmosphere.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: When you came to India, what were your expectations from Hockey India, and have they lived up to it?
When I came here, I asked the president for a free hand to work according to my plans. Of course, I had to give them reports and explain my decisions. We created a new online system for player development. We started working on ways to guide the junior and senior team.
TUSHAR BHADURI: How did the presence of coach Harendra Singh, who has been with the boys for
a long time, help in preparing the (junior) team?
Harendra indeed did a very good job when it came to bonding with the players. Some of them have been through terrible situations, and Harendra has been there for them in those times.
DAKSH PANWAR: Though the Indian team is doing well, hockey is witnessing a decline in Asia.
I am not happy with what is happening in Asian hockey. India was the only team from Asia in the Rio Olympics. In this tournament (Junior World Cup), the second best finish by an Asian team was by Malaysia, which finished 11th. That’s not good for the region where countries such as Pakistan and (South) Korea once produced fantastic hockey teams. Hockey coming up in this region will be good for the sport internationally.
Nine countries in the world are competing at a very high level. You look at the top nine in the Rio Olympics, they are the same in the Junior World Cup. It shows that these countries are really working hard at the moment. The order, of course, is different, but if you play a tournament in a few months from now, the order again will be different. And that’s a good thing now. Hockey is not predictable anymore. Around 10-15 years ago, it was Holland, Germany, Australia and sometimes Spain. Pakistan had a couple of years where they were really good. But now we have eight, nine countries competing at the top level, which is a very good thing for the sport.
DAKSH PANWAR: India has not been playing with Pakistan. Your thoughts.
I understand the sentiment about India-Pakistan games. I have seen games in Karachi. It was exciting and everyone in the world likes to watch the games. It is not good that these matches are not being played anymore, but unfortunately, I can’t change the political situation. I think I am the only one to have worked in both countries, so maybe I can play the mediator.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: How different is the experience of coaching India and Pakistan?
In terms of skill, there are many similarities. There is the traditional Asian style of hockey, where a lot of individual skills are used, especially dribbling. Passing and receiving skills are a bit less. Over the years, both teams have learnt a lot in terms of tactics. If you see how the teams prepare now, it is completely different.
For me, the biggest difference is religion. Players in Pakistan were always praying for a win and they thought it helped them. We had many discussions with the players about that. Of course there is nothing wrong with religion, but I don’t think someone outside of the game is going to help you win. You have to do it yourself. That is my belief. There are always those boys in the team that have certain (superstitions). In Europe, it is the same, don’t forget that.
These boys (Indian players ) also have their rituals. The moment they come on to the field, you can see it. But that is fine if you feel good about it. Yet, you have to remember that you still have to act as a team and give your best as an individual to get results. The results are not coming from outside, so you have to make sure you do it yourself.
DAKSH PANWAR: The concept of skills seems to have survived in football, but somehow in hockey it appears to be waning?
I think I need to say something critical about my sport. I think hockey has developed into a more physical sport. It is fast, contact-based. And one of the reasons is that we can interchange with seven players throughout the game. So the fitness level is always high. That means skilful players will be less on the ground, and whenever they are on the ground, they will meet very fit opponents. We need to get a different method for interchanging players and, I believe, that will help in bringing more skilful players to the sport.
MIHIR VASAVDA: The ‘Home and Away’ format was introduced recently. Are you happy with the way international hockey is shaping up?
If you look at major tournaments, such as the Junior World Cup, the crowd was only interested in India’s matches. It is more or less what you see in different competitions. It is not good for our sport to have big tournaments without an audience. Therefore the Home and Away format is good, as there will always be the home team that will attract more audience.
Of course, we have to see if that philosophy will work out. I don’t like to see an empty stadium. It’s not good for my sport to have live broadcasting and just hundred people watching the game. That is different from the final, which witnessed a completely packed stadium. You don’t know how many reactions I received for that game. The atmosphere was fantastic. Then there was the Argentina-Spain game, which was also a very good match, but only 200 people were watching. To survive as a sport we need packed stadiums and only then can you attract sponsors and television broadcasters.
AJAY SHANKAR: Who according to you are the top three hockey players of all time and why?
It’s very difficult to compare players from different eras. For me, one of the best players I worked with was Teun De Nooijer. He was thrice named the best player of the world. You have a legend in your own country, Dhyan Chand. Jamie Dwyer has achieved a lot.
TUSHAR BHADURI: How can we make the sport more popular globally?
You need to have good competitions and we need crowded arenas. When we talk about football, we have heroes such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. But when you talk about hockey, we don’t have many heroes and I think that is important as well. If you look at the position of hockey in different countries, it is mostly the number 4, number 5 or number 10 sport. Here (in India) I don’t know how to rate it. Of course cricket is the number one sport. But you see the performance is getting better and also there is more media exposure and more sponsor interest.It is like a circle, you need good performance, crowd attendance and also develop players who can be good ambassadors for the sport.