Idea Exchange | We did something bigger than winning a medal, we created a legacy. Will be connected to India my whole life: Sjoerd Marijne, former coach, Indian women’s hockey team
Sjoerd Marijne, former coach, Indian women’s hockey team, talks about being shuffled between teams, earning the girls’ trust and teaching them to ‘dream big’, describes the semi-final loss and telling them why ‘in a few days, they would see it differently’, and shares his plans about a book, and maybe Chak De India 2. The session was moderated by Assistant Editor Mihir Vasavda.
MIHIR VASAVDA: You returned home and started coaching a club soon after the Olympics. Do you miss being in India with the team while the celebrations are going on, or have you settled into your new life?
It’s strange. I chose to be with my family because I hadn’t seen them for three-and-a-half months. That was the main reason for coming back. The competition in The Netherlands starts around September 11 or 12, and I’m coaching a club team so I also had to be there. But it’s a bit like living in two worlds. One world is India, where the team members are heroes of the country. The girls have done so well, and there are a lot of ceremonies… What happens is you keep staying in that feeling, and then of course, you are reminded of the Olympics. And while I’m now in The Netherlands, it feels different because life goes on. It’s normal. My country is different with these things, it’s not like India, there are not a lot of ceremonies.
It’s sometimes tough to adjust to such a situation because you don’t want to lose the feeling that you had at the Olympics. The two days that I was in Delhi (after returning from Tokyo) were amazing. Afterward maybe — and I spoke to my wife about this— it was better to stay a little bit longer in India. But at that moment you only want one thing and that’s just going back to the family. It feels a bit like a two-way feeling.
MIHIR VASAVDA: How tough is it to move on, to return to the daily life after all the emotional highs you experienced in Tokyo?
I will say now that, after four-and-a-half years, I’m used to good weather. On Tuesday, I was coaching my new team in the rain. It is cold, the summer is not really good here. Then you are really thinking like okay, my life’s not going to be like this now. You are not going to be wearing shorts now, but a longer training kit. That’s something different. I am someone who can adapt very fast.
The other thing was that for four-and-a-half years, I didn’t understand what the girls were saying to each other, and also the boys. I don’t speak and know all the Hindi words. And now I understand everything. So that’s also different and a nice change.
MIHIR VASAVDA: You took over the team in 2017. How different was that team from the one we saw in Tokyo?
I didn’t know what to expect at the Olympics because we didn’t play matches against other good countries for five months. We played in January and February against Argentina and Germany. But it was almost two years since we played matches under pressure, and that was the (Olympics) qualifiers. That’s why it was really difficult.
I get a lot of compliments but you must not forget what the support staff did. I wasn’t by myself. Janneke (Schopman, analytical coach) and Wayne (Lombard, strength and conditioning coach) did so much amazing work. There were girls who didn’t believe they could achieve something. They came to the camps, they did their job — they have a job for a lifetime at the Railways or wherever else — and that’s fine. But they weren’t ambitious. I told them that they immediately need to be ambitious and need to set goals. And that’s what we did. Making the position of the women better was the dream goal and I think we achieved that goal.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: You have made things easier for the next coach. After all this, how tough was it to walk away? Are there any regrets?
I don’t have any second thoughts about coming back to India. You must not forget that what happened at the Olympics was the outcome of four-and-a-half years of hard work. Frustrations, emotions, positivity… all different things. Now everything looks like it went easy and smoothly, but that wasn’t the case.
I had moments when I really missed my family and I didn’t know whether I could still do the job in India. Ending things like this is perfect, but I didn’t forget those moments. That is important. And for the next coach, I think it will be more difficult because the expectations are rising.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: You finished fourth at the Olympics. Is there a memory that you will carry with you from this assignment with the Indian team, something that makes you feel that the trip was worth it?
That moment would be winning against Australia. There were 24 seconds to go and Neha had the ball with Navneet and the others. They knew that we are going to win… It’s about that moment… You see the four-and-a-half years flash before your eyes. All things that had happened, the losses, the frustrations… We had so much disappointment with the World Cup (in 2018), the qualifier. The girls were devastated and I used those experiences and told them, ‘Listen, do you want to go through those moments again? Do you want to feel it again because you know how painful it is.’ At the (Australia match) it finally went in our favour; that was the moment. We were the ones who won and I didn’t have to tell the girls things like, ‘We were really close’ or ‘You really did well’. But no, we were the ones who went into the semi-finals, we were the ones who won the match. That moment of joy, I will never forget.
DEVENDRA PANDEY: Was it tough to get players to open up, especially girls who came from remote parts of the country?
It was very difficult. I am the coach and in India, there is a lot of distance between a coach and the players. The distance is lesser in The Netherlands. It is easier for a coach. The whole respect thing in India is also very good but it didn’t work for us. They were afraid to talk to me because they thought I would drop them if they talk about their issues. They felt I would think they are not good enough.
It was a slow process of building their confidence and getting them to understand that if you come to me with questions or feel you are not doing something right, I am there to help you instead of judging you. The moment they realised that, they started coming to me and opened up gradually with all kinds of things, their issues. I am not a patient guy but in the end, they opened up.
NITIN SHARMA: When you joined the women’s team, what were your first impressions of the team, tactically and technically?
We had our match against Belarus (in March 2017) and the first thing I noticed was that we were not fit. And if fitness is not good, it is not possible to play good hockey, so that is where it started. The other thing that I saw was a lot of technical errors. Decisions made on the pitch… I would think, ‘Why are you doing this? I don’t really see the reason why you are doing this.’ From there on I started making a plan on how I wanted to see the team in the Olympics. And we worked from that plan backward.
TUSHAR BHADURI: How did you deal with administrative issues linked to the federation, SAI (Sports Authority of India), Sports Ministry?
I am only concerned about the things I can control. There is a lot administration-wise that I can’t control. (Former India coach) Roelant Oltmans told me the moment I arrived, ‘Listen Sjoerd, these things can happen and you just have to let it go. You can worry about it but it will create a lot of frustration, and that’s what you have to avoid.’ I am not saying it was always easy but that is what I always kept at the back of my mind. I also knew that I wanted to do better and that it was not always working. Let’s say I had some challenging moments…
TUSHAR BHADURI: Was the manner in which you were shuffled between the men’s and women’s teams difficult to deal with?
I said this to the girls as well. I have to be able to look in the mirror and say, ‘I did everything I could. I put all my energy and time in it.’ In this situation, I was very surprised, because if you see those nine months, we didn’t do well at the Commonwealth Games, but the rest of the time we did really well. As I said, the Asia Cup was the last tournament the men won. For me, I felt like I couldn’t take it (the decision to be shifted) seriously. If this is happening, it can’t be serious.
TUSHAR BHADURI: Do you feel you should have been consulted before being shunted around?
I think you should always speak with the coach. I was on holiday when I received a phone call saying that I wasn’t the coach for the men’s team anymore. I was then asked whether I wanted to continue with the women’s team. When I look back now, it sounds funny.
MIHIR VASAVDA: You have seen Indian hockey from both sides, the men’s as well as the women’s teams. In terms of the support that they get, is there a difference between the teams?
There is a big difference, but SAI provided the tools we wanted. So that was not an issue. It’s more about participating in the Pro League, organising tournaments in your own country… The men are ranked higher because tournaments are organised for them every time. For instance, the women didn’t qualify for the World League in New Zealand and the men didn’t either. I just hope Hockey India and Odisha can organise more tournaments for women. Maybe the Pro League because that’s what the girls need.
SRIRAM VEERA: When you rejoined the women’s team, Savita Punia said that they liked having you back. Can you tell us about that exchange?
It was a good moment because it made me feel like they wanted me back. I was with the women for nine months so it felt like being back home. They had made good progress with Wayne Lombard and their fitness had really improved. I could continue with the plans I had for the women’s team and I felt good about coming home.
SRIRAM VEERA: What did you make of reports about Vandana Katariya’s house being attacked and how did it affect the team?
The most important thing is that we weren’t using social media. I didn’t talk to her about it then because I didn’t know if she had seen it. They were hardly using their phones because there was a strict rule at the Olympics. After the last match, I spoke to her and she said she knew (about it), but blocked it out and continued. That’s the way these girls have been trained. It’s like soldiers who are trained to go into the battlefield. The things that happen back home, you have to close your ears to it. You have to block it and that’s the way it is. After the battle, you see the emotions coming. But the problem was solved. They solved it really well and really fast. The police and Rani (Rampal, captain) did really well in the situation, as it is about leadership.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: What does India doing well at the Olympics mean for international hockey? How does the world see Indian hockey post-Olympics?
The good thing about India is that Indians are everywhere in the world. I receive messages from all over the world. I think that is also a good thing because the popularity of hockey has increased with this. I think that the FIH (International Hockey Federation) is really happy about what happened, because I don’t think we have to worry about our Olympic status for the following years… if you want a million people watching these matches… I am curious about the number of spectators watching these matches. I think they (the FIH) are really happy. And it’s also good for women’s hockey, that like other countries we also feel, ‘Whoa! we can do this’.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: Do you at times just think about what you have done for the game in India and what it means? Has it sunk in yet?
Yes, because I don’t want to forget this. For me, they are the most beautiful moments. And the reason is that we created a legacy. We did something bigger than winning a medal. The longer we are away from the tournament, the longer it’s behind us, the more we realise what we have changed. And that is something huge. I’m proud to be part of that because that’s what I always dreamed of. I never dreamed about winning medals. I never dreamed about what people say, about awards and about money. I only dreamed about one thing. And that is doing something that nobody has done before and creating a legacy that you will always be remembered for. That’s why I will always, for my whole life, be connected with India.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: I’m sure you have been asked several times about Chak De India, the Hindi film. You also had a social media conversation with Shah Rukh Khan. Do you expect a sequel to the film on your journey? Have you been approached by people?
As long as I don’t have to play myself, I will be fine. I am writing a book. The last chapter is almost finished. I can’t wait for it to be published and everybody can read all the things that really happened to me for the last four-and-a-half years as coach. Also, I want to share valuable lessons for personal life, private life and also for corporate life. Maybe one thing leads to another. If the book leads to a movie, I would be honoured. It would be nice to have a Chak de India 2, yes. It won’t surprise me if people come for that. But I’m not focusing on that at the moment. First let the book get published, and then let’s see. I just hope people like it… What I saw when I arrived in India, how did I do the whole thing from 2017 to the Olympics… It’s an exciting story and I am happy to share it.
SHIVANI NAIK: How do you train an Indian woman player to be ambitious and to not be content?
The thing is, as a player, you only have 10-12 years at the highest level and I always asked them, what do you want to be remembered as? Do you want to be remembered as being 10 years in camps and not winning anything? Or do you want to be remembered in another way? Because after this, you are going to work or have children or anything else. So why don’t you dream big? And that is something that I have taught the girls, to dream big. What is your dream goal that will inspire other women. And how can we make that happen? Like winning a medal. It’s not about winning a medal but the medal helps to achieve that dream goal. It’s constantly taking them out of their comfort zone.
NITIN SHARMA: How did you handle the team post the narrow loss in the semi-finals when they were on the field crying?
Initially, I said, ‘There are no words that will help take away how you feel. I have no words for that. You have to feel it. That’s sport.’ But I also told them that in a few days you will think differently about this. You will be proud of what you have achieved. I told them you don’t know this because you are away from social media but the whole country loves you. Right now, you will not feel like that… In sport, you give everything you have got. That is the golden rule. In the end, you see what the score is… If you gave everything and you don’t have any energy anymore, you can be happy with yourself.
MIHIR VASAVDA: You have dealt with Hockey India and the SAI. Are they doing things right or do they need to focus more on certain issues?
It’s a big challenge from here. It’s not easy. There is no club competition. That’s what helps The Netherlands very much. It helped Belgium women and men, Germany… So that is something that’s a challenge for the federation and SAI. Another thing is of course organising tournaments and Pro League with India and that needs to happen. A lot of girls will play hockey now. They saw how women were stars from the Olympics. How can you identify talent? That will be something else. Like David John, the previous High Performance Director… He was the one who identified talent. One trip, I came back and he says I’m going to have someone for your team. I was always open to that but I said ‘I don’t know.’ He said, ‘Trust me, I will add someone to your team and you will be happy.’ It was Salima Tete. So she was scouted pretty well. This will be a challenge.
SHIVANI NAIK: What would your advice be to school coaches of girls’ teams?
Don’t focus only on exercises of ball and stick. Train the whole motor skills. Teach them to catch balls, roll balls, throw balls and movements. Make that better, then maybe someone will become a complete player.
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