Belgium hockey player Stockbroekx on Red Lions' success story

Emmanuel Stockbroekx talks about his days dealing with COVID-19, the postponed Tokyo Olympics and Belgium’s journey through multiple heartbreaks to become a hockey powerhouse.

Belgium's Emmanuel Stockbroekx (red) runs with the ball to strike against Argentina during the Hockey World League Finals at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar on December 02, 2017.   -  BISWARANJAN ROUT

For Belgium’s Emmanuel Stockbroekx, playing hockey means living. He is less interested in other sports and most of his friends are from the field of hockey. The defender belongs to the country’s golden generation that clinched silverware at under-18 and -21 levels, and was part of the Belgian team that reached its first ever Olympic final at Rio 2016.

But there came a moment when Stockbroekx had decided to quit the sport he had loved all his life. Even the sight of the hockey stick made him sick. He took a break, and with the help of friends and the national team, which he calls his family, Stockbroekx returned to the turf. He took solace in writing, and transferring his field experiences to ink and paper later led to his writing an autobiography.

There were still good days and bad as Stockbroekx rediscovered his hunger for a crunching tackle. He was nursing an injury when Belgium lifted the World Cup in 2018 in Bhubaneswar, but he scored in the final when the Red Lions won their first European crown a year later.

Currently at his home in Antwerp due to the coronavirus outbreak, the Belgian ace talks to Sportstar about his days dealing with the pandemic, the postponed Tokyo Olympics and Belgium’s journey through multiple heartbreaks to become a hockey powerhouse.

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How is the COVID-19 situation in Belgium?

We are in a lockdown, but here in Antwerp you are allowed to go for a run. We can go biking, running or exercise outside. The police is driving around and making sure that we go back home. You can’t stay out for too long. It’s not a problem as long as you keep moving. But it is very strict.

How are you keeping yourself occupied during the lockdown?

I’m learning Armenian through an online course for my girlfriend. I have been doing online challenges; I have done one for (Belgium teammate) Felix Denayer. I have built a home gym in my apartment, but my downstairs neighbour came knocking on my door the other day saying that their home was shaking because of my workout, so then I had to relocate the entire equipment to another area.

I have been doing my workout programme designed by the national team, but I was not really feeling motivated. To keep my discipline, I have started a program called the 5am club (designed by motivational author Robin Sharma) after being told about it by a friend. I wake up at 4.45am, get on my bike and cycle for 20 minutes, followed by 20 minutes of meditation and writing down my thoughts in a journal. Then it’s 20 minutes of reading. I am five days into this. Funnily, I am looking forward to it every day.

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Are you in contact with your teammates and coach?

We keep in contact through Zoom calls. Recently, we spoke to the national team’s coaching staff, who announced that they will be staying until Tokyo Olympics. We keep in touch through WhatsApp and ask how everybody is doing. We have also joined a ‘COVID-solidarity’ programme where we are all available on call for people who need help. We fill in a shopping list and send it through. There we are in contact as well and we want to give something back to society.

The sudden change of not training and not competing might have an effect on athletes. How is this is going to affect you and your team in the long run?

Technically, I don’t know how it will be to get our level back. But it is also true that lot of guys are enjoying the time as they are getting to be with their families, so there are a lot of positives. Of course, it’s a great inconvenience to not touch your stick. Here in Belgium, the competitions have ended, the whole summer is gone, especially the international games (which) are the ones we miss the hardest. But it is something which we have to work through and make the best out of.

You recently released your autobiography, The Winning Mindset. How did the idea of writing a book come to you?

I had hockey burnout after the 2017 World League Finals quarterfinals in Bhubaneswar where we lost to India. I have been playing hockey all my life, but at that moment I couldn’t even look at my stick. Even thinking about it made me sick. Shane (Belgium national coach Shane McLeod) gave me the space to take a break from the national team. I went to see a psychologist. I felt that I cannot continue any more. During that time, I went to see my brother in London where I attended an event with motivational speakers Les Brown and Raymond Aaron. It was highly motivational and there I made the decision to write a book and also continue playing hockey. When I started to write, I also started winning. I won the European League and the Dutch championship with Bloemendaal, the Red Lions became world champions and then European champions. So, writing the book was like looking at myself in the mirror and it motivated me to keep on playing.

The Belgium national team won the 2018 Men's Hockey World Cup in Bhubaneswar.   -  GETTY IMAGES

 

Belgium has changed international hockey with the successful execution of a zonal marking system. Do you think postponement of the Olympics will give the other teams time to figure you out?

We have been playing with the system for a long time now, but we didn’t invent hockey. We don’t think that we have a winning formula or we are demigods. It’s all about the hunger to win each moment in big tournaments. The postponement might give teams to prepare well and be at a higher level at Tokyo, but we are a team which adapts well to different situations.

There is an argument that Belgium has the added advantage of having a dedicated programme for its national teams unlike Spain and the Netherlands, where they have to make time for club competitions...

Definitely. Belgium is a small country where getting to training is easier as every place is a one- or two-hour drive away. It helps us train every week and be together a lot. And clubs here are very cooperative as they let players go and train with the national team instead of the clubs.

There was a time when the team was reaching the finals of tournaments but settling for the runners-up medal. What changes did you make to overcome that final hurdle and win titles?

I think it was a mental change. First, it was winning the quarterfinals, like the one at the 2014 World Cup in the Hague. Then, it was over being overwhelmed by winning them. It was similar to what happened to our soccer team (at the 2018 FIFA World Cup). They beat a big team like Brazil and were overwhelmed by reaching the semis, which they lost. So, we decided to consider every quarterfinal, semifinal and final as just another match and now you can see that maturity reflecting in the team.

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About the 2018 World Cup: You were not physically present at the final, but your teammates mentioned that your inspirational video had fired them up before the clash? How did that happen?

I was injured in the second group game against India. I knew it was over for me and I was crying a lot. I didn’t want my teammates looking at me injured and focusing on me rather than on the World Cup. I came back to Belgium and remembered about the video I wanted to make by compiling all the wishes of the family members. So I called the families multiple times to convince them to record their messages and send it to me. Shane and I decided to show it to the team before a big match and he kept me waiting until the evening before the final. Even though I was not on the pitch, I wanted to show that I was still with the team.

Did you have doubts about Belgium winning the final after regular time ended 0-0 and then the penalty shootout went into sudden death?

It was tactically a very good game. Both Belgium and the Netherlands have played many times and know each other very well. But the shootout was an anticlimax (Belgium thought it had won, but Arthur De Sloover’s final attempt was cancelled). I was watching the match in a studio with all the players’ families and everyone was holding their breath. But I was very convinced that this would be our time and there is no way we would lose this game.

How important is the role of head coach Shane McLeod in this journey?

There is a saying that “angels come into your life at the right moment.” Shane was exactly the kind of person we needed in our team. He is a very warm person and that’s what you can see in our team; we are a family. I don’t think there is one player who is not happy with Shane. Also a big shoutout to (assistant coach) Michel van den Heuvel, who was a very tough trainer and would smack us in the face if we committed mistakes (laughs) after which we would go running to Shane.

McLeod will be leaving the team after the Olympics. What is the best thing you are going to miss about him?

For me, it is his speeches before games. He is someone who could really tap into the hearts of the players. He has the courage to speak from his heart and does it with integrity. I remember on the eve of the 2019 European Championship final, we had a team meeting where he mentioned about his son Koda, and (Stockbroekx’s Belgium teammate) Victor Wegnez had bought him a puzzle. Shane told us how grateful he was to coach the team and how it made his family proud. A lot of players became really emotional. As we walked out of the room, we were all fired up, desperate to go on the pitch, like charging into a battle.

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