Germany coach Altenburg: 'Everyone loves hockey in India'

The 35-year old coach admitted he was enjoying his return to the country in a tête-à-tête with the Sportstar.

German coach Altenburg during his side's practice match against England.   -  Rajeev Bhatt

It is unusual for a junior team coach to be promoted to the senior team one month before Olympics. It is even more unusual for the same coach to go back to the juniors after taking his very-experienced two-time defending champion team to a bronze medal at Rio. But then, Valentin Altenburg is an unusual man.

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Looking to do better here at the Junior World Cup than he did at Rio – Germany is also a two-time defending junior world champion and strong favourite here – as the chief coach, Altenburg is perhaps the most experienced about India among the entire German side. And the 35-year old admitted he was enjoying his return to the country in a tête-à-tête with the Sportstar.

Question: You went from the junior side to the seniors for Olympics and now back here – how do you see the entire experience of shifting through the age-groups?

Answer: Yeah, it was a busy year, but an exciting one. It’s really a difficult task to come into a team that you don’t really know. And it’s a different level of hockey that you play, different key players from the other team that you have keep a tab on, different tactical knowledge that you’ve to learn. So I think it’s helped me evolve as a coach too. Having been with the junior side earlier, I hope I can use a little bit of that experience with the junior team.

Having said that, this is a different team, a different age-group, different experience that guys have. So I need to be careful in what to expect from the team.

Does it feel unusual coming back to the juniors? How comfortable are you with them?

I actually love to work with different teams, even the women's team, because it’s always different. It’s different from the senior team, where you’ve players who have played at the highest level for years together. Here (in the junior team) I have players who have maybe 10 caps. So I need to be very careful. These guys are much more nervous and insecure, both on and off the pitch. So here, as a coach you need to give a bit more guidance to the players, and the humans behind those players.

Both juniors and seniors have different challenges. What’s more difficult to handle – the inexperience of juniors or the egos of the seniors?

They are totally different! If you want to change something in the senior team, it’s difficult; not exactly because of ego but because they’ve been doing certain things in certain ways. It’s their way of doing stuff and they’ve been successful in that way. It’s not only about the ego factor, but it’s about the experience they’ve as a team in being successful. But sometimes you’ve to adapt because the game has changed. And that’s easy with the junior team because they come in with a blank sheet and look up to the coach for everything.

Which one feels like more pressure?

Seniors, definitely. Because in Germnay, the whole financial system runs based on how the senior men's team performs. So with the seniors, the external pressure is way higher. But internally, it’s the same. The senior team wants to win every tournament they play, and it’s the same with the junior team. We’re here to win the World Cup.

How was the Rio experience?

Personally, it was an outstanding one. When we talk about the Olympics, it’s a little bit more than just the Games. It’s such a special thing and difficult to describe. In the Olympic village, with all the athletes, where everyone is focused and everyone is so ambitious – so basically it is a whole village with ambition, quality and talent that gives you a very special felling every morning you wake up. And I enjoyed that very much.

The tournament bit of it, even that was very good. It had everything. We played some great hockey, we had great wins, great comebacks, some disappointing losses and then to bounce back with a win again, you couldn’t have asked for anything more. Yes, I would have been happy if we could have played the latter half of the tournament the way we played the first half, played the other final on the last day. And, to be honest, Argentina was the best team during that decisive phase of the tournament and deservingly won the gold medal.

That one bad match that every team suffers in a major tournament came at a very wrong time for you.

Absolutely. But you have to admit that a great player is great when he performs during the decisive part of the competition, and Gonzalo Peillat was that player for Argentina (in the semi-finals).

Are there any players in your side who have come to India before?

We have quite a few. Captain Constantin Staib was in Raipur (for the Hockey World League Final) with the senior side. Lukas Windfeder and Henning Huttermann actually played the last Junior World Cup as well, in New Delhi. But for all of us Lucknow is new, except me. I have also been here with the Hockey India League. So when we travel to stadium, everyone has their eyes popped out seeing the traffic.

How has the experience of coming to India been for the team?

I told them the game is more about the heart here. Hockey in India is a little different than in Germany. People here are very emotional. People here have a lot of passion. It’s not just the players, but even the crowd gets involved. Germany is a little more quiet. People know their traffic, it’s more regulated. Here everyone does what they think is the best. One big example is honking. So what I told them is, everyone here loves their hockey. So the players are looking forward to that aspect of the game.

Can Germany complete a hat-trick of titles here?

I think we can, but it will be really difficult.

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