Pro League poses Indian management task to find right balance

The six-month long Hockey Pro League kicking off in January and ending just a month before Tokyo 2020, would make both the players and coaches walk a tightrope.

Chris Ciriello, India's analytical coach, felt the Indian team will need to rotate the players during the Pro League.   -  BISWARANJAN ROUT

In normal course, teams preparing for Olympics less than a year would only be focused on the big event. But with the six-month long Hockey Pro League kicking off in January and ending just a month before Tokyo 2020, it would be a tightrope walk for both players and coaches.

The Indian men missed the bus in the inaugural edition in 2019 but would be part of the Pro League next year and while the top-tier competition among the nine best teams in the world would give sufficient match practice, it would also stretch the resources before the Olympics. And the team management is aware of the delicate balance they need to manage.

“It is going to be difficult. We have four legs (eight matches) in a row. We will have to rotate a fair number of players. If you look at the squads in the last Pro League, they went through the whole range of 32 players they had. We really need to do that so that the guys get some good balance and hard games so that if you some players, which generally happens around an Olympic time, the next guys step in and fill the roles,” analytical coach Chris Ciriello told Sportstar.

The good thing, Ciriello said, was having examples of how different teams managed in the first season. “Obviously, back-to-back games are sort of more technical. You go and play one way and when you match up well or don’t know what the other team is going to do. But a lot of teams, coming into the last matches of the Pro League were fatigued and struggled, so it’s very important to manage players and their work load. We went to Australia in-between and we didn’t come off as sharp, we competed pretty well but you could see there was that extra step (in Australians) that intense competition drives you to take,” he admitted.

The fallout of all this has been high-intensity training that the players have been pushed to do in the ongoing camp in Bhubaneswar, the first since qualifying for Olympics and the only one before the team hits the road for the Pro League.

“Every line – strikers, defenders and goalkeepers – we are working on the specifics of the job and their individual skills. The focus is different because most camps lead into a tournament but this one is for a building stage. I’ve been plotting specific skills (for every individual) – 10, 20, 30 – and the drag-flicking set is at 60 skills.

“At the end of these three weeks, we will have about 100 measurements of specific skill-sets and we can carry it forward to the next camps, telling them what they are good at and what they need to work on. There has to be a lot of improvement but we are also looking at raising the levels. What we are looking at is getting them to a good level and then increase what they are really good at and work on what they are weak at,” he explained.

The big challenge, he agreed, was to ensure a balance between training and competition for the entire squad of 34. “There is still a lot of work to be done. FIH allows you to take 18 players for the Pro League, that leaves us with 14 back in training. The balance of who goes and who stays is important because you want to try and keep it as consistent as possible.

"The 14 at the camp have to train at an intense level. You don't want a team playing away and when you return, the ones here don’t train at the same level and struggle to fit in. It is important that the coaches and other staff work on the programme together and understand the big focus is on Olympics,” Ciriello said.