The Belgium men’s team is at the pinnacle of world hockey after attaining recent success by winning the World Cup (2018), Olympics gold (2021), European Championship (2019) and Pro League (2020-21). The Red Lions are at the beginning of another cycle as they are back in Odisha to defend their world crown.
In this golden run, one person who has quietly played his part in ensuring the team has the right resources to continue to improve its level has been an Australian, Adam Commens, the Belgian high-performance director.
Commens, a former international and an Olympic bronze medallist with Australia, also coached the Belgium men’s team – his first coaching job - between 2007 and 2011. So when Bert Wentink stepped down from the role in 2016, the Royal Belgian Hockey Association approached the Aussie to come back into the setup.
In an interview with Sportstar, Commens talks about his role, the next generation of Belgium players, the next step for hockey in the country and more.
When you took over the role, did you anticipate the success the nation has had in the last five years?
It was really interesting because I had coached many of the guys at the Beijing Olympics, and I was aware of their potential. I also had a role with the U-21 team, so I knew almost all the players. They always believed that they could be the best team in the world. They ultimately needed the right coaching and facilities, and we felt we had that with our current staff.
What does your role entail?
I am someone who sits over the staff – coaching and support staff. I am someone who can be a sounding board to the coaches and ask them critical questions. More than that, I work with the stakeholders and funding partners and try to ensure that the team and support staff have everything they need to prepare well for a tournament and then compete well in that. I am someone who takes a helicopter view of the men’s and women’s teams and look at where they have to improve at a lower age group. I also make sure that information filters down. Finally, I have to keep an eye on the future, and how we are developing and integrating them into the current team.
Do you have a say in the philosophy with which the team plays?
I certainly understand how the team wants to play, but I leave the tactics and strategy up to the coaches. We have very experienced coaches, so I fully trust them, but if things are not going well, then I would have input. At the moment, I have not had to have an input as the coaching staff have done a fantastic job. I am probably more involved in looking at how we develop the next generation of players and ensuring that they are able to implement our way of playing at the top level. We like to think we have a way of playing in Belgium which is unique and something we have developed over the last few years. My role is to ensure the coaches in our development programme are implementing them in the correct way.
What do you ask of the coaching staff in the Belgium setup?
In Belgium, we have a principle-based coaching philosophy for our junior teams. We have six principles – three in defence and three in attack - with and without the ball. These principles, most teams that are playing well in the world, they do that. We do not tell the coaches the tactics they have to play in, but without the ball, we have these particular principles in place, and with the ball, we have a certain set of principles. After following these principles, it is up to the players to make the right decisions. As coaches, we empower them to do that.
There are many nations that are doing very similar types of approaches, but we are a unique nation. Because we are so small we can train our young talent every week. They can drive over in one hour or an hour and a half, and you can train together, and it is one of the unique advantages we have. The BE-GOLD program and the foundations of its success is that they train and play together every week. So that has been the foundation. But in India, you cannot get all of your best talents together every week to train because they live all over the country, and it is the same case with Australia.
You have held together nearly the same team from the 2016 Rio Olympics through the eight-year period. It’s a really experienced squad but also an ageing one. What is the thought process behind that?
Between Rio and Tokyo Olympics, we had five new players playing for us. And the aim is to have a similar number playing in Paris. Right now, we have two new players, who weren’t in Tokyo, but are here on our reserve list. And Tonguy Cousins, who played in Rio, has come back. We have a development group back home, who play international matches. They recently played matches against Malaysia and France and will play Korea in the coming summer. We are giving them opportunities in the Pro League as well. We have six or seven other players who played in the Pro League. I believe they will be close to making the team, if not in Paris Olympics, then immediately after.
We will have a similar group forward going to Paris. We will have two-three new players pushing for selection, but ultimately we will select the best team and if the older generation is still our best then they will be going for Paris as well.
After the BE-GOLD programme which led to where the country is right now, what is the next step for Belgian hockey?
Our aim is to be on the podium for all tournaments for both men’s and women’s teams in the coming two cycles. That’s as far ahead as we are looking at the moment. We feel we have the talent in the pipeline to be able to do that, now it is about developing in the right way.
When we began the [BE-GOLD] project in and around 2005-06, we only had 20,000 players, now we have close to 60,000 players. So we not only have a big pool to select from, but we also have better facilities and more funding. We feel like we are better set up to continue that development. Of course, you need to keep analysing the world’s game and make sure that you are being innovative and staying on top of the game across all levels – with your set pieces, when you have the ball, and when you are without the ball, kind of stuff. But we think we have the knowledge and know-how in our organisation to be able to do that.
What are the expectations for the hockey team? If the nation doesn’t finish on the podium, how is it viewed by the federation?
One thing we always do we look at the different performance measures through statistics. Are we creating enough chances to win the game? Are we limiting the opposition to not having as many chances? So if we are creating high-quality chances in the opposition circle, it doesn’t guarantee you a win, but it gives you a better chance. So if for example, we lose the quarterfinal, that can happen if we play India or England -- that’s a really high-level opponent. We could find ourselves losing the game, does that mean this team is a failure and the process and our strategy has failed? I don’t think so. We need to look at the data behind it and review if we have to improve. We don’t judge the success of one program on the outcome of one game. We look at it with a broader philosophy than that.
As high performance director, I am a big fan of continuity. So how do we have continuity? That brings knowledge transfer so you imagine you go to one tournament, you don’t get the result you want and you change all the staff but the knowledge is lost. So we need knowledge transfer. It’s the same with players, you don’t want to have mass retirements and have players who have not been around the group. We want continuity and for that, you need a certain level of faith in the staff you have put in place that they will continue to build and grow the team.
My contract is not a fixed term and it’s an employment contract until I want to stop or they want me to stop. At the moment, it’s going well with all parties.
Where does the Belgian Hockey League stand among the top European Leagues?
It is certainly grown and we are there up with the other European leagues. Waterloo Ducks won the European Hockey League a few years ago (2018-19) and the Belgian clubs are always in the top four. I suppose the Netherlands has the strongest league and we are not far behind it. It is our aim to be among the strongest European league.
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