If one was to ask what was common between Holland, India, Ireland, France, China, Germany and Australia at the ongoing World Cup here, he would be met with strange stares. And not without reason, for there is nothing, on the surface. Except for the small fact that all these teams have, among their staff, men who have, at various times, been students to one man – Siegfried Aikman.
It is a name respected across the hockey world but not known much outside it. One of the finest minds in the sport, Aikman is currently Japan men’s coach and the man who miraculously took them to the Asian Games title. But that is just one of the calling cards for the Dutchman.
Japan may not be playing the World Cup but the 59-year old Aikman knows work for Tokyo 2020 starts now. And this tournament is the best way to gauge which way the world order might go in the next two years. “I am here to watch the trends and developments in hockey and every team will be at its best here at the World Cup. They will be very well prepared with their minds set on Tokyo and here I can find out how they will be developing. I also have my own ideas and strategies which I want to check here, how countries play and how do my strategies fit in,” Aikman said in an exclusive interview with Sportstar .
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It shows how seriously Japan is taking its hockey but also how Aikman views his job as a full-time one, even when the team isn’t competing. In fact, it isn’t a job for him at all, it’s his passion. Having been across the world spreading his own knowledge, Aikman is now trying to gain as much as he can from the rest.
A chat with him is an eye-opener to how much details matter at the top level. Even observing the bench during a match, he says, tells a lot about a team. “Every team does it slightly different and here I can focus on some parts which I want to see. Also there are the emotions of what is going on – something you don’t get to see in photos or videos. Like when there is strong marking, something always happens and that is very important. I always look at bench behaviour -- it tells a lot about how the teams are coached, how they act when they are under pressure, you can see how coaches or players react and what will happen. Those things are very valuable,” he explains.
Not everyone in international sports is as open to explaining his ways but when you have coached the best in the world, there is not much you have to hide. These are lessons he has passed on to people as varied as Harendra Singh, Kim Sang Ryul, Max Caldas and Jeroen Delmee, with each one of them developing them into their own individual styles.
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The Surinamese from Holland with Indian genes laughs when asked if his multi-cultural origins and upbringing have helped in adapting to various cultures. “I never looked at it from that point of view but now you mention, I guess I can take that because I am a mix of cultures and I am already used to adapting to settle with other people. I am also interested in cultures and I try to be part of wherever I go,” he says.
And that puts him in the unique position of trying to assess why European coaches don’t last long in Asia despite being highly in demand. “I think there are a few differences. The Europeans do not invest in knowing about Indian or Pakistani culture and it happens in every Asian country. Secondly, they are too convinced that they know everything about hockey. They cannot copy what they have done before and be successful here and I see that happening too much. They have to create a mix between their strategies and the talents of home countries to achieve what they want,” he says bluntly.
But the problems, he further says, are from both sides. “Most coaches get only short terms and that’s where the Asians also need to look at themselves in the mirror. They lack vision and a clear strategy of where they want to go and how. They hire a coach and ask him to give a strategy and when the coach leaves, everything goes and they have to start all over again. They keep doing it over and over again and so fail to go beyond a point,” he explains.
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Ask him about Indian hockey and Aikman, as the outsider looking in, reveals some ugly truths that he says need to be addressed if the team has to rise and succeed. He openly questions the players, praises FIH president and former Hockey India chief Narinder Batra for taking a long-term view and insists the team can go all the way but warns it may fall well short.
“Batra had a vision, he wanted a mix of European, Australian and Indian styles and he selected coaches from these continents. There was always an Indian coach, an Australian and a European in the mix and the result is that India I think now have the fittest side in the world. But the one big problem is players’ ego and that’s what the Indian culture delivers,” he declares bluntly.
“They are made heroes too soon and these players have everything to lose. They are not all well educated, they don’t have another way to survive other than hockey, their lives are dependent on hockey so they can make or break any coach. They go for their own survival and that’s a challenge for Harendra, to cut out that ego and make them play as a team for each other, like he did with the juniors,” he says, adding that Harendra, apart from Pakistan’s Tahir Zaman, is the only Asian coach with modern hockey knowledge.
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And how far does he think the Indian team will go in the ongoing competition? “That’s very difficult to say because they are very good when there is no pressure but when there is pressure, how do they deal with it? If they see the crowd as pressure, they will fail. If they see the crowd as an excuse to show their individual skills, they will fail. But if they see the crowd as supporting them in playing for country and the team, they can actually win the tournament because they have all qualities, they are very close to delivering. But the way the Indians deal with all this makes it very hard for them to deliver,” he shrugs, leaving it an open-ended debate.