Playing the Aussie way

Michael Nobbs… “ To win you require a ruthless mentality, you leave nothing to chance.”-K. MURALIKUMAR

“Playing ruthlessly does not mean being vicious or nasty to rivals; it means competing probably above the level you think you can compete,” says India’s chief coach Michael Nobbs. By Nandakumar Marar.

‘Australian ruthlessness’ is something that Indian men’s hockey needs to get accustomed to. The chief coach, Michael Nobbs, is emphatic about the virtue of learning to play the Australian way.

What exactly does ‘Australian ruthlessness’ mean in the context of India’s preparations for the London Olympics? This was the question put to Nobbs in order to understand the qualities being drilled into the Indian players. Excerpts from a chat with the coach in Balewadi (Pune) where the Indian squad for the 2012 Olympic Games is undergoing training.

Question: You are on record saying that India should learn to play as ruthlessly as Australia. Can you explain this?

Answer: To be the best, you have to compete against the best and copy from them.

Having played for Australia and coached Australians for many years, their viewpoint on winning is fairly obvious. To win you require a ruthless mentality, you leave nothing to chance. When you play the game, you have done everything you possibly can to win. It is a kind of attitude with which you develop the way you think.

You should not take it for granted that you will win, but every time you walk on to the field you expect to win. Good teams fall over the line; they sometimes play badly but still win.

Being ruthless demands a certain attitude towards the opponent…

We still give respect to the opposition. After a game they are friends, but on the field it is a battle. Playing ruthlessly does not mean being vicious or nasty to rivals; it means competing probably above the level you think you can compete.

When trying to inculcate aggressive approach, do you prefer working with Indians individually or through team leaders?

We work within the patterns, so everything we do off the field is a reflection of what we do on it. We train ruthlessly. During weight training sessions, for example, all the boys are doing 200 kilos. It is not something they ever thought could be done.

You push the players past they believe they can, beyond what we as coaches know they can do. Get that attitude in them; that ‘I am going to get to that ball at all costs. I am going to take that extra step, I am going to hurt in training because that is going to give me that edge’.

What sort of players are you looking for to execute the ruthless approach in competition?

To create the sort of players we want, you need to back up mental desire to win with physical attributes. Otherwise trying to play in a ruthless way is not going to work against the top-class sides that have the physical as well as mental qualities.

Our players were somewhere between six to 10 kilos lighter than their European and Australian counterparts. The boys have made great progress in that area and now we are only four to five kilos less. It will take another 12 months to match them.

Is aggression in players natural or do they pick it up along the way? What is your experience with the Indian squad?

It is sometimes natural. What you have to do as coach is to mould that aggression into the pattern of play. V. Raghunath (penalty corner specialist) is a perfect example. He’s a very strong and aggressive player, but didn’t have the mobility to back up his aggression. It led to a number of cards and bad tackles, because he would always be a little late (in tackling). So now he has shed 10 kilos and is probably one of our best defenders. With his aggression and toughness, he has the mobility. Training the players to be ruthless is about keeping the aggression. I want a player who never gives in and will put his life on the line when playing for his country in a gold medal game. Raghunath is that sort of a player.

* * * EXPERTS SPEAK

Brent Livermore… fighting spirit matters a lot.-M. VEDHAN

Brent Livermore, midfielder and skipper of the Australian team that won the men’s hockey gold at the 2004 Athens Olympics, has a first-hand experience of the Indian style of hockey. Livermore has also won bronze medals at the Sydney Olympics (2000) and Beijing Olympics (2008).

Former India player Ashish Ballal was an imposing presence under the bar. He represented India at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. He became a national hero after saving two penalty strokes in the 1998 Bangkok Asian Games final against South Korea which India won.

Both Livermore and Ballal give their views on playing ruthlessly or the Aussie way.

Livermore: I believe being ruthless means having a real belief and passion for winning, getting together as a tight team with players trusting each other. It doesn’t matter if the team is winning or losing, you fight to the end, till the last second.

The Australian way is to make sure you are prepared as well as you can ever be, so that when the team goes into the tournament there is nothing else you need to do. Just go out there and perform. Never be satisfied with success, never be satisfied that you have done enough, always seek perfection.

Be confident about playing your own natural game, but always focus on precision and perfection.

Through my experience in World Series Hockey (Chennai Cheetahs) and playing in India a number of times, (I can say) this quality is lacking in Indian hockey. There is a culture of passion here, but when pressure is felt or when anxiety or frustration sets in, players start doubting themselves.

Ashish Ballal… backing Michael Nobbs.-G.P. SAMPATH KUMAR

Ballal: Nobbs is absolutely right in thinking on those lines. Australians play with aggressive body language and fitness and keep attacking always. Aggression is more mental than physical.

Players need confidence in themselves and should be able to convey it through their body language in matches.

Hockey is a team sport, so confident goalkeeping depends on maintaining a rapport with players in front of me. We played as a group, the defenders and the goalkeeper. I used verbal communication a lot to keep them alert, because eventually their performance had a direct bearing on my game.

In my case, aggressive approach is because of my family upbringing.

My father believed in being straight forward and we were encouraged to be direct in our behaviour.