Terry sure that this team will waltz!

Terry Walsh... great clarity of thought.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

“As for this team, there is no doubt it will continue to grow. Potentially, I see all of them still there in 2016. From the point of view of age and physiology, there is no one who couldn’t do it even in 2018,” Terry Walsh, the Indian men’s hockey chief coach, tells Uthra Ganesan.

Indian men’s hockey chief coach Terry Walsh’s first major assignment in charge was the recent World Cup, where India finished a disappointing ninth.

But the Australian, who swears by the importance of the process over results, insists the team is far better than its current ranking and can hope for a podium finish at the next edition, provided the development programme continues.

Walsh spoke extensively on the system he is trying to put in place for Indian hockey, his expectations from the team and his vision for the future.

Excerpts:

How do you assess India’s performance at the World Cup?

We finished ninth — a disappointing result from the point of view of position, but there were a few very positive things from the point of view of performance. I believe that all things are driven by a process. If you stay in process mode all the time, there is a good chance of going where you want to go. We finished ninth but I think we are able to play anyone from probably 3rd or 4th in the world through to 10th comfortably.

There has been a lot of emphasis on fitness. How much has the level increased?

I think it’s really improved. When I got here — I have to be very honest — it wasn’t good in the group I had. Of the 35 or so we had in Bhopal, only 15 are still in this group. If you do not have a level of real quality on the international scene, you cannot play at a concerted consistency. That’s the basic building block and if you don’t have it, you can play very well in a game or in parts but will not be able to perform over a period of time, no matter how skilful you are or how fast.

Indians appear comfortable playing natural, attacking hockey but fumble when they have to curb their instincts. What are you planning to do about it?

Your observation is absolutely correct, but you can’t play with an attacking mentality all the time. If you see the football World Cup, one of the semifinals was a very good indicator that you cannot live off that (attack). There is a structure built around a process. Can you change it really quickly to something completely foreign to the culture of the players? You can’t. You have to find things that allow you to change enough to bring in the pieces that are important but not so much that they become foreign in themselves.

Do the players understand the changes under pressure? I have to be open, they don’t. Some of them get it wrong but is that a fault? No, it’s reality. We make mistakes under pressure, but we have to keep making them till we solve them. That’s the basic thing.

What about actual thinking in match situations? Where is that at?

My perception is that it has improved a lot. Game understanding and the ability to make decisions are really important. What do we do when we are playing with 10 men or with one minute to go? The Indian mentality is that, if you are 4-4 with two minutes to go, you want to make it 5-4. The reality is, if you are playing in a World Cup, one point may be crucial. It’s nice to talk about that difference but there is a big difference in understanding and implementing.

How easy or difficult is it to convince players to curb their instincts?

The challenge is to give them information in a way they feel that what they are trying to do is what they should be doing, not try smokes and mirrors. Sportspersons know that in the end, they are the ones who will be gauged on what happens on the field and take the blame, not the coach or the system.

WALSH IN THE MIDDLE of a every important lesson.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

Indian hockey needs an equally good next line of players. Do we have that yet?

You are talking about something that is the lifeblood of any international sport. You need to start getting hold of kids at 10. That is not to say they have to be put into training camps, but the information they need to be receiving has to be of a quality which allows them to develop and grow. Not detailed programmes, but an idea of what they have to do and the parameters within which to do that.

We are talking about kids at the very bottom of the pyramid, which is to do with the academy programmes across the country. You can fix things in the short term with a national programme but that doesn’t give any longevity. You need to get the right people to do the job and support them, give them appropriate time to put a system in place. It’s a relatively simple thing, but difficult to implement because it’s change and change is not well accepted anywhere.

How was your two-day meeting with the Hockey India panel?

I thought it went really well. It was an insight into how the programme works, looking inside something they (the panel) hadn’t seen before. It was also an insight for me to look back into the Indian thought process because there were people sharing experiences from the past.

What was the issue with penalty corners during the World Cup?

We have a good PC, but we don’t know enough about why it happened. I don’t have a categorical answer, but I can share some of the information I have. One, the balls were changed just before the tournament. No one had handled them before — not even the hosts. They were minimally different — harder, a fraction heavier, but for those playing at that level, it’s like playing with tennis balls. You are going from a pile pitch to a loop pitch, which again makes a difference in execution. The surface didn’t have enough water on it. I will say categorically that we will convert more goals at the Commonwealth Games (CWG) because we are playing on a different pitch.

That is the difference in ways countries operate. Australia put down a Greenfields pitch 12 months ago just for the World Cup team to practise on. The changed balls used were Kookaburra, made in Australia, and they were the only ones to have them before the World Cup.

Do you think the team needs specialised coaches for penalty corners, goalkeeping etc?

Everything can make a difference and if you have a bottomless financial pit, you get them. It helps because a specialist spends his entire time concentrating on that one area. But if you have the ability to practise on the surface you are playing on, players can really fix their problems themselves, if they know what the problem is.

How did the involvement of Martin Djiver for helping out the goalkeepers come about?

It came about because of contacts. That’s why it is so important to have people who know what’s going on around the world. Roelant (Oltmans) knew him really well. On whether it made a difference, the best person to talk to would be Sreejesh or Harjot Singh. My view is very positive. It’s not a complex thing. The art of coaching is to make complex things simple.

Is there pressure on you to produce results at the CWG?

There is no pressure, but wisdom is a very funny thing. At the World Cup, we were the youngest team with an average cap of 70 against the Australian average of 140. In the end, you have to choose the best group because we do not have enough games. When we went for the World Cup, I thought we would run into physical problems and one of the thoughts I had was to rest some players for the CWG, so that they are available for the Asiad. But we have to play the CWG with our main group because we don’t have any other games to get playing experience.

If you have expectations then you have to give what the team wants. If we don’t play 40 to 50 games a year, we will not get where we want to be.

Are you open to holding training sessions for Indian coaches?

The first point is that everybody has to appreciate and agree that we have to change, including the coaches, and that is a delicate area. It’s all about the willingness to improve and get better education about what we are trying to do and what the game really is today.

It’s very clear from the people we came across in recent times, many of them icons in our sport, that they don’t have a familiarity with what’s going on in the game today. The reality is that we don’t have a high level of coaching across the country. You can either dispute that or do something about it.

What about your preference for a different venue besides Delhi?

We looked at all the variations and both the SAI and Hockey India have been good, trying to find a better solution, but we don’t have any.

Logically, the best location for us would be Bangalore, but we have to have the pitches. When I came into this role in November last year, it was clearly indicated that by March, we would be in Bangalore in preparation for the World Cup. But here we are in July and there is no sign that there is going to be a change of pitches in Bangalore.

I understand how the Indian system works. But the process of preparation revolves around the 2016 Olympics surface, the 2018 World Cup surface. If you have two surfaces in Bangalore, they are the two you want to have. It’s not easy but we have to get people to understand that, that is the way forward.

What about your interactions with the players?

When we started in Bhopal, there was an expectation this was going to be a one-way street. I was trying to get as much information on them as possible, whether in Hindi or English or Punjabi — things that don’t have any great relevance to hockey — as well as the hockey pieces. Now we talk about a lot more details in the interactions.

We try to give them as much information, in whichever language they understand better — it’s part of understanding and developing a trust between players and the coach.

Does the Indian team need a psychologist?

At this point of time, no. I think it’s more about understanding the concept of play and the person who is really responsible for what goes on in the psychological area is the head coach.

What are the prospects for the team?

In the short term, we have a really good chance of a medal, if not the optimum one, at the Asian Games. We have a viable, outside chance of a medal at the CWG.

But after that we have the 2016 Olympics and further down, the 2018 World Cup. I would think that, at the Olympics, you can talk about a top-six finish if you keep the process going. And if things drop right, you can look at being in the last four at the World Cup with a chance of a medal.

Belgium has been at it for 10 years and getting results now. My view is that the base level of what we have in India is at a significantly higher starting point than them.

As for this team, there is no doubt it will continue to grow. Potentially, I see all of them still there in 2016. From the point of view of age and physiology, there is no one who couldn’t do it even in 2018. But if that happens, then we have a bigger problem — because that would mean there is no one pushing them.