First the ball, then everything else

Lately I have been interested in reading some material about the Dutch football coach Rene Meulensteen that revolutionized the way that the football giant Manchester United works in their youth teams and improved some of the most talented international players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Robin Van Persie or Wayne Rooney and it was inspiring to realize that I share a very similar view regarding youth development, so I have decided to write something regarding training and youth development.

Manchester United Training And Press Conference

‘Teaching kids how to own that ball is key. All the other elements – athleticism, vision, mentality – will come after that.’ –  Rene Meulensteen (Skills Development Coach – Manchester United 2001-2013)

Being so deeply involved with senior and youth coaching I have the opportunity to contact simultaneously with different levels and ages. Soon realized that unfortunately hockey is some years behind other sports in terms of training (equipment, quality, science…), obviously we are a sport that strives in a large basis of our community between being profissionaly amateur and ‘volunteerly competent’ and also with a big discrepancy between top nations and other countries but that does not justify the biggest failure in hockey training:  ‘The obsession for the space ownership rather for the ball’

Hockey is an extremely technically demanding sport if you consider that in opposite with other sports like Football, Basketball, Handball, etc, you have not one ( the ball ) but two external physical components in order to play this game; (the stick – that can only be used with one side + the ball).

When we realize how much the technical complexity of this ‘stick + ball’ game affects in a permanent basis all the other areas of the game such as the mobility (physical),  diference between right (forehand) and left (backhand) of the field (individual and collective tactical notions) it is easily understandable that this should be our first priority in terms of youth training. Even if you are the fastest player in the field or have a very clear tactical understanding if you can’t receive, control, dribble with the ball you rather than useless in this game…

So before investing in fitness, strength, advanced tactical concepts and even basic passing techniques we need to teach children (as Mr. Meleunsteen wisely said) to own the ball before teach them how ‘to get rid’ of her.

A concrete example: How many youth trainings (let’s say in a age group 8-12) regardless level or country start with passing drills instead of starting with simple basic individual driving, handling (grip), dribbling techniques in order to make the player feel comfortable with stick and ball, acquire the ball tension and field habit and again in a more metaphorical perspective to teach them how to ‘own’ the ball.

The passing speed intended in current game, the self-pass, interchanges and mostly a coaching style that attempts to copy the adult game and achieve a winning flow (victories/immediate results) above an individual performance development is negatively affecting the way we raise hockey players nowadays.

Sadly even the most developed European hockey countries (the only context that I know) have only a short number of clubs with a structured youth training plan, nevertheless the top regional clubs can always form strong teams as they have a big selection in every age categorie and eventualy attract the best talents from minor regional clubs. Faced by  few as a real life career, fieldhockey lacks competent youth trainers with expertise to develop high standard technical/skills trainings that at the same time can provide accurate and detailed feedback to the players. From what I see, the majority of the trainers focus moreless in the same primary elements when produce feedback to the players:

– Hard passing;

– Playing speed;

– Basic tactical concepts;

– Footwork (when in 90% of the cases are not able to provide an appropriate adjustment);

– Forehand playing; etc;

When in my opinion, during an execution a determined skill, we should be able to analyze a wider range of aspects as:

Eye-hand coordination/eye-foot coordination,

– Awareness / peripherical view / speed judgements / visual memory

– Ball tension (!)

– Adequate motricity

– Adequate footwork / speed of reaction

– Body balance and dynamic in the movement (being steady and comfortable!)

– Grip/Handling

– Stick position

– Distance to the ball

(In my understanding the motricity and vision elements mentioned above are the most important aspects of any skill execution. I can certainly write another article about how I work some of these areas but now I would like to return to the main subject of this article.)

Thinking about successfull sports projects (in different sports and different levels) there is an evident pattern; they are all centered in individual performance improvement!

Take a look at the following sentence:

”The team with the most creative players and players who can dominated the 1vs1 situations all over the field will be the most successful team in the world.” Rene Meulensteen

Remember the sexy Spain that won among other prizes a Silver Olympic medal and a European Championship directed under an extremely professional line by Maurits Hendriks? Weren’t those achievements possible mostly due to a couple of players that were technically above the average like Pol Amat and Santi Freixa and that at the key moments marked the difference?

Pol Amat of Spain celebrates with team mate Santiago Freixa after scoring the winning goal during their men's pool MA hockey match against China at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games

The trendy Belgian case study is majorly sustained by an intensive and well organized national youth training system that allowed a group of talented youngsters to progressively become world class athletes.  Would their recent conquer and improvement be possible without such refined individuals as Tom Boon or Felix Denayer?


The German national team won in the last 10 years every major international competition twice, UHC Hamburg won the EHL 3 times (since 2007), with the due respect for the German top-of-the-game coaching level, their tactical excellence, athletics and inner competitive ADN we must refer the fact of having such outstanding players as Timo Wess, Christopher Zeller, Tobias Hauke, Maximillian Muller and Moritz Fuerste coinciding in the same decade!

London Olympics Hockey Men

To finish I would like to show a small clip and ask:

Is this an example of tactical or individual supremacy?!

Can you also recognize these elements in the video?

– Eye-foot coordination,

– Awareness / peripherical view / speed judgements / visual memory

– Ball tension (!)

– Adequate motricity

– Adequate footwork / speed of reaction

– Body balance and dynamic in the movement (being steady and comfortable!)

Hockey greetings!

Bernardo Fernandes

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