There is been a while since my last personal article. In this piece I want to write about my summer experience helping the Portuguese U21 team on their ‘unexpected’ success achieving the highest level of European competition (A division among the top hockey countries like Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Spain, etc).
Last summer, while I was supposed to have a well deserved rest from a busy hockey season at some beautiful beach I was invited by the Portuguese Hockey Federation (namely by the NTD Mário Almeida) to collaborate with the coaching of the U21 team that was about to participate in a European championship B division against Italy, Russia, Scotland, Ireland and Ukraine – countries far above from Portugal in what concerns FIH ranking, number of federated athletes, domestic competition, training facilities and financial conditions.
Before the competition started the logic said that this team (subjectively considered a talented generation) just freshly promoted from the C division should aim firstly to keep the B division status but what happened during the tournament turned into something completely different: the lowest country on the ranking was only below Ireland on goal average: Great stuff!
Surely had great pleasure to share my knowledge with the Portuguese youngsters but don’t intend to turn this text into any kind of a patriotic declaration, rather would like to expose some of the reasons who lead this group to the success and why we shouldn’t be afraid to breed this ‘type of player’ .
Many hockey friends asked me afterwards: ‘Bernardo, why did this team perform so well?’ and ‘What make these players so special?’- Not forgetting quality of training and the great coaching during the competition I will only stick to the player characteristics.
The discussion about how to raise the best type of player is, of course, eternal as the perspective of ‘the best type of player’ is mutative varying from coach to coach, depending on their own game philosophy, own playing experience, competitive and cultural context, physical typology of the players, international trends, etc… However I will try to describe briefly this exotic type of player.
For the successful and the unsuccessful there are surely more than one reason, it is the sum of several positive elements that creates a certain balance, a certain flow. Below I will enlist some factors that, in my opinion, contributed for a great team performance:
‘Mateship’ – Mateship means equality, loyalty and friendship. This group of players or the big majority has been playing together in several international competitions since they were 14 years old. The sad advantage to have a very short pool of athletes is that eventually is always more or less the same ones being selected for the national team. During their ‘international career’ in a minor sport in a country like Portugal they also experienced several financial and logistic sacrifices regarding trainings, accommodations, travelling, etc that definitely strength them and somehow filtered the ones who really have passion for the game.
In previous years, during national team training weekends, players were suggested by the Federation to sleep in the houses of teammates that lived nearer the training field in order to save some of the limited budget. Those creative solutions, some might say are not ideal when you think about a proper ‘high performance’ preparation but turned out to help creating a strong and unique relationship between these players.
Old and traditional club and regional rivalries between players no longer existed as more than teammates, they become buddies willing to spend time and to help each other.
Here’s a curious fact: 5 out of 12 goals in the competition were scored in the last 5 minutes of the 5 matches (!!) and that says something about resilience but also about solidarity and a team where players are ready to fight for each other until the very last second…
‘Young Veterans’ – These players didn’t had the conventional time and space for a normal development path during their youth stages and that is mainly due to a fragile domestic competition that ‘forces’ young players to prematurely play in senior level for the sake of survival of teams and consequently the competition itself. Similar fragilities are obviously translated to the senior national team where is very difficult to make a progressive renewal, basically there are veterans together with young talents. Logically it will be better to have more athletes and more teams but this unfortunate scenario also revealed an opportunity: to provide a lot of experience to the younger athletes. This is obviously an advantage when you face an international event; the fact that you are used to that competitive environment, that you already know the routines, the rules, some opponents, etc.
Wilderness – This is for me the most important factor and also the reason why I was so looking forward to get to know and work with this group of individuals. I knew beforehand that there were some players with outstanding technical abilities, with a lot of flair, creativity and a good dose of ‘individualism’ – what an exciting cocktail – these are the special characteristics that defines this ‘type of player’. For me, truly a bless from the ‘hockey Gods’ for others might be an obstacle, an aberration…
Why they are so creative, so technically developed, so comfortable with the ball and so brave to face anytime 1×1 or even 1×2 situations? The cultural context plays a big part here; Portuguese like Spanish or Italians (the so called Latin) have a special ‘feeling’ with the ball, skill raise above effectiveness, creativeness raise above structure, individualism is supported to a certain extent, a dribble can have the same importance or excitement as a goal.
Players have enough freedom to be inventive, to explore their individualism without the early ‘pressure’ of having a certain passing/tactical structure in their game; they rose challenging each other in a ‘dribbling, skill and tricks’ environment.
Some of them had luckily a training environment focused in basic, advanced and commonly known as ‘transferable’ techniques – Fun, challenging and apparently effective…
In a very plain thought you could say that If you have a group of players that are technically strong you can always educate them with some tactical principles, with some game ‘intelligence’ but the other way around; a team with good structure and good tactical knowledge but without good technical executers will always be limited and predictable.
One of my favorite quotes to illustrate the previous thought:
‘Teaching kids how to own that ball is key. All the other elements – vision, athleticism, mentality – will come after that.’ – Rene Meulensteen (Football Skills Development Coach – Manchester United 2001-2013)
Indoor Background – A very interesting fact is that several of these players started as indoor players or have a very strong indoor background. It is no coincidence that this generation will also compete in the indoor A division next year. It might sound strange to hear that from a sunny country like Portugal but the truth is that a couple of years ago Portugal had a very long indoor season and in my opinion that has a lot of technical/tactical benefits, namely:
– More contact with the ball – improves ball tension;
– Appropriate push passing technique both statically and in progressive situations;
– Fake passing/elimination skills;
– Specific hockey mobility and enhancement of the main physical areas due to a more permanent need of a ‘lower’ body playing style;
– Swift and reactive dynamics;
– Indian dribbling style mostly due to a better stick/body angle to the ball and also because of a better stick movement towards (close shape in diagonal) and proximity to the ball which increases speed of contact and change of ball direction;
– Defense – Engaging, blocking, channeling, 1×2, 2×3, re-positioning (counter control), ball protection, etc;
– Attack – dribbling skills in tiny spaces, passing criteria, 1-2 situations, counter attack, scoring positioning in a smaller space, ball protection, etc;
– Decision making in smaller areas, etc, etc…
Please check some of their ‘moves’ in this video:
Hopefully, there are more coaches and youth educators that share the perspective that I just tried to point out in this article, we all know that Hockey is a team sport but if you want to develop players, allow room for some individualism instead creating permanent boundaries that are originated by the way we (adult) coaches conceive the (adult) game.
Altruism is important but not in a way that asphyxiate individual development. Create flexible environments where the players feel tempted and challenged to try, to take risks and be creative. It is possible everywhere!
As from last note would like to mention the Dutch coach Norbert Nederlof, whit whom I had some interesting conversations about this particular subject.
Photo credits: Douglas Rogerson