"Ready to help build a high-performance culture in Indian sport" - former coach Sjoerd Marijne

India v Ireland - FIH Womens Hockey World Cup
India v Ireland - FIH Womens Hockey World Cup

Best known for his "player-driven approach," which placed the onus of decision-making on the men on the turf rather than the coach on the sidelines, Sjoerd Marijne's brief but eventful stint with the Indian men's team may well have ended in despair - but what followed has been nothing short of magical.

The much-maligned strategy of allowing players the freedom to make their choices on the field did not find favor with either the boys or the administration in the first half of 2018 - so much so that the Dutchman has since avoided making any references to the above approach.

"The decision to move me back to the women's camp happened without involving me at all, with no evaluation, with just an announcement that I was to be moved back to the women's team. That did not give me a great feeling at all."

Hockey India's bizarre move to swap coaches for the men's and women's teams post the 2018 Commonwealth games bore mixed results.

While Harendra Singh was relieved of his duties after barely nine months with the Indian men's side, Sjoerd Marijne stayed on for a record-breaking and glorious tenure which saw the Indian women's hockey team scale heights that were hitherto considered to be the stuff of dreams.

The man who almost singlehandedly transformed women's hockey in India after arriving four and a half years back as a relatively unknown entity could well have stayed on to reap the rewards after a stupendous showing at the Olympic Games.

As the Indian media heaped praise on the team that came within striking distance of a medal in Tokyo, the Dutchman decided to call it a day after having already signed a coaching contract with the Dutch club, HC Tilburg.

Does Marijne have any regrets about moving on when he might well have become a celebrated coach in India?

"I feel like a celebrated coach in the Netherlands as well. You have to remember that although things ended on a high, there were some tough times which I faced in India as well and I have not forgotten those as well."
"When I say tough moments, they had more to do with missing my family. I miss my kids so much and for it is also important that I be with them."
"I am now looking back at a very rewarding period of life back in India and I always feel connected with India because of all the good things that have happened. I feel there are still roles for me in India, not only in Hockey, but generally to inspire people."

In an exclusive chat with Sportskeeda from his home in the Netherlands, Sjoerd Marijne relives a momentous journey in India that had its share of waxing and waning fortunes, but ended much like a fairy tale with a bit of pathos as well to add to the intrigue.

Being cooped up in the Sports Authority of India campus during the pandemic took its toll, but Marijne spread his wings from within by beginning his much-awaited book and a business enterprise.

"On the whole, it was a hectic four-and-a-half years, especially the last year and a half because I was away from my family for a very long time."
"The postponement of the Olympics was also hard to take and that year was really tough. The effort that went into creating the four-and-a-half years was worth it if you look at how we ended our Olympic campaign."
"We could not go outside. We were in the SAI campus for a very long time so that was extremely boring. That was a time we could not train and then there was the bird flu disease as a result of which we could not eat chicken."
"I like chicken a lot and those were challenging times. I coped by making small goals. I set up a new business. I started writing a book. So, I had to have a purpose for each new day."
Great Britain v India - Hockey - Olympics: Day 14
Great Britain v India - Hockey - Olympics: Day 14

When Sjoerd Marijne first took over the women's side in 2017, he asked the girls to set goals which they could then move towards. While the girls wanted a medal, the Dutchman was intent on building a legacy.

"When I first started working with the girls we began to set goals. The girls said they wanted to win a medal, but I felt creating a legacy was more important than winning a medal."
"We constantly used to evaluate where we were when we started as compared to where we were at a certain point in time and what we needed to do to go where we wanted."
"The change in mindset came to the fore at the 2018 World Cup and the girls really did believe that they could win a medal in London. We were pretty close too but we lost the quarterfinals to Ireland."
"From there on, the self-belief soared as the girls really believed they could go the distance in the big tournaments."

It was captain Rani Rampal who scored the all-important goal in a nerve-wracking second leg game of the Olympic qualifiers against the USA which got the girls a place in the Tokyo Olympics.

Even so, for a team that was not part of the Hockey Pro League - unlike most of their rivals in the Olympic competition - the going was never expected to be easy.

The girls did well to hold their own in patches before losing to the mighty Netherlands and Germany, but a lackluster showing against Great Britain tested the Chief Coach's patience.

"We had not played any games for five months before the Olympics and no really high-pressure matches for almost two years as the Olympic qualifiers were the last ones."
"The only match we didn't play well was the one against Great Britain. The quality was low and we made bad decisions."
"I was so angry I told the girls that they needed to do it on their own in the remaining matches. The girls called me back and told me they needed my help."
"I showed them a movie. I cannot reveal the name of the film as will be revealed in my upcoming book. The movie essentially explains the importance of living in the moment and not worrying about the consequences of winning or losing."
"Focusing on the task really helped us in the game against Ireland. We won by a late goal but we were much better than the world up silver medalists."
Australia v India - Hockey - Olympics: Day 10
Australia v India - Hockey - Olympics: Day 10

"Beating Australia was a special moment"

There was to be a dramatic change in script as Indian women created history by getting past Australia in the quarterfinals - a match that will remain etched in memory for a long time to come.

"The concentration levels were very high in the match against Australia, and individually as well all the girls were up to the task and completely focussed and that is the reason we were able to win the match."
"I was really happy because in the past we came close to reaching the big stage, but I had to tell the girls that they were almost there. This time I did not have to, because they had for the first time made it to the Olympic semifinals."
"It was without doubt a very special moment in my life."

After going down fighting against Argentina by a 1-2 margin in the Olympic semifinals, the girls narrowly lost out on a bronze-medal after losing to Great Britain 3-4.

"I was more disappointed after the semifinals than the bronze-medal match. I felt the girls were really close to a win in the semifinals."
"We were 0-2 down and we took the lead to go up to 3-2. When I arrived in India in 2017, most rival teams used to feel that the Indian girls were mentally weak and were always unable to fight back even if they conceded a single goal."
"Teams the world over now realize that this Indian team can come back from any situation."

What does Marijne now have to say to those who shifted him to the women's side in a manner that can only be described as humiliating?

"I think the results speak for themselves. I just needed time. I got the time I needed with the women's team and the entire support staff including Janneke Schopman and Wayne Lombard did an amazing job."
"I had the help of Priyanka Prabhakar (Psychologist), Radhika Bhikan, (Massuese), Nivedita Chopra, (Physiotherapist), and Amruthaprakash, (Video Analyst) among others."

Gym at SAI took two years - completed two months before Tokyo Games

The lack of high-performance culture in Indian sport is something that Marijne feels strongly about.

"Creating a high-performance culture in India as far as sport is concerned is extremely important. That is something that is missing at the moment."
"Neeraj Chopra won India's first medal in athletics and it happened to be gold as well."
"Yet India is nowhere close to becoming a sporting powerhouse, as claimed by some in the Indian government."
"In hockey, we were able to create a high-performance culture and I would be happy to help in that regard for sport beyond hockey as well."
"There are high-performance centers in Odisha state, but am not too sure if that is the case in the rest of the country as well."
"We had to wait two years until our gym was finished in SAI and it was finally done just two months before the Olympics. That, in my view, is not high performance."

Marijne feels the team has a good chance of progressing even further on the world stage if provided with the right opportunities, but also mentioned that talent identification remains a challenge during the COVID period.

"I really hope that the girls will be able to play in the Hockey Pro League and also that there would be a Hockey India League organized for the women."
"The girls achieved what they did without the things mentioned above (as compared to the Men's team) and I feel they deserve credit for the same."
"Talent identification will be a challenge owing to COVID. David John (former High-Performance Director) is someone who has done a lot in this regard in the past."

The former coach's happiest moments with the Indian women's team include winning the Olympic quarterfinal against Australia, driving on his scooter (he says with a chuckle) and qualifying for the Olympic Games.

While taking his time to recount the not-so-happy moments, Marijne also goes back to his rather forgettable period with the Men in Blue.

"Not being able to go home during the COVID period was one of my most miserable moments during the India stint and also the six months with the Indian men's team as I really did not like how the process went with the boys."
"Right now I am coaching the HC Tilburg and also finishing my book."

Would Sjoerd Marijne be willing to return to India in the years to come if offered another coaching stint with the girls?

"You never know what the future holds. Right now my answer is no - but in the future you never know."

One thing is clear. Marijne misses India just as much as Indian hockey lovers miss the man who helped create a legacy by teaching the Indian Eves to live their dreams on the Olympic stage.

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Edited by Diptanil Roy
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