CULTURAL CHALLENGES OF COACHING HOCKEY OVERSEAS
Pakistan hockey is in a bit of a coaching quandary at the moment. It all happened when the green shirts finished last at the 2010 hockey world cup in Delhi. To save face, the entire team and management resigned after holding a meeting at their hotel, immediately after the historic defeat. Never before had Pakistan – yes Pakistan, the country that gave the world cup to the world, that had won it a record four times – finished last. Not in their pool, but in the entire tournament. What a shame, indeed it was, and remains till date.
But this wasn’t Pakistan’s unique historic debacle. Just some time back from Delhi, they had lost to minnows like China, and Japan, teams that a few years back they used to walk over with tennis scores. This historic defeat has now prompted Pakistan hockey bosses to hire a Dutch Coach, Michel Van Den Heuvel with the target to regain lost glory at the 2012 Olympics in London. Will the new coach deliver? There is no doubt about his ability, but he will certainly face numerous challenges while on assignment in Pakistan.
From Amsterdam to Gojra
This isn’t the first time that Pakistan hockey is going Dutch. In fact, whenever a foreign coach is borrowed by Pakistan, it has always been from the orange shirts. It all started in 1990 when we finished second at the seventh world cup in Lahore. In the Lahore final, Pakistan lost 3-1 to the Netherlands, who had the services of Floris Jan Bovelander, the world’s leading penalty corner specialist of the time; someone who scored at a rate of 99.99% on all short corners, making him his opponent’s nightmare. The coach of the Dutch squad at that time was Hans Jorritsma, and Bovelander was his main weapon, and one which he used potently. In the 3-1 victory against Pakistan at Lahore 1990, two out of the three Dutch goals were scored on penalty corners. I was there at the stadium in Lahore. I remember it full well when the Lahori crowds went silent as Bovelander smacked in his direct shots with considerable ease above the Pakistani goalie’s pads.
Realizing the Dutch supremacy at short corners, the thinking in Pakistan became that Dutch coaches specializing in the department should be sought to develop indigenous talent, and as a result Pakistan hired Hans Jorritsma for themselves in 1994, to train their defenders to become short corner specialists, just like he had done with Bovelander. This was his main role. He was hired as a penalty corner coach for the 1994 world cup in Sydney, to work alongside Manager Rashid Jr. and coach Saeed Khan. Pakistan lifted that event, and emerged as world champions, ironically beating the same Netherlands in the final, that Jorritsma had coached to victory in the previous world cup.
Jorritsma was an important part of the Pakistani contingent at Sydney, but his role was restricted to train the team on a specific area, namely short corners and defence, and he was not in charge of the entire squad, nor the principle planner. All of this was in the hands of the team manager Rashid Jr. During the 1994 world cup it was also interesting to note, that Pakistan won most of their matches on the basis of field goals, playing fast attacking hockey that was their quintessential style, and not penalty corners.
Pakistani Internationals Appearing in Dutch Leagues
In those days, another trend was developing in Pakistan: that being of Pakistani internationals being invited to play league hockey in Europe. Most went to the Netherlands. Players like Shahbaz Ahmed became regulars at Dutch league games and were being offered lucrative contracts and privileges by Dutch clubs. They also made contacts with Dutch coaches and forged these relationships as they returned back home.
This marked the introduction of the Dutch influence on Pakistan hockey. A hockey giant like Pakistan, that had its own distinctive style, and domestic structure, had its international players now looking up to the Dutch. This meant that when local Pakistani coaches did not deliver, senior players who had links with European clubs voiced their concerns and demanded foreign coaches. I believe the main drive for hiring Dutch coaches is not from the traditional Pakistan Hockey Federation heirarchy and the hockey fraternity in the country but from Pakistani internationals of the 1990’s period who have received an exposure to Dutch hockey while playing in their leagues. It is they who are vocal and who look up to their foreign club mates.
After Jorritsma, Pakistan sought the services of another Dutch Coach, Reolant Oltmans, to bring back lost glory at the Sydney Olympics in 2004. A thorough gentleman, Oltmans was given charge of the entire team, and was responsible in all areas, from selection to game plans. Unfortunately, during his tenure, Pakistan failed to emerge victorious in any major hockey event, and he left the team without bringing any medals.
After Oltmans another Dutch trainer, Wouter Tazelaar was hired by the Pakistan Hockey Federation to develop junior academies. But interestingly, although his remit was indigenous talent grooming, Tazelaar also ended up on the 2010 world cup bench as assistant coach! Following the debacle, his original assignment also came to an end. What value such short term stints bring to the sport over here, is nobody’s guess.
Now having all these stints with foreign coaches, Pakistan hockey has once again been handed over to another Dutchman, Michel Van Den Heuvel. This is the man who was responsible for bringing the Dutch side on to the victory stand (a bronze) at Delhi, and is considered a successful Dutch coach, just like Oltmans and Jorritsma – all producing laurels for their country. No doubt, that these coaches have done remarkably well and delivered results, but that was for their own country, and never for Pakistan. Why is it that a coach, who takes his home team to the top, doesn’t click, when hired by Pakistan? This is so because of the formidable challenges that foreign coaches face while on assignment in Pakistan.
There are numerous challenges that a Dutch coach is likely to face when working in an environment that is entirely foreign to his home culture, and in order to deliver, he should be aware of the manner by which to negotiate and meet these challenges. Communication will certainly be an issue. Coaching is all about communication. A good coach is not one who merely has knowledge and technical aspects of his job, but he should also be able to transfer that knowledge to his audience and in return ensure that the message got across to them. How a Dutchman, not well versed in Punjabi or Urdu, which is what men under his command speak, will communicate his ideas and methods? Will he have an interpreter? If yes, then the job becomes even more difficult for the men, as the lessons have the propensity of getting lost in translation.
Culture plays a very important part in every aspect of organizational life. Culture consists of many things. From beliefs, diet, habits, customs, clothing, to modesty, celebrations, perceptions and even thought processes. A trainer coming from a westernized environment will likely encounter a culture very different from his own. People in Pakistan, do not believe, behave, or celebrate in the same manner as in the west. In fact much of western styles are readily dismissed and may even be seen as decadent by local standards. The coach will have to exercise caution and be sensitive to local cultural norms.
Another challenge is the manner of discipline and control exercised over the men. In western environments, less emphasis is laid on physical disciplinary procedures, as the learners are more independent and individualistic. In contrast, Pakistani officials are known to be heavy handed to maintain discipline on tours, as they often have to deal with unruly boys from rural backgrounds. Will the casual and relaxed approach of the Dutch be seen as too easy and relaxed to our environment? Oltmans had discovered this firsthand, as he had to axe centre half Saqlain for the 2004 Olympics squad due to his uncontrollable temper. Another member of the same contingent managed to slip an important match by pretending to have hurt his foot, but was later caught by Oltmans while secretly playing football with his mates!
Sudden Variation in Style of Play / Formation
The style of play adopted in Pakistan is quite different from the Netherlands. Over here, since a very young age, players are groomed in the traditional 5-3-2-1 attacking style of play, with an emphasis on body dodges, stick work and short passes. In contrast the Dutch (and European) style of 3-3-3-1-1, which involves a sweeper as the last line of defence and depends on just three strikers against the 5 of the Asian style, is something new and seldom adopted by Pakistan. How will the Pakistanis, who are natural to playing fast attacking hockey with artistry and stick work suddenly transform to the European style is certainly a matter to consider for the Dutch coach.
Differences in Domestic League Structure
It should also be borne in mind that the Netherlands and Pakistan have two very different domestic hockey structures. The former has a very well developed club system, and league, while the latter has almost negligible club hockey and players at elite level are instead trained in camps of lengthy durations. Will the Dutch coach expect from the Pakistanis to learn and absorb his coaching in the same short periods of camp formation that he is used to in his homeland, or will he accommodate the energy sapping longer camps?
Tenure of Coaching
We should address the issue of the length of time for which the coach will be attached with the squad. Are results expected in a short duration? And in team building terms a year or two is certainly short. If a coach is hired for two years, with the Olympic games as the epitome of the coaching period, then is this time enough to produce results? After all, we have seen that elite level teams usually retain coaches for at least four to five years before they produce results. How is it that a maximum of twenty four months become sufficient time to deliver?
Local Officials Meddling in Coaching Affairs
I believe that the biggest challenge or rather the biggest hurdle, that a foreign coach will face while in Pakistan, will not come from the domestic circuit, local culture, or communication problems or the boys themselves. The greatest challenge will most certainly be from the officials who hired him! If the coach thinks that he will have his way all along, then he is in for a surprise and doesn’t know what or who he is likely to encounter in the Islamic Republic.
He will discover that this assignment is not smooth sailing as he won’t be whole and sole in-charge of team affairs or be given a free hand in selection matters. He will observe that local politics will have to be reconciled and that often, merit is not the sole criterion when it comes to selecting the national squad. He will certainly have to address frequent meddling and interference by inept officials who will be telling him how to do his job, instead of allowing him a free hand.
The Challenge of Selection Committee
The selection committee will certainly hang over the coach’s head as the sword of Damocles. Unlike Europe, where during league games, performance of talented players is observed and on its basis they are considered for the national squad, Pakistani players are called into a camp first, are exhausted during training and finally evaluated for selection by a committee comprising former internationals and officials.
Instead of the coach, who is attached with the trainees all along and who knows the pros and cons of every player, it is this selection committee which will pick the players that they see perform on the day of trials (and perhaps some of their prior favorites). The trend of having selection committees is outdated as it ignores the overall performance of a player as it has been in the domestic circuit, and sees him only on one or two days, i.e. the day of trials. If a fantastic player is off colour on the day of trials, then the committee is blind to that, as it is just there to select who is in front of them on the day, and they are not bothered to see what his past performance has been. The coach will then be handed over the task of training the chosen one’s by the selection committee.
How far the Dutch coach can deliver when his hands are tied to his back in this manner? We never know and only time will tell. But he is sure to be welcomed by the Pakistanis and will find them to be hospitable and warm, irrespective of the outcome of the assignment.