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Hockey's plan for 2012: Don't stop believing

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Ollie Williams | 14:12 UK time, Monday, 19 July 2010

Speak to any of the England women at hockey's Champions Trophy in Nottingham, where they won a medal for the first time in the tournament's history on Sunday, and the word "belief" is inescapable.

If belief were a player then Argentine star Luciana Aymar could kiss her Player of the Tournament trophy goodbye. Belief has been scoring goals, making impossible saves, trashing the world rankings and turning around half-time deficits.

It is that rare asset, a game changer, and this England team haven't had one of those for a while. Now, with belief in the middle of the park pulling the strings, they argue they are ripe to install themselves in the world's top four.

More than that, donning Great Britain colours in 2012, belief is starting to make these women think about an Olympic gold medal.

But how are England defining that word, how have they manufactured it, and is it really the key to success in two years' time?

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Highlights: England beat Germany to bronze

The answer is that this team are exploring uncharted territory with a brand new training programme, cutting-edge psychological profiling, and an influx of young players prepared to grasp those developments and make the most of them.

Because simply believing you can win won't make it true. Everybody knows that, even if England do say something beyond the combined sum of their individual talents is driving their recent improvement.

That culminated in Sunday's bronze medal play-off, where the tournament hosts came from behind to beat Germany 2-1 and reach the podium.

Not only that, they shrugged off missing the final by a whisker, first failing to beat New Zealand on Saturday (which would have guaranteed them a shot at the gold medal) then watching in horror as Argentina scored a last-gasp winner against China. Argentina went into the final with that goal; England were relegated to the play-off for third.

"There was obviously huge disappointment on Saturday," said Crista Cullen, the team's talismanic defender charged with responsibility for penalty corners, hockey's set pieces which so often decide games. A goal from Cullen against Germany sealed bronze.

"In 24 hours we overcame learning we weren't going to be in the final and were able to turn it around. I've been in plenty of teams before where we would go out with our tail between our legs and feel aggrieved. But this team is different."

Kate Walsh, the team captain, added: "We only had a short amount of time to pick ourselves up, but we believe. We know we can do it and we came back and did it.

"We've not had that much belief before - it takes results to give you that belief. It's been building over the week and now we're going into the World Cup and Commonwealth Games with that belief."

The word gets four outings in four sentences, with reference to England in a game against Germany, something fans of other sports might wish were more broadly the case.

Yes, winning matches is a big factor, and England had the best possible start to the tournament when they overturned world number two side Argentina, who went on to win gold, 2-1.

But the team spirit evoked by these players after every victory is not a happy accident borne of a winning streak, it's something hockey in this country has been specifically engineering for years.

The problem for British hockey teams at the Olympics used to be that they only came into existence in the year leading up to the Games. For the other three years there was no Britain, just England, Scotland and Wales.

Team GB were hardly a team at all, more an all-star side sent to face the world's finest hockey-playing units with a few training sessions and all good wishes. After bronze at Barcelona '92, they reached a nadir when they failed to even qualify for the Athens Games in 2004.

That has changed. For the first time, a British squad - for both men and women - is being maintained for almost the entire Olympic cycle up until London 2012. England, Scotland and Wales still exist and they are the teams entered into all hockey's recognised major tournaments, like the Champions Trophy and World Cup. But, between events, the players join together as Great Britain.

This is called the Centralised Programme, and it came into being as part of a deal signed in May 2006. That was the moment Great Britain became a team. The England team, who make up the vast majority of the Britain squad, are reaping the rewards.

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Helen Richardson discusses the psychology of the England team

"This has come from the Centralised Programme," England star Helen Richardson told me after the Germany win.

"In October 2009 (when the current phase of the programme kicked in) we all came together and set our sights on the Olympics and winning that gold medal at London 2012.

"We've had a lot more contact time on the pitch, which has given us a better understanding in attack and defence. We know each other better and we want to work hard for each other.

"If we'd done all that training since October and then come here and things hadn't gone so well, it would've been hard to see the gains. But you can see them. We've shown them."

So more training time together, with better structure, is giving players an understanding of each other's abilities which they didn't have before, and which augments their individual skills. It's the old saying, becoming more than a team of individuals, but it has taken a shift in mindset and a contract between the Home Nations to make it a reality.

But that isn't all. Hockey is now employing sports psychology in a big way. A "performance development consultancy" named Lane4 is working to improve the way coaches and players interact, while English Institute of Sport psychologist Tom Cross spends a few days each week with the British women.

His role is to mix what he calls "proactive" psychology - sessions around competitions, engaging players in regular one-to-ones - with "reactive" work whenever players bring issues like anxiety or poor performance to him.

"This team were a strong unit already," Cross, who had an England under-18 hockey trial himself, told me. "I'm just enhancing their strengths. We work on team dynamics and quite a few of the girls are from the under-21s, so we try to form the connection between them and the senior athletes.

"That means creating a shared vision, agreeing values and behaviours that the girls create and buy into themselves. They understand where they personally are coming from, and where their team-mates are coming from.

"My messages to the team are consistent: stay in the present, play the game moment by moment and don't think about the outcome. Communication is huge, keep doing that whether you are 2-0 up or 2-0 down. Keep doing the things that are making you win these games."

England's bronze medallists pose for a photo in NottinghamEngland's bronze medal-winning hockey believers. Photo: BBC

Which sounds easier said than done, especially once the women reach London 2012, where the pressure on them to deliver - at a venue in the heart of the Olympic Park - will be immense. The term "home disadvantage" is used to encapsulate the way some teams crumble faced with that challenge, and it is something Cross is already trying to combat.

"This tournament in Nottingham, at home with six of the best teams in the world, is a step. What's different here to playing away? What are the challenges, the positives and negatives?

"It's really small things that can alter your mindset in a game, like whether volunteers speak to you when you go out onto the pitch, or not being allowed to go somewhere where, before the tournament, you were allowed to go.

"And it's how not to change stuff as well. If it is working for you, let's keep it going. The Olympics is different but it's the same as well. We've already started work on that, and we will work on it for the next couple of years."

This is all good news from a British point of view, but it overlooks two things. The first is that England did not win gold in Nottingham, so improvements are manifestly there to be made - something the team readily admit.

"We still have a lot to work on, let's not be silly about this," said Richardson. "At times we're still outplayed by the best teams. So we'll go back to training, look at those things and try and make ourselves even better."

She plans to spend the next two weeks watching back videos from Nottingham, moment by moment, teasing out improvements.

Her team-mate Walsh turns this into a positive, saying: "We've still got a long way to go but that's the most exciting thing. We've got outstanding players to come back into this squad and we've got so far to go, the sky's the limit.

"We want a gold medal in London, that's what we're training for every single day of ours lives. That's what we're going to do for the next two years."

Argentina celebrate winning Champions Trophy hockeyArgentina celebrate their Champions Trophy victory. Photo: BBC

The second point is that the British cannot hope to possess a monopoly on belief, even if they do have it like never before. Argentina hardly seemed to be lacking that commodity as they bounced up and down on the Nottingham podium, bellowing the tune of their national anthem into the deafened ears of bronze medallists England below.

So something more is going to need to develop before 2012 if Britain are to reach the Olympic podium or climb to the top. And that is where age comes into it.

At the press conference following England's bronze medal win, Walsh spoke of a "blend of youth and experience" which played with "no fear", and the key to Olympic success may be how this embryonic belief matures alongside the players.

That is why the psychologists are hard at work. Players have filled out complex online profiles, producing 18-page reports on their personalities, strengths and weaknesses, and value to the team. And they get to know about each others', too.

No fewer than 10 players retired or were dropped from the British women's squad after Beijing 2008, where GB finished sixth, and an arsenal of mental firepower is being concentrated on blending the remaining old guard with the new breed over the next two years.

"Eleven of this group are under 25 years of age so, come London 2012, our average age will still be a little bit young for my liking," admitted England and Britain head coach Danny Kerry.

While much of what Kerry said about his young charges applied to tactics, it has a bearing on mentality too.

"A number of young players are fighting a lot of habits about certain things," he said.

"I'm up on the team radio (during matches) saying, 'Right, time for her to come off, she's reverted to type.'

"That's what we're fighting against. It's when you get two or three individuals who revert to type that you can lose your way."

If the team's belief is a relatively new commodity, it can be easily lost. England need to keep believing, and Kerry is confident they can - starting with the women's World Cup, in Argentina in just over a month's time, where the target is to reach the semi-finals.

"I'm hugely excited. We've only had eight months of centralised training, and we've got two years of that left," he concluded.

"We know how far we've come in eight months, and I know how much further we'll go. I just know how much better we'll get. I can't wait."

Mental strength is an increasingly important consideration for Olympic sports and their athletes - both teams and individuals. In the next week, I'll have a blog on an individual British gold-medal prospect for 2012, examining how she is working on her mentality two years out from the biggest competition of her life.

Match report and video highlights: England 2-1 Germany
My photos from the Champions Trophy on Flickr


  • Comment number 1.

    Another good news story... ...keep it up. Great to see Tom Cross getting a mention too. Keep plugging away!

  • Comment number 2.

    It’s refreshing to see that hockey is being taken seriously, although it shouldn’t take the event of a home Olympics to get to that stage. Hockey is the most popular team sport in the world after football, and Britain has one of the most extensive league systems, so I think we should expect better performances from both our men and women teams. The belief identified in this report stems from proper preparation and we could do worse than to follow Sir Clive Woodward’s example set in the run-up to the 2003 RWC. Some of his strategies (I couldn’t say whether he should be credited with their invention) finally seem to be being implemented throughout British sport.
    However, providing preparation and therefore belief with the national sides are also a short-term fix. If we are to compete consistently on the world stage (if this is what we want?) the emphasis needs to be on coaching at a junior level. Hockey is a hugely technical game and therefore these skills need to be properly coached at a young age. In my experience coaching of technical skills has been poor in the UK as compared to say Germany. Although I can’t say how this stands in recent years.
    Overall, I’m impressed that the BBC should devote this level of coverage to hockey. I hope it continues with the ‘less fashionable” sport to long after the London Olympics.

  • Comment number 3.

    Good work Olly! I've been following the blog and your twitter throughout the last week or so and its great to see hockey being given a bit more coverage than usual. Fingers crossed it will continue to pick up to the the level where domestic hockey is being reported on as well.

    I have also been enjoying your coverage of other olympic sports so keep up the good work and keep encouraging your bosses to send you to more hockey!

  • Comment number 4.

    Hi all, thanks for the comments.

    Timberdoodle - your comments about the technical side of the game are very interesting and chime with what GB performance director David Faulkner told me earlier last week, during the tournament. W

    e had a little Q&A in which he compared the team he played in, in the 1980s, to the current GB squad. While he was sure the current GB team would beat the 1980s version, he added that the one area where he thought his era matched up was in core skills. Plans are now apparently afoot to beef up those skills in players coming through the system, and presumably that will filter down. Or hopefully, at least.


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