In hockey, coaching men and women is similar... except for the swearing

Harendra Singh's maiden stint with the Indian women's team saw them reclaim the Asia Cup title after 13 years in 2017. ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images

At the press conference following India's game against Belgium at the Hockey World Cup, coach Harendra Singh and defender Varun Kumar were asked to explain the hosts' turnaround to secure a 2-2 draw after a dismal opening half. "Just How much of a yelling did the players get?" was the question, for Harendra has been known for losing his cool with players during his previous tenures with the Indian team, and Varun during his time with the Indian junior team a couple of years ago.

Harendra though appears to have turned a new leaf. "Coach doesn't really yell these days," Varun confessed. "It's probably some ten percent of what I used to do," smiled Harendra. "I've reduced all of that now after coaching the girls," he says.

The Indian men would perhaps hope that all their future coaches worked with women too. It wouldn't be unprecedented. Harendra coaching the women's team in between his stints with the men, isn't a rare phenomenon in modern hockey. Rather it is the norm. The last two Indian men's team coaches -- Roelant Oltmans and Sjoerd Marijne -- both coached women's national teams (Netherlands and India, respectively) before taking over the men's team. Of the 16 teams competing in Bhubaneshwar, the coaches of ten (Belgium, Canada, China, England, India, Malaysia, Netherlands, Ireland, New Zealand and South Africa) have helmed women's national teams in the past.

This isn't so common in other team sports. For instance, none of the head coaches at the FIFA World Cup in 2018 had ever coached a women's national team.

"I didn't start out thinking I would coach just men or just women," says Dutch coach Max Caldas, who began his career with Dutch club Leiden Heren 1 men's team, eventually becoming the coach of the Dutch women's team that won gold at London Olympics before taking charge of the men's team.

According to Caldas, the fact that the women's game is given as much priority as the men for the most part, might be why he never had to choose whom to coach. "I think in contrast to some other sports, the fact is that hockey is considered a world sport for both men and women. I think in most other team sports there's usually the one side that's the most popular form of the game. Hockey is a very even game and it's usually been quite egalitarian and that's the way it should be," he says.

There's no sense, says Caldas, that one team is getting the short end of the stick. "The women's World Cup in England was very well attended by people and that's exactly how it is with the men's World Cup in India. And that's why it doesn't feel strange for a coach to switch between teams. It's like moving between two teams that are equally treated," he says.

Regardless of whom they coach the fundamentals are remain the same. "Dealing with a group is absolutely the same. Men or women. They might have different styles of doing things but they both want to achieve the highest point of sporting excellence. Like all high performing athletes, you have to coach them first and then think whether they are men or women," says Ireland coach Alexander Cox, who has worked as an assistant coach with the Dutch women's team.

There are some differences in training methodology though, says England coach Danny Kerry. "The tactical and technical stuff is quite lot similar but the change is in how you coach players. What I experienced is that with women you have to be clear on why you are doing what you are doing. For the men, you can be a little more direct," says Kerry, who previously coached the Great Britain women's team to a gold medal at the 2016 Olympics.

There are lessons that carry over across genders too. Take penalty corner defense, for one. "Over the years, the rate of penalty corner conversion has started shifting in favour of defense rather than attackers. It was the women (who) started doing it earlier. I think we had started putting tactics in place by the end of the 2012 Olympics and it was from there that the men's team first understood and started working on it," says Kerry.

The fact that being handed a coaching stint with the women's team might be seen as getting a downgrade seems surprising to most coaches. "Why would it be seen as one? The women are equals and they certainly are in Holland. They are a very good side, possibly the best in the world. And ultimately the challenge for coaches is to help human beings - not men or women -- become the best they can be," says Caldas.

Of course things aren't always as amicable. Kim Sang Ryul, who had previously coached the South Korean men's team to a historic Olympic silver, quit his next assignment with the Korean women's team after an angry outburst against his players. He vowed never to coach a women's team again, only to return to coaching the Chinese women's team before his latest stint with the Chinese men's team in Bhubaneswar.

For Harendra, there have only been positive gleanings, which his players are undoubtedly grateful for. "I've learned for example that I don't want to yell at players or abuse to get the results I want. I want players to stay focused but I want them to feel happy about being part of this team," he says.