After a seven month hiatus, international hockey is set to resume on September 22 when the men's and women's teams of Belgium and Germany face off in the Hockey Pro League. However, any return to competition appears a long way off for India's hockey teams. Indian men's team coach Graham Reid only sighs when asked when his team could get international competition. "I'm sick of trying to predict what will happen in the next week or two," he says.
Lack of international competition a major challenge
India is expected to return to the Pro League only in April next year, another seven months from now, but Reid wants his side to be ready for all possibilities. "I think we need to be prepared. We might have a nice schedule planned but that could disappear. We need to be prepared for very limited competition even next year. I hope that's not what we will face. But that might be the case," he says.
While the Indian teams have returned to training at the SAI Bangalore campus after a gap of nearly six months, the lack of any immediate competition is a looming challenge. "New Zealand is already having internal competition, Japan is training with social distancing. The pro league is happening between Belgium and Germany next week. I don't think they can play without practice. These teams have the advantage that they are already playing matches," says Sjoerd Marijne, coach of the Indian women's team.
Are more internal matches the solution?
Matches are important, says Marijne, if only to ascertain the level at which his team is playing. "If you ask me at what level the girls are at this point, it would be difficult to say because you can train a lot of things but you can't compare without matches. We were scheduled to travel to Netherlands for a tour next month and depending how we did there, I could tell you where we have to improve and how far we have progressed, but that's not about to happen," says Marijne.
Reid believes the solution could be playing a lot more internal matches. "If all else fails, we have the numbers to create an environment to play weekly matches and make internal tournaments. The number of players we have access to will decide what that tournament looks like. Hopefully, we can get some junior players as well. What I want us to focus on is in creating an internal competition," he says.
Playing internal matches might be a stopgap, but Marijne admits they might not serve the same purpose as international games. "In training matches, there are no consequences for failure. In international matches, there are consequences and that's the big difference. The other difference is that when you are playing a team like Germany, you are playing against a different system and style. You are forced to learn different things. When you play against each other, you already know how your opponents will react," he says.
Reid drawing on past experience
But Reid believes this doesn't always have to be the case. He explains using the example of the Australian team's preparation for the 2014 World Cup. Reid was working with the side then, and when budget concerns meant that the squad couldn't travel overseas, they had no option but to play internal games.
"As part of a study, we mapped out the GPS data during these internal competition games. Later, we did the same at the World Cup. When we compared the GPS data from the World Cup to the one at the internal competition games, we found the level at which the team was playing was something like 1.5 times the ones at the World Cup. What that shows is that it's possible to create an internal environment which can replicate world class standards," Reid says.
It isn't just an Australian example. Reid says he had the side play internal games last year as well between the Olympic qualifiers against Russia in November and then their first match of the 2020 Pro League, against Holland in January (which the side won 5-2).
"We saw much higher numbers in our internal games then as well. That was quite pleasing. Historically, it's been the case that internal games don't really matter. That's what I'm trying to impress on the guys that internal games are really important, not just from a matter of Olympic selection but for lifting our competition standards," he says.
But while internal matches might be a workaround measure, what the teams certainly cannot compromise on is in continuous training. The teams have already suffered a break of six months since their last camp and both Reid and Marijne are clear that any further stoppages would be problematic.
Following the end of the current camp at the end of the month, the teams have a two-week break followed by a camp from October 17 to November 28, and then another camp from December 21 to January 30. Both Reid and Marijne say they hope the camps can be extended so that all three of them can be run without any break.
Players going back home a big concern
"It's very nice for the guys to go home but that means another two weeks coming back, and then there's a risk of catching infections. Better that we give them a week here and then link the next camp together. I don't want them to go home. One reason is they throw away two weeks coming into quarantine. And they can't have as much physical activity and that sets them back by a couple of months," says Reid.
Reid, of course, is speaking from recent experience, considering the difficulty in getting the hockey teams together for the current camp. The restart was not short of complications, with six players, including captain Manpreet Singh, testing positive for the coronavirus. That early setback though seems to have been overcome with the infected players having recovered and rejoined training.
"Every one of them is almost back with the normal group. At this stage, they are about two weeks behind the rest of the team from a fitness perspective, but we will merge the groups together soon," he says. "If we have four sessions in a week for the rest of the team, I'll give them (the players who have recovered from coronavirus) only 2 sessions. It's just that we are being conservative with their recovery. They are chomping at the bit and we have to hold them back. They have to be eased back. It's a bit conservative for their liking. They are telling me, "come on coach. Put us in coach," he says.
While things have returned to some sort of a groove, Reid wants to ensure they stay that way. "I've said Olympics aren't won 2-3 months beforehand but 12 to 18 beforehand. We need to keep the players together here. I think it's much safer inside the campus than outside," he says.