Janneke Schopman has done it all as a player. Olympics, World Cup, European Championship, Champions Trophy—the 45-year-old has a gold medal hanging in her trophy cabinet from each major event back home in Haarlem. Now it’s time to do an encore, but as coach.
The Dutch woman’s biggest test as chief coach of the Indian women’s hockey team will begin when they play the World Cup in Netherlands and Spain from July 1-17. India’s opener will be against England on Sunday.
Though she guided the Savita Punia-led outfit to bronze medals at both the Asia Cup and Pro League, the World Cup will provide the real picture India’s status in world hockey, especially after the high of Tokyo Olympics where India missed the bronze by a whisker to end fourth.
HT caught up with Schopman, who took over from compatriot Sjoerd Marijne after the Olympics, to discuss the World Cup, Commonwealth Games, campaign in Pro League and how her players handled the spotlight in the last year. Excerpts:
Last year India went to Olympics with barely any match time. This year they head to the World Cup after a solid Pro League campaign.
As a player you need high level games where there’s something at stake. Pro League helped tremendously; playing different styles, learning something in every game. Netherlands, Germany, Spain; all were a little bit different. For me (it is about if we) can play to our level? If we can, then we can compete with pretty much everyone. It also depends on the form of the day but I was quite happy with our performance. We are getting to the level that I know we can. I’m looking forward to us doing that in the World Cup.
Which are the areas where India needs to improve?
What you look for in top teams is that they’re able to win even when they’re not playing well. When we play well, we have a good opportunity to win. But it’s the consistency of phases and games where we might get under pressure because other teams are able to do that to us. The ability to survive those moments, get back into the game and play our own style is something we need. I’d love to see that. We have improved but that’s something for us to show now that we can be more consistent.
What improvements have you seen since you joined as analytical coach in early 2020?
They are playing and making decisions themselves. I try to give them tools to make their own decisions. Of course, we make plans tactically on how we want to play against others. But as you saw against USA, I need players, individually and as a team, to make those decisions on the field. Like ‘if this isn’t working, let’s do this’. As a group they have improved tremendously, they can make their own decisions. Sometimes they default and look at me. The teams that are successful are able to do it on the field. If I’m saying stuff from the outside of course I can help. But I’m always one second late because I am not playing. The ability for them to see what’s happening and to act right away; we’ve made great strides there. We have more game awareness; we know more about what the game needs in certain phases. That’s where Pro League helped us.
What’s the aim for World Cup?
There are always dreams and you should dream but I look at it like this: can we perform the way I know we can? In the last two weeks against Argentina, we were able to. In the women’s hockey world Holland is at the top and Argentina is No 2. When we have a good day, we can compete against them. That is for every other team, we can compete against them. But against Belgium we didn’t. We left so much out there, then it’s on me as a coach that says ‘my team has not performed’. I know they can. If you talk of expectations, more than anything I want them to perform the way I know they can, just play and we can do good things. That is going to be the interesting feat; can we play to our potential? Can we actually do what we set out to? We play some really good teams so if they are better, then as a coach I can live with that.
Is the team prepared to play two major back-to-back events?
It’s exciting to play big events. In a perfect world, it’s a little more spaced apart but that’s why you train so hard. You want to play these big events. Right now, our focus is solely the World Cup. We want to make sure we’re ready for the first game. At the same time in the back of your mind you know there’s another tournament where something is at stake. But let’s take one step at a time.
How has the team handled the spotlight ever since Tokyo Olympics?
It’s tough to have the spotlight on you. It’s good but you (continue to) play because of your passion and enthusiasm for the sport. The moment you get attention, you inspire people. That as an athlete is not why you do it but it’s very rewarding. That’s how our team feels. It’s an incredible honour to represent India and inspire people. At the same time, they also know that’s all on the outside and we have to focus on what we can influence; that’s being on the field together and making sure we do our jobs well. The team is trying to not be too busy with all the other stuff but just focus on what we can control—that is run and play hockey.