Sjoerd Marijne, the Coach Who Turned Things Around for Indian Women's Hockey
Gurjit Kaur only goal and goalkeeper Savita Punia brilliance helped India reach first ever Olympics semi-final.
Eyebrows were raised when Sjoerd Marijne was named chief coach of the Indian senior men's team before the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
Marijne had been picked by Roelant Oltmans, Indian hockey's High-Performance Director at that time, to guide the women's team on a four-year contract in 2017. But within a few months, he was moved to the men's team, and that too ahead an important tournament like the Commonwealth Games, replacing Oltmans as the chief coach. Marijne had till then coached the Dutch senior women's team and its U-21 men's team and some club outfits but had no experience of coaching a senior men's national team.
The Indian team fared poorly in the Commonwealth Games at Gold Coast and Marijne was sent back to the women's team and Harendra Singh was given charge of the men's team.
Marijne has come a long way since that tumultuous period, grown in stature, and on Monday guided the Indian women's team to a historic semi-final spot in the Olympic Games in Tokyo when India defeated world No. 2 Australia 1-0 in the quarter-final at the Oi Hockey Stadium in Tokyo.
"After we qualified for the quarters, I told the team about the importance of being in the moment and not thinking about what-ifs and that is very difficult for an athlete because there are many things that are constantly playing in your mind, things like what if we win, what if we don't win, what if I don't stop the ball. So what I did is showed the team a movie and the film is about staying in the moment and I think that made a big difference in this match against Australia," said Marijne.
In the last three years, Marijne has grown with the team and has also suffered with the team -- when it lost to Japan in the final of the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta or when the team got stuck in Bengaluru during the nation-wide lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
The 47-year-old coach from 's-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands, has been very pragmatic, learning how things move slowly in India and utilising the situation to get his voice across to the powers that be.
Like in the case of getting analytical coach Janneke Schopman on board. Jenneke, who played under Marijne at the club and with the Dutch team, was chief coach of the United States team that lost to India in the Olympic qualifier in Bhubaneswar. Her contract was not extended and Marijne pounced on the opportunity to rope her in for India. Both have forged a formidable combination, helping the Indian team achieve the great results it has done in the last few years.
But more than the Indian system, the pandemic tested Marijne a lot.
Marijne postponed his plan to visit his home in the Netherlands and turned back on his way to the Bengaluru airport in February 2020.
He was worried that considering the way the pandemic was spreading in Europe, he may not be able to get back to India and thus leave the girls in the lurch.
So, the entire first wave of the pandemic Marijne stayed cooped in the Sports Authority of India's (SAI) centre in Bangalore, worrying about his wife and three children who had to cope with the pandemic on their own in Holland.
"It was tough (decision) but I also have a responsibility to the team and India. When I decided to stay back, we were still able to do full training as nationwide lockdown had not been announced. It's good the entire core group is together so we can do other things to make this period productive," said Marijne later, admiring his wife who handled the period alone in Holland with three children.
Marijne used the lockdown period to know the girls, engage them in activities that they can do from their rooms, and slowly built on this dream for Olympics hockey, even though they did not get a chance to play as many international matches as he wanted.
Marijne is not one to crib, though he did raise the issue of lack of match practice for the Indians as their tours were cancelled due to the second wave of the pandemic early this year. He continued to work with the girls, building up their strength and skills as well as their temperament.
"We didn't have a lot of practice matches before the Olympics, so we kept telling the girls to improve with every match. We focused on every individual improving her performance and if the personal performances are better, the performance of the team will be better. We knew that we had to learn from every match that we play since we didn't have a lot of games leading into the competition. After we lost 1-5 to the Netherlands, it looked as if everything was shattered, it wasn't. We only needed to make a few small improvements," said Marijne.
He managed to go back home on a short visit during a break in the camp post the lockdown in October. In fact, during his four-year-long stay in India, Marijne has hardly gone home and his return could get delayed further as India have secured a semifinal berth at the Olympics.
Marijne has, however, apologised to his family for the delay, saying, "Sorry family, I coming again later. - Sjoerd Marijne (@SjoerdMarijne) from Tokyo."
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