The Tokyo 2021 Olympics was a huge turning point for Indian women’s hockey. It will be best remembered for their euphoric performance and the Man of the Moment – Sjoerd Marijne – who, as the former coach of the Indian women’s hockey team, helped script the Chak De! India moment. But beyond this role, Marijne is also a proud father, inspirational speaker and entrepreneur.
In an exclusive interview, Marijne spoke about all that matters to him, from hockey, athletes’ fitness issues, and coaching women’s team, to how he kept them motivated, memorable moments, and the major challenges that he encountered during his stint as a coach. Marijne also gave a sneak peek into his fitness regime, how he always remains on top of his game, and all that keeps him busy nowadays.
Tokyo Olympics will be best remembered for the euphoric performance of the women’s hockey team. Looking back, did it come as a surprise, or was it on the expected lines?
I think at the Olympics, you never know what to expect. We were going there as number nine in the world. So if I say no, it was not a surprise, then I would be lying. Yes, of course, it was a surprise. But it doesn’t mean that we didn’t train for it. We had expectations for ourselves. But you never know how it would go. We knew it was challenging. The outcome was an overwhelming achievement.
What were the fitness issues of athletes when you took over? How did you deal with them?
The fitness level was poor, and we did not have speed in the team. That was a big issue for me because it became difficult to play. If you’re passing the ball or running after it, you need to have speed in hockey.
They didn’t have any knowledge about diet or nutrition. For improving health or fitness or performance, the most important thing is to gain knowledge – about health, about diet, nutrition, etc. Wayne Lombard, our strength and conditioning coach, really helped them with everything, and besides this, there was Shona Prabhu, the team’s sports nutrition specialist, helping them with their diet. We had to work on their diet and nutrition and a lot of work behind it. The girls started taking pictures of the food to be shared with Shona. That way, they were constantly learning themselves — what is good for them and what is not good because we can tell them, but the best thing that works is that they were learning themselves and making their own decisions. And I think that is one of the main things that we have achieved. They’re more knowledgeable about their bodies and what it needs to be an athlete, and I think that’s a significant effort.
Females have a different body system, different health issues, monthly periods, etc. How tricky was it to coach a female team for a male coach keeping in mind all these things?
I must say that Wayne Lombard, the Indian women’s hockey team’s scientific adviser since 2017, played a significant role in this. He was doing this, and the girls trusted him. Girls went to him for everything. I think that made it easier for me. If there were urgent or something important for me to know, he would address it to me, and I think that worked well. In the last year and a half, we had Janneke Schopman, our analytical coach, who also stepped in when required, which helped. It was a big step for the team when she came aboard. The girls were able to address these things to her. But it was not really easy, but the girls also understood over the years that they could trust me and share things with me. In the beginning, they felt a little bit awkward, but slowly they started opening up and felt that they could trust me. The main thing that we told them is that the more we know, the better we can help you, and if you keep something to yourself, we can’t help you. So I think that worked well.
What were the different measures you adopted to take care of the team’s mental health? How did you keep the team motivated all through?
If you see on the highest level, it’s not only about who’s the fittest team or who has the best skills and technical skills, but it is also about performing under pressure and every time making the right decisions. It always starts when people start talking to themselves. There is an inner voice, and an inner voice says, okay, you can do it, or you can do it. There is nothing in between. And there, one starts to doubt. So if you can control the inner voice better, you will see that you can also manage your outcome better. That means your quality goes up, which we have trained for in four and a half years. It’s not what you could do one day. We were doing that every day — training that mental space. How do you control your inner voice? How do you stay positive while dealing with setbacks? The main thing that we have learned was not to be bothered about what you cannot control. So all the what-if thinking doesn’t work. It doesn’t help. It creates stress, which you have to avoid to train in hockey. You’re fighting off your physical stress. You have to teach it to hit harder. But you also need to train the brain once a day.
Was it difficult to keep them motivated?
No, I must say that these girls were very disciplined. They had a dream and a plan to achieve their dream. Of course, there were some apprehensions, but if you’re spending every day in the camp practising, then, yes, the energy is low at times. I think that’s natural. That’s normal. These girls were always open to feedback. They always wanted to improve, and the feedback was not always nice, but that is where you have to learn to deal with, and the most important thing about this is that girls understood that the feedback is to help them and not make them smaller in any way.
What were the significant challenges you encountered during your stint as their coach? How did you overcome them?
I started with the women’s team, then the men’s and the women’s team again. The major challenge for me was, of course, different cultures. I’m from the Netherlands. So the culture is entirely different than in some Indian states themselves. Mark my word, India is from another planet. With all other things, you need to learn how to say these words and the right words for women in India. So I think that was one of my biggest challenges. The other challenge was, of course, the language. I don’t speak Hindi or any other languages in India. So I never knew what the girls were saying to each other, whether positive or negative. So I always had to take help from the players. Rani, for instance, always translated for me. Monica too, and that worked well. But still, a coach can coach well only if he knows more. So if I don’t have information, and if I don’t hear things, I know less as a coach. I have to do it from the information they’re giving me, and I don’t know what information they’re giving me, what I could use, and what not. That was a big challenge. That is how it was for four and a half years.
How important is it for a coach to maintain his fitness? What does he do for that?
For me, it’s about healthy food, of course. What I always do is intermittent fasting. I don’t eat for 16 hours and eat only eight hours a day. I don’t eat carbs at least three to four times a week. That’s what I did in Asia. In India, I was doing the gym and some high-intensity training. I felt energetic after that. One thing that’s important for someone who has to be the manager is to feel fit because then you can make better decisions. You can give more energy to the team. And the other thing is for me, to set an example. I cannot tell the players, “Listen, you have to work out. You have to work on your fitness.” It would defeat the purpose if I don’t share these values as a coach. They will think that I’m not credible.
What are the most unforgettable moments?
The four and a half years that I spent in India were a fantastic ride with the ups and downs. It was not only ups, and we had very difficult months together with tournaments where we didn’t finish where we wanted to finish. Then the lockdown period was extremely tough. I couldn’t see my family for 16 months. But yeah, if you know what happened after the match against Australia, you know what it did. The reaction from Indian people was one of my most important, impressive, and memorable moments. It is something that I will never forget.
What are the most memorable takeaways from this role?
We won the match against Australia, and then finally I could tell the girls, “Listen, if we do well then we can also win.” In the last four and a half years, I had to say to the girls many times that we were doing well and would win one today. We keep fighting and never give up. You always have disappointments. The moment was about celebration, and finally, we did it. I will never forget that moment.
What are your memories of India and its people? How is it different from your country?
The first thing I like about India is how they are with their families. It’s family-focused. The children take their parents to their house. We don’t do that in the Netherlands, and that’s a big difference. I think the cultural or family side is awe-inspiring in India, and how you take care of each other is great. I think when you achieve something, Indians will never forget you. The way they are proud of India as their country and, of course, in my country, we are proud, but the next day, we get up and move on. Once you are in the hearts of an Indian, you will never go out.
Do you miss the Team and India? Any plan to come back to India?
I do miss the girls because they are in my heart. I have spent four and a half years with them. It was really a very close connection with them. It’s strange now not to be with them. Missing India is like missing the whole environment. I do miss the international tours and the big tournaments, but I like to be with my family. I’m enjoying it the most now.
I will come back to India. India is in my heart, and I will always be connected with India. I do not know how and when this will happen right now, but there will be a moment when I will be back and see the girls and the guys in the future. I had a good relationship with them.
What keeps you busy now? What does a workday look like now?
I am coaching a Club team with men here. We meet every week on Sundays and sometimes during the week, so I have to analyze a lot. We have training sessions and meetings. And besides this, I’m doing webinars for corporates in India, and they are all interested in knowing how we achieved it? How did we create a high-performance culture? How did we deal with the mindset? How did we create a winning attitude? I am working on a book to share that story, to inspire more people with what we achieved. It can help people in corporate life because COVID life is the same as a sportsperson’s life, and I think both will keep learning from each other. The book is now finished, and hopefully, it will be published soon. And then let’s see what happens from there.
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