In the last four years, the Indian men's hockey team has seen several changes in their training as well as playing style, courtesy the frequent changes of foreign coaches. Between the 2010 and 2014 Asian Games, the team was handled by four foreign coaches in succession.
At the 2010 Commonwealth Games as well as the Asian Games - India finished on the podium in both - the team was coached by Spain's Jose Brasa, and the emphasis was on defence. Then it was under Australian Michael Nobbs that India qualified for the London Olympics, with the focus having shifted to playing attacking hockey. After that, Dutchman Roelant Oltmans - India's high performance director - was made the makeshift coach. Again there was a change in the playing style, the thrust shifting to defence.
In November last year, Australia's former Olympic medallist Terry Walsh was appointed the new national coach. His focus was on defensive hockey as well as capitalising on the Indian playing style. In Incheon, under his guidance, India won the Asiad title after 16 years. And recently, for the first time ever, India defeated Australia in three successive matches; that too on their home turf.
With differences cropping up and Hockey India (HI) and the Sports Authority of India (SAI) not ready to accept all his demands, the chances of Walsh reconsidering his resignation are bleak. For the time being, Oltmans is once again supervising training for the Champions Trophy, to be played in Bhubaneswar from December 6-14.
Whether Walsh continues or not, his one-year stint has had a positive impact. "Walsh's main focus was on fitness, he even introduced swimming pool exercises, which was of great help. At the first coaching camp under him, players did five 400m runs, doing each lap in around a minute with an interval of one-and-a-half minutes. At the last camp before the Asiad, the number had gone up to 14 400m runs, each lap covered in a minute with a 90-second interval. Because of the good fitness, we were never fatigued as the tournament progressed, unlike earlier," said India skipper Sardar Singh.
Under Walsh, the focus was also on sharpening skills to ensure the team was not caught by surprise. "After the poor showing in the World Cup (in June), where we conceded some last-minute goals, Walsh started working on neutralising the counterattack. Now, while attacking, we also try to position players in such a way that if due to poor execution or interception of a pass there is a counter attack, the team is in a better position to tackle that," said Sardar. "Apart from going back to basics, he worked extensively on one-on-one tackling."
Another area where the men's team feel Walsh played a crucial role in raising the standard to present levels is the emphasis on team bonding. "Even off the field, he had a role to play. When we lost the league match to Pakistan in Incheon, he never let the defeat pull us down, making it a point that the team moved as a unit even when not on the field," recalled Sardar. "He used to conduct separate meetings for the defence, midfield and frontline so that they analyse their performances. This also led to bonding within departments, helping improve communication among players."
Now with Walsh appearing on his way out, a new foreign coach taking over could again see a change in training and playing style. He will first have to spend a few months assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the team and plan accordingly.
More importantly, a change of guard would mean India frittering away the two-year advantage of qualified for the 2016 Rio Olympics by winning the Asian Games title.