The most important factor for anyone in a coaching position to remember is that, at a given point during any game, decisions taken on the field wholly rest on the players. Your role is to just watch from the sidelines as the players you have coached and mentored play out whatever you may have taught them. In tight situations, especially when split-second decisions are needed, your hands are tied. It is very important to remember that.
Which is why my approach to all the coaching jobs I have had so far is based on transferring responsibility to my team. I know what a match situation is like and that is what I try to recreate during training too.
Obviously, it’s highly difficult- virtually impossible in fact, to even try to bring out any situation like that outside a competitive match. The adrenaline rush, the pressure the players undoubtedly face- the correct way to cope and react to those kinds of situations cannot be taught through strategic coaching. It’s experience which teaches that.
What happens when you transfer the onus on players is that you make your expectations clear. The rest of it is purely player driven. Leave them at their liberty. Let them take the calls. It doesn’t matter if they do not get it right sometimes. The more mistakes they make during training, the lesser is the probability of repeating the same in an actual match. Inside the pitch, they will only play the way they think they have to play.
Like I said, I have minimal influence during a game. The only way I can impact the outcome, in any little way, is by making changes in the match and regular pep talks during breaks. If you desist from teaching them to make their own decisions, how can you expect them to grow as players? Giving them that freedom makes their heads free. It indicates a certain amount of trust between me and my players.
I do not want to be the one standing on the sidelines shouting about whether to play left or go right. That does create an undue amount of pressure, don’t you think? I think games come with an added baggage of pressure as it is without me invariably adding on to it. That’s how they’ll reach their full potential.
If you see the current bunch of players, we have some collective talent in the team which can only be described as extraordinary. They have a lot of knowledge about the game in general and about other things- not all of which can be covered by strategic training alone.
The other important factor, kind of like a stepping stone to become capable enough to achieving complete autonomy on the turf, is discipline. To improve in any way at all, hard work and dedication are paramount. And to add any kind of value to the effort you are putting in, you must be strictly focused on your target. It should reach a stage that nothing should be able to waver you from your target and the road you take to achieve it. Complete concentration- that’s inescapable.
I think somewhere, this necessity for discipline is what prompted the decision to take Chris Ciriello on board as the analytical coach. To say that he is only working on the drag-flickers would be a gross misrepresentation of the value he has added since took over. Drag flicking is a special skill. You only work on that with the specialists and right now, what this team need is a stricter enforcement of discipline. That’s the Aussie way to do things, actually. Look how well that has worked out for them.
You might even say that he is keeping the players on their toes. I think he might have resentment among the ranks against him. Jokes aside, it’s always important to remember the massive scale of these international tournaments. I mean, Australia have the distinction of coming out on top with outstanding levels of success at the Commonwealth Games. If we are to hope for a scenario where we can call ourselves worthy competitors, we need to step up.
That being said, I do not think chalking out team-specific strategies is the right way to go. For me, every match is equally important and the preparation before each should be carried out and practised with equal vigour. Right now, standing at this moment, I do not even know whether the Commonwealth Games will give us an opportunity to face off with Australia. So, it would be quite foolhardy to go worrying about that when we clearly have bigger tasks at hand.
We’ll go against England, Pakistan, Malaysia and Wales. That’s what we know right now and the only practical thing to do is remember that. Each team brings with it a different challenge. None of them is to be taken lightly. I know that clashes between India and Pakistan have the potential to turn into something that is on a whole other plane altogether. I have said this before- I do not consider them different to any other match. In context, I do everything I can to make sure my team does not see it as something else too.
There has been a lot of speculation regarding the fact that this India-Pakistan clash, our opening Commonwealth Games match, might spell something different because this time their team has Roelant Oltmans at the helm. Oltmans- a man who has spent nearly four years with the Indian team in various capacities, someone who may have some tricks up his sleeve when it comes to facing India.
See, that is not my lookout. I’ll reiterate what I know. I know we’ll be facing Pakistan. We’ll be facing Pakistan like we’ll be facing three other teams in the pool stages. That is all I would prefer to concentrate on.
When you have a team as mixed as this, it is important to let the players set their own levels and benchmarks to match your own. The leaders, the veterans- it is their task to assume that role of a mentor on the field which might, in turn, inspire the youngsters. The older guns have to be exemplary. On any given day, they have to be the best they can possibly be. It’s a hard task but with time, it becomes a habit. I set targets, the players decide how they want to achieve them and in how much time. Only when they grow individually as players, when they know how to push themselves, can you expect the team to collectively grow.
Which brings us to another key aspect of the team- selection. Now virtually, it might appear that I am the one pulling the strings but if you see the names of the players in the team, they have been shortlisted after a rigorous analysis of their consistency and reactive abilities in certain situations. In a sense, they are rewarded for their performances. To be honest, I have seen nearly 45 players in the last 5 months showcasing their abilities in various tournaments- different combinations. All that knowledge was gathered and effectively applied in selecting the teams. The combinations in the different parts of the field have all played together enough to understand each other. Cohesiveness should not be a problem.
The other positive outcome of this is that most of our players are mentally fresh. They’re not tired out by playing too many international matches and let’s face it, the Commonwealth Games is the biggest challenge for us since I took over. It would not do to have half of my team underperforming due to fatigue.
People always have opinions about selections of teams. I think the most recent one doing the rounds is regarding the exclusion of Ramandeep from the squad despite a good showing at the Sultan Azlan Shah tourney. Here is where I make the distinction in my player-centric approach.
Like I mentioned previously, I firmly believe that players need to grow to their full potential if they are to contribute anything substantial to the team. But when it comes to selecting a team for an event as big as this, you have to look at who works best with the rest of the squad. In such cases, individual performances will obviously take a backseat because, at the end of the day, teams win trophies and not single players.
On this level, the mental aspect of a team in general and players, in particular, trumps everything. I would consider that one of my biggest challenges. Players who are mentally strong will definitely put in better performances. That’s my philosophy. That’s how I have lived my life and I would like to translate some of that strength here- especially this year with consecutively major events.
Ultimately, I have learnt to focus on things which are under my control. Anything and everything beyond that, I’d rather not spend precious energy thinking about it.