Hockey: Hits and misses of the Graham Reid era
The Australian helped India win the bronze at Tokyo but wasn't able to sustain the momentum after that
For a coach who guided the Indian men’s hockey team to its greatest glory in more than four decades, Graham Reid has had quite an unceremonious exit. From that famed August 2021 afternoon in Tokyo to the disheartening January 2022 evening in Bhubaneswar, the Australian’s career as India chief coach spiraled out of control. Very quickly.
One might even say it’s normal in sport, especially team sport. When a team fails to deliver, the finger is almost invariably pointed towards the coach. Reid’s case was no different as the 58-year-old leaves the setup he joined in April 2019. But not before leaving his mark.
Perhaps Reid’s greatest success was keeping the Indian team together during the lockdown period of the Covid-19 pandemic. Shut inside the SAI campus in Bengaluru for months with several of them contracting the virus, Reid did a tremendous job in keeping the unit motivated, confident and energetic. He made the team meet, discuss, hang out together to keep them mentally fresh.
“Fortitude was one of Reid’s main virtues. He involved all players in discussions, took their opinions, even during analytical meetings. He made everyone part of the core group, selected player or not,” said someone in the know of things.
The results were proof enough. While other top teams faltered, India played well in both the Pro League and the Olympics. “You have to give him credit for one thing – he always heard what players had to say,” said a player who belongs to the core probables.
From time-to-time, Reid also brought in experts to work with the team to better their skills. Dutch drag-flick legend Bram Lomans and goalkeeper trainer Dennis van de Pol are two recent examples who not just trained the Indian players online during Covid, but also made their way to India before the World Cup to help players understand the nuances of the game better. Van de Pol was in fact goalkeeping coach for the team during the World Cup.
Reid gave utmost importance to fitness. For him, higher levels of fitness meant better performances during tournaments, leading to a drastic improvement in the fitness levels of the team. The chemistry of Reid and scientific advisor Robin Arkell worked well with the two introducing innovative and data-based techniques which got players hooked to numbers, increasing competition within the core group to improve fitness levels.
From the ‘red’ and ‘green’ sessions to GPS pods used to track the distance and speeds of players while training, Reid and Arkell feverishly compiled data and used it to inform players what they needed to do to become fitter.
But letting go of Arkell, who left after the Tokyo Olympics, was a big error. The fitness levels the players reached during Arkell’s tenure were never matched by his successor Mitchell Pemberton. It has been learned that several players were unhappy with Pemberton.
“Robin was different. He took it as a personal responsibility. He used to notice everyone on the field, go to players' rooms individually to tell them what they needed to do or what they were doing wrong. That was never the case with Mitchell,” said a player on condition of anonymity.
While Pemberton’s boys crashed out in the crossovers after losing to New Zealand, Arkell – now the strength and conditioning coach of Germany -- helped the Germans win the World Cup on Sunday. It has been learned that while Arkell would take yo-yo tests when the camps started and ended to tell players how they have performed during that period, no yo-yo tests were held during camps post the 2022 Commonwealth Games.
A major issue, which is not the responsibility of Reid alone, was the period of celebration for the Indian team post the Olympics. The team’s hunger was clearly visible during the 2020-21 Pro League and Tokyo Olympics when they beat the best in the world. But after Tokyo, a sense of complacency set in and it showed in the results too. The team returned to the turf with very average performances.
The team perhaps also needed a mental conditioning coach and goalkeeping coach. While van de Pol was brought in for the World Cup, that is too short a period to improve the skill levels of keepers. Most top teams in the world have separate goalkeeping coaches. That’s true for sports psychologists too. Whether it was due to Covid-19 or some other reason, Reid never got the federation to hire a mental conditioning coach. Hockey India has recently said that they will look into hiring one.
Reid is also a believer in youth, often backing the inexperienced than the seasoned. The penalty shootout against New Zealand being the latest example. But unlike earlier, he did not introduce any player from India’s 2021 Junior World Cup team into the 2023 World Cup squad. The only one who made the cut was Vivek Sagar Prasad, who is already an Olympic medallist.
At the 2018 World Cup, there were seven players from the 2016 Junior World Cup-winning squad who were groomed to make the cut, including current India captain Harmanpreet Singh. The players formed the backbone of the team that won bronze in Tokyo.
HI invites applications
A day after Reid announced his resignation, Hockey India (HI) have advertised for the appointment of three positions – chief coach, analytical coach and scientific advisor – the three positions vacated by Reid, Gregg Clark and Mitchell Pemberton. The contracts will run till December 31, 2024 with the roles having the primary role of guiding the Indian team through the 2023 Asian Games in September-October and the 2024 Paris Olympics. The final date of applying for all three positions is February 15.
Quite a few names are doing the rounds in the hockey circles. Former India coach Roelant Oltmans, Spain coach Max Caldas, former India and current United States coach Harendra Singh along with Pakistan coach Siegfried Aikman are of the names. All four, among other names, were seen in the World Cup.