It hasn’t been easy for the women’s Team USA field hockey squad in recent years. It was almost a decade ago that the USA took the world by storm as they made the semi-finals of the 2014 Rabobank Hockey World Cup in the Netherlands. Following that triumphant storming of the citadel of top nations, the USA reached a high of sixth in the FIH World Rankings and the team began to look like serious contenders for medals at the top events. A victory at the 2015 Pan American Games earned the team a place at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. Here they defeated both higher ranked Argentina and Australia in the pool matches but came up against the eventual gold medal winners Great Britain in the quarter finals, where they lost by a narrow 2-1 margin.
It was following the 2016 Olympic Games that things began to unravel. A succession of coaches failed to turn the qualities of resilience, an aptitude for hard work and a strong team cohesion into a workable and successful international team.
A slide down the rankings now sees USA sitting at 16th in the world behind Argentina (2nd), Chile (14th) and Canada (15th).
At time of writing, USA are about to start their fourth season in the FIH Pro League – a competition in which the team has the unwanted record of having finished in last position in all three previous editions. They kick this season off with a trip to New Zealand and Australia where they will play the two host nations plus China and Argentina.
New Head Coach Dave Passmore does not play down the monumental challenge that he and his team face. During the Covid pandemic, the former Head Coach Anthony Farry had been unable to get out of Australia to coach the team, so most sessions had been done online.
The team had also been moved out the headquarters that had been home to the national team at Spooky Nook in Pennsylvania. Combine that with the disruption to fixtures, training and academic studies that had been caused by the pandemic, and it was easy to appreciate that the past two to three years have been difficult for the team.
Passmore was lecturing back at university in Ireland when he got the role as Head Coach to the USA squad. He realized that he had to hit the ground running if he was to turn around the team’s fortunes in their upcoming fixtures.
‘As soon as I was appointed, I flew to the USA. There had been a lot of upheaval in the team. They had seen coaches come and go, they had centralized to a new area in Charlotte, North Carolina, and so I wanted to ensure I could immediately be on the ground.
‘For two weeks I not only coached the group that was centralized, but all the 38 athletes and the staff involved. I wanted to understand and appreciate everyone’s background and really get to know the players. You have to build a relationship with the players if you are to coax the best from them. I also wanted to reassure them that I was here to stay.’
At the centralized program, Passmore discovered there were only 12 athletes available at this time. Three were goalkeepers and three were injured so the first session involved just six field players. Some of the athletes were playing for teams in Europe and Australia and the college athletes were representing their colleges because of the scholarship system in which the athletes’ first allegiance is to their college team. Passmore only got access to the whole squad in the past few weeks at the national team camp.
The huge college system is very different to all the other top ranked teams. It means athletes tend to stop playing when they leave college, unless they go abroad to play. Currently, in the squad, the oldest player is 27 and the majority are 23 and below.
Despite the relatively short span of each individual player’s career, Passmore wants to put in place an underpinning and sustainable system. ‘I am not going to come and put a band-aid on and patch things over. This is going to be a long-term thing.’
Passmore has form in turning things around. When he arrived as national coach to the Irish men’s team after leaving a role with Great Britain Hockey, he gave himself a target of achieving success within seven years with two international sides that were very much ‘B leaguers’ at the time. In fact, under his leadership Ireland men’s team won bronze at the 2015 EuroHockey Championships and qualified for the Olympics; and the women won silver at the 2018 World Cup and qualified for the 2020 Olympics – all within eight years.
‘I want to build something that is robust and sustainable and isn’t reliant on me as the coach,’ he says of his plans for the USA team. ‘We have just got an agreement in place with a university here in the USA to put in a new stadium with side pitches. That is going to be a real plus because at the moment we haven’t got anywhere to host Pro League matches.’
With the Pro League matches in Australia and New Zealand spanning almost two months, Passmore’s progress with the squad is hampered by the fact that many of the players can only be with the squad for a couple of weeks before they have to return for school or college. It means he will never have his strongest squad at his disposal.
‘In a short space of time we have developed a set of high-performance values and an identity and we have to make that part of our day to day lives. No-one has been to an Olympics, so none of the athletes know what is required to be a top performer at a top event.
‘I am lucky to have Tracey Fuchs, the most capped USA hockey player, working with me. She played until she was 37 and no-one could be a better role model. She epitomizes what it is to be an Olympic athlete for the USA. It is just going to take time.’
Time is not something Passmore has in abundance in this role. Team USA has less than a year before they play an Olympic qualifier. However, the experienced coach is refusing to let the negatives of the situation outweigh the positives. For him, it is the very quality that the USA athletes are consistently praised for: hard work and dedication.
‘We came off a very hard session and I set them a task to do a set of 800 meter sprints,’ says Passmore. ‘That is tough but these athletes – what I have found is that with these athletes it is a case of when you say ‘jump’ they just say ‘how high? I am seeking athletes with that huge drive.’
Passmore’s true target is the Los Angeles Olympics in 2028. For that reason, he says he is not coming into the role as an egotistical coach. He wants to build for the future and that might mean taking some heavy hits in the process.
‘For many athletes at this stage, even knowing what technical level is needed to compete at the top is unknown at the moment, so every experience is a huge learning curve.’
To drive the learning home, Passmore arranged for his athletes to play test matches against Argentina and the Netherlands; the two top ranking teams in the world. ‘That may have been a bad thing in some ways, but I wanted them to truly understand where they were heading. The team grew with every game but they are coming out of the college system that plays a very structured style and the international game asks them to make more decisions and play a more flexible game.’
As the coach, Passmore will be developing a set of principles which will help with that decision-making process. ‘By asking them to adopt a set of principles, rather than a rigid structure, I am giving them the tools to make decisions.’
While the skills and techniques of top flight hockey is one aspect of the game in which the USA athletes will be on a steep learning curve, there is also the social element of the game. Learning how to cope with long distance travel; learning how to cope with temperature and dietary differences. It is here that Passmore will be looking for group leaders with strong characters.
‘We need people who will be architects of learning for the others. Those people will show others that they can step out of their comfort zones and achieve success.’
For Passmore, the professional challenge is huge. The personal challenge is perhaps even bigger. He has, he says, unfinished business as a coach.
‘You may not have seen me at the top of the game as a coach, albeit I have been right at the heart of things. That is because I have been bringing up my five kids. But now the whole family is invested in this and my aim, with their backing, is to start and finish something that is really unique. I am 100 per cent committed to making that happen.’