“The team contesting the 2018 World Cup is completely different from the team that played in 2014, so it is impossible to compare them.” USA Coach Janneke Schopman is considering her team’s prospects ahead of the Vitality Hockey Women’s World Cup in London and reflecting on the fourth place finish the team achieved at the same event in 2014.
Four years ago, USA arrived in The Hague as rank outsiders. They were sitting at number 11 in the FIH World Rankings, having qualified for the Rabobank Hockey World Cup via the 2013 Hockey World League Semi-Finals. Two weeks later, they had seen off the challenges of many higher ranked teams to finish in fourth place after losing on shoot-out in the semi-finals to Australia. It was a start of a resurgence of the USA, started by the then head coach Craig Parnham and continued by Janneke Schopman when she took over the reins in 2017.
“Craig was great to work with,” says Schopman, who was assistant coach to the Englishman during that exciting World Cup campaign. “I learned a lot from working with him and, although we are very different with our personalities, we work very well together.”
What Schopman brings to Team USA is an in-depth knowledge on how to play a shrewd game. This has been gained by years of playing and coaching in Europe. Schopman was a member of the Dutch national team that took gold in the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games and gold in the 2006 World Cup in Madrid. She has also coached widely across The Netherlands in club setting, prompting Argentina captain Delfina Merino, who has had two spells playing club hockey in The Netherlands, to list her as one of the best coaches she has worked with.
Schopman acknowledges that the lack of a strong club and league system in the USA does present some problems when it comes to giving her players the opportunity to experience different styles of play. The USA women’s national team players’ European counterparts play top level club hockey every week throughout the season, giving them experience of many styles of play, particularly as the Dutch, German and Belgium leagues have many top players from across the globe playing in them.
“Of course, hockey is played through the colleges and then we have our central training base at Spooky Nook, where we get to work intensively with the players,” says Schopman. “We learn about the different playing styles in other ways – we do a lot of video analysis and we spend a lot of time training as if we were playing different nations.” This might involve setting up a practice against a typical European style of play or learning how to break down the infamously robust Asian defences. With the availability of the players in a centralized program, Schopman has the luxury of time with her players.
This is evident in the culture that has developed in Team USA. Wherever they travel and wherever they compete, USA athletes are renowned for their adherence to the team and its values. This, says Schopman, is a very typical American thing. “It is country first, every time,” she says, “that culture of team before individual is very, very strong and it cements all the work we do as a squad.”
It is also a culture that is driven by the players. Schopman says that the behaviors displayed by the team, both on and off the field, have been discussed and agreed by all the squad. When it comes to playing, Schopman admits that she doesn’t always give her players the ‘answers’, and this can sometimes cause some anxiety.
“I like them to arrive at solutions themselves. In the early days, they would look to me for answers, but I want them to learn how to deal with situations, it makes them more intelligent players.” It is an approach that is likely to be advantageous to Team USA as they continue to grow as a team. In the past, they have been renowned for their speed, skill and tenacity. If they can add a little more guile to their play, they will be genuine medal contenders.
Like most coaches, Schopman is reluctant to discuss her team’s chances of success at the forthcoming Vitality Hockey Women’s World Cup in London. Sounding uncannily like her charges, she speaks of needing to look at the event “one game at a time” and making sure the players are mentally in the right place when they step out onto the pitch in London. She does speak of a need to stay composed: rushing play can be a default status for the team when they are under pressure. Equally, they need to make the most of any scoring opportunity – against the best teams in the world, chances to score are far and few between.
But, as she points out, this is an experienced team. They might not play as many international matches as some of the other nations participating in London, but they are full-time athletes and what they lack in cap numbers, they make up for in hours in training.
They are also a team that is always seeking to learn new things. It is an attitude mirrored by their coach. “I think, as a coach, you are always learning,” says Schopman. “I don’t just watch other hockey coaches, I watch coaches in other sports, particularly team sports. I occasionally try some of the things I have seen in other sports – for example the other day I tried a basketball pressured shooting practice – it was fascinating to see the players adapting and trying to learn new things. That is what we have to do, keep pushing the edge of our learning.”
As the count down to the 2018 World Cup continues, USA and their innovative coach will continue to seek ways to push the boundaries of learning. And, while she may not say it, Schopman is sure to explore all avenues to make sure her team equal or better their stunning performance at the last World Cup.