Ignacio ‘Nacho' Lopez has been a hockey coach for many years. But not for one minute is he an ‘old style’ coach. Where coaches in the past ran their teams strictly along ‘command style’ coaching – telling the players what to do – Nacho is one of a modern breed of coaches who seek buy-in and collaboration with the athletes.
As a youngster, living in the Argentinean town of Quilmes, on the Rio de la Plata, Nacho was a goalkeeper for his local team, before moving to the Quilmes High School University team (QHS). When he turned 18, as well as continuing to play in goal, Nacho turned his hand to coaching, starting with the youngest players and gradually moving up through the age groups.
When he was 24, he became the coach to the QHS women’s first team as well as the junior men’s teams, eventually becoming the coaching coordinator for the club.
Nacho was not on his own. Senior coaches were quick to help the young coach develop his coaching skills, and Nacho pays tribute to one mentor in particular, Walter De-Nardo, who willingly passed on his own coaching expertise and knowledge to the aspiring coach.
‘He [Walter] was a great friend to me and every time we spoke, he would pass on more knowledge and more tools to be a better coach.’
In 2004, Walter invited Nacho to join San Lorenzo as it was developing as a club. When Nacho joined the club there were 60 players in total. Nearly 20 years later and the club has more than 500 players with one team in the top women’s league.
Nacho stopped playing hockey in 2012 and moved into coaching full-time. His first role was the men’s first team at Quilmes High School, where he led the team to promotion to the top tier within the first season.
Three years later and he got his first international appointment as one of the coaches working with the Brazil women’s team, ahead of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
‘I worked for the Brazilian Hockey Federation and I was able to help out with many development situations because Brazil was a little country in terms of hockey development,’ he says.
The impact of the new coach was felt quickly as Brazil men and women won their first ever gold medals at the 2015 Pan American Challenge Cup. For the women’s national team this led to another ‘first’ as they qualified for the 2017 Pan American Cup at Spooky Nook in the USA. The team finished in seventh place, but as Nacho says, the experience was essential to future ambitions and development.
PAHF President Alberto ‘Coco’ Budeisky was responsible for Nacho’s next move. As Brazil reduced its financial input into hockey, he suggested that he went to El Salvador to develop his international coaching repertoire.
‘Coco said that I should go and work in El Salvador to develop hockey there. The national team was ranked sixth in Latin America so it was not very strong at all. That is the sort of challenge that really appeals to me. For me, the gold medal of achievement will be to see El Salvador moving up the rankings and more young people playing hockey in clubs.’
From 2018, Nacho began to work with the El Salvador national hockey association. He explains that the differences between the hockey ‘power’ nations of Argentina, USA and Canada – and to an extent Uruguay and Chile – compared to the smaller hockey nations of Latin America are huge.
‘The big hockey nations have a tradition and a hockey paying culture that goes back generations,’ he says. ‘In countries in Latin America, because of financial restrictions, development is short term. There will be funding available in the lead up to one tournament but then it will stop, so it is difficult to build anything sustainable.’
In El Salvador, Nacho is trying hard to establish a more resilient structure. He describes it as a ‘social project’. This means he starts the process of coaching and teaching with the younger players so they provide the platform for growth in the future.
In terms of the coaching philosophy Nacho has a very open-minded approach.
‘I had a conversation with Carlos ‘Chapu’ Retegui in front of many other coaches. He told me that I would complement his coaching because I had the necessary soft skills, while he took a very hardline and disciplinarian approach.’
As the COVID pandemic took hold across South and Latin American, Nacho’s approach began to pay dividends. While he couldn’t physically be standing pitch side, he used the time, via online meetings, to learn more about his players. This was how Nacho interacted with his players for almost a year and a half. Some of the online sessions were tactical lessons or physical fitness sessions, others took the form of challenges and activities such as cooking a cake, doing a team quiz or having an online barbecue.
For Nacho, the COVID pandemic was a watershed moment in coaching.
’In 2023, for trainers who are more dictatorial or who cannot communicate with the players as human beings, it is no longer their time. This time, it is for building good relationships and creating a good environment. If you don’t do that, the athletes will not work for you and you will not have a team.
‘Many people lost family and friends due to COVID, that has changed how people react. For me, generosity, kindness and the human situation are much more important than winning a match. There is no manual on how to behave in a situation such as COVID, so we just learnt how to behave as we went along.’
It is not just his empathetic approach to his players that helps Nacho communicate with his athletes. He is also a linguistic expert. Over the course of his club and international coaching commitments, he spoke Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and German as well as English; it is a linguistic skill that serves him well as he is able to learn from coaches and athletes from across the world.
The current situation in El Salvador will certainly challenge Nacho’s coaching ability. In a small country, only a tiny percent of the population plays hockey. Government funding tends to go towards athletes in individual sports.
‘It is much easier to give money to an athlete than a whole team of players,’ he says.
When Nacho began working with the El Salvador national team in 2018, the political situation was worrying. Training sessions took place under the protection of armed guards. In that first year, two players left the country because their lives were threatened.
Since then, things have improved both on and off the pitch. The government is clamping down on the criminal elements in the country so safety has improved. On the pitch, El Salvador is a nation on the rise. In 2021, the men’s team took bronze at the Central American Hockey5s Championship and the women went one better, winning silver.
Nacho’s style of coaching remains all about collaboration. He likes to listen to what his players have to say about the game. While he says that he will always take the final decision, he will make sure that his players have had the chance to give their opinion first.
It is the same with his staff. Nacho encourages all his staff to input ideas, but he believes that the responsibility of the head coach is to make the final decision, no matter how tough that it.
Over the years, Nacho has looked to other coaches for inspiration. He admires Sergio ‘Cachita’ Vigil because of his ability to know his players on and off the pitch, while Colin Batch and Retegui are ‘coaches who know how to win’.
He also has a deep appreciation for the president of the El Salvador Hockey Federation. ‘Gerson Suarez, president of FESA Hockey is a great person. His sensitivity and generosity have no limits and having been a Pan American rower and elite athlete allows him to understand situations and work in an active, professional way. He always has a very positive approach and that is really important to the growth of the sport.’
Ultimately, Nacho’s ambitions for his El Salvador teams are down to a simple process: ’To be a better team, it is a step-by-step process. We improve fitness, we improve skills, we improve tactics, but the important thing is that we do it together.’