Rod Gilmour talks to GB coach Danny Kerry about his plans for the Tokyo Olympics...
Danny Kerry’s side is off being interviewed by BBC presenter Clare Balding. It may be the start of their meteoric rise into the public consciousness, but Kerry has shunned the present and is looking at what the future holds.
“I don’t feel I’ve ever stood on top of the mountain and taken in the view,” he says. “The athletes, quite rightly, have deserved their time in the sun.”
The autumn sun takes hold when we meet at England Hockey’s Bisham Abbey headquarters to reflect on the days and weeks after Team GB became the first British sporting team to win gold since the men’s victory at the 1988 Seoul Games.
First the day following victory: “I spent most of it making a big old mind map – what worked well, what do we need doing or changing,” he recalls.
“In some ways, I was trying to decompress and simulate it all. I’m not the kind of person to go parading around and giving it the big ‘I am’.”
That philosophy continued when Kerry arrived back on a different plane to the athletes.
While the squad began their raft of media engagements, Kerry went home to East Anglia, picked up his wife, three and five-year-old children and drove for two days to the south of France.
“There’s nothing more like putting your feet on the ground when you’re looking after your children and having deserted your wife for however many days you were away in 2015/16. It was about being dad for eight days.”
Since then, Kerry has been in the “massive throes” of an Olympic debrief, as well as readying himself for the next influx of centralised players. He has overseen the assessment period across men and women and, come January, a new squad will be formed.
Away from the admin and the mood maps, the former performance director has also had time to step away from his laptop and share his success with other sporting minds.
At Kerry’s behest, he dropped British Cycling supremo Dave Brailsford a line to ask if they could meet. Considering this was at the time of the controversy over therapeutic use exemptions (TUE), he still gave Kerry his time.
Kerry was also invited to spend a morning with England rugby coach Eddie Jones and his backroom staff at Twickenham. Kerry recalls: “It felt like they plugged me in and downloaded me. It was great and feels nice to be asked by a sport such as rugby.
“We’re hoping to build a relationship where our coaches can observe some of things they do.”
Jones was interested in how the training environment and team sessions at Bisham were run. “It’s supported by academic research and a particular way of developing athletes,” explains Kerry. “It’s different to how they are normally developed and there is a lot of chaos and randomness to it, which is deliberate as no two things are the same. They might look and feel the same, but the distances, angles and opponents are always different.”
Cut through the coaching terminology and the ‘randomness’ Kerry refers to – especially in the high-speed nature of hockey – is essentially about problem-solving in real time. “You are trying to create athletes who can deal with the pressurised environment of this randomness,” he adds. “They were interested in how we went about this and I gather this is something they are looking to explore.
“We didn’t discuss the team culture and dynamic that much. It was more about the very brutal nature of the way we train at times. That creates its own bonding through shared hardship. Exploring people’s thoughts and feelings when situations are really tough which also helps build a culture of togetherness.”
The contrast here is that Kerry is overseeing an all-female side. In the last 11 years, he has realised that the main quality of working alongside women’s groups is that “they really want to look out for one another”.
“Don’t get me wrong, at times that is challenging. Around male groups, it tends to be about tasks, i.e. win a medal. Around women, it’s about the social cohesion of the team. You can leverage off that and effectively achieve a task.
“It’s about putting people through really tough times. As coaches, you can be clever in the language you use. You can use a process called our ‘Visions, Values and Behaviours’.”
After Glasgow 2014, the group – eight of whom were multiple Olympians – discussed the theme of why they were at Bisham in a series of meetings. The higher purpose, it turned out, was about inspiring the next generation of hockey players. It became a powerful, uniting force which travelled right through Rio.
These ‘hefty, heavyweight’ meetings were far from comfortable. Yet they formed a key platform for top podium success. “The opening gambit was along the lines of ‘when you walk out of the door, if you’ve left stuff unsaid, then you’ve missed your opportunity’,” Kerry says.
England Hockey summoned Kate Hays, a lead psychologist at the English Institute of Sport, to initiate conflict resolution between the group. Within a week, the meetings ended and the team “was off and running. We just got on with it”.
Another backroom staff member, EIS team psychologist Andrea Furst, also proved an asset, with Kerry’s insistence that she be a “hand on the tiller” as far as team culture was concerned.
With the team integrated, tactics implemented and the squad’s ‘Thinking Thursdays’ banked, they set about qualifying for Rio in style. But performance sport is a fickle beast, as Kerry outlines with Germany men’s two at-the-death goals to deny New Zealand in Rio.
“We had some squeaky bum games too, but the training environment was designed to be like that,” he admits. “You will hear from athletes of finding a way to win. It became a buzzword and created an environment where we knew it wouldn’t be glorious, sexy hockey and you’d have to find a way to win.
“You have to prepare to find a way to make the fine margins work in your favour.”
After eight straight wins, culminating with a dismantling of the Dutch in the Olympic final, and seventh months with no internationals, attention in the coming months will focus on England duties.
Next year will see England defending their European title in Amsterdam, before the Commonwealth Games and a home women’s World Cup the following year.
Then comes that ‘winning after winning’ attempt in Tokyo, a feat which Australia women, Holland women and Germany men have all achieved.
“Those nations have always had a great depth of talent,” says Kerry. “The other overwhelming thing is that I feel really quite motivated about the next cycle. The challenge of winning is an even bigger challenge.”