Thursday, June 30, 2022

Todd Williams column: The best players chase the game

The upcoming men’s and women’s Junior World Cups will provide players with an important lesson about succeeding at the international level. Players from big hockey countries like England will realise that while a long, well-funded preparation provides an advantage, it doesn’t guarantee that you win matches.

That still all boils down to how good your players are on the day and whether they believe they can win.

Young players aiming for this level can benefit from an important part of that lesson now.

No matter which country the top players at each JWC come from, they all will have “chased” the game, using their ability and talent to work out a path to a level higher than anyone else.

Plenty of other players will have had the same sort of coaching and been at as many training sessions but these players will have developed their game at their own, faster pace and not been content to go along at everyone else’s.

Skills: Jamie Dwyer practised for hours as a junior
Skills: Jamie Dwyer practised for hours as a junior

Anyone lucky enough to have heard the stories from the very best players will recognise this.

Jamie Dwyer attributes much of his ball carrying skill to hours of practice as a junior on grass in Rockhampton. Barry Middleton, right, tells similar stories of his days at Doncaster and recently I listened to Laura Unsworth recount her early days inspired by Jane Sixsmith at Sutton Coldfield.

The key point from each of them was that starting from an early age they’ve always wanted to get better. Most importantly, they maintained that desire even amid the distractions that come when talented players start to get recognised.

In order to avoid these distractions, players might want to think about three golden rules.

The first is the need to recognise that training, whether that is with school, club or a regional session, is the hockey that is given to you.

The hockey you chase is the practice time you spend in your back garden perfecting your hit or developing a dummy in the corridor or watching what the best international players do on YouTube.

Of course it can also be extra time on your school or club pitch but it doesn’t have to be.

The second rule is one from my own experience. In my time at the Australian Institute of Sport, players were given the same lecture in the first week of every new year. In no uncertain terms it was explained that the chance of you not getting better after training 300 or so times with the best players in the country was, frankly, pretty slim.  If you wanted to be selected for Australia however, you had to be a really good player who could also offer something special.

Scoring goals or making great passes are obvious examples, but equally it could be winning ball in the midfield or trapping in the defensive circle or winning PCs. The rule of thumb is that if it’s something the opposition might mention in their team talk then you’re probably on the right track.

The final rule is understanding that selection doesn’t make you a better player. If you couldn’t trap very well on your reverse the day before a team was selected, it won’t have fixed itself the day after when you are named in the team. Needless to say, that new kit doesn’t fix the problem either.  Compare that to another wonderful anecdote from Dwyer and his determination to improve his less than proficient tackling. Even though he was already a five-time world player of the year, he started by working with Under-18 players at his club in Perth. There’s no room for ego if you really want to be the best.

Todd Williams is a former Australian international, hockey professional at Magdalen College School, Oxford and Premier League coach for over 12 seasons with Hampstead & Westminster, Slough Ladies and, most recently, with Surbiton.

Follow Todd on Twitter: @toddwilliamsuk


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