After enjoying a year as the new world champions, the Belgians, along with the rest of the hockey world, had to go through a difficult period. The pandemic forced the Olympics to be moved to 2021 and the eerily quiet hockey pitches around the world had no activity for close to 200 days.
Hockey had its line-up of the 12 teams for the Tokyo Games, the fixtures were rolled out as well, but the all-important practice provided by Pro League before the big stage had to be stopped indefinitely, as the pandemic wreaked havoc.
Finally in September, as the world reached a stage where it had learned, to an extent, how to live with the coronavirus, international hockey returned, when Germany hosted Belgium in Dusseldorf for a two-match Pro League tie.
The FIH, after much deliberation and outlining the SOP to be followed, decided to bring hockey back on the pitch, with Germany and Belgium becoming the first two teams to experience playing in the Covid-19 era.
To know how it felt and what changed, Timesofindia.com got in touch with the coach of the Red Lions, Shane McLeod, for an exclusive interview.
(Action from the second match between Germany and Belgium in Dusseldorf – FIH Facebook Photo )
Is it an advantage or a disadvantage to be the first team to play with Covid-19 restrictions in place?
I believe that there are some positives with being (among) the first teams to play. Firstly, we get to start to develop our game earlier than other nations that are still either in training mode or not able to be together. We also create the expectation of a new normal for the group. Athletes need to have targets to look forward to and there is no better way to do this than playing other nations.
How many days before the matches against Germany did you get together as a group? Did you have a camp?
We are lucky to be able to operate in a semi-centralised programme, meaning that players are able to live at home but can come into the training environment each week for training. This means that the need to bring the group together before playing a match does not need to be for a long period. We travelled the morning before we played, as it is only a two-hour distance from where we train.
How much does being in a camp help as opposed to getting together just a few days before a tour/tournament? What do you prefer as a coach?
In normal circumstances, we would travel a week to ten days before a tournament so that we get used to the time zone, conditions and climate; but for the Pro League, this is not practical. When we do travel and are in camp, it is a great way to bring the group to another level, playing-wise, and also as a team.
#FIHProLeague #HockeyInvites #GERvBEL @BELRedLions’ Loïck Luypaert reflects on the important learnings from the 2… https://t.co/EPCR1G33SS
— International Hockey Federation (@FIH_Hockey) 1600926070000
Talking about the lockdown period in one of your earlier comments, you said, the “players’ technical levels are very high…and some even made gains”. Can you please elaborate on that?
Due to the fact that we had to train over distances, we needed to be creative in how we set out our training. It meant going back to basics and working on areas of players’ development that often get overlooked. For example, training to receive overheads was an easy topic to develop. Players would do hundreds of repeatable exercises rather than 10 or 20. This means that players’ skill levels improved.
How much does not playing together for a long time matter, especially when you have largely played with more or less the same group over a period of time, which helped you win the World Cup as well?
We have actually enlarged our group for a short period of time. We are starting to shape a group ready to prepare for the next Olympic cycle. We had two new players playing (for) their first caps for the Red Lions against Germany. For most nations, it takes some time to piece together the team’s playing style and after seven months we also have to start to build each of the areas of our game. What makes this an interesting exercise is that players are back with their clubs, meaning that they are having to learn several playing styles all at the same time.
Talking about the Covid-19 protocols related to match-days, what struck you the most when you stepped on the pitch?
For me, a big part of the experience is the crowd. Whether you are playing against India in India and having to deal with the crowd’s ability to lift the team, or playing at home in Belgium knowing that all of the supporters have come to enjoy the event, it is the crowd that provides that extra feeling. Without a crowd, it is very hard to not get the feeling of it being a training match. It just shows that we are social creatures.
https://t.co/l4hiKmuLeL EXCLUSIVE!We had two @BELRedLions stars discuss their yesterday’s win over Germany.Down… https://t.co/ZdKeTOFop4
— International Hockey Federation (@FIH_Hockey) 1600858798000
What has been the players’ feedback about how they feel playing after a five-month break?
The players have loved getting back on the field together — the whole experience of being away as a group and enjoying all of the things around playing international hockey again.
You won the first game against Germany comprehensively but then were held to a 1-1 draw in the second. What changed?
I think that playing two games back to back is an interesting experience. There are several things that impact on the scoreline. Firstly, when you win a game 6-1, you often struggle to look at the game in the same detail as you do if you are the team that loses. Germany did many things better in the second match, which made it harder for us to create opportunities. I would also suggest that the first game was closer than the scoreline indicated. We were the better team, but I think that 6-1 was not a fair indication of how the game was.
You are now on the road to the Olympics. How do you plan to do even better in Tokyo than you did in Rio in 2016?
We still have many stages to pass through to have our Olympic readiness. In each game, we will focus on improvements and by the time the Olympics begin, you will see a very strong Belgium side ready to take on some of the world’s best teams. We cannot wait.