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Visual training, podium finish talk: The Menezes touch to Japan hockey | Hockey

In contrast to the waves of screams gushing through the dugouts from coaches of various teams at the FIH Women’s Hockey Olympic Qualifiers stands Jude Menezes. The Japan women’s team head coach is more a silent spectator on the sidelines, observing his players go about their business which, in Ranchi, has been to qualify for the semi-finals beating Chile 2-0 on Tuesday and getting a step closer to the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Ranchi: Players of Japan celebrate scoring a goal against Chile during their FIH Hockey Olympic Qualifiers 2024 match at Marang Gomke Jaipal Singh Astro Turf Hockey Stadium, in Ranchi(PTI)
Ranchi: Players of Japan celebrate scoring a goal against Chile during their FIH Hockey Olympic Qualifiers 2024 match at Marang Gomke Jaipal Singh Astro Turf Hockey Stadium, in Ranchi(PTI)

Sure, the former India goalkeeper will have the frequent quiet word with players or dish out the rare expression of encouragement. But blurt out instructions during play?

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“That’s just not my style,” Menezes says in a chat with HT. “I want them to be independent hockey players.”

It’s almost emblematic of the Mumbai-born Menezes’s coaching philosophy with Japan after spending several years as coach in New Zealand. Taking over Japan in late 2021 after their 11th-place finish at the Tokyo Olympics, he has overseen a couple of years of rebuilding. With many of their seniors moving away after the home Olympics, Menezes had to retrace the steps of progress with younger players.

Language a barrier (only a handful of players understand English while Menezes has a translator), the coach had to get creative in communication. Much of their training and tactical talk, therefore, is through the use of visuals and videos.

“People understand and learn differently. I’m a kinesthetic learner, which means I have to do it physically to learn it. So, what I do is I’ll say something, draw it on the white board, show it on a video clip, and then we walk through it on the pitch. That way, we cater to all learning styles. It targets people who may understand things once they see it through a video clip or if someone does it,” Menezes says.

It hasn’t been easy, Menezes admits. Especially at the beginning of his tenure when Japan was off-limits for him due to the Covid pandemic and all he had were 10-day camps outside the country before his first two assignments: the 2021 Asian Champions Trophy (ACT) and 2022 Asia Cup. Japan were champions in both.

Since then, it’s been a mixed bag: 11th at the 2022 World Cup, bronze in 2022 Nations Cup, fourth at the Asian Games last year as defending champions and silver at the 2023 ACT.

Familiar rivals India got the better of them at the Asian Games and ACT.

“The pandemic has made it difficult because we haven’t had too many matches to play. But whatever we’ve played, I’ve seen steady growth,” Menezes says.

He points to China playing 45 international matches leading up to the Asian Games compared to his team’s 20. Japan has a de-centralised hockey programme, which means Menezes works with the national group for “100-120 days max”. The rest of the time players play club hockey. “It is what it is. My focus is on what to do with the time I have.”

Good school, varsity setup

The hockey system in Japan is “extremely structured”, though. “There are a lot of kids playing hockey because they have a very good school system, good university competition, national competition as well as the club system. You have a lot of kids playing hockey within this structured system.

“It has taken time to develop. There are still things that could be done a lot better. They’re working on it and trying to develop hockey a lot more in the country.”

Areas of improvement could include having a fully funded centralised national programme and opening up the Japanese league to foreign players. “Like IPL. That’s the model,” Menezes says.

However, there has been a definite shift in the mindset since the Tokyo dip in their women’s team. Menezes talks about “podium finishes” as a target in each tournament they turn up for. Remaining unbeaten in the three matches in this event after the ACT silver two months ago, they’re closer to that target again in Ranchi. If that happens, they’ll also book their ticket to Paris.

The coach’s goals, however, are a lot higher.

“Personally, my goal is to see Japan in the top six of the world. I believe we can be a top-six nation. We have the ability to do it. We just need to keep working on those goals.”

Currently 6th in the FIH women’s ranking is India, followed by Asian Games champions China (9th) in the top 10. Japan (11th) aren’t too far behind, while South Korea are 13th. Menezes sees that as a sign of the growing presence of Asian countries in women’s hockey.

“There are four very good teams in Asia who can beat any team on the day,” he says.

“Hopefully it gets better and better. We want more Asian teams in the world’s top eight, where a lot of European teams are now. If we can get there, it’ll be very good for hockey in Asia and for world hockey overall.”

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