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Doing it the ‘German Way”

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Jami Mülders has been the head coach of the German women’s team since 2012 and in that time he has been rebuilding Die Danas in a mould and model that is very much player-centric. In the early stages of his tenure, sceptics saw his approach as too laissez-faire, but with a 2013 EuroHockey gold medal, a bronze in the EuroHockey 2015, and a bronze at the Rio Olympics, Mülders approach is gaining traction and admiration.

We caught up with the man himself prior to his team’s Hockey World League Semi-Final’s appearance in South Africa. He shared his thoughts on his hockey coaching philosophy, his frustration with limited time with his players and his view on the Hockey Pro League.

“After Rio 2016 everything stopped,” says Jami Mülders. “The last time I saw the girls was on the pitch after the bronze medal match for five minutes and for a little while during the closing ceremony.”

Once the Olympic Games were over the German women’s hockey team effectively disbanded until December. The players went on holiday, back to work or to university and any hockey activity they undertook was through the European club system. Many of his team are contracted to German, Dutch and Belgium clubs and have their wages paid through those organisations.

Mülders announced his team for the next cycle in December 2016 and the players reconvened for three days of testing and training in January 2017.

From January until June, the squad then spent 23 days together, including some training sessions and a test series in South Africa. On arrival in Johannesburg for their HWL Semi-Final campaign, the team spent just four days preparing – or in Mülders’ words, “squad development.”

“This is where we are different to many teams,” says Mülders. Many teams arrive at a tournament such as the HWL ready for the tournament. We arrive and the first few days are spent working things out.” All of which might explain why Germany is usually firing on all cylinders at the end of the pool stages, much to the chagrin of whoever meets them in the all-important quarter-finals.

But there are some major changes for Die Danas. Gone from the German team are some big characters from the international scene. Mülders sighs as he reels off the names: “Julia Muller, Yvonne Frank, Kristine Reynolds, Katherine Otte, Hannah Kruger, they were five from the Olympics. To lose both goalies who have been selected for the last 12 years and Julia….” his words trail off as he contemplates the changes to his squad.

The German squad in Johannesburg for the HWL Semi-Finals had eight players from Rio and 10 newcomers. For the HWL Semi-Finals, the squad was missing four other experienced players [due to university/work commitments and injuries].

The first few days in the South African city were hugely important for Mulders and his team.

“In those days prior to competition I organise the environment and surroundings to create a team building atmosphere. I give them space to meet each other and I give them tasks to do.

“For example, in Stellenbosch [during the test series], they had to work in groups and come together to discuss expectations and concerns. They get to know each other in detail. They start to really learn about each other.

“I don’t put pressure on them, I give them time to learn from mistakes. We discuss things such as ‘What is our culture?’ ‘How do we talk to each other?’ ‘How do we behave towards each other?’ We don’t do one-on-one talks, we work in small groups, which I think is less intimidating.”

The German team’s pre-match preparations are also different to many teams. To the whole group, Mulders will set out some expectations. He then talks to the attack and gives them two or three tactics; the same for the defence; the same for the penalty corner team. Then the small groups come into play.

A close observer of the German team during a game will notice that when a player leaves the field for a substitution, it will rarely be Mulders she then talks to, instead she will soon be deep in conversation with another player or a small group.

“The groups might be vertical – a defender, a midfielder and an attacker – or they might be horizontal – the defence, the midfield, the attack,” explains Mulders. “It depends on the context. If it tactical, it will be one thing, if it is emotional, it will be another.”

Besides giving the players a huge amount of say in how the team is run, Mulders is also very careful to create an environment where everyone feels comfortable. And that all comes down to familiarity.

“Since I took over in 2012, we have never changed our schedule due to any results or circumstances. We have a schedule, it is the way we work, the way we set up meetings, the way we recover, everything follows the same pattern. That way the environment is very comfortable and everyone is comfortable with the way things will happen.”

Then there is the culture within the team. Mulders stresses that his is a no-blame culture at all times. “We set clear borders, we give a lot of responsibility to the players. We certainly don't blame them if they take responsibility and it doesn’t work out.”

Mulders and his team often refer to the German Way. For some people, this means the team’s uncanny ability to be in the mix at the important times; for others it means the German team’s mental strength when it comes to pressure situations such as penalty shoot-outs; for Mulders, the German way is something completely different. It is about giving his players the space to be something other than a hockey player.

With no centralised programme, this is something that has been forced upon the head coach but it is not something he sees as being an out and out negative. He talks about the long break between the Rio Olympics and the team selection in January as an example.

“We hadn’t met for six months on the pitch but the atmosphere was great. Those who had been in Rio wanted to get the connectivity again, then the younger ones saw and it was “like okay great, we want to go for it.

“We are not centralised, we do not have a big budget, we do not have a lot of players but it is not a disadvantage. When you look at the last four years, it has been okay. The main difference is that many teams come to something like the Olympics or the World Cup to perform and we arrive there to develop as well as perform.”

Once the team has been selected, Mulders and his coaching staff has to rely on the players doing much of the fitness and skills work themselves. The players are spread geographically across Germany and beyond. Many are employed by domestic clubs as professional players and coaches; still others are studying or working – and in highly stressful jobs, such as doctors, lawyers and accountants.

“This is an advantage”, is Mulders’ response to the situation. “They handle high pressured work and training in parallel. That is a big advantage because they are not motivated from outside, it is intrinsic motivation. They know that it may be an advantage to be centralised but it is like this and they do not complain.

“Also, the players need time off from us. What they don't want is ‘big brother is watching you’. I tell them, if I pick you, I trust you. You get the chance, you have an opportunity to be one of the best.”

Mulders says that quite often his players will be combining examinations with playing. He points to the example of former goalkeeper Kristina Reynolds who spent most tournaments studying to be a doctor and Hannah Kruger who, as a science teacher, would be preparing lesson plans between matches. “They are able to handle different things at the same time under stress.”

The coach also acknowledges that his way would not work for all teams. “For Great Britain, they needed the centralised programme to achieve their success, before that cam into play, their system was not working so well. It would not necessarily work with the US athletes. You can’t compare different countries.”

If further evidence was needed that Mulders does things differently, you only need to look to the Rio Olympics. Where most teams were spending many of their non-match days at the ground doing last minute preparations and training, the German’s didn't train once. Before the all-important quarter-finals, the German team had two 20-minute video sessions, plus one meeting.

“We did some strength and conditioning,” says Mulders, “But no hockey. The Olympics themselves are such a huge experience and stress. Just taking it all in costs you energy, so you need time away from everyone else. When we are together, we focus, when it is time away, then take your time and enjoy it.”

At the heart of Mulders’ philosophy is a huge respect for his players. He says his team is full of strong characters, and their age doesn’t come into it. Among the young players he sees as having a bright future are 20-year-old Nike Lorenz and Selin Oruz. Of the older players, he looks to his co-captain Janne Muller-Weiland. “She is a great role model and, importantly, she and the older ones know what it is like to be unsuccessful as well as successful.

“I am always curious to see how we go through the hard games. We develop from game to game and day to day. It is not always linear - there will be setbacks, so it will be good to see how we deal with this.”

During a match Mulders is a constant source of interest to those seeking signs of a coach’s state of mind. There is no doubting his deep passion for the game, he plays every ball and his expression leaves no doubt as to what he is thinking when things go wrong but, his philosophy centres around players taking control, so there is an internal battle to reign himself in as the players leave the pitch.

His ability to conjoin his philosophy with his instinct can perhaps be explained by his belief that: “As coach, you are not responsible for results, you are responsible for performance. Sometimes the performance can be good but the results can be bad. And I am working with intelligent players. Why would I pick intelligent players if I then didn’t let them use that intelligence?”


Photos by World Sports Pics. 

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