It is no news to anyone that England women have had a disappointing tournament in The Hague. The team ranked number three in the world in the FIH World Rankings came to the Hockey World Cup with high hopes of a medal, but with only one win, they have finished bottom of the pool and face an ignominious 11th/12th classification match. They were defeated by the USA, China and South Africa, putting in performances against lower-ranked teams that were decidedly below par. Then the team put in a much better performance against Argentina, only to see a last minute goal rob them of a creditable draw against the reigning champions. The most recent 3-1 win against Germany is the silver lining on what has been a very dark cloud.
But while the outside world is seeing an England team that is demoralised, dejected and unable to put together the performance they know they are capable of, we have been talking to three of the players about what life is like on an international hockey tour – away from the pitch. How they prepare, how they pick themselves up after a defeat, how the group works. This is their journey in the Hague.
"The flight from Heathrow to Schiphol is just a short flight, but we were invited onto the flight deck to meet the captain," said defender Sally Walton. "It is always the same carnage at the airport, stick bags taped up, but this trip was made special because we were invited to the cockpit. We had to keep Sam (Quek) from pushing the 'eject' button. I was allowed to speak over the intercom to the passengers so I told them we would be "taking a sharp left, turning right and banking through the cloud. I'm not sure they would have felt all that confident after that!"
Once in the hotel the players had a chance to relax and get used to their surroundings. "We got to the hotel a week prior to the tournament. That gave us time to settle in and get used to our surroundings. During that time we did a lot of training, played some practice games and made sure that everyone was fit and raring to go," said Sally. The team physiotherapist was constantly on hand to treat injuries, to deal with any niggles and to "dole out some TLC (tender, loving care)". "It seemed like it was a long time spent in preparation for this tournament. It is a bit like Christmas Eve, waiting for the big day."
At their first visit to the Kyocera Stadium, Ashleigh and Sally were impressed. "It is really very professional," said Ashleigh. "Although it is a football stadium, there is all sorts of hockey things being put up and it is a really exciting place to be. There are 15,000 seats and when the Dutch are playing the whole place turns orange. For any opposition it is like playing in a cauldron of hate. Mind you, we often play in cauldrons of hate!"
Back at the hotel, the team found themselves in the unusual position of eating dinner at the same table as their opposition. "Let's just say there is a lot of watching going on." said captain Kate Richardson-Walsh, indicating the South African team sitting just a few seats away. "It is certainly difficult at times," says Ashleigh. "Some of the teams can be very arrogant, others are really friendly and respectful to each other."
To get privacy from the other teams, England women spend a lot of time socialising in a communal area and it is here that the players relax and forget the pressures of hockey. While formal meals are eaten alongside the other nations and it is all a very well-behaved occasion, it is here in a more relaxed environment that the players grab a snack, crack jokes, let their hair down and generally unwind. "A lot of our team need a steady supply of snacks," says Ashleigh. "Let's face it, they are a team of compulsive eaters," she jokes. The fact that three players, including Sally, celebrated their birthdays while in The Hague meant a steady supply of cake was assured.
As the tournament unfolded, and England posted one poor result,after another, how did the team pick themselves up to come out and play again? "The important thing was to focus on the performance, not the outcomes," said Ashleigh. "Let's face it, if we just looked at the result we probably wouldn't have wanted to turn up and play today (against Germany). But we have debriefs and we look at the things that went right, as well as the things that went wrong. It is really important to acknowledge the bad, but also the good. Of course this has been a terrible tournament for us, but this is still the team that won an Olympic bronze and a European Championship silver."
There have been moments of deep despair for England, with coach Jason Lee describing the team as "standing at the edge of a precipice," so how has that affected the team? Is it all long faces at the NH Atlantic hotel? "We have different ways of dealing with it," says Sally. "We always allow individuals to deal with it the way they want to. For some people that is very emotional, others will be very quiet. But there is a moment when we say "enough now" and that is the point we have to look forwards again. That is normally the morning after a game. We talk about the game but we make sure that no-one apportions blame unfairly."
And then there is the famous English sense of humour. "Of course we laugh at each other," says Ashleigh. "And because we know each other so well, because of our central programme, we know when it is the right time to take the piss. Take Lily Owsley, she has had a great tournament, she has been fearless on the pitch, and she is well-balanced enough to be able to take some jokes. She is the youngest member of the team, but she is really mature."
And while the women may be having their worst tournament in recent history they still have the men's team to cheer on in the semi-finals. "In many ways that provided us with a boost today," says Sally. "We watched them last night, and there is a group os WAGs in the squad – girls who go out with members of the boys team – so there were real screams when England scored the goal that put them in the semi-finals."
Results may not have gone England's way, but as Sam Quek points out: "One bad tournament doesn't turn us into a team of bad players. We are strong enough to re-group, re-focus and make sure that we never experience anything like this again."
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