Following a gold medal at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games and a silver medal at the 2017 Sentinel Homes Hockey World League Final Auckland 2017, confidence is high in the New Zealand camp as they enter the final stages of preparations for the Vitality Hockey Women’s World Cup London 2018.
In the third instalment of our Coaches Corner series, we catch up with Black Sticks Head Coach Mark Hager.
As was to be expected from the straight talking New Zealander, the gold medal win at the Gold Coast back in April was already consigned to the past and all thoughts are now focused on London in July.
“That win at the Commonwealth Games definitely means a lot for hockey supporters in New Zealand. For us, it provides a drive to work harder at improving key areas of our game. Both our defensive and front half's of the field are areas that we continually seek to improve upon.”
Mark Hager, New Zealand Women's Head Coach
New Zealand’s run of good results in recent years has seen them climb to fourth in the FIH Hero World Rankings.
This steady climb has been largely due to their consistency in reaching the last four in most competitions.
Their downfall in recent years has been the final game of the tournament where they have lost by narrow margins – often in a shoot-out situation.
At the Gold Coast, they finally broke their spell of shoot-out failures by securing a win over England. “That shoot out win over England definitely assists our belief that we can win under pressure,” says Hager.
“But it’s more than just the shoot out situations. We have gained a lot of experience at the top level, playing in finals and learning from the experience. We have experienced close games over a number of years and the players have learnt what needs to change for us to have greater consistency under pressure. I encourage feedback from past and current players and this all helps us grow and learn.”
One player who has been pivotal to the squad in recent years is the multi-capped Stacey Michelsen. Nominated for the 2017 FIH Hockey Stars Player of the Year, Michelsen’s influence on the team extends on and off the field. While Hager is reluctant to single out one player, he does acknowledge the huge role his experienced senior players have within the squad.
“Our key players are very important as they provide the direction on and off the field, they lead by example and show the way on the training track and teach the new squad members about our culture and way of playing.”
The Black Sticks ethos is very much about taking a balanced view on life. Hager talks of the family environment that surrounds the team and says he encourages his players to look beyond the game.
The hard work ethic and commitment to fitness is evident in the New Zealand style of play and Hager says that this is the bedrock upon which the Black Sticks culture is built.
For the next eight weeks however, the balance will be tipped firmly in the direction of hockey.
The team will enter an intensive centralised programme, with plenty of international competition built into the lead-up to the World Cup.
As with the Hockey World League Final, one team in particular stands between New Zealand and a major international gold medal – the Netherlands. But Hager believes his team has the beating of the world number one team.
“We have had a couple of draws against Netherlands but need to maintain consistency in performance throughout a game as Netherlands are a team with great playing depth. Any little error will be punished by them. And of course, it is also about being able to convert any chances that come your way.”
New Zealand start their World Cup challenge against Belgium on 22 July. They are in Pool D, alongside Oceanic rivals Australia and Japan.
Tickets for the Vitality Hockey Women's World Cup London 2018 are still available and can be purchased .