In this week's Coaches Corner, we meet the man who has steered Ireland women to their first major international competition.
When Ireland women’s hockey team arrive at the Vitality Hockey Women’s World Cup, London 2018, for many of the players it is the culmination of a lifetime’s sporting endeavours. For Head Coach Graham Shaw, managing his players emotions is likely to be one of his biggest challenges.
On their day, the Ireland team are energetic, speedy and hungry for success. But, says the canny coach, they also have the potential to lose focus if the occasion gets the better of them.
Graham Shaw is a fantastic hockey player in his own right, with 151 international caps to his name. He was Assistant Coach in 2015 when Ireland just missed out on qualifying for the Rio 2016 Olympics, so he knows just how much qualifying for this World Cup means.
“A lot of the players have been chasing this for a long time, so there will be a lot of emotion, which we will have to manage. A lot of players have been after this moment all their lives.”
Shaw is also a realist. He says his team are under no illusion that they may win the World Cup but, he also knows that the team will want to put in a great performance every time they step on the pitch at Lee Valley.
“Every match in our pool will be like a final,” says Shaw. “They are three different teams, with three styles of play, so we will have a different plan for each game.”
Ireland are in pool B, along with India, USA and the host nation England. It is this final opponent that has seen Shaw playing music loudly while his players train, “to get them used to situations where they can’t hear each other,” he explains.
“We are definitely getting stronger and stronger and improving with every session. The squad is 30 per cent fitter than it was two years ago and there is a lot of experience in the side: we are right up there when it comes to international caps, several players have more than 100 caps."
Graham Shaw, Ireland Head Coach
Certainly, each game at the World Cup will be unlike anything Ireland has experienced before and when the players step into the cauldron to take on England, thousands of England hockey fans will make life very difficult for the team in green.
Ireland are one of the teams whose athletes are not on a full-time programme. Until Christmas, the team met once a week, on Sundays. They then trained in smaller groups depending upon where they lived one evening during the week.
Since Christmas, the squad has been getting as much international practice as possible. Matches against Spain, a training camp at Bisham Abbey, test matches against Canada and a Three Nations event in Germany have all been instrumental in gaining the players as much experience as possible.
“The players have been on a semi-full-time programme since May,’ says the Head Coach. “It is fair to say that since we qualified our programme has been bit stop, start.”
But Shaw is looking on the positive side. “Obviously it is not ideal but we are doing well considering we spend so little time together. I guess, because we are not together all the time, there is a lot of hunger in the squad to do well and prove something. There is also the fact that there is always something fresh, something new in training. They bring a lot of energy into those shorter blocks of training. You can also see massive strides in performance, which might not be the case if you saw the players day-in, day-out.
“We are definitely getting stronger and stronger and improving with every session. The squad is 30 percent fitter than it was two years ago and there is a lot of experience in the side: we are right up there when it comes to international caps, several players have more than 100 caps.”
Shaw comes from a generation of coaches who see the benefits of looking closely at every detail when it comes to preparations. Over the past few months the team has been replicating game day at the World Cup. The players arrive for their fixtures with the same amount of warm-up time as they will have at Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre. They have been leaving the pitch a little early between warming up and playing a game, to replicate the process that takes place during the World Cup. They have even had practices in dealing with any media interviews that might impinge on a half-time team talk.
As the Vitality Hockey Women’s World Cup London 2018 draws ever closer, Shaw is doing his best to keep a calm countenance but he can barely suppress the bubble of excitement as he talks about his team’s prospects. “We play a high energy game where we put opposition under pressure. And we possess a lot of speed in the team so we are good in a counter-attack situation.
"What we must do, is take any chances that we create – that has let us down in the past. We must also remember our roles when we are under pressure.
“I see us playing a little like the USA did in 2014, and creating a few surprises. We will come out with a good tempo to our game and we just want to make a good showing.”
For a full schedule of all the Ireland matches at the Vitality Hockey Women's World Cup London 2018, .