Anthony Thornton has been in post as the head coach for the Russia women’s team for just under a year but already he and his charges have their eyes on a big prize, qualification for the 2018 World Cup.
“Our key objective is to qualify for the next World Cup via the Hockey World League,” says Thornton. “Rumour has it that 16 teams will be at the next World Cup so that is a realistic objective. But it will be a challenge and a stretch to make it.”
Thornton’s involvement with Russia began when he ran a two week camp with the team in preparation for an EuroHockey Level Three event in Croatia last year. The former Black Stick and Olympian was impressed by what he saw and accepted the invitation to take on the role more permanently.
But, he says, while the support he has received from the Russian Federation has been good, he is acutely aware that resources are limited. “I do not place too many demands on the Federation. I asked for a goalkeeper coach for the first camp and I am very grateful they agreed and funded that request.”
Thornton’s coaching takes place via a series of camps lasting a number of days – the next one is an 11 day camp in March – and his immediate challenge is to modernise the way his team plays.
“When the Russian Hockey Federation chief executive officer asked what I thought of the hockey I had to think long and hard about that question,” he says. “The best one-word answer I could come up with was 'old fashioned'. To move this team to a more modern way of playing will take time and effort. Playing more games is important in that process but that requires finance. The Russian Federation does not have enough finance to play more games.”
Language is also a barrier that he and his players have to overcome. “The whole communication process for a coach is very important. Using an interpreter is good but can also be annoying. I have a series of ticks and crosses and a numbering system and smiley and sad faces to aid communication.”
Since retiring from international hockey, Thornton has developed an impressive coaching cv. Head coach to the New Zealand U18 and U21 boys teams, assistant coach to the senior Black Sticks men and, most recently, assistant coach to the Australia women’s senior side. His new role is very different to the hockey culture of the two Oceania hockey giants.
“Russia is a large and diverse country and hockey is not currently a big sport. But it is played in some schools and there are clubs in some towns. At senior level there is a national club competition. The men’s club competition has some foreign players play in it. Not so much the women.
“The winter weather is very cold, so outside sport is tricky. Indoor hockey could be encouraged and that could be a vehicle of improvement in skill level. Because of the size of the country, transport is costly and time consuming. For example, a train I took for St Petersberg to Kazan took 22 hours.”
But while the conditions are tricky, Thornton’s task is being made easier by the support he is getting from the Hockey Federation. A new pitch in Moscow – the CSP Krilatskoye pitch, which is a Global Certified Field under the International Hockey Federation's (FIH) Quality Programme for Hockey Turf – is a clear signal of intent to raise the level of professionalism within hockey – one of the four goals of the FIH 10-year strategy - the Hockey Revolution.
“The biggest surprise is the desire of the Russian Federation to improve hockey. That is not an easy task nor is it a quick one. But with the desire and a resolute approach to that task it can be done. I think a world ranking inside the top 14 is possible. But that requires a lot of effort, resource and time.
“Coach development is a key part of what I am doing in Russia. Getting lots of coaches with more information will aid the development of hockey players in Russia. We will look to the FIH for support in that area.”
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To find out more about the Hockey Revolution - the FIH's 10 year-strategy aimed at making hockey a global game that inspires the next generation, click .