How to (Re)-Make an Olympic Field Hockey Team
In the spring of 2005, Terry Walsh noticed Kate Barber leaning against a fence at the US women's field hockey training center in Virginia Beach, Va.. Barber had once been one of the most experienced women on the US field hockey team, but she was just visiting. She had retired after the disappointments of 2000 and 2004 when the US failed to qualify for the Olympics.
Walsh approached and said, "We have the potential to turn it around."
And Barber believed him.
Terry Walsh was a 1976 silver medalist in men's field hockey for his native Australia and had just finished coaching two national men's teams to Olympic medals: Australia (2000, bronze) and the Netherlands (2004, silver).
After the 2004 Athens Games, he had been offered the job of US women's head coach, but he wasn't interested.
Not because the US women had failed to qualify for three of the past six Olympics. Rather, Walsh said, "I felt I could do a lot more."
So in January 2005, Walsh became USA Field Hockey's technical director of high performance and began managing all aspects of coaching and development
In the process, he masterminded the renaissance of the US women's national team.
On April 27, for the first time in 20 years, the US women's field hockey team qualified for an Olympics that it wasn't hosting - a significant distinction because host nations receive automatic berths. And even though there will be two more women's teams competing in Beijing than in years past (the field has increased to12), the US qualified in decisive fashion and has improved so much during the past few months that Walsh said it was realistic to expect a top-six finish in Beijing in August.
"We're still on cloud nine," said Barber, the team's captain, four days after the US went undefeated at the Olympic Qualifier in Kazan, Russia, to capture a spot in Beijing.
The 2008 team, of course, was not built overnight.
During Walsh's first year on the job, he quickly noticed that the US needed to improve the most basic skills.
"Field hockey is an invasion sport," Walsh said. "If you can't pass and receive, it's pretty hard to play. But skills are fixable. People here are diligent and girls work hard as long as they know what they're trying to do. We were very specific with the process."
For the players, however, re-learning basic skills was less than ego-boosting.
"It was tough," said striker Angie Loy. "You're that good of a player to make the national team and you have to start something new."
Walsh also felt the squad needed to learn how to play together as a team, so he enlisted two key people to impart those lessons.
In March 2005, Walsh tapped his countryman Lee Bodimeade to be the women's head coach. Bodimeade had a decade of coaching experience and a 1992 silver medal as a player, but he had had never coached women. And he had never coached an international team.
"What was required was someone who would fit the American culture and mesh with the set-up, someone who had an infectious personality and knowledge of the sport," Walsh explained. "Fortunately, USA Field Hockey trusted our judgment."
Then Walsh recruited Barber.
Deciding to come out of retirement, Barber said, "was a total leap of faith. [Walsh] knew how badly I wanted to become an Olympian and how important hockey and the entire program was to me."Once the skills-acquisition and team-building phases were set, Walsh did the craziest thing. In a sporting nation where win-loss records mean everything, especially when rating the success of a coaching staff, he pitted the 12th - ranked US women's national team against the three best teams the world: the Netherlands, Argentina, and Australia.
In 2006, the US hosted the trifecta of field hockey powers in a four-nation tournament. As expected, the US finished dead last. The only solace was an upset of No. 2-ranked Argentina - the lone US victory in its seven games.
"We took a few bumps," Walsh said, nonchalantly. "You have to be willing to ride those bumps."
For the other teams, the US offered a decent sparring partner despite its comparatively low ranking.
"The US was one of the physically strongest teams in the world," said Dutch coach Marc Lammers.
Since then, Lammers has been noticing its gradual improvement. "For the last year, we have struggled a lot against them," he said. "[The US game] is not only physical hockey anymore. It's skills now. Lifting, passing the ball."
Argentina has made the same discovery. In April 2008, in an exhibition just before the Olympic qualifier in Russia, the US beat the world's second-ranked team in three of four games - including two shut-outs.
"It was kind of funny," said Loy, a striker for the US. "You'd hear people call home and their family and friends would go, ‘What? Are you sure? Does Argentina have their A-Team there?'""They were kind of in shock. But we believed the whole time."
Up next for USA Field Hockey:
* US National Championships in Virginia Beach, Va. (June 15-22)
* Four-nation tournament in Bremen, Germany (July 1-6) vs.Germany, South Korea, and India.
* USA vs. No. 1-ranked Netherlands in a three-game series near The Hague (July 7-12)
Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.