Craig Parnham’s appointment as head coach of the U.S. women’s field hockey team in January 2013 carried with it lofty expectations.
The team was coming off a tremendous disappointment at the London 2012 Olympic Games, finishing in last place despite hopes of contending for its first Olympic medal since 1984. With a revamp underway, USA Field Hockey executive director Steve Locke set forth the expectation that Parnham would lead the United States to greater success in Rio in 2016.
The former assistant coach with Great Britain Hockey, which won bronze in London, was ready for the challenge.
“I wanted to take on the challenge of building something new,” Parnham said. “The opportunity to work with the USA was too good to pass on. I had observed the team for many years in my role with Great Britain Hockey. I knew the players and thought they would be a great group to work with.”
Locke described Parnham at the time of his hiring as low-key, analytical and an excellent team builder. Prior to coaching, Parnham was an Olympian himself, competing in both 2000 and 2004 for Great Britain.
Step No. 1 with the U.S. team, Parnham said, was establishing a clear vision of what they wanted to do and how they wanted to do it. The players spent many hours discussing what success looks like and what standards and behaviors define the group. In addition to shifting the culture, the team also made a big shift in the literal sense, relocating its base of operations to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, from Chula Vista, California.
Veteran midfielder Rachel Dawson, who has 257 caps to her credit, said that the team has transformed itself under Parnham’s leadership.
“We’ve embraced his creative curiosity for the game,” she said. “We don’t just want to be players, we want to be innovators, and innovation takes work and daily diligence to details. Taking risks, doing bold things requires a supportive, positive, progressive, all-in culture. That’s who we’ve become under Craig — communicators, collaborators, collectively seeking to innovate our game.”
There was no better evidence of the team’s progress under Parnham than its performance at the 2014 Rabobank Hockey World Cup in the Hague, Netherlands. Coming into the tournament ranked 10th in the world, the U.S. team opened competition by beating England 2-1. The Americans then tied powerhouse Argentina 2-2 and beat China 5-0. They would have two more victories in pool play, beating Germany 4-1 and South Africa 4-2 to make it to the semifinals for the first time in 20 years.
There they lost to Australia in a shootout but nonetheless had the opportunity to compete for the bronze medal, once more facing Argentina, ranked No. 2 in the world.
Argentina would strike first before the U.S. team tied it 1-1, but the opponent regained the lead before halftime. The 2-1 score held, and the United States finished fourth for its best result in 20 years.
Despite the disappointment of leaving without a medal, Parnham said it was a great learning experience for his team.
“The World Cup allowed us to play on a big stage, giving valuable experience to the group,” he said. “This experience will no doubt be called upon over the next few weeks as we embark on our Olympic qualifying campaign.”
The team is now entering the heart of the competition season with a trip to the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games on the line. The team is currently in Valencia, Spain, for the FIH Hockey World League Semifinals, where the teams that finish in the top three will earn their spots in the 2016 Games and the Hockey World League Final later this year. The competition will be held June 10-21, and the United States begins play on Thursday against Uruguay. Also included in their pool are Germany, Ireland and South Africa. The second Hockey World League Semifinal event will be held June 20-July 5 in Antwerp, Belgium, with the Final to be held Dec. 5-13 in Rosario, Argentina.
Defender Stefanie Fee said that preparation has been demanding but nothing out of the ordinary for the squad.
“We trust the process and the work that goes into each training session so that we can be in top tactical, technical, mental and physical condition come tournament time,” she said.
Following the World League Semifinals, the national team will travel to Toronto in July for the Pan American Games, where there is another opportunity to earn one of the 12 total available Olympic spots should they fail to do so in Spain.
Parnham said he believes they’ve prepared well for the tests of the road ahead.
“Confidence comes from doing the work and pushing ourselves each day in training, and I am confident we have trained hard and are well prepared for the summer events,” he said. “However all of the teams at the World League have qualified by right and will provide challenges every step of the way.”