Wales Bridging the Gap with Technology
The Welsh women’s hockey team has just returned from the FIH Series Finals in Valencia, Spain: an eight team tournament that saw them finish in sixth place.
Wales went into the event ranked 27th in the world but came away with the confidence and self belief that comes from playing and competing with teams many, many ranking points higher. A 2-2 draw with the African champions South Africa (World ranking:15), a 5-0 win over lower-ranked Thailand, and a 4-1 loss to Italy (WR:17), meant Wales finished the pool round in third place – a position that earned them a quarter-final encounter with World Cup bronze medalists Spain (WR:7). That match demonstrated just how far Wales have come in recent years. They withstood a Spanish onslaught and lost by a narrow 1-0 margin, creating their own chances to take the match. The results have also moved Wales one point up the world rankings to 26th.
We caught up with the Head Coach, Kevin Johnson and the Wales team captain Leah Wilkinson, who was recently honoured as the most capped Welsh team sports player of all time.
Kevin Johnson is a genial, thoughtful coach with a huge commitment to individual improvement both among players and coaching staff – something he believes starts with a coach’s ability to look inwards and be self-critical.
“When you start in the coaching game, you are trying to show what you know,” says Johnson. “As you get a bit more experienced, you realise it is about keeping things simple. It is the case that you don’t need to keep showing how much you know, it doesn’t need to all come out at once. But when you are trying to develop a reputation, you feel you have to do that.
“As I have developed as a coach, I have understood that the important thing is how I impart knowledge to the players in the right amounts at the right times. And knowing what to say, when to say it and how to say it.”
On the matter of ‘how to say it’, Johnson admits that it is still difficult to separate the emotion from the practicalities. There is also the tricky balance between giving a sharp message or taking a gentler approach. It is, says the coach, a matter of experience and understanding an element of psychology. “I know that everyone in this squad is reading the same book but they may be on different pages.”
Leah Wilkinson knows Johnson well as he coaches her at both national and club level, with top Premier League side Holcombe.
“Kevin has been coaching me at club and country for four years now,” says the Wales captain. “He has a tremendous understanding of the players and what information they can hold. Some players love loads of information because they have developed the experience to deal with it and they can retain it. Other players can’t retain the same information. So simple messages are key. Also, we [the Welsh squad] only have 20-30 days a year together, so we have to keep the messaging simple, otherwise people forget.”
In the past, Johnson says he has been guilty of arriving at an event full of enthusiasm to pass on learning and then proceeding to overload his players with information. With such limited contact time, any period when the squad was together became a hot-bed of intense coaching and very little down-time. That all made mental relaxation – essential during a tournament – very difficult and the players were often “frazzled”.
The FIH Series Finals in Valencia was the first time that Johnson had done a lot of the strategic and tactical preparation before the squad even met up. And that was all possible because of technology.
“We use video clips on the Coach Logic platform and WhatsApp and I will put things into a message that we are working on technically and tactically,” he explains. “The players can then respond and ask questions. So we are learning away from camp. That means we can have a lot more mental relaxation time during the tournament. I feel that has left the players feeling fresher for the duration of the event.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean the players switch off completely. The Wales team has a “check and challenge” system in which the leadership team of players, led by Wilkinson, will make sure all the squad members are relaxing like elite athletes. This means rehydrating properly, recovering and resting and getting away from thinking about hockey for a while.”
The new approach has also helped the team get to know each other better, as Wilkinson explains. “The biggest difference between this tournament and previous events has been the off-the-pitch stuff. Using video clips really prepped us beforehand, so when we got here we were ready with our tactics and our strategies. It has been a better way to approach tournaments.
”This tournament has had the perfect balance of relaxation and tournament play. There is a lot of emphasis on the players’ welfare. We are not off partying or sunbathing, we are just getting our head out of it. We might watch a movie or hang out. One of our values is “one-ness” – the more time we have in this mode, the more we speak to people in the group.
“It makes conversations on the pitch easier. We feel more comfortable with people and, for the first time ever, the younger players feel confident to speak to the older players.”
Even relaxing between games is a skill that Johnson says has to be learnt. “If the players didn’t know how to recover then they would get that wrong. The experienced players share that knowledge. The more we get to know each other as a group in this way, the more we trust each other. So I have more trust in the players now then I have ever had. But the players also have to develop trust in me. They all have to buy into my ideas. You can’t go from A to D without doing B and C.
“And the Coach Logic technology has helped in that as it has given us the opportunity to bridge the gap between contact times. We don’t use a lack of squad contact time as an excuse but we do look for ways to make the whole experience better. Technology is one of the ways we do that because it allows everyone to contribute.”
The results of this new, remote-learning approach have been swift to show themselves. Wales are proving themselves highly competitive with higher-ranked teams. A surprise win over India at the 2018 Commonwealth Games was an early sign of Welsh intent. In Valencia, the team took the game to South Africa to earn a 2-2 draw and in their cross-over match with Spain, the Red Sticks were only able to break the Welsh defence once. The result has been a number of teams lining up to play test matches against Wales – something that Johnson and his staff have had to fight for in the past.
“There are sides now that are happy to play us that may not have wanted to play us before,” says Johnson with a wry smile.
The next big test for the team is the European Championships in early August where Wales compete in the second division.
Wilkinson says the important preparation work for this event – where Wales are chasing promotion – will be done now, away from the squad environment. “We will look at video clips and work out what has worked for us here in Valencia and where the gaps remain. This tournament has provided us with lots to work on.”
For Johnson, the experience in Valencia and the lead up to it was a win in itself.
“Winning isn’t just winning a game. We have won so many things in this tournament – for example, the way in which the group has grown. The fact we have played teams from across the globe. We haven’t won every game but we have won moral victories and we have shown that we are a good side to play against.”
Article written by Sarah Juggins.