The China women’s hockey team have just spent a few days in their Head Coach’s capital city before they enter the final few days of frenzied preparations for the Vitality Hockey Women’s World Cup, London 2018.
“Yes, 10 of the girls spent a few days relaxing and looking around Berlin,” says Jamilon Mülders, who himself is relaxed and clearly enjoying the challenges that his new role presented.
“In order to carefully balance the demands of travelling, the time difference and the general stress that comes from knowing two major tournaments (The Vitality Hockey Women’s World Cup and the Asian Games) are just around the corner is a challenge which we must deal with. Mental and physical recovery is also something we are focusing on and something the team has learned to appreciate and explore during the last nine months.
“I started last October but to describe the complexities of the situation in China in a few words is impossible,” says Mülders. “On the one hand you have the players and their backgrounds, culture and education, on the other hand you have the demands and expectations of the NOC, the national hockey federation and the government.
“But what I will say is that the players are far more open-minded and curious than I ever expected. They are very keen to learn and take on new experiences.”
Under Mülders and his team – Team Manager Julia Walter, Strength and Conditioning Coach Tillmann Bockhorst, Assistant Coach Lukas Fieber and, for five months earlier in the year, from Andreas Höppner – the team is getting a heap of new experiences.
Alongside these regular members of the coaching staff, three consultants in the shape of the vastly experienced Carlos Garcia Cuenca, Paul Lissek and Andre Henning, are working with the China players regularly throughout the year.
The players have English lessons twice a week. This is something that will not only make communication between the coach and the players easier but will also help the players grow personally both on and off the pitch. It will also help when it comes to communicating with the umpires and officials at international events.
For his part, Mülders is also learning Chinese and drew the praise of fellow Head Coach Alyson Annan (Netherlands) when she heard him talking to his players in their home dialect at a recent Four Nations Tournament in Breda, in the Netherlands.
The players are also being educated on how to take better care of their own health. Weekly yoga sessions, nutritional information and the importance of rest and recovery is all part of the new way under Mülders and his team – it was something the Head Coach says was missing before he and his team arrived.
For Mülders, working with a team who are centrally contracted is an eye-opener. In the past, Mülders worked as head of high performance within the German system. This involved many meetings and conference calls, as well as a never-ending stream of emails. It is with a certain amount of glee in his voice that Mülders says that his email in-tray has reduced by 98 per cent.
That is not to say that things are a walk in the park. While Mülders might not have a mountain of emails to deal with, the challenges he faces are deep set. His way of coaching is to communicate with his players on a deep level, asking opinions, probing for feedback. He is also an emotional coach, well known for his pitch side tirades. This is unknown territory for his players.
“If I get emotional and shout, the players might not understand what I am saying in Chinese, so they will stop trying new things and will fall back into old habits.”
From talking to the vivacious Head Coach, you get the feeling that the communication difficulties between himself and his players is something he finds invigorating rather than frustrating. As an innovative and thoughtful coach, he never refers to ‘problems’ only challenges.
He also knows that the 2018 World Cup has probably arrived too early for his squad. He says there are some great players in the China team and the squad are making improvements on a daily basis but to unlearn years of one system and to learn to play the Mülders way will take longer than a few months.
“We tried useful things in the ‘trial and error’ mode at the Hockey World League Finals,” he says. “Since then we developed our own idea of playing and the content of our training programme, which is players focused and driven. It is a new way for all of them including the coaches and officials.”
Mülders name checks Gu Bing Feng, Cui Qui Xia, Peng Yang and Zhang Xiao Xue as well as new squad members Guo Qio, He Jiang Xin and Zhong Jia Qi as players who can make an impression in London. But, being realistic, he says, at present his team have been through a period of destabilisation and need more time to mature.
“It is like making a cake,” he explains. “The most important thing is to ask the players not to just execute, rather to make them think what ingredients they think they need, like and are able to handle. They watch the teams from Europe, Oceania and South America and they can identify what they need to add to their game. But importantly, they are also learning to name their own strength and abilities.
“The players have great knowledge and understanding of that, but it is getting them then to have the confidence to try new things for themselves and to deal with set backs without giving up.”
The next two months are a busy time for China and their Head Coach. First, there is the World Cup, where they have an opening match against Italy before facing the reigning champions the Netherlands and then their Asian rivals, Korea. Once China’s World Cup journey is over, they have the Asian Games, a Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games qualifer, starting just a few weeks later on 18 August.
For the new-look, relaxed Muelders, it is all part of an exciting journey during which is proving a huge discovery and learning process for all involved.