He is only 24. But Belgium’s Arthur Van Doren is dominating world hockey like no one. He has been instrumental in helping Belgium earn a World Cup title, an Olympic silver medal and a European Championship final.
In an interview with The Dragflick, the 2017 and 2018 FIH Player of the Year opens up about the secrets of Belgium’s success, his initiation to hockey and the team’s ambitions going forward.
DF: If you can tell us how you got initiated to hockey?
AvD: In most of Europe, hockey is a family sport. My uncle was a player himself. My father, too, played for a short time.
I was five years old when they introduced me to the sport and that’s how it started. I ]took an immediate liking to it. I kept on playing since then and I am doing it even today.
DF: You played a bit of tennis as well…
AvD: Yeah, I love tennis as well. I played one international tournament in Scotland I think. I was 12 or 13 years old.
To be honest, playing a team and an individual sport in my youth days really helped me to grow as a person. I think both sports develop you as a person and as a player.
DF: When you began, Belgium wasn’t that good in hockey. How did you guys develop the self belief to get better?
AvD: Not many would be aware, but the federation has been investing a lot in youth development. And the investment was seen when we won the Youth European Championships and the Under-21 World Cup, where we finished second.
The generation that is here, one with Florent Van Aubel, Simon Gougnard, Loick Luypaert and Tom Boon, is one year older… that generation was European under-18 champion. My generation was European champion in under-18 and under-21 categories.
These generations got through to the senior team and we are getting good results right now. I think the federation can be proud of what they’ve done. They’ve pushed a lot of young guys through.
Even now, guys like Antoine Kina, Arthur de Sloover are all 21-22 years old and they are playing like they have 150 caps in the senior team.
DF: Did you have anyone to look up to while growing up?
AvD: You always have to look at yourself and analyse what are the qualities that you can learn from your teammates. We have a lot of qualities in our group. You can learn from everyone and that’s what we did.
We aren’t far from what we are building towards our best form. We want to show it in this tournament, otherwise we will do it in future tournaments.
DF: The rise of Belgium’s hockey team has coincided with the country’s rise in football and other sports. What’s the reason behind that?
AvD: Last year, we had Nina Derwael who was a world champion in gymnastics in her category. Also the football team did really well in the World Cup.
Belgium can be proud. It’s a country that isn’t considered to have a sports culture. I think we have been improving for a number of years and have some real talented people in our country.
We aren’t a lot of people but there’s a big spirit and we are showing that on sports pitches.
DF: Is every Belgian hockey player a professional now?
AvD: Most of them are studying but are professionals in how they live for their sport and play.
DF: Has the public’s outlook towards hockey changed back home?
AvD: It has been growing and that’s nice. We can be proud of how hockey has been growing. We came from a long way. Nobody knew or played hockey in Belgium. If you look at how many people play and follow the sport, you will be surprised.
DF: What is your training schedule like?
AvD: I play in Holland for Bloemendaal for the best competition in the world, in my opinion. I am very lucky to have a contract there, playing with a lot of good players against a lot of good players.
We train a lot with the national team as well. So we have a pretty packed programme.
We train from Monday to Thursday with national team in Belgium and for rest of the week I play in Holland. My programme is pretty packed but I like it.
DF: How do you prepare for a match?
AvD: I am pretty relaxed before a game. I like to be chilled, not very too pumped up or screaming and all. I play in my mind what to do, who are the important players.
I like to get in the thinking mode and once the game starts, my thinking mode goes off. Once on the field, I purely rely on my instinct.
DF: What do you think is your trademark move?
AvD: I am a central defender so it’s important for the coach that I defend well and make sure the defence is in order. If I go forward too much, the coach isn’t happy so I try to balance that.
I like attacking and free flowing hockey. So I help the team by passing and eliminating at times as well.
DF: While you were young as a player, how did you view Netherlands? And has it changed now?
AvD: I can’t speak for the older generation – the one that played against players like Teun de Nooijer. We’ve always respected them.
A lot guys played in the Dutch league as well. We respect them, we respect their qualities as they will no doubt respect ours.
The matches between the two teams have always good battles… always attacking free-flowing hockey, a lot of goals. We might play them in this tournament so we will see.
DF: Did you look up to any of the Dutch players?
AvD: Not really. I always look up to players who do things that I can’t… the ones who innovate things. I look at what people do with their choices, how they make body feints, certain dribbles they use, what they are successful with.
I try to implement that in my game and continuously grow as a player. In this game, even if you are standing still, you are going backwards. They will outrun and outplay you. You’ve got to keep going.
DF: Is it a challenge to set the bar higher?
AvD: We are very ambitious internally. We are more critical to ourselves than the outsiders are.
Maybe that’s what we didn’t have in the past. We can deal with criticisms. We can deal with people who underestimate us or criticize us.
DF: Do you guys get bogged down by the pressure?
AvD: People expect us to win but But, I don’t think those expectations put us under pressure because we are doing that to ourselves anyway.
I think we have healthy ambition within the playing group.
DF: Did losing European Championship and Rio Olympics final teach any lesson?
AvD: We got a lot of experience after it. We’ve played against really good teams in really important moments. This team is getting more and more experienced and we’ll try to show our form in the coming games. We showed some of it against Germany.
DF: The federation has set sights to win Olympic gold, World Championship and European Championships by 2024. Your thoughts…
AvD: Most of the guys are really ambitious. We aren’t going to wait until 2020 or 2024. We want to make most out of the opportunities we get.
We have given ourselves a good shot at playing for title here. We won’t underestimate England like Argentina did. We want to reach the final and play what we came for.
DF: Lastly, having received a lot of accolades, do you feel you are the best player in the world?
AvD: No, I don’t feel like that at all. There are lot of players that have been playing really high level for a long time and are the best in the world.