Hockey World Cup 2023: German grit and mental strength 

Emphasis on mental aspect of the game, training to keep calm during big moments reasons behind strong show
Germany made an stunning comeback to edge England in the quarterfinals on Wednesday | Express
Germany made an stunning comeback to edge England in the quarterfinals on Wednesday | Express

BHUBANESWAR:  In the space of 150 madcap seconds, all German sporting tropes had come to life. Efficiency. Coming back from a 0-2 deficit to win. Playing badly but still advancing. Punishing indiscipline. Mentality monsters. Missing a penalty but still not letting it affect the final outcome. Beating England. Beating England in a shoot-out.

Ever so incredulously, it’s also a welcome return to the status quo after a few years of losing big games (bronze medal match against India at the 2021 Olympics, losing the shoot-out in the EuroNations finals against Netherlands in 2021 and losing to Belgium in the quarterfinals of the 2018 World Cup).
For folks who missed the ending on Wednesday, a recap.

England thoroughly dominated the first 55 minutes. Germany decided to remove their keeper to go with 11 outfield players to England’s 10 to gain a numerical advantage. They had already missed a penalty but got a sniff through skipper Mats Grambusch’s field goal. Then, Zachary Wallace’s indiscipline cost him a green. 11 vs 10 outfielders had become 11 vs 9 outfielders. England were suddenly hanging on and the pressure told as Mats’ younger brother, Tom, tucked away a stroke with some 100 seconds remaining. They almost stole it at the death but they spurned the chance from a penalty corner. In the shoot-out, they were flawless to win 4-3.

Watching it unfold in real time and one couldn’t help but slightly twist Gary Linekar’s famous quote. “Hockey is a simple game. Twenty-two men hit a ball for 60 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.” Now, this is only partly true. Germany used to be one of the undisputed kings of the sport but there has been a change in the world order over the last 10 years.

Between the 1992 Olympics and the 2012 Olympics, they won everything. Not once. But at least twice. Three Olympic gold, two World Cups and four Euro Nations. Since those London Games in 2012, they have zero World Cup medals, one Olympic medal (third in Brazil) and zero Euro Nations titles. After dining exclusively at Michelin star restaurants, they had to settle for takeaway.  

Coach Andre Henning almost outright dismissed that bronze in Brazil, saying that they have had to retrain as they try to get back to the sport’s top table. “Yeah, I don’t know if it was honestly a German style in the last few years. I think we kind of had lost it and we retrained it probably,” he said when asked how they keep winning from almost hopeless positions.  

“... mental strength is something you can train like athletic strength, tactical strength and technical strength... It’s like people working around the team like mental coaches. We talk a lot about how we prepare those things. We know that these crucial moments are coming and we discuss it.”

After the match, Christopher Ruhr made the point that ‘it’s (mental resilience) in our DNA’. While that may be true — there are enough sporting examples to come to that conclusion — the work they do behind the scenes is also important.

They have in place behavioral sessions to identify how players react in certain conditions including but not limited to mishits, losing duels and firing wide from a penalty stroke. Henning explains. “Some guys have support from mental coaches. If some things don’t work, like you miss the first five balls or you lose the first duel or make a stupid mistake... are you just hiding on the pitch and running away or are you still confident? Do you believe in yourself? It seems very easy, but of course it isn’t.”

They also train in such a way that when they walk up to begin the process of taking the shoot-out, all the players try to have low heart rates. Grambusch explains. “Yeah we do that (mental training exercises),” he says. “We got a person responsible for that. When we do the shoot-out, we have some exercises that deal with calming ourselves. Things like that.

“Calming ourselves means calming your heart rate. About breathing, I think you guys know it from yoga. That’s actually what we do as well. When it’s your turn, you first calm yourselves (in terms of breathing, get your heart rate low) and then go for it.”

Henning, who has been compared to some of his more illustrious compatriots like Jurgen Klopp and Julian Nagelsmann, gets more intimate. “I am the umpire and that’s provocation enough that the guys lose their minds sometimes. But yeah, of course, we try to implement that in training sessions well, but I don’t know if you really can train it on the pitch. It’s more like preparing.

So we really try to prepare those things and know what to do and yeah, just have some rules.” Those rules, like they implemented in the England game, revolve around stuff like maintaining discipline, not chasing a game very early, discussing how to approach pressure situations and not wavering too much from the plan even when the pressure is very high. Henning, who doubles up as a part-time motivational speaker, explains. “There’s nothing super exciting happening in the training session.

To be honest with you, we plan for all scenarios. We plan for scenarios where we are 2-0 down within five minutes. It’s about having a plan in your pocket.” Against England, they faced the exact same situation but prevailed. While Henning is happy, he makes the point that they haven’t been able to win those kind of games in the recent past. “It’s been 10 years and we haven’t been able to win the big trophy. So, if you lose and lose and lose the big games, then it gets more difficult. Getting out of this loop is very difficult. I don’t know if it’s any kind of rocket science, it’s just preparing and talking. I have special sessions.”

And, like Ruhr says, never ever giving up. “When you give up, you end up losing games. And we don’t want to lose.” Nobody wants to lose. Germany, though, want to marry professional excellence and mental resilience, both of which have deserted them in the sport in recent times. 

Thursday's results
Chile 0-8 Argentina; Wales 2-2 France (Wales won 2-1 in penalty shoot-out); South Africa 6-3 Malaysia; Japan 0-8 India.

Today’s matches 
(all semis)
Australia vs Germany | 4.30 pm 
Belgium vs Netherlands |  7 pm

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