Irish heartache by Tim Goodenough

It’s two days after the Irish men’s Olympic hockey dream was dashed cruelly with 2 seconds to go in a historic Olympic Qualifying final in Dublin – and it still hurts. Ireland was playing the fancied Korean’s – ranked 6th in the world, and the underdog story has captured the imagination of any who has learnt of it. Korea took the lead for the first time in the match, with 2 seconds to go before the final whistle, and thus won 3-2.  Ireland had recently been promoted to 16th in the world (up from 18th ) after an impressive progression that culminated in an incredible 2011 Summer, which included positive results against Australia (1st),  Spain (5th) and Korea themselves.

In any elite sport in the world, to jump 10 world ranking places in form and to play at that level consistently is almost unheard of.  Countries simply don’t usually category jump upwards like this, and when they do, it is typically the result of a massive cash injection.   So how did the Irish men’s hockey team do it? And does the heartbreaking loss mean the end of their fairy tale rise to the top of world hockey?

The architect of this surge of performance is the former South African hockey coach, Paul Revington, who is ably assisted by a former Malaysian international Arul Anthoni.  These two men have bought Ireland’s technical and tactical ability to a razor’s edge and piece by piece have developed the “Green Machine” beyond recognition. Other key elements are the rest of the permanent support staff and the numerous experts Revington has invited into the camp to add their unique skill sets and insights, including the significant role that Revington’s wife Sandy plays in adding value in multiple areas and supplying continuous unstinting support.

And then of course there are the players themselves.  There has been a squad of 40 plus players who have committed to this goal, with the full knowledge that only 16 could attend an Olympic Games. Each player committed to pushing themselves and each other to give themselves the best chance of making this happen. Incredible stuff. Not only have they dared to dream big, they have taken big and consistent action in relation to their dream. They have made significant personal sacrifices and life choices that have given them a better chance at their audacious goal – to be the first Irish hockey team ever to qualify for the Olympic Games.  These sacrifices including almost all of the team who played in this tournament leaving Ireland to play in the elite hockey leagues of Europe, to ensure they were training and competing week in and week out at the highest level.

The team, spearheaded by Revington, have conducted numerous and varied fundraising drives to ensure there was budget to ensure any valid high performance edge worth pursuing was catered for. Money was not going to be an excuse stopping them from getting to the top.

In early 2010 Mike Cooper and I were approached by Revington to develop the team mentally using the skills, techniques and processes we had developed for our company Coaching Unity. We had developed these processes through our training and research for our first book, In the zone with South Africa’s Sports Heroes, and then further refined them through our work with the South African hockey teams in 2009. Through Revington’s connection with South African hockey, he heard about the work we were doing and after some investigation and research he came to the conclusion that we could add value to the Green Machine.

So began a rewarding and stimulating partnership that resulted in 4 visits in 18 months, averaging a week at a time to work at a team and individual level.  The support from the players and the staff has been outstanding; they continued to rise to the challenges that were identified on their way to their next level. It’s been challenging for this team to fine-tune their culture, to stretch themselves on a continuous basis with no guarantee of a big reward and to cement a learning culture of responsibly, openness and accountability – and they have done it all and more.

So with all the pieces in place: a committed and talented team, strong tactical and technical skills, high quality video analysis, outstanding support in physio, strength and conditioning and the ongoing mental skills development combined with a high performance culture; the big question was: Can Ireland rewrite history. In a word. Yes. Even if they didn’t win on Sunday, their meteoric rise in hockey form is worthy of recognition and respect and for the many thousands that attended this past week’s tournament and watched the final (including the President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins) hockey has snuck into their hearts and captured their imagination – this teams character and desire to be the best they can be made their mark on all who witnessed their performances.

After the game as I looked into the tearful eyes in our team huddle, I was too upset to find the words to share with the team; if I was more composed I would have said I was very proud, very proud to be a part of the team, and my hope is that they use their strength to build on this, even if it hurts so very very badly. I believe this team will continue to rise up in world hockey and rewrite history, again. #GreenMachine