Adam Commens: Hockeyroos Coach on Rio Qualifiers and World Ranking
Adam Commens is the current Head Coach for the Australian Women’s National Field Hockey Team, he’s held the position for four years and in that time he’s taken the Hockeyroos from seventh place to second in the world rankings.
A very hands-on coach with refined skills on the field; Adam’s time as a midfielder in the Men’s National side gave him great fulfillment and experience, with his career spanning 143 caps scoring 20 goals for the Kookaburras.
His transition from player to coach began in 2004, a direction Commens had thought about often while playing for and against teams in Europe.
‘Throughout that time I always had it in the back of my mind that I’d like to coach and at a high level. I was always thinking about how my coaches were doing it and how I might do it in a better way or try and take some of their ideas.’
‘After I finished playing I looked at where there might be some opportunities and Europe was great for me. I spent seven years in Belgium, coaching firstly at club level and eventually the national team level coaching the Belgium men’s side. I suppose my results there gave me an opportunity to come back and end up coaching the Hockeyroos.’
How did you first get in touch with the Belgium sides?
Obviously playing for Australia you spend a lot of time in Europe and Belgium is one of those countries. There were a number of Australian players playing in Belgium, players that had retired from the national team or had perhaps not quite made it at a national level and I was aware of those guys.
One of them was a fellow by the name of Murray Richard; I gave Murray a call and asked if he knew of any opportunities in Belgium. It just so happened that at his club Royal Antwerp there was an opportunity. I went there as a player coach in my first year and then I ended up coaching the women’s team and a number of junior teams.
Reflecting on the recent Hockeyroos Hawke’s Bay Cup result, what areas are you focusing on leading up to the World League Semi-Final Olympic qualifier?
We are a team that plays a particular style. We like to press really hard and win the ball and go into attack to try and create goal scoring opportunities and we’ll continue to play in that manner but I think we need to improve our efficiency from when we win the ball from the opposition and how quickly we get it to a goal scoring opportunity.
Then when we get those chances how well do we finish them and how efficient are we obviously at the other end. How do we control teams and their counter attacks? How do we stop them from going one end of the pitch to the other and getting goal scoring chances? Those two things I think will be the keys over this next six weeks.
The Hockeyroos enter the competition at the semi-final stage due to world rankings. Does it mean less games to build a tournament campaign?
The teams ranked higher in the world all enter at the semi-final stage. Some of the lower ranked teams have to go through round one and two. We have other tournaments that help us in our preparation and the Hawke’s Bay Cup was one of those. We’ll have a number of practice games in Europe when we arrive. That will, I suppose finalise our preparation along with some inter-squad matches that we have here in Perth before we leave.
Do you have a limited time with the players you work with being an international side? Is it a bit of a challenge in that way?
No we’re quite fortunate in Australia our entire national team squad are based here in Perth and we train six days a week together as a group. We don’t have a national league that runs throughout the year; we have an Australian National Championships called the Australian Hockey League and that’s usually in September/October and it only goes for ten days so the rest of the year we have full access to our national team players, unless of course they’re playing in Europe.
We had a number of girls who played in Europe this year. Those players were outside of the squad but the rest are here in Perth. The centralised program leading into the Rio Olympic Games means our entire squad will be based here in Perth training six days a week all the way up to the games in Rio.
Is Perth chosen as a location due to travel and international competition?
It’s always been here since the inception of the Australian Institute of Sport Hockey Unit, now the Hockey Australia Women’s High Performance Program. It has been here since the 1980’s and I suppose in that year it was historical as Perth or Western Australia was perhaps the centre of the success of the Australian Hockey Team.
During that period there was as many as eleven or twelve players in the national squad that came from Western Australia and they were very strong during that period. Then as the years went by it just became the star for the Australian Institute of Sport Hockey Unit and it’s remained that way. I believe that to this day there is an agreement through until 2022 to be based in Western Australia and the support that we get from the Western Australia Hockey Association and also the WA government is substantial and allows us to have this program here in WA.
You mentioned the Hockeyroos are considered a hunted team, how does that effect the play making side of things due to the increased amount of analysis from rivals?
I think that’s one of the real challenges of elite sport; trying to remain one step ahead and continually improving and evolving the teams and the athletes that you work with. That is something that we have done over the last four years and we will continue to do. We review how we operate, how we play as a group, how we train our players technically, tactically, physically and mentally and how can we get better.
We’re striving to do that all the time, we don’t tend to look down or back at other teams, we look at ourselves and how we can improve and progress from tournament to tournament and that’s the way that we’ve progressed from number seven in the world to number two.
We’re now striving to become the number one team in the world and I suppose other teams are now looking at us to see how we’ve made that progression, how we’ve made that jump and how they can mimic that success or how they can make it more difficult for us when they come up against our team.
Do you feel it is the physical side of the game that has put the Hockeyroos ahead or is it an on field strategy approach that has always given you an advantage?
I think it is a combination of all of the areas in the axis, so technical, tactical, physical and mental. I think the culture development that has gone on with our team in the last four years has brought us to a place where we have a lot of belief in the way that we play and the way that we work collectively as a group, not only during matches but in the way that we prepare for a tournament.
I think physically we’ve worked very hard and there has been a transformation with the Hockeyroos over the last few years, technically and tactically it’s something that you always try to evolve as a coach. How you bring the ball out of defence and indeed how you win the ball from the opposition and take those opportunities to then create goal-scoring opportunities. It’s something that across all three axes we work really hard on trying to improve. I think that the combination of it all has kept us ahead of a lot of nations.
Do you see New Zealand as your biggest threat in the initial stages of the World League qualifier due to their ranking or are all teams in Pool B equally regarded?
I think New Zealand are a logical threat, they’re a team that seems to play their best hockey against us. We have a good record against them recently, I think we’ve just lost the one game against them since the Olympic games in 2012, so that mental edge holds us in good stead and they are a logical opponent.
I think Belgium being in our pool and the home team will be a tough nut to crack and we beat them only 3-2 in the World Cup. It was a really difficult match and just recently we had a nil all draw against India so all three of those sides I think provide danger.
We don’t know a lot about Poland, which will be an interesting opponent and what we do know is that they have a number of outstanding individuals that could cause any team troubles. We’ll be looking to contain them when we come up against the Polish side.
The Netherlands are the final obstacle in the way of a number one ranking, when do you think we’ll see the Hockeyroos knock them out of the top spot?
I’m quite optimistic we can, however you need to also be realistic. The Netherlands have won the last two junior world cups, they’ve clean swept nearly every European tournament as well and very convincingly.
They have a large number of talented players coming through their system and they’ve also got a great pathway for those players to come through. They are very well coached so it won’t be an easy task but I think we have closed the gap on them.
I think we saw at the World Cup we’re unlucky not to get a result against them in the round match and in the final it was an even game and just as recently as December we finished above them at the Champions Trophy.
So whilst they are the pinnacle and the team that everybody’s trying to chase down and they’re the team we need to overcome to be the world’s number one side, there are a number of other really high quality teams such as New Zealand, Argentina and some of the Asian nations.
The USA has reached the semi-finals at the World Cup and they also have aspirations of moving to the top of the world rankings. They are a fantastic side, they’re well coached, they have a combination of English and Dutch coaches and some of the staff members from the Great Britain team that won a bronze medal in the London Olympic Games have shifted to the USA headed up by Craig Parnham.
They also have acquired the services of Janneke Schopman from the Netherlands. As a player she’s highly experienced, an Olympic gold medalist and World Cup gold medalist and she’s really worked hard on improving their defence. I think they’re a team to watch over the next couple of years.
Linking back to the Australian team and the side you’ve got at the moment, what specific strengths will Anna Flanagan and Casey Sablowski bring to the Hockeyroos side upon their return for the Olympic Qualifiers in Belgium?
Anna’s a logical one with her drag-flick and her ability to score against all nations, she’s been a potent weapon alongside Jodie Kenny for us, also bringing the ball up from the right hand side she’s fantastic at that, she has some real attacking flair and she is a solid defender as well.
Casey has that speed, ability and technical skill through the midfield and I think one of the areas of the game that is highly underestimated is her defensive ability in the midfield.
Because of her athletic ability, speed from the opposition doesn’t beat her very often. She’s able to run with them and she’s got fantastic one-on-one defence. She quite regularly wins the ball and from that we go directly into attack.
We know you wouldn’t rely too much on specific players for the team but is it nice having Anna and Casey back in the fray so you can develop strategies further?
I think it just gives us more options throughout the midfield. Coming out of the back it allows us to rotate a really high level of player through those positions and it just strengthens the look of our entire group. It will be a welcome return to have them both back for the World League tournament.
With adequate financial backing only given to top ranked teams does it make it tough reaching those levels whilst receiving minimum funding?
It does make it tough and I remember when I first began in 2011 the women’s hockey team was paid significantly less than the men’s team and there were some grumblings from the players.
There was some inequity within there and my comment at the time was that the Australian men’s team, the Kookaburras were the reigning world champions, they were the world number one ranked team and they got the rewards for that. If the Hockeyroos once again were able to move to the top of the world rankings and in the World Cup and Olympic medals then the rewards would come to them and they understood that line of thinking.
They knuckled down and made the sacrifice and good choices. They have indeed moved up the world rankings and the level of fundamental support that comes through the dAIS Program from the Australian Sports Commission, AIS and also the medal incentive funding that comes from ROC has significantly improved their ability to train at a more full time and professional level than what they were maybe able to do back in 2011.
How rewarding has it been watching the younger side develop and become more confident on the field?
It is really rewarding as a coach and that’s why you do it. You like to work with these young athletes and help them on their journey to achieve their objectives and whether that objective is to make the Australian team, what we hope is all of our players objective is to win the Olympic gold medal and it’s really satisfying to see players improve and to get that reward of being selected to play for Australia and actually start to win medals in big events like the World Cup and Commonwealth Games.
It was fantastic to be a part of that group and to look at the players and the emotion that they showed. It is quite rewarding for a coach to see the joy on their faces when standing on the podium with the medals around their necks.
You’ve been head coach for four years, if you do well in the World Cup, what are your plans for the future in the role?
I said it openly to the players and provided we’re still growing as a team and we’re having success then I’d like to continue with the Hockeyroos as I find it an incredibly rewarding position.
They are a fantastic bunch of players and staff and I’d like to do it for as long as I could. There are other international teams that could provide opportunities for me in the future but at this moment I want to focus on what I’m doing with the Hockeyroos – trying to win that Olympic gold medal.
If there were any other opportunities that came in the future with the Kookaburras in Australia then that could be an option as well but right now I’m focusing on staying with the Hockeyroos and trying to achieve success for a long period of time.
It is a real testament to see a coach in the same position for a long time being that they are held highly accountable for results and the ups and downs seem very stressful even from an outside perspective.
Yes that’s right, there is a bit of stress that goes with this job and in Australia we demand excellence and we expect that we’ll win medals. I mentioned recently that since 2012 we’ve had nine tournaments and we’ve made the final in all nine. You might look from the outside and think that’s a pretty easy, stress free run.
You’re doing well winning tournaments and making the finals but the ups and downs along the way, the challenges of trying to select the team that is equal to or best for the Hockeyroos and the disappointment of the players that have missed out on those occasions, but also the tough games that you might have in the run into those finals have certainly made the journey over the last two years at times quite stressful and nerve-racking.
Ultimately when you look back on it you can be satisfied with what the Hockeyroos have been able to achieve particularly in the last two years. That spurs you on to try and achieve greater heights in the coming two years.
How do you feel about the level of competition in Australia, as field hockey isn’t as popular compared to say, Europe, does that factor into the quality of play?
I think it’s the different environment. I think we have a number of sports that have captured the nation in terms of Australian football, Rugby Union, Rugby League, Netball and there is a lot of competition for television rights so it is frustrating at times that we have athletes that are professional in every sense of the word except for maybe the income that they earn and especially when you know how exciting our sport can be.
It does seem that it gets a fair run during the Commonwealth Games and the Olympic games and the Australian public certainly gets behind them. It would be great to see us get onto television and see a bit more with our domestic league. It’s something that as a sport we’re always working really hard to try and achieve.
I think that the support that we’ve got from the ABC over the last number of international tournaments, in particular the World Cup Champions Trophy has been fantastic and I think if we can expand that exposure for the Hockeyroos and the Kookaburras then we’ll start to see our sport grow even more than it has to this date.