FIS talks to Andrew Meredith, National Men’s Hockey Coach, Irish Hockey.

Fresh from delivering Olympic gold to the German Men’s Hockey team at the last two Games, as Assistant Coach, Andrew Meredith was appointed as National Men’s Coach in November 2012. Andrew competed at international level for Australia and played professionally in Europe for 15 years before finally taking up a full time role in Coaching, being an accredited FIH High Performance Coach.

It has been a really busy and successful summer for your team, what have been the highlights for you?

I think probably the main highlight of 2013 is the fact that we have been able to maintain the same level of results and ranking while transitioning the athletes involved in the program post the 2012 Olympic qualification process. There are a number of players who have been extremely committed to the Senior Men’s program, who are now finding it difficult to combine work , and meeting the demands of a full international year. The Europeans is a good example where we were missing 6 of some of Irelands most experienced players, who combine to make 654 caps. You cannot replace that overnight, but the fact we were not only competitive, but missed a place in the semi-finals in the Europeans by only 1 goal, against teams ranked inside the world’s top 4, is certainly very encouraging and a good way to finish the international calendar for the year.

What changes did you make or systems did you put in place when you first took up your role with Irish Hockey?

I think that whenever you enter a new role, it is vitally important to understand what has been in place prior to your arrival, what has worked what areas you identify as needing improvement, and what potential roadblocks are in place. I am working hard to get the athletes as much support as possible and expand the High Performance program as much as possible.

After taking up the job, I thought it important to understand where we were in regards to what players could deliver in an international environment, and using that as a benchmark, we started to look at how we could begin evolving the squad towards the qualification process for Rio.

What challenges or opportunities do you see in Irish Hockey?

We have an extremely dedicated group of players with a fantastically strong mindset, who amongst the other sacrifices that all elite athletes make to compete for their country, currently have to pay their own way to travel to training camps and  home host each  other, and try to extend the group contact time as much as possible and therefore give themselves the best opportunity to be competitive internationally.

The major challenge is how do we continue to be competitive with teams that are ranked in the top 10. Post London a lot of programs are in a rebuilding phase, and we currently measure up pretty well given our recent results, but to progress it will all come down to funding. Other countries above us have full time programs, have athletes that receive funding, have extensive support services for their athletes, and have a budgetary capacity to play an extra 15-20 international games per year.

As an example, we have lost 2-3 and drawn 2-2 with England in the two last international tournaments, a program that is rebuilding, but have a current ranking of 4 in the world. For both their HP programs they have funding in excess of €20 million towards 2016. That’s a massive platform to build a sustainable High Performance program from, and in comparison, we are reliant on the funding we receive from a single source in the Irish Sports Council, have no Major Sponsor for the men’s team, and have had very little in the way of support services up till now.

The question is how we can go about to continue to develop players on the same curve as our competitors, given the fact that we are extremely limited in our funding, and do not have that financial capacity to have a lot of group time together outside of when we compete in international tournaments.

The Men’s Hockey team are on a pathway to Rio in 2016, how are they progressing towards reaching that goal?

As I have said, I think we have started to lay some pretty strong foundations, have some exciting talent coming through, but the next 14 months is pretty critical in regards to what we can deliver to the athletes, and how we continue to progress and achieve our goal to qualify for the Olympic Games. The level of support we receive will be key to that process.

Are there any particular challenges with many players having to play professionally abroad?

No question that from a program perspective, while there is significant individual athlete development from playing in some of Europe’s top leagues, is it is incredibly difficult to have (currently 15) players based outside of the country, and still maintain collective group development through a cycle. The Domestic (European) clubs see things from the perspective that any Irish player contracted to their particular club, are there as an asset for them to manage, and for the club commitments to take priority whenever possible. Due to an expanding international calendar, we are now seeing players not being released by their clubs for the few limited training camps we can put in place, which of course affects group development. I think that one possible way forward is to target specific foreign clubs, that are onboard with what is important for an international athlete in terms of preparation, and look to support that as much as possible. It is important that we look at ways that we can still look to manage athletes and their programs who  are based outside of the country. This is one example of the use of technology and its specific application can assist us to provide transparency for anyone involved in the program.

How does the high performance system in Ireland compare to what you have experienced in Germany?

I am not sure that the two are comparable. The difference in the level of government support, through the Deutschen Olympischen Sportbundes (DOSB), is probably most reflected by the current economic situation of both countries. Every High Performance program is structured in a different way, but the Support services ( sports science for example) and systematic approach to youth development is certainly a major element as to why German teams have that stability throughout international competitions, particularly toward the critical phase when playing for semi-finals and medals.

What advice would you give to any young athlete aspiring to play at the top level with Ireland?

Watch as much elite level competition as you can and keep working hard! There are no short cuts to the elite level; it’s about what sacrifices you are prepared to make to achieve your goals. Good international athletes are people who can execute basic skills, at speed, in a pressured environment. The better the basic skill level base, the better foundation you have to compete as an international athlete.

Many thanks for taking the time to talk to us, finally what are your hopes for 2014?

To be able to put in place a program that maximizes the very promising talent that is currently coming through in the men’s program. We have the Champions Challenge in April, where again, we will look to sustain our current performances, and continue our qualification process for Rio (through the World Leagues) which will start toward the end of 2014.

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