Blake Cuckow & Robert Noall – The Undutchable Coaches

Undutchables, well not really anymore, you both have been spending quite some time in Holland, can you tell us when & where it all started and what it is you do right now? 

Robert: I was asked by a friend of a friend if I would like to come to the Netherlands help coach at an international hockey camp at HC Rotterdam: Bovelander & Bovelander. After two weeks of great fun I decided that I would come back the next year. During the second year I was asked if I would like to interview for HC Rotterdam to be a full time coach there. I was offered a job a few weeks later but by this time HC Bloemendaal had also asked me if I wanted to have an interview. In the end I chose Bloemendaal as I could coach the youth there and the Dames 1 at Qui Vive as an assistant.

Blake: My story has two beginnings actually.  The first part was when I was 17, I came to the Netherlands for a holiday and met a beautiful Dutch girl, Melissa.  We kept in contact and a year later our families went to the same place again for the holidays and the rest is history, now we are married and have 2 boys.  The second part is when I was at university, in my final year I did my placement with the youth national teams, one of the managers there had played for Almere and SCHC. He said that if I was serious about working in hockey I should go to the Netherlands and he could help.  Seeing as Melissa lived with me in Cardiff but preferred life here, me getting the chance to work here was ideal. After a few months of contact and a job that never materialized I joined HGC where I had a great two years, especially due to the people that helped making living here possible for me like Tjeerd Boven (Voorzitter), Alex Verga (then coach), Bram Lomans (Top Hockey) and Wim Schellekens (parent of a player).

Blake, you married a Dutch girl and speak almost fluent Dutch, seen that most Dutch speak English, why? At HGC the first season everything happened in English. Most of my players doing a two language education, and there being three kiwis and an Englishman in H1.  The next year I had a few younger teams that didn’t speak such good English or even any English.  So I had to speak Dutch or it would have been a very awkward year. Luckily I could already understand almost everything and speak a fair amount of double Dutch but at first I didn’t dare to for fear of sounding ridiculous as I was truly terrible at all languages at school and I hadn’t even had any lessons in Dutch. The year after I worked with the rough rule that for everything older than B I would speak English to them and they would talk Dutch back, everything younger I would do everything in Dutch.  And from the following season on, I worked fully in Dutch, partly because I wanted to challenge myself to do it, but also due to what was for me a surprisingly low level of English (for Dutch people) at my new club, which just like my Dutch in the beginning was just them being overly nervous about it.

Robert; you have been here for some time and also seem to manage the Dutch language quite reasonable, however, you communicate in English on social media, do you speak English or Dutch to your teams? In all honesty I have learnt all of my Dutch from speaking to people and listening to how they form sentences. Because of this I never learnt to spell words, I am working on it but I communicate and use social media in English because I do not know how to type fluently in Dutch (yet). I coach in Dutch around 95% of the time but this year I have actually started using English more often. For example with Dames 1 if I want to motivate the girls or explain something very specific I use English because I can use more powerful words this way and the Dames 1 actually prefer it now.

What are the biggest differences comparing Dutch hockey to English hockey? Robert: The biggest difference I feel is how the children learn hockey. In an hour session in England I think that the children are only busy with hockey 60-70% of the time. Here they are busy (at the clubs I have coached) almost every second of the session. This is why I feel that there is more of a hockey feeling in this country than in England. Blake: Dutch hockey is much more technical due to the amount of pitch hours Dutch kids get compared to the English.  I myself trained from September to December once a week for an hour, then January to March, I trained two hours per week with one or two games per week. Meaning 36 trainings hours per season plus 16 matches from 11-18 years old.  At university this became 52 hours training per year plus 36 games.  A Dutch child often starts between 4 and 8, training one hour a week and having a game every week from 6 years old and every two years there coming more and more training by.  Meaning that a player playing U18 here will have played hundreds of hours more hockey than an English player.  And Dutch people then think it is an achievement that they win with big numbers from the English, I think the Dutch have under-performed if it is anything less.  That is not to discredit the level of the English players or the effort they put in, I would argue they work harder and realize that it’s more than just a technical sport and fully embrace mental coaches and other aspects of modern sport.

Blake, you are a New Zealander with an English touch, which made you work for the Blacksticks too, are there big differences between their hockey attitude compared to NL? The New Zealanders like the English are very passionate and hardworking, to make up for the technical differences.  They of course work very hard in order to prepare themselves as best possible and to get better just like the Dutch players, but they have to do much more themselves.

Robert, you coach several ladies/girls teams, is there such thing as a preference or is it just a coincidence? I have trained many boys’ teams in England and here I train JB2 at Bloemendaal and JB1 at Amsterdam. I know that the men’s game is fast and more creative but I prefer coaching girls’ teams because I feel that my personality can motivate them better, I get a lot more self-worth and enjoyment out of training and coaching women. If I am happy then the girls are happy and they learn a lot. I am yet to train or coach a Dutch boys’ team that I enjoyed thoroughly but this is something I would like to work on in the near future.

Of course you both meet mostly Dutch coaches, but we have learned that there is an English coach/friends group who work in NL, do you help each other or give tips?

Blake: I wouldn’t say the goal of our contact is to help each other, but most of what we discuss is hockey related so we share the good moments and the less enjoyable moments with each other.  I have much more contact with Dutch hockey people. Robert: My coaching group that I speak to day to day are all Dutch but when I meet someone who is from another country especially England I connect with them instantly as we have a mutual bond in regards to moving here for hockey. It is so easy to build a relationship fast with someone who knows how difficult it is to come to Holland and work your way up towards the top.

On an international level, there have been a load of changes lately, starting with the Pro Hockey League, the 4 quarters and the newest EHL rules on PC goals and field goals, what is your opinion, for the best or worse?

Blake: All of the rule changes in recent years have been improvements in my eyes.  I just think the FIH should be careful not to make too many changes.  I have recently seen MD team coaches talking about offside, I believe that was scraped in 1992…  Regarding the Pro Hockey League I’m not sure of its place in world hockey, except to get more top games and more people to see those games.  Honestly I haven’t followed the structure of qualification for the Olympics and World Cup as on paper it is not something that should be an issue for the teams I follow.  But like many players I support the idea that there should be one qualifying route, not that you have teams already qualified playing against teams that are playing for qualification.  Certainly with teams like Germany almost never fielding a full strength team except for at the Olympics and World Cup.  I am not a fan of the HIL scoring system in games.  Just because some people are afraid of other people’s corners doesn’t mean that field goals should be any more or less important, and yes I am a huge fan of corners.  Although I would argue that we should look at how you earn one.  The HIL points system for winning, losing and drawing is something that I think we should consider implementing in all competition structures.  It rewards teams that go for it, even when it is a David and Goliath match up, the lesser team still has something to get out of that game, meaning they are less likely to sit back and accept damage limitation. Robert: Every change that has happened in the last 6/7 years has been for one reason, to make hockey a more accessible sport around the world. If more people watch hockey, the interest grows and because of this, more people are joining the sport. In countries like England and the Netherlands there are already thousands and thousands of people playing hockey but with the new showcasing of the sport countries such as France and Spain are gaining many passionate hockeyers by the bucket load.

Even though NL hockey is on a high level, are there things you would want to change i.e. competition wise with the silver and gold cup added to the regular competition? 

Robert: Yes I was speaking about this last night with someone; I would really like to have something like the silver cup or gold cup for juniors. I would love my MB1 to be able to play against new teams and have the chance to gain some (extra) silver wear.  Blake: I would seriously consider changing the indoor hockey.  In England it happens for 5 weeks around Christmas and that’s it.  In Germany its 4 months and a full competition.  I just fear that we are, certainly at the top level here doing it half due to it being wedged in between international commitments and the Hoofdklasse.  I think that the KNHB should seriously think about how the Hoofdklasse works.  Six days between a full summer of training and then a major tournament and then the start of the Hoofdklasse has resulted in multiple injuries this year.  It’s almost unsafe how much they are doing in a short period.  Look at Kemperman and De Wijn in recent years and how much they have played without a rest.  I would say, make the season shorter, with more double weeks.  That way more people can watch games during the week, and that way the players play instead of training so their workload isn’t massively heavier in season, but it gives much more rest moments so that they can be fit and perform when it matters. I am also not a fan of the different league structures in the youth in every district.  For each system there is something to be said.  But in my opinion the goal should be more games at the correct level, and that will mean that for some teams accepting that a lower starting standard is better for them.  Teams that start in the pre-competition in Topklasse get battered 6 times and then end up going into Subtop or staying in Topklasse via playoffs seems to me like a terrible start to a season.  I would much prefer smaller groups and less groups at each level in the pre-competition.  Meaning that the highest level would only be between teams with a chance to play Landelijk or Super.  Then you have teams that win the 1e Klasse every year and always end up in Topklasse playing from day one against the teams that always relegate out of Topklasse.  This will also mean that you can play home and away, something that if we are honest, is an issue.  I have seen far too often that the best team finishes second in a group because they had to play more away games than home games.  It shouldn’t be an issue but outside of the very top, it is and that’s a shame.  But the bond should accept that it is an issue and create a competition structure that can handle that.

Any tips for new Undutchables coming to work or play in Holland? 

Blake: Your social network has never been more important.  This will open doors that your skills would never be able to.  Being good is often secondary to knowing the people who hire and fire, and knowing them well, I know of multiple top jobs where this was the case.  Age is a huge issue for lots of clubs, so you will often have to earn your credits somewhere before you get the job you want.  And be direct, the Dutch are, and many won’t take you seriously if you aren’t.  Robert: Learn how the system works in this country for the youngest children and work your way up to the top, as soon as you know why it works for the future of the men’s and ladies first teams it is so easy to work out what you need to be coaching / saying / learning.