Getting our Black Sticks ready for a “very different Olympics”

After decades in rugby, Tony Hanks has swapped the oval ball for a stick and ball. Our new High Performance Director tells us about dealing with uncertainty in a Covid-world, handling the oppressive heat in Tokyo, and the drive to do something only one Black Sticks team has ever done. 

You joined Hockey NZ in September in an interim capacity but have now signed on until the Tokyo Olympics. What are you enjoying about the role and what have you learned?
I’m really enjoying the people. There’s some great people in hockey, and there’s a really good skillset across the sport – skills that people probably don’t even think they’ve got. 

I’ve been really impressed with the speed of the game and the talent, and I really enjoyed the Sentinel Homes Premier Hockey League.  

It’s been a pretty steep learning curve for me in terms of how sports like hockey are integrated with High Performance Sport NZ unlike rugby which is a bit more self-contained. 

With no hockey experience I suppose I bring a totally fresh perspective to the role.

You’ve worked in rugby in the UK, Japan, Russia and in New Zealand for some of the biggest brands in the game  London Wasps, Waikato, Chiefs and the Blues. What are the main differences between rugby and hockey?
I suppose being an Olympic sport and being part of a wider Olympic community is the main difference. With hockey a lot of its exposure is around the pinnacle events of Olympics and Commonwealth Games, but that’s starting to expand with the new FIH Pro League.  

Hockey is also still working through the transition from amateur to semi-professional, where you’re trying to manage the fact that even at the top level it’s not fully professional and athletes have jobs, so trying to get that balance right is critical.

With no international hockey for the bulk of 2020, how tough was last year for the Black Sticks?
It was difficult on lots of levels especially with the Covid disruption occurring so close to a pinnacle event which people had made such a commitment to. The early decision to postpone the Olympics and the fact we could retain our High Performance Sport NZ funding was a great help. Everyone worked hard to make the most of the situation and there’s now a real excitement after having nothing for most of 2020, and a recognition of how lucky we are. 

The Vantage Black Sticks’ schedule for 2021 has three options – 1) purely domestic, 2) within potential trans-Tasman bubble or 3) with open borders.  How do you help the players prepare for that uncertainty?
The three options are constantly changing from when they were first presented to the players late last year. We try to keep the players informed as much as we can, directly and with the assistance of the Players Association, so they’re aware of the plans and able to adapt as things change. Having the players as part of those planning conversations is really important. 

There’s also lots of rumours flying around and it’s vital that we quickly address those as being either fact or speculation. 

Everyone is talking about the heat in Japan. How hot will it be and how do you help the players cope?
I have worked a lot in Japan over the past three years with Honda Heat Rugby and we commonly held pre-season rugby camps in the 30s. The humidity is pretty oppressive and I remember a game between the Blues and the Sunwolves where it was 44 degrees on field.  

It gives you an appreciation of not just what it does to you physically but what it does to you mentally. 

Hockey is quite fortunate in that a lot of our players have experienced heat in the likes of Malaysia so it’s not completely foreign. We’re working through a number of coping strategies such as using heat chambers and simply wearing more clothing at training to create that discomfort. 

We’re trying some scientific and not so scientific techniques to see what works. We have embraced the fact it’s going to be hot, and everyone knows that teams that handle the heat well will enhance their chances of being successful.

New Zealand has just one Olympic medal – the men’s gold in 1976. Are we medal contenders in 2021?
What I’ve been really impressed with from both our teams is the level of passion, intent and ambition. For some sports, getting to the Olympics is the goal, but we’ve qualified and now we’re hugely motivated to do really well, and making the podium is a massive driver for us.  

There’s a real drive to be successful and do something that only one Black Sticks team has ever done at an Olympics. We are focused on making sure we nail our preparation while making sure our player wellbeing is well supported during these uncertain times. 

Tokyo will be a very different Olympics and one that people will talk about for a long time – like the 1936 and 1980 games. My hope is that they’ll be talking about it in a positive light – about how the world came through Covid and we were able to have this fantastic event. 

  • February 18th, 2021 in
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