As Kelsey Kolojejchick slotted home goal number five for the USA in their World Cup pool match with China, the rest of the tournament finally sat up and took notice of the challenge of the Stars and Stripes. Coming into the competition ranked 10th in the world, few gave Craig Parnham’s team much hope in a group containing big hitters like England, Argentina and Germany. However, the USA secured a superb win against England followed up by a 2-2 draw with Argentina and then the demolition of China. If teams weren’t taking them seriously before, they should be now.
The development and improvement of the USA team is one that has its English influences: Parnham was assistant coach to Danny Kerry at the London Olympics and remains a man held in high esteem across English hockey. In the wake of the Olympics, Parnham took the chance to step up and be a head coach with a blank canvas and moved to the States to set about making the USA a force to be reckoned with in World Hockey.
The USA have come into the World Cup on a good run of form. In April they won the Champions Challenge I, a competition containing, amongst others, Belgium, South Africa, Korea and Ireland. They have carried that momentum into the World Cup and have really hit the ground running.
Despite their successes, Parnham, the two-time Olympian has been keen to play down his influence and deflect the attention from his efforts:
“I’ve not done anything too remarkable really. It’s just a case of changing the way we train. We have more time on the pitch, more access to players and have just been able to get things done the way we want.” he said. “I have a fantastic group of players with a great spirit and energy. They work hard every day and it pays off. We’re far from the finished article but we’re going in the right direction.”
Of course his players tell a slightly different story, citing the change of attitude and mentality the Englishman has brought with him.
“Craig’s really humble when he talks about his coaching but he’s really brought a fantastic culture to the group. We all want to train our hardest every single day for him and for ourselves.” Lauren Crandall the team’s captain said. “We’re now showing up for tournaments, not necessarily with higher expectations but we’re taking it one game at a time. We’re together as a team working hard for each other. The results come from the process he’s put in place and we’re very focused on that process.”
Rachel Dawson, a veteran of almost 250 international appearances speaks in similarly glowing terms:
“Craig’s given ownership of the group to the players. He’s enabled us to dictate the culture we want, whilst challenging us and making sure it’s the best thing for us. He’s brought us up to a good standard but he thinks we can be better and we all strive to achieve that. He’s really made a change to our whole mentality and it’s been a breath of fresh air.”
The change in attitude and culture is there for all to see. At World League 3 last year, many of the post-match comments from the team centred on what an honour it was to play against such great teams. There was a feeling they were just along for the ride without ever really threatening the status quo. Now there seems to be a feeling in the group that they belong at this level. Instead of celebrating wildly at the final whistle of their win over England there was a small gesture of congratulation followed by a switch in focus to the next game. Crandall’s responses in the press conference gave a clear indication of this:
“As a team this win means we now look to Argentina in our next match. There is no time for celebration; our focus is now the next game.”
Mentality alone is not enough to bring a side success. There has also been a noticeable improvement in the fitness and conditioning of the squad, too. Each player looks leaner, stronger and fitter, something that has stood them in good stead in the punishing schedule of a World Cup. A great deal of credit goes to David Hamilton, the Director of Performance Science. Hamilton, like Parnham was part of the Great Britain staff that brought home the bronze medal from London. Dubbed “The Mad Scientist” by Dawson, he has set about using his expertise in strength and conditioning as well as sports science to ensure a top class physical programme for the whole squad.
“We train smart and have a great strength and conditioning coach. We have pockets of really hard training and then periods of time away and we have the balance just right.” said Dawson. “As much as we love to hate Dave sometimes, we’re way better for him putting us through the ringer. He’s always researching something and trying to work out what physiological edge he can give us. We’ve always been physical but he’s really enhanced that. We can outrun most teams for 70 minutes and that gives us a great chance.”
With a world class training facility in place at the wonderfully named Spooky Nook, (a 50 acre site with multiple pitches both indoor and outdoor, as well as a state of the art gym,) it is clear USA Hockey is willing to back their side and give them the tools to get better and better.
This World Cup may be a bit soon for them to pick up a medal, but with the genius of Parnham and The Mad Scientist plotting the squad’s progress in the depths of Spooky Nook, medals at major tournaments may not be too far away. The rest of the world has been warned.