Dutch experience helps build O’Flanagan’s mental toughness for World Cup after fine Hoofdklasse season

Coping with the forthright Dutch mentality is something Anna O’Flanagan says she initially took a while to get used to but says she will ultimately be stronger for the experience.

The star Irish striker – along with Chloe Watkins – enjoyed a fine season with HC Bloemendaal, taking time away from her legal career to take on full-time hockey in the best league in the world, the Hoofdklasse.

Anna O’Flanagan in action for Bloemendaal. Pic: Koen Suyk

In the league, Bloemendaal had a tough campaign, finishing ninth, but avoided the relegation playoffs for the very first time. And they won the first edition of the Gold Cup since its return.

O’Flanagan says the risk she took in taking on the move but it has paid dividends in World Cup year.

“It was a massive decision,” she said about putting work on hold. “I always wanted to push myself and play hockey at a higher standard and become a better player every day.

“For me, I needed to get something under my belt and finish my degree, get a profession going and have something to fall back on. We don’t get paid for this so I have to have something.

“Focusing on hockey, I thoroughly enjoyed the year; it was extremely different to anything I had ever experienced but it gave me that bit more flexibility to train things I never could before.”

At Bloemendaal, she had the chance to work with hockey legend Teun de Nooijer, a three-time world player of the year and double Olympic gold medal winner.

“You learn so much from him,” O’Flanagan enthused. “He’s a quiet man, doesn’t shout about the place or put you down. He quietly takes you aside and looks at little things. He trains a lot of the things he was good at, dribbling with the ball, passing on the move.

She also had more time to practice skills on her own, trying out shot selections she might not often use over and over again. In action, O’Flanagan was able to try and put these into action against stronger defenders every game.

“The quality of the players across the board is so high, things don’t break down as much. Technically, they are so good and play the game at such a pace. What I loved to is they love to attack. That’s my game, to go forward as much as I can!”

Importantly, getting used to the Dutch mindset was another learning curve. O’Flanagan exudes a rare confidence by Irish standards on the pitch, something that is probably key to her poacher’s instincts and her incredible goalscoring tallies.

And she found that, without that kind of ability to get on with things, you can very quickly get left behind.

O’Flanagan in recent action against Canada in Dublin. Pic: Adrian Boehm

“The Dutch are very forthright, confident and direct. If you go over with an Irish mentality and are hard on yourself – which I can be – you won’t survive.

“You have to come up to their level and have the self-confidence because you don’t get it from anywhere else. In Ireland, we are more reserved and we do beat ourselves up about things.

“That’s something I did learn; they don’t do it. It took a few months to get into that mindset but if you don’t stand up and be counted, you can be left behind.”

With that year under her belt, the focus is now directed to London and July 21. Selection was a relief though, in all likelihood, she was probably one of the first names on Graham Shaw’s list as the team’s top goalscorer with 62, three off the national record.

O’Flanagan said it was an emotional time to see good friends cut in the last few weeks in what she says is the “most competitive” squad she has been involved in.

“It was tough; we are an extremely close group. Twenty-nine of us trained for this World Cup and there are 29 of us being represented at this World Cup.

“We’re very passionate about that because it is all of their work that goes toward this. It’s girls who played last summer, the summer before. It’s not just this one event. But it is tough when your close friends don’t make it.

The Ireland World Cup squad. Pic: Inpho

“Nonetheless, we have a group of 18 girls who, on any given day, can match any team in the world. We are so excited to be going to a World Cup, to have this opportunity and are going to take it with both hands.”

It starts against the US on July 21 with India five days later, both sides whom they have beaten and been beaten by in recent years.

And then a potential experience of a lifetime, facing the world number two side England in front of a sold out crowd on July 29.

“I don’t know if anyone wearing an Irish jersey could say they wouldn’t enjoy playing an English team on English soil with 10,000+ people there. There’s absolutely no pressure on us. They are ranked two in the world so we cannot wait. No better place to beat the English!”

Partners of The Hook