Sean Dancer says he had a “weird” induction to the Irish women’s hockey team as the man taking over his old job, Graham Shaw, was the man showing him the ropes.
Of course, the same was true in reverse with Dancer hosting the mutually beneficial meeting in New Zealand prior to swapping hemispheres.Dancer was the interim head coach of the Blacksticks for the past six months before applying for the top job with Ireland, a role vacated by Shaw’s successful application for the New Zealand gig.
With the two sides unlikely to meet in Olympic qualifiers later this year, Dancer said it meant the two men could be “really open and honest” in their handover messages.
“It’s a really good thing about high performance sport and hockey in general, you have people who are happy to support,” Dancer said. “It was still a very difficult, weird situation but I valued that chance.”
Speaking at his first press engagement on Monday at Park Developments’ announcement of a four-year support package of bursaries for the players, Dancer said he sees his task as infusing a bit Oceanic flair to an Irish side.
“The main thing is the European style of hockey is more defensive; the Oceania one is more attacking. I want to keep the good parts of the European but add that attacking side. I am sure Graham will want to do the same in reverse!”
For now, Dancer’s role is slightly hands off. He observed his first training sessions last weekend but will not formally take over the reins until after June’s FIH Series Finals in Banbridge with Gareth Grundie heading things up.
Nonetheless, he introduced himself personally to each of the squad at last week’s session at Banbridge and is looking forward to picking up as much information as possible.
“A big part of the coaching role is personal relationships. It’s really important I get to know everyone as best I can and this was a perfect opportunity with the players in camp all day Saturday and Sunday.
“I didn’t have to get it all done in one session. I am really happy with how I have been able to come and observe and get to know everything.
”It’s also about trying to understand Gareth and how his coaching works. He will lead the team and if there is anything I can help out with, I am more than happy to do that. For me, it’s about getting to know everyone well and then utilising their strengths.
“Whether there was a tournament coming up or not, I would still try and use this opportunity to observe and start to work with everybody before developing a plan from there. I am really happy with how it has started. This tournament is obviously important for Ireland so it will be great to see how it goes and I am sure Gareth and I will start talking through things.”
Dancer moves to Ireland for his first head coach job following 10 years in New Zealand, looking to make the step up from an assistant role. Before that, he grew up on the east coast of Australia before playing hockey in Belgium – against Shaw at one stage – with Herakles.
“My personal ambition was always to be a head coach and lead an international team, that’s something that I’ve really aspired to for a long time. I’ve been an assistant coach with the national programme for close to 10 years, so it’s something I’ve been working hard to get a foothold at.
“I was lucky enough to lead NZ for four months, I really enjoyed doing the job, I enjoyed the opportunity to lead and develop hockey structures, work with players. Obviously, when the Irish job came up I put my hand up and was lucky enough to get the opportunity.”Beyond his chat with Shaw, he has a decent grounding in the Irish setup; he previously worked with former Irish boss Darren Smith.
“I had a little bit of a chat with him about a few things. That’s the good thing about high-performance coaching, the coaches are quite open and are willing to talk. He gave me some thoughts on the role and the set-up.
“As an analytical coach, I do quite like looking at all the opposition teams and getting to know everyone, so from a distance I’ve probably spent a fair bit of time looking at Ireland. And certainly, with their success at the World Cup I was one of their supporters towards the end!”
For the moment, he moves solo to Ireland with his wife – who is just starting a PhD – and four-year-old daughter remaining down under for the time-being.
“There are still a few questions to sort out. The programme is so heavy for the first six months, we have the World Series, the Europeans and the Qualifiers, so for us as a family we won’t move yet.
“My wife will stay in New Zealand without four and a half-year-old daughter. My wife is doing a good job in NZ, she’s just starting a PhD so the timing for her is not quite right. After the first six months we’ll have more of a handle on things and we’ll go from there. That’s a good thing, it just means I can get stuck in to hockey.
“It was certainly a big decision to make but as a high-performance coach, you’re going to have to be in those positions, the reality is there are not a lot of jobs, there is only one head coach, there are only limited teams.
“Part of the decision making is that I want to be a head coach, I want to lead a team, and have the opportunity to be on the world stage.”
He admits he is stepping into big shoes in Ireland off the back of their World Cup success with a newly expectant public, perhaps, looking for the side to continue sitting at the very top table.
“Expectation is a huge thing, but with expectations comes huge opportunity. And with the Park Development funding the players are now able to train a little bit more as a group, from what I know of the past they were just coming in once a week.
“Also now, financially, the girls are able to commit to more of the programme. But yeah, as a country, as a federation, the expectations are going to be huge.”
As for how he sees that funding allocated, he adds: “The ideal scenario now is that we can start to compensate the girls for a couple of days a week for their time, work or studies.
“What we’ll probably start with is a three day week where we get the girls in, say, a Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, and that will allow us do three days of full hockey and they can go back into their work or studies then.
“They’ll have a little bit of regional training or club commitments the rest of the week. For me that is a really good starting point, it’s the start of really getting a full-time hockey athlete for a full week.
“It’s a good transitional period, rather than going from minimal hockey to a full hockey week. We don’t want a hockey bum who just concentrates on hockey, because that doesn’t give you a good person at the end of it, sometimes. Whereas now we can get a really good life and hockey balance.
“It’s interesting to compare it to New Zealand. The athletes are very much part time; we only really started to contract athletes this year with more financial rewards.
“There has always been good support from the government for the high performance sports programme but not for the athletes. The players were all working full-time, we would train after hours, sometimes 8 to 10 at night, then get up for a gym session and then off to work the following day.
“Where we are at [in New Zealand] is the players are contracted for 15 hours a week which is similar to what we are going to be able to do here. It’s completely on par to that which is great.”