Some of the world's best hockey teams are competing this week at the University of Waikato Men's Four Nations in Tauranga and Hamilton. Belgium head coach and University of Waikato alumnus Shane McLeod is hoping to start 2018 off with a bang.
It would be naïve to mistake the softly-spoken, unassuming Shane McLeod for anything but a fiercely determined and very successful leader. As head coach of arguably the world’s best men’s hockey team, his career has seen him at the top of high performance sport as both player and coach for the past 20 years.
Born in Hamilton, Shane began his career as a primary school teacher in several schools in and around the North Shore. He loved teaching, he says, and believes it prepared him well for his role as coach. “In teaching, you learn about how people learn and how to manage people. That sort of grounding is invaluable.”
Shane’s hockey talent soon saw him playing for the New Zealand men’s team (1996-1998), winning a gold medal at the World Qualifying Tournament in Sardinia in 1997. He was appointed the Black Sticks assistant coach in 2006, going on to become head coach and leading the team through the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. After coaching several clubs in Belgium, he was appointed head coach of the Belgium women’s national team, before taking the men’s team under his wing for the 2016 Rio Olympics where his side was pipped for gold by Argentina.
Back home in New Zealand now for the University of Waikato Men’s Four Nations Tournament (Belgium, New Zealand, India and Japan), Shane and his team have been making use of the University’s Adams High Performance Centre in Mt Maunganui. It’s a far cry from the sort of training facilities he had at his disposal as a player and, indeed, as Belgian coach. “We have certainly come a long way in what we can offer elite athletes and you would struggle to find this sort of impressive facility in Europe. New Zealand just keeps getting better in its research and its commitment to sport.”
With no touring sports psychologist or nutritionist, much lies on the shoulders of the head coach and, for Shane, this is the way he likes it. “We don’t tend to travel with any entourage – just me, two assistant coaches who specialise in different areas, and a physio. My teaching experience helps me to run a pretty basic psychology programme with the players. I think it’s important that players hear things from the boss and don’t receive mixed messages.”
Asked how the players would describe him as a coach, Shane’s humility comes to the fore. “I’d like to think they would regard me as quite inclusive and open,” he says. “I like to use the resources of the people around me, including the players. I hope they feel that they are able to have a voice and that they are actively participating in our successes and our development as a team. I try hard to treat people fairly.”
Shane says that a lot is demanded of elite athletes in this modern age and that there are times when he has to have some tough conversations. “Selections are really tough. People commit their lives to a dream and you can crush those dreams in two damning sentences.” His advice for emerging elite athletes is that it takes time and hard work to step up to the realm of high performance sport. “The process is quicker the harder and wiser you work. Listen to the people around you and align yourself with people you trust.” Shane adds that the difference can be in the choices made away from training and off the field. “We train a lot in Belgium and everyone at training has no choice but to work hard. But at home, choosing to eat the right food, planning your education and having the discipline to support what you want to achieve – this is the stuff that will often make the difference.”
The Four Nations tournament, along with the Champions Trophy tournament in the Netherlands in June, are all part of preparations for the World Cup in India at the end of this year. Shane quietly confirms that their ambition is to win gold, but, he says, the stars have to be aligned. Contracted as head coach through to the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, Shane then plans to head home to New Zealand with his young family for a while. He wants his children to experience the Kiwi lifestyle, a long way from the hustle and bustle of Europe. As for his own career aspirations, he is content in the uncertainty. “We love New Zealand and New Zealanders, and we just want to enjoy that. I am not sure what I will be doing then, but I don’t mind that. Things present themselves and I quite like not having a plan too far ahead.”
In the meantime, however, his focus is squarely on his team and on gold.