The USA junior women’s team stormed to a victory at the recent Junior Pan American Championship, beating their nemesis Argentina in a shoot-out following a tense and high-paced final. The result – a first win for the USA at this event since 2008 – instantly brings to mind comparisons with the USA team of 2008 that went on to lift USA to an all-time high in the rankings and a fourth-place finish at the 2014 Women’s Hockey World Cup.
The current celebratory air is a long way from the slightly dejected team of athletes that returned from Potchefstroom after the 2022 Junior World Cup, even though many of the athletes are still in the squad.
In the heat of Barbados, Tracey Paul’s team grew in terms of stature and confidence, with many of her squad putting those memories of a tough Junior World Cup campaign firmly behind them.
It didn’t start brilliantly for the team as they lost to Argentina by a 2-0 deficit in the opening pool match. However, victories over Uruguay and Chile saw them qualify for the 2023 Junior World Cup and then hold their nerve to win a shoot-out after the final score was 1-1 against pre-tournament favorites Argentina.
‘The match against Uruguay was the crucial one for the team because a place at the Junior World Cup was at stake. That was a situation of ‘lose and you are completely out’, but high performance is about performing under that sort of pressure.’ said Head Coach Paul.
The team now has eight months to prepare before the Junior World Cup takes place in Santiago, Chile from 29 November to 10 December.
Not that Paul will get that much time with her team between now and then. As with all field hockey coaches working with USA athletes, she loses her athletes to the all-important college teams for much of the year. Ahead of the Junior World Cup she gets to work with the team over a 10-day period in June where they face international opposition from Ireland and Canada. This is followed by a Senior NexUS tournament but then she loses the squad until they re-group ahead of the Junior World Cup.
The last time Tracey Paul gave an interview for this website, it was following the delayed 2022 Junior World Cup in Potchefstroom, South Africa. Then, the team had suffered from huge disruptions to their preparations through Covid restrictions and, in the opening match against the Netherlands, they were comprehensively outplayed losing 9-0 to the eventual champions.
At the time, Paul spoke about the lack of experience in the squad and the fact that with a few exceptions, many of the team had never played in another country, let alone travelled across continents. Preparations had been limited to a test series against Canada.
Things looked very different this time around as Paul explains.
‘We have had a lot longer to build our culture and there are many in this group that went to a Five Nations tournament in Ireland last year. So there was a very positive mentality. And of course, a core group that had been to both a Junior World Cup and a Five Nations tournament.
‘This meant we could reference the pace of play of teams such as the Netherlands and India. And when we spoke about playing Argentina in Barbados, we could compare those teams with the Argentina side and reference difference styles of play and what to expect.’
The time the group has spent together in recent months has allowed the development of a strong set of core values. This is something very much driven by the team, not the coaches.
‘We have a saying: ‘culture eats talent for breakfast’,’ says Paul – the original quote is attributed to management consultant Peter Drucker. ‘And that is something we hold very true. This is a high-performance environment and the emphasis is also very much on the ‘we’ not the ‘me’.’
The practical implementation of the core values can be best demonstrated when we compare the two performances against Argentina. The first time the teams met, the USA athletes were tentative and tight. The second time, the players spoke ahead of the match about showing bravery. Their attack-minded approach saw the team take the lead through Reagan Underwood.
‘They didn’t play the smartest hockey because they didn’t expect to score first as we are accustomed to having to fight back against top ranked teams like Argentina. So, a level of resilience was needed.’
In the match against Chile a similar level of resilience was needed. USA took a slender lead but saw it wiped out almost instantly. They then managed to keep a sustained attack on the Chile defence without allowing any dangerous turn overs by their opponents.
‘Playing like that, keeping up a sustained attack, dominating an opponent takes a lot of energy so I thought it was pretty incredible that they managed to do that without conceding any penalty corners and only one shot, because it only takes one lapse in concentration when you are all committed to an attack and it only takes one transition and all that work is lost.’
When Paul reflects on the tournament, she says there are signs that this group has a promising future in the game. The last time a USA team won the women’s JPAC was 2008 and that squad went on to become a real force in global hockey, culminating with a fourth-place finish at the 2014 Women’s World Cup.
‘The players will take a lot of confidence from this event. And they have also had experience at winning. Players have to learn how to win at major tournaments. They need to experience pool play and knock out stages. That sort of experience is huge. You can see countries that have a lot of experience at continuously winning at the junior level to go on to win at senior level.’
Certainly, confidence is high among the players at the moment and Paul was delighted to hear the excited chatter among the athletes at the end of their time in Barbados.
‘They were talking about being on the podium together at LA in 2028 and that was a special moment for me as a coach. That means they felt motivated and have the energy to stay in the player pathway. And of course, Paris is around the corner too and we have a lot of talent. Things can happen.’
Paul’s style of coaching is very much about giving athletes the chance to learn for themselves.
She says: ’You only really learn by making mistakes but you have to employ a combination of coaching styles. In Barbados at JPAC when you only have 45 minutes to practice, the way you coach will be very different to when you have two hours with the players. For real learning to happen, the players have to think for themselves and solve problems but there are situations when the coach needs to give instant input.’
‘If this group continues to grow as they have, then we can certainly place higher than ever before at the Junior World Cup. This group is motivated to do the work necessary between our two summer training series and JWC.’
‘This victory is huge for many reasons. It has given these players motivation to go further, it has given them self-confidence and the courage to know they can win under pressure. It is great for the player pathway. It speaks volumes about how well the pathway is working.’