Japan's plan to podium at Paris 2024

While many may think cricket is India’s unofficial national sport it is hockey, and it is played everywhere.

Just ask Jude Menezes, the Mumbai-born coach of Japan’s female hockey team and ex-Black Sticks women's coach. 

"Every evening, on our school ground there would be around 50 kids playing,” he says, “You naturally just gravitated to it and played, because everyone was playing it.”

I first heard of Menezes a few weeks ago, when I attended the second match in a two-game series between the Black Sticks and the Japanese team in Auckland.

Jude Menezes at work coaching. Image: BW Media

While chatting with some Japanese supporters, I was surprised to discover Menezes, as well as being the Japanese coach, has a strong Kiwi connection.

He was born in Bombay (now Mumbai), started playing hockey at 14 and is now the Kiwi preparing the Japanese women’s hockey team for their sixth consecutive Olympics, 2024 Paris.

For Menezes, hockey grew from the school grounds with friends. He played in local tournaments then joined the first of three high profile company teams in Mumbai.

He was later selected for age group teams and then for India’s national team, as goalkeeper.

India's hockey team for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Image: Supplied

He played 133 test matches for India including World Cups, Asian Games, Commonwealth Games and the 2000 Sydney Olympics, before retiring in 2002.

"I knew that I did not want to live in India for the rest of my life,” he says, “I was fortunate through sport I got the chance to travel the world, including New Zealand.  I had a lot of friends who lived in Auckland, and they encouraged us to make the move to NZ."

In June 2002, three months after farewelling his goalkeeping gear, Menezes and his wife Sylvia began their new life in Auckland.

Jude Menezes with his wife Sylvia, and sons Brett (23) and Matt (16) at the Japan-NZ match in Auckland earlier this year. Image: Supplied

Menezes consciously decided to step away from hockey, working in the health and fitness industry for 12 years, before returning full-time to hockey as a member of the women's Black Sticks coaching team.

While working with the female squad in the lead-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, Menezes heard Japan Hockey was looking to recruit a new coach for its women’s team.

Menezes on the coaching team for the Black Sticks women's team. Image: BW Media

Menezes applied, was interviewed and appointed to the role in November 2021.

The next few months were an adventure that kept him asking ‘what have I done?’

In November 2021, amidst the COVID pandemic, Menezes flew from New Zealand to Seoul to meet the team and compete at the Asian Champions Trophy tournament – which they won. 

But then disaster struck.

"On the 1 December, Japan closed their borders to all foreigners, which we thought nothing of at first,” Menezes says, “Then after the tournament finished, I was told ‘you might have to stay in Korea for a couple of weeks’.”

Despite coaching for Japan, it took Menezes much longer than expected to arrive in the country. Image: Supplied

Returning home was not an option with limited MIQ (Managed isolation and quarantine) spaces available in New Zealand and with no entry visa for Japan, Menezes was stranded in South Korea.

Days, weeks, then months rolled on as Menezes remained in the same hotel room.

The silver lining was he had plenty of time to develop his plan to the podium.

In February 2022, two and a half months later he met up with the team again, this time in Oman for the World Cup qualifying tournament - another win.

A personal win in Oman was receiving his visa and returning with the team to Japan. 

Japanese fans with the team in Auckland earlier in 2024. Image: Supplied

Hockey players in Japan are full-time employees of large companies, who in turn support the professional league – quite different to New Zealand’s system. It is a decentralized programme, bringing the players into regular camps. This means that Menezes has limited time and access to the players.

"[The players’] first priority is their company teams."

There are other differences to the New Zealand system, though for Menezes it is all about accepting and learning.

"I try to focus on what I can do, with what I have."

Already the players have taught him a lot about himself and his coaching style.

"Their attitude is unbelievable. You never have to say work hard, it’s a given. As an outsider, it is unbelievable to witness."

He has found some challenges coaching across cultures, including the practice of ‘saying yes’ (not wanting to offend anyone) and the language barrier – not all players speak English and Menezes speaks limited Japanese.

Jude Menezes as part of the Indian hockey team. Image: Supplied

In response, Menezes has changed his coaching style: his sessions have become more detailed, using videos and walk-throughs and he holds regular meetings with each player in English.

Part of the plan is to empower the girls on the turf by working on their English - it is the international language for hockey. Communicating with the referees for non-English speaking teams can be challenging, especially when requesting video referrals.

Increasing the team’s confidence to make decisions on the turf will help lift their performance, he says.

"I am just the facilitator; the athletes are the stars. On the field you have to be able to make the decisions."

Menezes and his family in Japan. Image: Supplied

The team have embraced this approach as they prepare for the Olympic Games in July. New Zealand was the first stop in their 10-week campaign for the Games. It will include playing different teams, with different styles, in different conditions.

I asked him as we closed, what would you say to your younger self about the power of sport.

"Embrace every opportunity you get. Explore, be brave, have the courage to get outside of your comfort zone."

I have a feeling these words will be shared in the dressing room as they look to the podium in Paris.

Tune into 2024 Paris, there will be some exciting viewing.

Women's Hockey Olympics schedule

- Asia Media Centre