In the course of developing the world’s first carbon-neutral synthetic turf for field hockey, the Poligras Paris GT zero, Polytan is increasingly setting its sights on hockey as a sport. Who better to get more insight from than Valentin Altenburg, national coach of the German women’s hockey team (DANAS)? Looking back on the Hockey World Cup in Spain and the Netherlands, and ahead to the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.
ON TOP: Valentin Altenburg, thank you for taking the time to talk to us. Before we begin, please will you give our readers a brief summary of your career before being named national hockey coach?
Valentin Altenburg: I studied business administration in Mannheim. On the side, I played hockey at the amazing club TSV Mannheim and worked as a coach for the Stuttgarter Kickers. I also studied sports management at the University of St. Gallen. Looking back at the first steps in my career, which included two years as a trainee, I can say it was the most educational time of my life. I learned how to turn strained relationships into resilient ones, which is an ability that helps me as a national hockey coach. Since 2005, I have been a qualified coach of the German Trainer Academy and a national coach for young people. I have worked as a national coach since 2016, first for men, and since January 2022, for women.
ON TOP: Speaking of national coach – let’s talk about hockey…
Valentin Altenburg: In pure numbers: I have been a qualified coach of the German Trainer Academy and a national coach for young people since 2005. I have worked as a national coach since 2016, first for men, and since January 2022, for women.
ON TOP: What fascinates you about hockey? What is your goal as national coach?
Valentin Altenburg: I like the speed of the game, the technical finesse and the many different tactical options. My goal is for my teams to be hard to beat and to play an attractive game of hockey. The placements follow from that, not vice versa. The thing that fascinates me about top-level sport is that it can be full of surprises. This becomes possible when we are prepared for the opportunity. I also love fair play in hockey, the elegant and yet dynamic playing style – and, of course, the hockey community, which is something extra special.
ON TOP: When speaking of the big hockey nations, the Netherlands, Argentina and Spain always come up, as well as the “classic” hockey countries, such as England, India and Pakistan. Tell us a little about hockey in Germany; for example, about hockey at schools and about the clubs, regions, and the popularity of the sport.
Valentin Altenburg: In Germany, hockey is a sport that has been growing steadily for years. Field hockey is especially popular in the big cities; for example, in Hamburg, where I was born. Hockey has become very well-organised and integrated in a very strong and innovative structure of clubs. To keep it short and sweet: it’s a great sport for young and old, girls and boys alike. And it has a promising future.
ON TOP: How strong is the Hockey Bundesliga compared to other European leagues, such as the Dutch or Belgian ones?
Valentin Altenburg: In recent years, the Hockey Bundesliga has become much more athletically attractive. To give just one example: there are now many top international stars playing alongside Germany hockey stars, in both the men’s and women’s league.
ON TOP: In the Bundesliga, the trend in the women’s league is to play more defensively; Düsseldorf has won two championships in a row with this tactic. Is it possible to succeed with this system, in which centralised training is not possible in the same way as in the big hockey nations?
Valentin Altenburg: Absolutely. In this season and the last, the hockey league has been the most balanced it has been in a long time. At the same time, I would like for even more attractive hockey to be played successfully in the league. We will be working on that in close cooperation with the current generation of league coaches. Optimism is in the air; in the coming season, even more international stars will be playing in Germany. Accordingly, it would not surprise me if we can look forward to the best women’s Bundesliga of all time. In the last season, we were definitely not there yet. When it comes to German elite sport, I believe we can be very successful with our decentralised system. I am pleased that my players are firmly rooted in different clubs, and embody a concrete example for the coming hockey generation.
ON TOP: Germany has been very successful at field hockey for decades; both the men and the women. What makes German hockey so strong?
Valentin Altenburg: In particular, the need for our national team to walk its own, two-fold path. Then there is the strong club landscape in Germany, which not only develops the players’ athletic side, but their personality as well. This is often the very foundation of their love for hockey, which lasts a lifetimes and is passed down from generation to generation.
ON TOP: Let’s pivot to the German women’s hockey team. What is your view of the team’s development? The 2022 World Cup was the first litmus test.
Valentin Altenburg: Despite a respectable but unrewarding fourth place, the team’s pride in its own accomplishments ultimately won out. The girls gained back the belief that they can hold their own among the world’s elite. That is perhaps the biggest win of the tournament. In 2022, they improved their performance impressively. During the course of the World Cup, they become a tight-knit unit that played a highly attractive game of hockey. This was evident in the statistics, which impressed me enormously: the team carved out a goal-scoring opportunity every three minutes. That’s more than any other team.
ON TOP: Let’s look to the future. How are you preparing to succeed at Paris 2024?
Valentin Altenburg: The end of October is the starting shot for the Danas’ next chapter. Obviously, the goal is to qualify directly for the Olympic Games in Paris. The first opportunity for us to quality is the European Championships here in Germany, in Mönchengladbach next summer. The winners of the European title will qualify. We will therefore continue working on reliably winning knockout games on our own steam.
ON TOP: What do you expect from the German team at next year’s olympics?
Valentin Altenburg: In Paris and during the run-up to it, I expect a strong and courageous German team. I want to be part of a team of coaches and players that is proactive, dominates the game, and can swing even the tough matches in its favour.
ON TOP: Let’s look even further forward. How is German hockey doing for young talent?
Valentin Altenburg: Very well! This year, our juniors were European champions and placed second in the World Cup. We have a great many promising young players coming up, which I’m looking forward to.
ON TOP: Let’s take a look back. How has the relationship between coaches and players developed and changed in the last 10 years?
Valentin Altenburg: 10 years ago, the national coaches were the primary source of knowledge. What they demanded and instructed was “law”. Today, however, the players are allowed to question what comes from the team leadership – for example, whether something is logical or even counterproductive. There is a lot more autonomy and self-confidence.
What’s more, decisions need to be backed up with an explanation. The relationship has changed: less one-way street, more equal. The coach’s authority comes more from their actual performance than from their position. The best part about it: these changes have the potential to intensify the relationship between players and coaches.
Another change: I have been working on national coach teams for several years. I need and expect my players to work well as a team. However, it was difficult for me personally to lead by example. Thanks to this more equal coaching team, there are fewer blind spots, fewer stubborn solo efforts, and it’s less lonely to be a national coach.
ON TOP: What trends have you observed in hockey lately, in terms of tactics, fitness, skill and game formats?
Valentin Altenburg: The current megatrend, of course, is the use of the drag-flick, including in the circle – especially because almost all players can now use it outside of a running game. This leads to even faster bridging of distances and thus sets a high standard for the players’ running performance and the technical skill of the game when performing flicks.
ON TOP: What is the biggest change in the hockey game that you have noticed in the last ten years?
Valentin Altenburg: The self-pass has revolutionised field hockey, while making it absolutely unique. The self-pass is undoubtedly the signature move of our sport.
ON TOP: What do you think of England’s application to host the Men’s Hockey World Cup at Tottenham Football Stadium?
Valentin Altenburg: I think it’s great. Hockey has a long and special tradition in England; not to mention, the English hockey audience is simply fantastic. And the new stadium with capacity for 62,850 spectators – it’s simply magnificent. I hope some of the spirit of the old White Hart Lane still resides there…
ON TOP: Let’s talk “great players” – who are the best players you have ever seen?
Valentin Altenburg: Off the top of my head – Björn Emmerling and Moritz Fürste are the most versatile players I have ever worked with. Dutchman Teun de Nooijer is the best I have ever had the opportunity to watch.
ON TOP: Which players currently stand out?
Valentin Altenburg: It’s difficult to give a succinct answer. There are countless top players worldwide. Among the women, it’s María Granatto and Margot van Geffen who make the difference. Among the men, Thierry Brinkman plays with a very special quality.
ON TOP: María José Granatto was “Player of the 2022 Women’s World
Cup” – what makes her so good?
Valentin Altenburg: She is difficult to part from the ball, very agile, and very driven towards the goal. Her game thrives on her high technical quality and creativity in one-on-one play.
ON TOP: Last question: Hockey 5s. The Die Hockey 5s World Cup will take place in early 2024. What does German hockey make of Hockey 5s – a new, super fast, quick version of hockey?
Valentin Altenburg: German hockey is still sceptical about it, as am I. Hockey 5s was developed as a low-threshold entry-level version of hockey, playable on every imaginable surface. I’m convinced that it can be a suitable option, if that is the goal. Whether it belongs in high-performance sport and can establish itself there remains to be seen in the coming years.
ON TOP: Thank you, Valentin Altenburg, for this informative interview. And good luck to you and the Danas in Paris!