Jono Cook talks to the man at the helm of Northwood hockey
AT Northwood, a boy ascends from being a squire to the ultimate accolade, a Northwood Knight – a proud member of the Durban North schools’ community of Old Boys.
In the Middle Ages, a knight was an Englishman who served his sovereign or lord as a mounted soldier in armour.
In a sense, that is the part being played in the service of Northwood hockey by this talent factory’s director of the sport, a position he got his teeth into this year.
Shaun Baker, one could imagine, is the right man in the right place at exactly the right time. And like so many good stories, it began with a realisation, then a dream, followed by a plan…
The Shaun Baker hockey tale began as a six-year-old in a fun tournament in Estcourt, the town where he grew up. The George Forder seven-a-side tournament was where the love affair was born.
“As far back as I can remember, hockey dictated my life … and continues to do so with my career. I played for KZN Midlands [now KZN Inland] U13 and soon found myself at Maritzburg College where my passion for success in hockey grew and was nurtured, particularly by Mike Bechet. I was lucky enough to have played for four years under Bech, from grade nine as a bench boy/water boy/ bag carrier/ball collector to my matric year in 2002 where I had the honour of captaining the Red Army.
“Bech taught me many of the skills I own and have developed in my coaching and playing career. He is undoubtedly one of my role models and I can’t thank him enough for the support I continue to receive from him.”
Post-school, Baker’s teaching degree was part of the plan – a plan that he was ultimately going to coach professionally down the line. The journey began in earnest when Bakes played and coached at several clubs, schools and in the KZN provincial teams before deciding to further his career as a player and coach in the UK.
“It was there where I gained so much from the experience life had to offer both on and off the pitch in many different countries through playing, coaching and travelling.”
A director of hockey position at Bryanston School ensued in 2012. A season in the Brisbane Premier League and a coaching stint in the Gold Coast Premier League in Australia added to the Bake hockey armoury. But home is where the heart is.
“I made the decision to move back to South Africa for the most important people in my life, my parents. Seeing them at most once a year, was just not good enough. Things fell into place and I was fortunate enough that the Northwood family saw the value I could offer … the decision was an easy one.”
So what has this hockey soldier’s time in Europe and Australia taught him?
“My time over there has broadened my mindset on many factors of life in general and this has filtered through positively into my coaching. In 2009, I went over assured and confident in my abilities as a coach but I was very quickly eaten alive by some of the best coaches England and Australia had to offer. It was a sink-or-swim moment in my career, particularly in Australia where the style of hockey and the perception of the game is so different to anywhere else I have experienced.”
The effect was that it made Mr Baker question his coaching structures, planning of training sessions and opened his eyes to a new way of seeing the game.
“I now see the game so much more simplistically and have a better understanding for it - and a higher respect too. I am up there with the biggest hockey nerds in the world and I am always trying to test my limits, learn new ideas from other coaches at every opportunity I get.”
Having been away for some time, what does he see in the current SA schoolboy hockey set-up?
“I believe there are two main points I have seen with fresh eyes, coming in after eight years out of the circuit …
“South African schoolboy sport in general is too focussed on the national ranking for their schools and are therefore results-driven rather than performance-driven. It is no different in hockey, many players and coaches only care about the win/draw percentage rather than how well their team played. Process-based hockey will reap profitable rewards and I experienced this in both the UK and Australia.”
An example of this can be found in these comments: “Our matches with Maritzburg College (2-2) and Jeppe (0-1) were two of the best games of hockey I have seen at school level. The Rondebosch (2-4), SACS (3-1) and Paul Roos (4-2) matches at Founders Festival were high-end performances from both us and our opponents as well.”
Baker is pleased with the speed that his players’ hockey outlook is evolving.
“I have changed the way my Knights think about the game. It’s been in a short space of time and it is showing in our performances; they understand that if they play, well the
experience is enjoyable regardless of the result. I used to have a win-at- all-costs mentality myself but that is not how life works. Hard work and a good performance - even when the result doesn’t favour you - is way more powerful to any team and coach, if it is understood and harnessed.
“Willingness to share coaching ideas and plans. South African coaches by nature do not share ideas and coaching techniques yet we have some seriously talented coaches. Again, this was my approach but, being involved in two internationally established hockey playing nations, I learnt to share. It is a major part of the national development for coaches to share coaching ideas, structures, team building ideas etc with coaches from other clubs, schools and academies.
“When I was at the KES Easter Hockey Festival this year, I asked several coaches of teams that Northwood played if they were happy to share their game plan they implemented when playing us, for the most part, their facial expressions were priceless! I wasn’t asking to know how their respective schools play structurally, I wanted to know where they were trying to exploit us or limit our strengths.
“That provides me with knowledge of potential ‘blind-spots’ that I can then develop and eliminate in areas of weaknesses and develop and grow areas of strength. I am happy to sit with any coach and go through how we played against them and why, all it means is that the next time I face that coach, I have to be that much better. Surely that is a good thing?”
What is your ‘game plan’ to attract the rich talent that Durban North has to offer when the quality of KZN schools is so good?
“Haha …! So you are using my above answer to make me share my biggest secrets? Clever! Durban North is a community and communities look after and out for each other. That will be my catalyst to attract boys from within the community to Northwood. The fact that Northwood is literally in the heart of the Durban North community should make it the school of choice, which for many Durban North parents’, it is not.
“I understand that there will be allegiances to other schools because dad or brother went there etc, however, I will create a legacy through Northwood Hockey and Northwood School that will attract players because they want to be a part of something special, not because they were offered the biggest scholarship because they were the superstars of the local prep schools, but because they see the value in what I plan on doing for the school over the next 5 years.
“There are misconceptions about Northwood, however, being in the trenches myself and an employee of the school, I speak the truth when I say they are just that, perceptions without substance. For me, that is a great starting point, as I know how many families already send their boy/s to other schools based on this, it is therefore my priority to show the Durban North community the truth about this fine institution that is Northwood School.”
Best wishes to a fine hockey man.