Defender Arthur Van Doren has driven Belgium from perennial runners-up to multiple major championship winners and the world’s no.1 men’s hockey team. Here, he reveals how, as well as explaining why introspection and banishing his smartphone have helped him turn the COVID-19-enforced lockdown into a positive.
The excitement in Arthur Van Doren’s voice is palpable. Professional athletes in their prime rarely get a chance to breathe, let alone the opportunity to reflect on their achievements, but right now the Belgian has time on his hands.
“If I look at the finals we won, how the team reacted, how we went about our business, and compare it to finals we lost or tournaments we didn’t win, there was a different mindset,” said Van Doren, who has been a key part of the Belgium men’s team which lifted both the 2018 World Cup and the 2019 EuroHockey Championship. “Different things were said. Things that weren’t obvious in the beginning are obvious now.”
These significant successes came on the back of two consecutive near misses: first, silver at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, and then the second-place finish at the 2017 EuroHockey Championship. Both were formative, if painful, experiences.
“We were a young team, and our country was inexperienced in winning big tournaments, so it was something we just had to learn. We wanted to go quickly, but experience told us that you do need to play big games, play finals, first, and then you take that with you,” explained the man who was named the International Hockey Federation’s player of the year in both 2017 and 2018, and was runner-up in 2019.
“The team that won the World Cup was a far more experienced and better team than [the one that] won silver at the Olympics. It doesn’t mean we played better at the World Cup or that we weren’t lucky at some points; it’s just that we were a lot further down in our experience, in our mindset, as to how to become world champions. It is pretty cool to see how we progressed.
“ It’s just that certain things in certain games don’t always have to be that pretty. That’s something you have to learn. We are getting a bit of a feeling on how to do it now.”
They certainly are. The nation’s first World Cup win, secured in Bhubaneswar, India, courtesy of a penalty shootout victory over the Netherlands, was one thing. Triumphing in front of a rabid home crowd a year later to take a first European title was something else altogether.
“I have goosebumps just hearing you speak about it,” Van Doren laughed. “The moment you said Europeans, I think about the Belgian crowds. That [the final] was a crazy day. I have rarely seen a team that focused – whatever was going to happen, we were going to be European champions at the end of that day.
Catch me if you can! 👋💨 pic.twitter.com/H5JgfIJ0Sk— Arthur Van Doren (@ArthurVDoren) May 29, 2019
“Those were the championships where the team gained a lot of experience, a lot of knowledge of each other’s qualities.”
The memories are clearly good to relive, even if he is not used to doing so. But, as for many, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown normalities out the window.
“Normally, as an athlete, your life is pretty planned; everything is set and they [coaches and administrators] create an environment around you where you can develop yourself every day and get the best out of [yourself], but all that has fallen away at once,” the 25-year-old said.
“In the past, I have always done it by working towards a target. That’s why you never get a rest – you are always on to the next thing: ‘Oh, it would be super cool if we had that, did this’. But that is missing now. You have to take it how it comes, I guess. Better [to] go with the flow.”
Van Doren lives alone in Antwerp and has found the solitude of lockdown hard to deal with, particularly because he derives a lot of his energy from “being around people, listening to people and interacting with people”.
He has, however, tried hard to avoid turning straight to technology whenever he feels the pang of loneliness.
“In the beginning, with nothing to do and being pretty much alone the whole time, I always had the phone in my hand, I was always looking at stuff. So with Thomas Briels [Belgium’s team captain], we did a thing together where in the morning and the evening for a few hours we would agree to turn our phones off – get away from all that technology. It was pretty fun actually. Nine times out of 10 you take your phone and you look at stuff just to look at stuff, and it’s not that it’s urgent or anything.”
So, instead of looking outside for solutions, he turned inward.
“It has been one-year-and-a-half nonstop performing in big tournaments, so it has been nice to have a little bit of physical and mental rest. Zero influences from outside, taking a little bit of time for myself.
“I am training, obviously, in the morning and the afternoon, but [since] the moment everything was cancelled, instead of training super hard all the time, I have been taking the opportunity to do a yoga session or a stretching session or a recovery session, just to let my body heal a bit.”
His thoughts have turned regularly to Tokyo and the chance to improve on his Olympic silver medal. For a team on such a roll, the postponement of the 2020 Games by 12 months was an undoubted blow. But, as their talismanic figure says, “there is only one way of looking at it – with a positive mindset”.
It helps that he has nothing but incredible memories of his first Olympic experience.
“I just enjoyed pretty much everything,” he said with a large grin. “I am a sports freak, so I loved that every minute of the day you have something you want to see – it’s a sports overload. I got so much energy from it. It’s ridiculous. I loved it.”