Belgium’s Arthur Van Doren is dominating world hockey right now. In the past two seasons, the 23-year-old defender has not only driven his unfancied team to silver at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games and silver at the 2017 European Championships in Amsterdam, he has also picked up the 2017 International Hockey Federation’s (FIH) male player of the year award. Here, he chats about hockey stick superstition; reveals why he picked the sport over tennis; and recalls the early morning hours he and his brother spent immersed in the Beijing 2008 Games.
Traditionally, goal-scorers get all the glory in sport, but defenders are just as important, aren’t they?
I do love a good tackle as much as I like a beautiful goal. Often the simplicity for me is as beautiful as the most amazing dribble. But I don’t just focus on defence. I like to look at the bigger picture, the complete game. I really like to watch our games back. I want to see the whole picture. I want to see if I have missed anything or to see the running lines the strikers are taking.
What was it about hockey that first grabbed your attention?
One of the biggest things I love is the team dynamic. I also played individual sports, particularly tennis, when I was young; but I would always pick a team sport over an individual sport. I love the team vibe, the way you work to get to a goal together; and if you reach a goal, there is pretty much nothing better than that feeling.
Did you end up having to make a choice between tennis and hockey?
I played tennis until I was 13/14 and then hockey started getting too big. When I was 15, I started playing in the first team at (KHC) Dragons (Van Doren’s club side in Belgium); and then two years later I was in the national team, and that is when it went really big.
I played a reasonable level (in tennis), but I was at a really high level in hockey at a really young age, so that made the choice a bit easier. Tennis is a difficult sport to get to the top, and I don’t know if I had the ability to really make it. But you never know.
What other sports with sticks do you excel in?
I love golf. I am a really big fan. I go to European Tour events; I know Thomas Pieters (Belgian Ryder Cup player).
A lot of hockey players are golfers. We try and play when we are away, say, in South Africa or New Zealand. We love it. I play off eight at the moment.
Are you the best golfer in the Belgian squad?
Good question. I need to organise a tournament to know that. A lot of guys will point to themselves for that trophy.
You are seen as the best hockey player in the world right now – but what else could you be the best at in the world?
There is not something that comes to mind!
In team sport, a big part of winning an individual award has to go to the team. You can’t do anything by yourself. I just try to train hard every day and keep developing myself as a player and a person. It’s not that I wake up and think, ‘I have to be the best at this now.’ I am just trying to make a step every week and at every training session.
Tell us about hockey sticks: do elite players have their trusted favourites or is the technology always developing?
Every player is a bit different. Some of the guys are really superstitious: when they are playing well, they really want to always play with the same sticks for the whole season. So if they don’t break, they will just keep playing with them.
Other guys love new gear, new colours. If the sponsors get new models, they’ll use them.
For me, I am playing with a stick that is made for me personally. They send me four sticks a year.
What role have the Olympic Games have played in your life to date?
I have always looked up to the Olympic Games. I remember sitting in front of the television with my brother, watching all the different sports for hours and hours. We set our alarm clocks for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. I remember how we were stoked for those Games and knew that one day we wanted to play in them.
Looking back at Rio, it was an unbelievable journey. It puts a big smile on my face.
And how do you feel when you look forwards to Tokyo 2020?
We have been busy developing our game and our team, so we will be even better than we were in Rio. It’s working pretty well. We are happy with where we are going. We have a few big tournaments before, and these short-term goals are important on the way towards a long-term aim like the Olympics.
The men’s team has done really well in major tournaments recently without ever quite finishing first. How do you turn those silvers into golds?
If I knew the answer, I would have more golds in my wallet. Looking back at it, maybe we over-achieved with this team at the beginning, and the expectations and ambitions kept growing.
We have developed well and now it is about making that final step. Those big games are often decided on details, and so it’s about getting those details right and making the right choices under a lot of pressure and when fatigued. When we get those things in order, we can win something big.
But the good thing in hockey nowadays is that there is not really one team overpowering the rest. You have a bunch of teams that are really close, and it’s about which team is playing better on the day. It’s really exciting for the fans.