The hard road to glory

Alan Hubbard sees a military exercise in togetherness designed to help an Olympic campaign

LIonesses were on the loose in Bedfordshire last week. A veritable pride, in fact. Almost a couple of dozen of them tired, hungry and in search of a killing. No need to call in the military, though. They knew all about it. In fact, it was their idea.

LIonesses were on the loose in Bedfordshire last week. A veritable pride, in fact. Almost a couple of dozen of them tired, hungry and in search of a killing. No need to call in the military, though. They knew all about it. In fact, it was their idea.

We should explain. Exercise Lioness, as it was labelled, involved 23 members of Great Britain's women's hockey squad being called up by the Royal Air Force for a challenge in team building which saw them braving the elements, sleeping rough and generally tested to their physical limits. Jolly hockey sticks it certainly wasn't.

But the Lionesses survived the ordeal and will now go on to stalk their real prey - the Olympic gold medal in Sydney in September.

"They are certainly a tough bunch," observed rugby-playing Flt Lt Ryan Johnson, one of the officers drilling them through their paces. "One of the fittest groups I have ever encountered."

Just as well. On the first night the squad were transported to a remote part of the countryside north of Bromham - "About as wild as you can get in Bedfordshire," according to the project officer, Rod Marshall, also a flight lieutenant. They were split into three groups - defence, midfield and attack, the formations for the rest of the exercise - given rucksacks, iron rations, a compass and a parachute and told to find their way back to base camp and get in undetected.

Some three-and-a-half hours later, towards the thick end of midnight, they had all made it by hunting in packs, a trek of 14km which made old-fashioned orienteering seem a doddle. They cooked their beans and tinned sausages, and then discovered what their parachute was for. It was home for the night, a makeshift tepee which had to be slung over a tree. The alternative was a night under the stars fending off the mosquitoes.

Next day came a lesson in how to survive a flash flood by making a 3ft-high pyramid from pine poles; stretcher races; an obstacle race through swamps and over an assault course; and another where objects had to be retrieved from a muddy stream, with the unit members roped together on their run.

Plus mind-stretching mental exercises such as building a selfpropelling model vehicle out of four balloons, two pencils, 10 elastic bands, a couple of cardboard files, 10 paper clips and some Sellotape. Finally, just when they thought it was all over, the entire squad had to form a human bridge with only their hands touching the ground. Simple? Then do try this one at home.

"How do you feel?" we asked Britain's most illustrious woman hockey player, the multi-capped Jane Sixsmith, as she tried to regain her composure after the three-day exertion. "Knackered," she gasped.

And so said all of them. None knew in advance what the guys from RAF Henlow had in store for them but Rod Marshall, Ryan Johnson and their assistants John Gallagher and Len Turner had devised a fascinating, if a tad fiendish, test specially adapted from the one org- anised for officers and occasionally young gentlemen from Rotary clubs and the like.

"In all my years in hockey I've never experienced anything like it," said the 32-year-old Sixsmith, who is known throughout the sport as "Jasper" because of her carrot-top and Brummie accent. "If we had to have done this 10 months ago, we wouldn't have got through it, but fortunately we have been together a lot and have trained pretty vigorously." Sixsmith, the right-winger who has scored well over 100 international goals, is coming up for her fourth, and probably last, Olympics, though she said that before Atlanta. "Basically, this has been learning to cope with the unexpected. If you can tackle that off the field then it makes unexpected situations on the field easier to deal with."

But how much difference will a bit of bull make once you bully off? "Only time will tell," says the team captain, Sue Chandler, also 32, a South London schoolteacher. "But I believe it will have a very positive effect. It was a good opportunity for different members of the team, not just me as captain, to take responsibility. Women are not actually born leaders. They'll take a back seat until someone tells them, 'Right, you're in charge', and that's exactly what's happened here. It's been about taking responsibility as an individual and working together as a team, knowing how to make decisions and when to make them."

As the Lionesses know, it will be a jungle out there in Sydney, and the Bedfordshire experiment can only serve to toughen their resolve, as well as their physique. Britain, bronze medallists in Barcelona and fourth in Atlanta, qualified by beating the emergent Chinese, and during the past six months they have also defeated three of the world's top nations, Australia, Holland and Germany.

Jon Royce, a former schoolteacher who has been national coach since October, believes there is a medal to be won. He has to whittle the squad down to 16 and says: "In a way this is what this exercise has also been about. Creating an atmosphere of honesty and trust. When it comes to it they know there'll be no bullshitting. I'll tell them exactly where they stand. That's how they would want it."

Royce co-ordinated ExerciseLioness with the RAF, suggesting the buzz words should be: Respons-ibility, Communication, Leadership, Teamwork and Trust. To the layperson it may all sound like coaching mumbo-jumbo, but in Bedfordshire last week it looked as if it was working a treat. Indeed, the only disappointing element came on Tuesday night when, as part of their team bonding, it was decided to watch England's Euro 2000 match against Romania. Not an uplifting experience as they saw England fall apart.

Maybe, though, there is a thought here for Kevin Keegan. Never mind Sgt Wilko, Kev; give Flt Lt Marshall a call. When it comes to teachingdefenders how to think for themselves he might have just the thing for England's rehabilitation. That is if the lads don't mind the rucksacks and the mozzies. Not to mention the parachutes.

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