Field HockeyNews

A Culture Change, Youth Movement Led U.S. Women’s Field Hockey Back To The Olympics

by Alex Abrams

Ashley Sessa celebrates after scoring in the women's gold-medal match against Team Argentina at the Pan American Games Santiago 2023 on Nov. 4, 2023 in Santiago, Chile. (Photo by Getty Images)

Members of the U.S. women’s field hockey team were in a playful mood on Jan. 18 as they danced, listened to music and kicked around a soccer ball.

The Americans wanted to stay relaxed and have some fun prior to their game against Japan in the semifinals of the FIH Hockey Olympic Qualifier in Ranchi, India. It was their fourth game in six days at the eight-team tournament, and they knew what was at stake.

All they needed to do was beat Japan to secure a spot in the Olympic Games Paris 2024, but U.S. women’s field hockey coach David Passmore didn’t want to discuss that with his players.

“I think the biggest mistake you can make as a coach is that you bring that up and you hype the game up too much,” Passmore said.

As soon as the game ended, though, the Americans rushed the field and started celebrating. They had rallied from a late one-goal deficit to knock off Japan, 2-1, and qualify for their first Olympics since finishing fifth at the Olympic Games Rio 2016.

The comeback victory capped an unlikely run for the U.S. that began last year when Passmore was hired to take over a program that needed more continuity and a culture change. He didn’t have a single player with Olympic experience on his roster in India.

“Obviously, the goal was to get to the Olympics,” Passmore said. “When did I ever think it was actually going to happen? Probably not till we were in the (Olympic qualifying) tournament. And realistically, not until the final whistle went (off) in the fourth game when we had qualified.

“And I think that’s the way you have to approach it. You have to be process-driven and not think. If you think too far ahead, you’re just gonna fall down.”

The Americans were ranked No. 12 in the world and not considered among the favorites heading into the Olympic qualifier. But they opened the tournament with a 1-0 upset of host India on Jan. 13 and then earned two more shutout wins over Italy and New Zealand to put themselves in position to qualify for Paris with a win over Japan.

After the U.S. surrendered its first goal of the tournament in the third quarter against Japan, Passmore said his players went on the attack mode. Ashley Hoffman tied it in the fourth quarter, and Abby Tamer scored the game-winner when she got a rebound, trapped the ball and launched a shot, hitting the back of the net.

The Americans began celebrating soon afterward, knowing that they’d be heading to the Paris Olympics in a few months.

“We all understood what each person felt, and I think we all understood the significance of what we had just done,” said Tamer, who stars at the University of Michigan and is one of several college players on the U.S. squad. “In the past, we might’ve not been able to overcome the deficit in the fourth quarter or not had the faith in ourselves to beat the No. 6-ranked team in the world (India) or to hold a lead like we did against New Zealand.

“But we’ve made so much progress in the past few months alone. To see that pay off in the form of Olympic qualification was so gratifying and such a testament to the work we’ve been putting in.”

Amanda Golini competes during a women's preliminary match at the Pan American Games Snatiago 2023 on Oct. 26, 2023 in Santiago, Chile. (Photo by Getty Images)

The U.S. went 4-1 at the qualifier and finished second behind only Germany.

Tamer said the biggest reason that the Americans enjoyed success at the tournament was because of the winning culture that Passmore has implemented over the past year.

When Passmore was hired in August 2022, the Irishman said the U.S. squad lacked continuity. It had moved from Pennsylvania to Charlotte, North Carolina, and the majority of the roster was made up of players who were still in college.

Passmore arrived in Charlotte three days after being hired and began the process of meeting with every player on the team. He sat down with players face-to-face and spoke with those players who were competing overseas in Europe and Australia over Zoom.

He also started looking to fill out the roster with college players who had a high skill set, good decision-making and the ability to play at an elite level.

“The first and foremost thing that I needed to do was build a program with enough athletes in it to create competition and where each athlete was pushing another to get better to create an environment and a culture of high performance,” Passmore said. “It was a young, inexperienced group, so building that culture was exceptionally important and has probably laid the foundations of where we’ve gotten to in terms of our qualification.”

The Americans will now have more time to jell before their first game in Paris.

The U.S. squad has remained in India since qualifying for this summer’s Olympics. They’ll spend a total of seven weeks training and playing tournaments in India, but Passmore said he wants his players to also relax and enjoy the moment while there.

“As a newer player, it can be really daunting to join a team like this with goals like what we have,” Tamer said. “But (our leadership have) made our team one that accepts new players and empowers them to be the best they can. We are also starting to gain more experience across the team, which I also think has a huge impact on our success.”

Considering how young the roster is, Passmore said he could see the team developing even more and becoming a much stronger medal contender at the Olympic Games Los Angeles 2028.

“It’s still a young team. The good thing about that is relatively we have a much lower number of caps than most of our opponents that we beat in the Olympic qualifier,” Passmore said. “But if you look forwards beyond Paris, most of this team would be the perfect age to peak around Los Angeles.”