Thomas Briels: Hockey star, Olympic medalist and a practising podiatricDecember 1, 2017
BHUBANESHWAR: In recent years of international hockey, no team has captured the imagination like the Belgium men’s national team. They have consistently punched above their weights, surprised everyone with an attractive, counter-attacking style of play and crashed the barrier to establish themselves among the elite teams in the present world hockey order. They first defied logics to enter bulldoze their way to the Rio Olympics final where they were denied the gold by Argentina. Then, a year later, they again left a lasting impression with a silver medal at the European Championship.
What makes their rise interesting is the fact that hockey in Belgium doesn’t enjoy the same status as in other top-ranked nations. Be it in terms of popularity or financially rewarding, it is still not considered a viable career option. That is the reason why Belgian hockey players are taught to learn a life skill to ensure that they can live off comfortably after the end of their professional careers.
Even Thomas Briels, the captain of the current Belgium hockey team, has already built himself an alternative career that doesn’t concern hockey. Briels, a striker, is a triple-Olympian who has an Olympic silver medal to his name apart from bronze and silver medals at the Euro Championship and has also won a bucketful of trophies playing at the club level – both in Belgium and the Netherlands. You would expect someone boasting his kind of portfolio to have made it big in life with a secured financial future. Well, turns out it’s not the case.
The 30-year-old hockey star divided his team between playing professional hockey and studying to be a, wait for it, podiatrist. Not many would have heard the word podiatrist let alone know what that stands for. As per American Association of Colleges of Podiatric Medicine, a podiatrist “diagnoses and treats conditions affecting the foot, ankle and related structures of the leg.”
“I played professional hockey and simultaneously studied for podiatry,” Briels told TOI after he had just finished a high-intensity practice session ahead of Belgium’s Odisha Hockey World League Final opener against Argentina on Saturday. “In finished that in 2015. Now I am working one day a week on Wednesday and the rest of the week I am playing hockey. I am learning and get a bit of experience in podiatry. Hopefully when I stop, I want to teach kids, share with them my experience what I have learnt, maybe some coaching. I am going to combine the two – practice a podiatrist and coaching hockey.”
With their rapid improvement, has the sport now become interesting, if not preferred, career option in Belgium, Briels has no hesitation in stating otherwise. Hockey players are still advised to study or work part-time to learn something to fall back upon after finishing professional hockey. “No, it’s still the same. See, you can easily live off hockey during your professional career but afterwards you cannot save enough money to have a secured future. So, you have to study or work part-time. Basically learn something else. Some players take to coaching, others go for studies. In the end, you can combine high level sports with studies and it makes you better. Makes you smarter as a person. For me, it’s really important to do something else from hockey. Mentally, it is also good to sometimes focus on something else other than hockey,” Briels revealed.
But things are improving at home. And after their excellent performances at the international level, funding has increased, the national federation has become more professional. “We’ve a good federation – it has become much more professional than it was ten years ago. They have worked on it. There’s more funding and players have also become more professional. Everything around hockey in Belgium is getting more professional,” he said.
Hockey is not as financially rewarding as other sports, especially football, which is highly popular in Belgium. The current crop of Belgian players might be a gifted lot but can performance alone attract future generation to take up the sport? Briels, who has clocked 282 international caps till date, has an interesting take on that.
“You get a lot of things out of hockey. It’s not just about the money. You can travel the world. By playing sports at a highest level, you can learn a lot as a person. There’s a lot of pressure when you are competing at the top level and you learn a lot. You become disciplined, more professional. I think you can learn a lot of things which cannot be taught in school. Hockey has given a lot to me. Even though we do not learn as much as footballers, there are little kids who look up to and it’s a nice thing to be an inspiration to younger generation,” said Briels.
Belgium might be dishing one strong performance after another, Briels made it clear that the team’s biggest target remains to win a major international trophy. They have come close to achieving recently in Rio 2016 and Euro Championship 2017 but had to contend with runners-up medal.