Our mental attitude let us down in Ghana – Serunjogi

Tough times. Small size, big heart. Joy Serunjogi confronts South Africa’s Shirndree-Lee Simmons in their Pool A meeting at the Africa Cup of Nation. PHOTOS / MAKHTUM MUZIRANSA

What you need to know:

  • The Hockey She Cranes finished bottom of the eight participating teams – losing all their five matches, conceding 24 goals and scoring just once in what was a clearly rude welcome to the continental stage

Passionate. Uganda made its debut at the women’s Africa Cup of Nations last month. The Hockey She Cranes finished bottom of the eight participating teams – losing all their five matches, conceding 24 goals and scoring just once in what was a clearly rude welcome to the continental stage. Our reporter Makhtum Muziransa caught up with right winger Joy Eve Nakanyike Serunjogi, 20, to find out why it is not all doom and gloom for the players that were on the receiving end of this baptism of fire.

Welcome back from Ghana. What was the experience like?

Thank you. Ghana was fun, it was a learning experience and my first tournament as a national team member. So you can imagine I was very excited to participate. Getting to meet the teams we see on different hockey apps or links like South Africa and Ghana was exciting and of course I made a few friends from all the teams.  The downside is that I badly wanted to play Kenya but we did not get the chance. I got to learn from my mistakes and how other teams organize players in my position. That helped me put my game together.

And off pitch?

Off pitch, we were staying next to the beach and it was beautiful to watch the ocean every morning, the sunrise. Unfortunately, most moments after matches I was so down because our points were not matching the three months we spent preparing. But I believe if we got another chance, we would do better.

I can read the mixed feelings but how do you rate the performance overall?

On a scale of one to 10, it was (long pause)…. six and this is why.

Basing on the background and where we have come from, a win at the tournament and scoring more goals would make it a 10.

Really? Six after losing all games?

Hmm maybe, maybe not.

If you put other things like the teams we played plus their experience and consistency in participating at these tournaments into consideration, we did good.

Ahead of the match with South Africa, many people expected us to concede many goals but we kept them to just 10, which was better than Zambia that conceded 13.

I am not saying conceding all that is good but anyone who watched how we fought in every duel can tell we gave our all.

We can definitely do better especially on the mental side of things. I saw other teams recover from situations like conceding goals and we were unable to do that.

Remember how the Egypt men recovered from going 2-0 down to Nigeria to win 4-2.

Our mental attitude is still going to let us down if we do not work on believing in ourselves till the final whistle.

If the team was a six, and your influence on it was really clear, how do you rate your personal performance? And did you expect to play such a stellar role and be the team’s psyche woman?

Well (laughs), I did not know if I should have expected that but when I participate in something, I want to leave an impact.

I strive to be remembered for something and I am happy that I could contribute something that people now refer to. (Seru as she is mostly known by her colleagues led Uganda’s pre-match psyche before all games and also used it to cheer on the men’s team).

For my performance, I can do way better than I did but I am proud of so many things I did that I did not think I could do – like stick control. I do not know how that came but I was able to do that throughout the tournament.

Yes, there were moments I lost the ball and made some position movement errors but looking at all the other team’s play and marking myself against the players from other teams playing in the same position, I think I got better and better throughout the tournament.

My favourite game was the one against South Africa because I got out feeling that I had left every bit of my energy on the field.

 Was it also the toughest game?

Naturally, people would feel that but the toughest for me was Zimbabwe. Namibia was not as tough but again our mental attitude let us down because they scored first and we dropped our level.

For South Africa, we played hard but they scored the goals. However, before that we had played Zimbabwe and marking them was too hard.

They were too fast, probably faster than the South Africans. You just could not get anywhere near them. You were there, what do you think?

I agree. Zimbabwe’s high press was out of this world. For like three quarters, except for some moments in the second, they could not let you (Uganda) get the ball out of defence. 100 percent.

 Anyway, tell me about the classification games after that against Nigeria and Zambia. The mood in camp was that you should have won those.

For those, I think we could have been tougher. I do not know if I am making sense but against Zimbabwe and South Africa, we gave our all but they were at another level.

For the two classification games, we were not as aggressive as we can be. I felt we could have beaten Zambia and come home with at least that win just like the men did against Namibia but again we let them score so early and we recovered late.

So what exactly was happening? Uganda struggled to score goals, how disappointing!

Well it was not just disappointing but extremely unacceptable. After all the time we sacrificed, the energy we put into training so much so that on some days, we were running on empty – at least I was.

Then you go for a tournament and score just one goal. At times we even fear to share our results but we to take a deep look at ourselves without blaming anyone and I will try.

Go on.

The defenders were doing their best and well, we would all fall back when the pressure was too much to take but the problem was that when we conceded, some people would switch off and the blame games started.

And once we switched off, playing became harder and the team just fell into defensive positions. It was so bad that even when the defenders won the ball, we were not in the right positions as wingers and midfielders to receive it and carry it to the forwards.

Maybe that is something we can work on going forward – playing through these tough pressure situations and turning them into our advantage, for example, through counter attacks.

We talked through all these things, by the way, and left Ghana with everyone having shared their opinions.

I know that you just came from school straight into the national team. Of course with a few club matches last year you have not been in Lugogo for so long but do you feel that as a group, you were able to get past club rivalries and represent the nation as a unit?

I think so. I feel the balance was there because most clubs had not just representatives on the team but key players for us.

Key players earn everyone’s respect and I personally did not see, on pitch, anything like a certain group of players trying to play for themselves or each other.

So what is next for you?

I have just returned to school to do medicine at university (Makerere).

Many people say that once you join medical school, playing gets hard but I want to see how that goes.

I am very interested in playing for my club – Kampala (KHC). But I know that it is not going to be easy with the school schedule but whenever I can, I will be out there representing.

I am very happy about the opportunity I got to represent my country and I believe I have even grown to love the sport even more.

What, among the things you learnt in Ghana, are you taking to KHC?

Ghana to KHC, I am bringing vibes (laughs). It is so much I learned from my South African friends especially. Because I wanted to know why they are better than any other teams in Africa.

There are tips and strategies I will share with the team and the coaches, I cannot tell you because other teams will read them in the newspapers but I promise we will get better in the league.

Hockey is also the same but what matters is how much you push and the strategies you bring into the game.

 The coaches? How was it working with the national team coaches?

I really want to first thank them for the time they invested in making us get better. I took two years not playing and they are the reason I got better and managed to get selected in just three months.

I thank coach Francesco (Richichi) for coming all the way from Italy to just give us his time, the strategies that made us better game after game and generally for being involved in Ugandan hockey. It is a huge gesture and I am happy to have made good friends with him.

Coach (Moses) Nsereko of course is an all-rounder and spent the longest time with us in training.

He is good on strategy, mental aspects of the game and he knows when to make the team laugh and when to demand seriousness.

The ladies team did not work with coach (Vincent) Kasasa but he is my coach from school. He taught me the game at (Mt. St. Mary’s College) Namagunga and I want to thank him for the work he did with the men’s team as they had moments when they made us so proud of our nation and sport.

With the schools you have been to (Namagunga for Ordinary Level and King’s College Budo for Advanced Level), how did you get into hockey? One would have expected you to be more into your books.

I started playing in 2015 at Namagunga but it was not like I went to the field and fell in love with it.

However, the Senior Twos that welcomed me to the school, laid my bed and put me in the system of the school, I’d later find out, were hockey players.

I think the good gesture is a strategy they use to get people into the sport because after my parents had left, they told me about the sport and urged me to go see them playing the next day at the pitch.

Joining the team, called Prawlers, turned out to be a good decision as they are the best group of people I have ever been around. You know how girls in Namagunga can have class but that did not exist among Prawlers as everyone was treated equally.

It was also fun moving out of school to play tournaments and having something else beyond books to do. I love to work out and sport was a good way to relate with others, relax, keep healthy and clear the mind to later on take in information from class.

But when I went to Budo, my parents felt it was wise to give hockey a break so I could do my best at school. I listened because they had been very supportive of my sports career and always encouraged me to travel for tournaments.

Any last words to hockey playing girls that would love to be on the national team?

First of all, they should not give up. It is sad when people are called to work to be on the national team and they quit early – feeling that some players are better than them.

I had that thought at the beginning too. I hardly played hockey for two years at the end of (secondary) school.

Some of my teammates here went to national (Uganda Secondary Schools Sports Association games) and regional (Federation of East Africa Secondary Schools Sports Association) games, where Kakungulu Memorial returned with the trophy.

They have played club games and were so good. But I came with the right mental attitude and here I am.

Come here make friend, relate with everyone but do not try to understand everyone and you will pull through.

On making friends

So Thuwaibah Kiggundu scored the lone goal – a consolation in that game against Zambia. She was one of the youngest players, just like you, on the team. How happy were you that it was one of your ilk?

I was excited! She was actually my roommate in Ghana. We danced for her in the room and bought her ice cream. She achieved something so huge that it is going to be talked about for years that she scored our first ever goal at the tournament. And she told me how the headteacher was so proud of her being on the national team going to Ghana and how he introduced her to the staff members after she joined Kibuli SS from Kawempe Muslim SS. (Kiggundu, 18, is a senior five student at Kibuli having completed her Ordinary Level at Kawempe)

So for her to go back with such an achievement is a plus and who knows how it goes. It sets a nice image and probably opens new doors because I heard Kibuli once had hockey so maybe it could get back into the game. Adding another school to the association is something that causes more positive impact.

Speaking roommates, how was the togetherness of the team off the pitch?

I cannot say it was excellent but we developed strong bonds that could see us through the tournament. There were a few cliques here and there of people who felt they were better off staying and hanging out together. But we were one team. There were people who brought card games that would bring us together and closer. We would dance, swim and visit each other’s rooms so yeah, there was a bond.

So which friends did you make away from your clubmates?

Aisha Kagere. I used to call her mummy Aisha. She is from Weatherhead but we were never that close before yet she is a popular figure in hockey circles. Now we get on very well. And of course my roomies; Thuwaibah, Lamula (Nakajjumba) who are both in Weatherhead and Jolly Alimo from Wananchi. Of course I also got closer to the sisters; Winnie Alaro is from DCU and Norah Alum, who was our captain, plus Lucky (Akello). I knew Doreen Asiimwe before but we got even closer during preparation for the tournament.