What do you think of when you hear “The Netherlands”? Do you think of Amsterdam with its flowing canals and limitless allures? Perhaps you think of windmills, or the rows of tulips so proudly presented in Holland, Michigan. Next time, think field hockey — a sport which the country’s women have dominated.
“We’re the best in the world, and it’s one of the biggest sports in the Netherlands,” Isa Van Der Weij, one of four Dutch players for Michigan State field hockey, said.
Since the 1980 Moscow Olympic games, the Netherlands have medaled at all but two games, including three gold. Many of the country’s rising stars come to the United States to continue playing while also obtaining an education.
“It’s a good opportunity, of course, coming to America — getting a great experience, something really new,” freshman Merel Hanssen, who is also from the Netherlands, said.
It’s common to look across college rosters and find Dutch players sprinkled among both domestic and other international players. Though the sport might be the same, the experiences from home to MSU are quite different. Player Aisha Osigna recalls this change.
“Its very different because, back home, we only play club. And schools are separate. So, if you decide after high school to go to a new city for your four year university, you have to switch clubs and find a new team,” Osigna said. “Here, you basically just choose the field hockey team first, then you look for your major.”
With many schools jockeying for their attention, the choice can be difficult. But at MSU, there is a standout factor for Dutch prospects: head coach Helen Knull.
“I wanted a big school. I wanted to play a high level of field hockey,” freshman Nienke Bloemsaat said. ”We could talk with the coaches if they were interested in you, and I talked to Helen and she really felt like a mother.”
This feeling was echoed by Bloemsaat’s teammates.
“I chose Helen,” Osigna said. “We talk to the coaches mainly, and for me, Helen was number one.”
Hanssen said coach Knull is “really engaged with us, she really cares about us.”
The ninth-year head coach shares international experiences with the players, being born and raised in Scotland.
“I joke all the time that I’ve got two biological children, but I have 20 adult kids I look after every day,” Knull said. “I still remember clearly my freshman year. I had a family of every team I was on. The girls looked after me, and that’s something that we talk about here.”
Knull’s conversations don’t go unnoticed.
“She’s genuinely interested in our day, she’s like ‘how did school go today?’ and it just felt really secure,” Van Der Weij said.
Through the sport, borders are meaningless. The bonds built on a team make it more than a game.
“We’re a family. We bring people in and we help them out,” Knull said. “I think part of my responsibility as their coach — if they’re coming 4,000 miles from home — is you’ve got to help guide them and help mentor them.”
Through her position as head coach, Knull said she sees an opportunity to not only to help her players progress in their game, but in life.
“It’s part of coaching. We’re educators. We’re teaching them to be better people at the end of the day,” Knull said.
“We talk all the time about lessons they learn in hockey that they’re going to have in the workplace, whether it’s conflict, whether it’s the understanding of hard work and determination,” Knull said. “The things that we do here will translate to life.”