China relaxed and ready
© AFP

There is a wind of change blowing through Chinese women's football and its name is Marika Domanski-Lyfors. When the China PR squad ended their preparation programme for this FIFA Women's World Cup with a five-day break at the end of August, it was unprecedented in the history of the team.

The players, who open their China 2007 campaign against Denmark on Wednesday, were instructed to report for training in Wuhan on 1 September, much later than Group D rivals Ghana and USA. Nevertheless, the gamble seemed to have paid off when, four days later, Domanski-Lyfors' team - their batteries fully recharged - trounced Hungary 4-0 in their final warm-up game. Not only did battling striker Ma Xiaoxu rediscover her scoring touch, the whole side appeared back on top form.

Domanski-Lyfors has lightened the mood in the camp no end by relying on similar training tactics to those which she used to propel the Sweden team to a runners-up spot at the FIFA Women's World Cup in 2003. In particular, she invited the close friends and family of all 21 members of the squad to the team hotel in Wuhan to spend time together with the players. Not only did the Chinese Football Association approve this novel idea, it also paid all the travel and accommodation expenses of the near 100-strong contingent.

If the players thought they were in for a punishing return to training on their arrival in Wuhan, they could not have been more wrong. In fact, the day after the Hungary match, the coach dispensed with the usual shooting practice, set up some nets and treated the players to a volleyball-style session of keepy-ups. In 2001, Bora Milutinovic had employed the same motivational techniques to great effect, helping the men's national team qualify for the FIFA World Cup™ for the first time.

Another technique introduced by Domanski-Lyfors is 'blind's man's dribbling', whereby a blindfolded player is paired with a team-mate who must give her partner directions to move the ball forward. This novel type of practice match was a real hit with the squad, although the Swede quickly reminded her players that, besides having fun, the point of the exercise was to remind them that "whether on the pitch or off it, you won't get far without support and teamwork".

Free rein
At the end of every training session, the players have been given free rein to enjoy the sights and sounds of Wuhan. On their arrival in Hubei's provincial capital, the coach even 'banned' the players from their rooms, instructing them to get out and enjoy some fresh air. Judging by the carefree expressions on the players' faces as they return to the hotel each day, the ploy has worked wonders for morale.

Midfielder Pan Lina, who is making her second appearance at the tournament, told FIFA.com: "As the tournament gets closer, the pressure on us continues to build. The coach has implemented an open, relaxed style of training and has given us total freedom to do whatever we want, so long as we turn up for the sessions on time. It's just the kind of training I like!"

The Steel Roses have never looked so relaxed thanks to their new regime. Already in her short four-month tenure, Domanski-Lyfors has developed a special, almost maternal bond with her charges. In the eyes of Ma Xiaoxu, "Domanski-Lyfors isn't like Chinese coaches. She never criticises us, she only ever encourages us." Despite this cordial relationship, the players have been informed in no uncertain terms that, once they pull on the team shirt, they cannot afford to let their standards drop.

Indeed Domanski-Lyfors demands the very best from the players in training, and her meticulous sessions reflect this. The Swede has even shifted training times back from the daytime to early and late evening, in order to get accustomed to the later match kick-offs. And she has made it crystal clear that everyone is expected to earn their berth in the starting XI. "Nobody is assured of their place in the starting line-up and that includes Ma Xiaoxu," she said. "Everyone has to fight their way into the team." Only time will tell if the hosts' novel training methods can deliver success but the 'Steel Roses' are certainly relaxed and raring to go.