CHENNAI: It was in January that the India women’s hockey team decided to rope in sports psychologists Priyanka Prabhakar and Somya Awasthi. After a few slip-ups in 2018, when India lost to lower-ranked teams at crucial junctures, coach Sjoerd Marijne thought working on the players’ mental aspect was the next step. In a first, Priyanka even travelled with the team to Spain in the year’s opener. That decision appears to have paid dividends as Rani Rampal & Co secured a berth for the Olympic qualifiers on Saturday and also won the FIH Series Finals in Hiroshima on Sunday.
Heading into the tournament as the highest-ranked team, India were firm favourites to finish inside top two - the finalists would be guaranteed a place in the Olympic qualifiers. But there was a cloud hovering around the ninth-ranked team that had buckled under pressure in big-ticket events. After the victory, Marijne applauded how the team coped with the pressure. "The positive from this tournament for me is how they dealt with pressure,” Marijne told this newspaper from Hiroshima. “Pressure as the highest-ranked country, a pressure that you have to get the 500 points, play at home in qualification matches.
“Priyanka and Somya worked closely with the team. We got to do all kind of things to get the girls on a higher level on the mental side. We have the skill but you must be able to show that at the right moment. In this tournament, the girls did it.”
After thrashing Uruguay, Poland and Fiji in the group stage, their real challenge was the semifinal against Chile. Having played against lower-ranked teams such as Korea (11) and Malaysia (22) in their last two tours, the only thing Marijne could do to prepare them was by having an extra training session where the team played eight versus eight “to increase the intensity of play”. And they were tested in the all-important match when they were 0-1 down to Chile. But with better preparation this time, Rani & Co were able to beat Chile 4-2. Though the sports psychologists did not travel to Japan, Marijne said working with them has helped the players be in a better frame of mind.
“We work two times a week. We do all kind of exercises and one of the things (we work on) is how one gives feedback to each other. Everyone is training to improve technical things but we must not forget the mental side of the game. You can’t do one session in three months and then say ‘this is it’. You have to keep repeating it,” the Dutchman added.
Though they ticked one box after the semifinal triumph, the team had a different challenge on Sunday. They were up against the 14th ranked Japan, who last year, denied them a chance to qualify directly for the Olympics in the Asian Games final. After a mixed first half when India scored and conceded a goal each, they recovered to win 3-1.
The 45-year-old Marijne also hailed the team’s ability to move faster with the ball and convert penalty corners. “We trained very well with Wayne Lombard, the scientific advisor. We’re able to put pressure on opponents and could rotate everyone in the match. We had a lot of energy. Now 6-7 girls are scoring more than 20 in the yo-yo test. You could see that in the match today.”
The drag-flicker Gurjit Kaur was the standout performer, scoring 11 of the 27 goals. Only a step away from cementing a Tokyo place, only time will tell if they can carry this form into the qualifiers in October.