CHENNAI : It’s been more than 10 days since the Indian hockey teams secured their Olympic berth after winning their respective ties in the two-legged qualifiers at home. While it will only be a third outing for women in the quadrennial tournament, men have not qualified only once, for the 2008 Beijing Games.
Though eight gold, one silver and two bronze in 20 appearances might be something to be proud of, that the team’s last medal (gold) came in 1980 Moscow Games has to be noted. Forget podium finish, the men’s team had been ripped apart by higher-ranked teams in Olympics — they lost 13 of the 19 matches in the last three editions they played.
Qualifying for the Olympics means huge pressure. With the team known for slip-ups in key clashes, consistency is something that the players are striving to achieve. “Normal people don’t understand there is huge pressure,” said India drag-flicker Rupinder Pal Singh on the sidelines of the first coaching clinic conducted by Hockey Unit of Tamil Nadu here on Tuesday. “This (inconsistency) is one of our biggest concerns. When the players, who do not have the experience, fail, it is hard to handle as a team. How you train the players to perform under pressure is important to achieve consistency.”
Echoing Rupinder’s thoughts, India goalkeeper PR Sreejesh said that it is the core group that will play a vital role in the all-important year. “We always say that under pressure, a player goes back to the basics,” said the 31-year-old. “More than half of us have already played in the 2016 Olympics. We do have the experience of playing in a semifinal. This is going to play a big role for us next year. “When Argentina won gold, the average age was 31. Having that much experience, they knew when to run, control, speed up the game and to slow down the opponent. That all matters. It’s not about how you can run 100m in 10 seconds but about when you want to run that 100m.”
At the same time, the veteran feels that the likes of Vivek Sagar Prasad, Hardik Singh and Krishan B Pathak, who are relatively young, have to be handled with care. “For me and a few players, we’ve years of experience. But we need to consider the youngsters. They need to have someone to open up and say ‘this is the situation, you can handle the pressure this way’. It’s good to have a sports psychologist. Even If we don’t, the seniors and coaching staff should keep them in a good atmosphere.”
That experience and consistency will be put to test when Manpreet Singh & Co face the higher-ranked teams in tune-up to the Tokyo Games. The fifth-ranked side will be up against the likes of The Netherlands, Belgium, Australia, Argentina (top-four teams) in their first Pro League starting January 18. “In Pro League, we are playing 8-10 high intensive matches. That will keep us on our toes. By the time we reach the Olympics, we will have enough match practice.”
Hockey 5s a good start, says Sreejesh
The FIH’s new initiative of having five-a-side competition in the 2023 World Cup in India has got a positive response from the players. Both India players believe that the new format will attract more public. “It is a good start. Everyone needs a change. We will see more goals because five-a-side is really fast. Goalkeepers need to be more alert than before. It will be good for the public. It’s like watching a T20 match,” said Sreejesh.