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How the Indian women’s hockey team went on to become a potential gold-winning squad

Coach Harendra Singh with the women’s hockey team during a training session at Sports Authority of India’s Centre of Excellence in Bengaluru.   | Photo Credit: K. Murali Kumar


The women are gearing up for the Commonwealth Games that will begin in Australia next month
Harendra Singh, coach of the Indian women’s hockey team, is a stickler for rules. The day I land in Bengaluru to spend a day with the players training at Sports Authority of India’s (SAI) Centre of Excellence, there is only one stipulation from him: don’t be late.

With the team of 30 that Singh is training to compete in the upcoming Commonwealth Games (CWG) in Gold Coast, Australia, punctuality, however, is never an issue. This has been his easiest outing yet, the coach admits. “Their focus is amazing. If the training is to start at 8 a.m., they are on the ground five minutes before time. If it ends at 10, they hang around for another 10 minutes, discussing the session,” he says proudly.

No looking back: Skills apart, the team has worked on building confidence and motivation.  | Photo Credit: K. Murali Kumar
It’s all part of the dream the 30 women have together: to get into the top six in the world, to be counted as serious competitors, and win the big medals, starting with the CWG and going on to the World Cup and the Asian Games. More importantly, it’s a fight for recognition, a desire to find their place in the sun, so long the preserve of the Indian men’s hockey team.

It’s attitude that sets the women apart from the men’s side. Even though the intensity is as high, the men’s training is often fun-filled. Not here, where even a minor game between two groups of trainees has the women going all out to outwit the opponent. “We all feel it is important to stay focussed. If it is a 60- or 90-minute training session, I don’t see why anybody should have a problem concentrating completely on the game for that period of time. We are free the rest of the day anyway, right? Not that we don’t have fun, especially when it is light training,” says goalkeeper Savita Punia, one of the seniormost and key players in the side.

The team’s scientific advisor, Wayne Lombard from South Africa, is proud of the work the women have put in over the past few months. “You talk about fitness, I have the data for Great Britain, China, South Africa, Ireland and Australia. And these girls are on par with them. In every sense. There has been a complete cultural change in training. Normally, I would prefer to test the girls every quarter but here it is done more often. And every time I test them, there is an average 0.2% improvement in their fitness levels, which is too good even at the highest level. They are amazing girls,” Lombard says, one eye on his laptop, tracking the GPS coordinates of the players on field.

A Chak De! moment
This women’s team first made news in 2016 when they played at the Rio Olympics, qualifying for the quadrennial event for the first time ever — the only previous appearance in 1980 was invitational. There was little hope but even so, no one expected a last-place finish. Not even the women themselves.

“We still believe we were better than what the results showed in Rio, but it wasn’t our best performance. We learnt a lot from that experience,” says 23-year-old Rani Rampal, captain, and one of the seniormost in the team, having made her India debut at 15.

The learnings, however, came later. In the immediate aftermath, it was shock and doubt that surrounded the women. Did they even deserve to be on the world stage? Were they the laughing stock of the hockey world? How could they face the questions back home, from family, friends and complete strangers?

“Shah Rukh Khan in the beginning of Chak De! India must have felt something like that,” the women joke, but the pain is still alive in their voices.

“It was bad and it took us some time to recover, yes. But after a while, we decided we had to look at the future, not worry about a past that cannot be changed. Mind se hata diya Rio ko,” says Deep Grace Ekka, defender and self-proclaimed team chatterbox.

Says Rani, “Maybe we would never have started on the road to recovery if we had not experienced that loss there. We collectively decided to think two years ahead, to the Asian Games and the CWG. And then, maybe 2020, when we would not be newbies any more.”

The women are busy training for the upcoming Commonwealth Games in Australia  | Photo Credit: K. Murali Kumar


These are young women, most of them, and they have mostly stayed away from the media glare. And it shows in their attitude and temperament. Singh says one of the things he has insisted on is that players address each other by their names. And everybody has to ask questions during team meetings. “It is inherent in their upbringing, the respect for seniors and coaches. But hierarchy in a team cannot win you titles. Now they are slowly coming around,” he says. Largely, though, he prefers to stay in the shadows, allowing the women to tell their own tales.

And they have begun doing so. Forward Vandana Katariya says earlier it was confusing on the field when everyone shouted ‘Didi, didi’ for ball possession; that’s changed. “The coach insists we call each other, and him, by name. We haven’t exactly reached that stage, but we do add a name before ‘didi’ now,” she laughs.

Singh is relentlessly pushing the women to break out of their shells. A month before our meeting, when I contact him to schedule my visit, he is eager and says he looks forward to outsiders visiting. “The more unscheduled questions the girls are asked, the more they will be forced to think for themselves,” he says. The women admit it has helped. “Thodi daring aa gayi hai ab. Now we know even if we are wrong, they will explain it to us and correct us,” says reserve goalie Rajani Etimarpu.

Singh knows the importance of routine and repetition. He is also a big fan of the haka (Māori war cry or ceremonial greeting) and its effect in psyching the opposition on the field. The girls have a chant: ‘We dream the same dream. We think the same thing. We are the dream team. We are the Indian team. We are a champion team.’ They say it before and after every game, and at every break, every time. It’s amazing how, for a bunch that is as comfortable with English as an emu in flight, these lines just roll off the tongue. And there is no embarrassment; the women shout out at the top of their voices. “I want any team that plays us to know we are in it to win and we will do anything for it. No more shoving us around or walking all over this team any more,” says Singh.

The confidence has trickled down to the youngest players. From Namita Toppo and Rajani to Deepika Thakur and Savita, each one believes she is no longer there to simply make up the numbers. “When we went to the Asia Cup, everyone was determined to win gold and qualify for the World Cup,” Rajani says. “We all know what it means to play for India.”

Turning point
It was during the Europe tour before the Asia Cup, where the women did reasonably well even against the Belgian junior men’s side, that they first believed they could win. The real turning point, however, was the Asian Champions Trophy three months after Rio, where the Indian women won their maiden gold. “That’s when the first spark was ignited; that even though Rio wasn’t great, we were ending the year on a high and could begin the new year with a new confidence,” says Rani

Skills apart, the team has worked on building confidence and motivation  | Photo Credit: K. Murali Kumar

Individual brilliance versus team effort has always been a tricky issue in Indian hockey. While most former greats continue to insist that Indians should rely on individual excellence because that’s what they are good at, a series of foreign coaches have tried to build a firm team structure.

“On and off the ground, we are working on improving our understanding of each other. Earlier, there was some selfishness in scoring, but in the past 7-8 months, since Harendra sir took over, most of our goals have come from the second post. The structure has changed a lot. We have actually started playing as a team with everyone thinking of the team result and not the scoresheet,” says Vandana.

****

It’s half past noon, and training and lunch is over. The women troop in in twos and threes for their daily neurotracker session. It’s an activity they love, the highlight of their day, and perhaps the one thing that has seen their focus and peripheral vision shoot through the roof.

The target is simple: eight balls in constant motion on the screen, with four of them picked randomly to change colours. 3D glasses make it more real. The women have to keep tracking the balls that change colour, and identify them every time they stop moving. Each correct attempt increases the speed of the balls, wrong ones slow them down over a set of 30 attempts. The difficulty levels are from basic to advanced.

“Some of these girls have improved by more than 150% in their focus and performance here. In fact, only P.R. Sreejesh (the men’s goalkeeper) has been able to keep up with them in terms of advancement. These girls are simply amazing,” says SAI psychologist Priyanka Prabhakar.

Deep Grace loves the activity the most. She operates the software. “When Grace is around, all of us just chill. She is the lord and master of this set-up,” laughs Priyanka.

Singh is also working on making the women up-to-date on all the latest rule changes in international hockey, and the loopholes they can exploit on field. “It is important to be smart — you need to decide whether to work your a** off like a donkey or be a smart worker like a horse. International sports is not just about skill and strength, it is equally about smartness,” Singh says.

Battle against self
On field, the women get grilled for even the slightest signs of indiscipline. “Discipline is a habit, just like winning and losing are. Small things add up to big achievements. We know it all, but the past few months, we have been working on getting it into our subconscious. The pace at which hockey is played today, the absence of even one player for just two minutes can be critical. Sometimes, we concede soft goals because of it,” Rani says.

All this progress, topped with the Asia Cup, where India got the better of three stronger, higher-ranked teams, has finally brought the team in the spotlight. For the first time in recent history, the women’s team received more coverage and appreciation than the men.

It has made them more confident but there is no pressure of performance, they say. “Earlier, hardly anybody came to watch women’s games and not many knew of our matches, but now Indian supporters come to watch us; they came in Singapore, Korea and Japan too. It feels good to have that support. But there is no pressure. It only motivates us to do better,” Vandana says. “We are now determined to do even better in the Commonwealth Games and prove ourselves. This year is very important for us and for women’s hockey to claim its rightful place,” says Rajani.

In absolute terms, the journey from a last-place finish at Rio to winning the Asia Cup was not very long. For the women who were part of both campaigns, however, it was a battle they had to fight, and win, against themselves.

As Rani says, “Losing all the time had eroded our self-belief and motivation. We had to start from zero and understand that we have to win to convince both ourselves and others that we are good.”

They were given few shots to do so, but that absence of spotlight seems a blessing in hindsight. They did not have a coach for more than a month, then three coaches were changed within a year and a half, one halfway through a European tour. But all that churn has seen them emerge even more self-reliant. They now carry that confidence into Gold Coast next month.

uthra.ganesan@thehindu.co.in

Source : thehindu.com

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