Savita Punia has been the wall of Indian women’s hockey for so long that it is easy to take her for granted. Being spotlight-averse has only ensured that the credit she deserved either eluded her or took a long time coming.
The last one year has changed it all. In the absence of Rani Rampal, Savita has been thrust to the forefront as the captain and the senior-most player of the Indian team – in age and experience. The FIH Pro League and the recent World Cup have given her the necessary exposure.
The Commonwealth Games will be another test and the 32-year old is all set to lead her team into yet another competition with hopes of an elusive medal. Ahead of the Commonwealth Games, she spoke to Sportstar about the team, her role in it, and coach Janneke Schopman.
Close defeats at the 2018 Commonwealth Games semifinals, then Tokyo Olympics, and the recent World Cup... What is the plan to prevent this?
I don’t think it’s exactly about losing close games because in all these major competitions, every team is out to win. It’s all about fine margins and every team goes all out. There are really no weak teams or easy games any more at the top level. In 2014, we lost to South Africa in the league stage. The one thing we have learnt, as a team, is that our own performance is what matters and concentrating on that is the only way to improve and get better results.
The good thing this time around is that we have had enough high-intensity games against the top teams in the Pro League. But we also know that once a tournament starts, it is all about what you do on that day and in those 60 minutes. All your preparation and training comes down to that match and that’s what we keep talking about in the team all the time.
It’s all about taking it one match at a time and not being fixated on a specific target.
You have been part of the team’s leadership group for a long time but does having the captain’s tag make any difference?
Not really. Like you said, I have always been part of the leadership group as a senior player with others like Vandana (Katariya), Deep Grace (Ekka) and of course Rani (Rampal) and Deepika (Thakur). But after Sjoerd (Marijne) sir came, I was encouraged to talk to the media and interact more. Now, I have got used to it.
I also know how much to focus on these things and now having Janneke (Schopman) as coach has been a great help. She is an Olympic and World Cup winning player; she knows about player pressures very well. She has explained very clearly that I am here because of my goalkeeping and that should be my focus. Everything else comes later.
Also, the team is moving in the right direction with everyone knowing their job and fully dedicated to the roles and responsibilities assigned to them. So the role of a captain or vice-captain becomes insignificant.
Also, I don’t think too many know about this, but our leadership group changes every two weeks. Earlier, only senior players were included but now even the juniors are made a part of it so that they learn to take responsibility and gain confidence in taking decisions. Pressure as a player has always been there, but that is part of the job and I have learnt that you have to be honest to yourself and the game.
Has the absence of some senior players affected the team in terms of lack of experience, especially at major events?
You do miss senior players and their presence would have been a big help. But, to be honest, there was pressure on us in the Pro League also. We were playing in it for the first time, we wanted to perform well, tell people that the Indian team was not in it just to make up the numbers and could face any top team in the world. And we finished third.
Every player in this team has a role and there is no option of not performing – that is the coach’s demand. Your performance in a game is the only thing that will decide whether you play the next one. And the coach has taught us that the only thing we should not have after a match or competition is regret.
The younger players are all so honest, dedicated to the team and their work, that I am proud to be a part of this team. At the same time, past results in modern hockey don’t matter.
There has hardly been any gap between the World Cup and the Commonwealth Games. How does it affect the team’s preparations physically, mentally and psychologically?
For us, both are very important and there is no option to take one lightly. Fitness and momentum matter but the most important thing is to have the right mindset. We were prepared for back-to-back tough competitions even before the World Cup and knew fatigue was no excuse. The good thing is our fitness and confidence... we are ready for any team.
Is there a specific target for the team?
Can’t really say that. But I do understand that expectations from us have increased. Earlier there wasn’t much hope from the women’s team in terms of results but things have changed after Tokyo. And it is a good thing because it has taken a lot of effort and a lot of work from a lot of people including players, coaches, and staff over so many years to reach here.
But trust me when I say that we have more expectations from ourselves than anyone else does. Yes, there is talk of our performance now and we have got a lot of love and respect, but we also know that we were so close to an Olympic medal. The pain of missing it is something only we can feel. We know we cannot be happy with this, we need to go further and get something big. So, the target for us in every event is to get our best result.
How does it feel being in the spotlight and out of your comfort zone?
As a team, I think, these things have become very important.
The game is always your priority but we have realised with time that getting appreciation for your work adds to the motivation. People now want to know more about us and it is important to reach out to the fans, the public, and all the younger players who might be looking up to you.
Personally, I have never been into these things but I have learnt a lot from Janneke beyond the game as well. I have understood that there are things you have to do whether you like it or not, not because you don’t have a choice but because they need to be done and you cannot pick and choose your responsibilities. Of course, my comfort zone continues to be behind the helmet!