’Attitude is now as important as skills’

"Everyone knows how to play hockey and everyone is fit. What is important is to understand how to optimise that fitness and effort on the field," says Sardar Singh in this exclusive interview.

Indian captain Sardar Singh wants to lead his team to glory at the Rio Olympics.   -  PTI

Five coaches in as many years — it does not induce great confidence in a team that is aiming for Olympics success. Indian hockey, though, has become impervious to such chopping and changing, with the players adjusting to a new coach almost automatically. Captain Sardar Singh, however, insists that Roelant Oltmans isn’t exactly someone new, and that the Dutchman may well be the best thing to happen to the team, one year before the Rio Olympics.

As the Indian team prepares for the grind on the final stretch of the road to Rio, the talismanic midfielder speaks about the incumbent coach, the team’s planning for the next one year and its chances in 2016.

Excerpts:

Question: The team has a new look, a new coach. How things have changed in the last one month?

Answer: Yeah, it isn’t exactly a situation we had imagined one month ago. But the best thing to have happened after Paul (van Ass) quit is the appointment of Oltmans. All the players were also expecting him to take charge. He has been continuously with us for the past 2-3 years, has watched all players very closely and knows what are the positives and good things in every player. Every time he has been given the responsibility to be the team’s coach, the results have been good.

His strategy is very simple; there are just a handful of rules to follow and all the players know them. His way of explaining things is also very easy and we are looking at keeping things simple in training and the team. See, everyone at this level knows how to play hockey and everyone is fit. It’s only about executing and using your skills on the ground during matches. We will now have to sit together and hold meetings to work them out further.

Adjusting to a new coach takes at least 3-4 months and a couple of tournaments, but van Ass wasn’t around for long. How much did the team change under his charge?

Not much. It takes at least a year with a new coach to understand each other. With Terry (Walsh), the training and pressing up on an opponent during attack was very different from what Paul tried to do. If you change the way of playing, every player must know the changes and the difference in their roles. But it would have taken time to become a part of the team’s game-plan. It would have built up slowly, playing more matches and tournaments under him and more training sessions, but things ended before that. He had also changed a lot of players’ positions on the field in Antwerp — like playing Gurbaj Singh as right linkman instead of right-half and moving Dharamveer from midfield to forward — and maybe, in the long term, it would have been better. But you don’t know because it didn’t happen.

So what would be the structure of the team for the tour of Europe — the new one as envisaged by van Ass or the older one?

At the Shilaroo camp under Oltmans and during the selection trials, we played the normal structure with players in their usual positions. So, we expect to play in the older style under him, not the new ones tried out in Antwerp.

Oltmans is known to be a taskmaster on the field. How easy or difficult is it to interact with someone like him?

In fact, it is good that he is strict. After all, this is the national team. We have already had a team meeting and he has made it clear that indiscipline outside the team leads to indiscipline within the team. He has categorically said, ‘Even if the best player in the team is spreading anything negative, it will not be tolerated and the player will be thrown out. Do not give me chance to take strict actions’. If you are a good person outside the team and also give your 100 percent during and matches, there is nothing else left for you to do.

Speaking about indiscipline, can you explain what exactly happened with Gurbaj Singh?

Personally, I did not feel anything wrong during the Hockey World League Semi-finals in Antwerp. As a captain and a senior player of the side, it is my duty to know what the players are doing and I should know what is happening in my team. I also try to talk to all the players personally to find out if they have any problems. When I was told about this, I did not speak to the press or even Gurbaj for two days. I only spoke to all the other players and did not find anyone indicating anything of the sort. I then sat with Gurbaj and the coach and spoke about it at length. We have now decided to meet the special committee that was formed to evaluate the team’s performance and get it all cleared soon.

When no player had a problem, why do you think some staff member gave an adverse report?

To be honest, I can’t say. What I have found is that some of the reports submitted said Gurbaj had been undisciplined with some member of the staff. You know how it is in India, how respect and discipline are considered very important. Maybe, he did not wish something of that sort happened; I can’t say. What I can say is that Gurbaj has been doing really well for quite some time and he is a very important member of the side, both due to his experience and skills. Last tournament also we had five senior players missing and it affected the team. Hopefully, he will sit with Hockey India and sort it out soon and return to the side. And when he does, as a senior player, he should talk to the juniors and take everyone along and prove that all this talk of spreading negativity is completely wrong. It is not a big issue, but we do not have much time, so these things should end soon.

What changes do you see in the team in the next one year, and what are the team’s chances at the Rio Olympics?

There is not much time. The good thing is that we have a coach whom we have known for some time. Everyone knows how to play hockey and everyone is fit. What is important is to understand how to optimise that fitness and effort on the field, how to tackle good teams, how to handle pressure, how to play in knockout games. Senior players — Raghunath, Sreejesh, Gurbaj and I — have to guide the youngsters and take responsibility. I am sure results will be good.

Any specific areas the team is concentrating on?

Yes, a lot in fact. We are working on our ball movement, positioning and the entire team structure — forward, midfield and defence — plus we are concentrating on penalty corner attack.

There is a talk of getting a mental trainer for the team for short stints. How much of a difference do you think it will make?

A lot. See, attitude is now as important as skills to win. Only yesterday I was thinking, when we play Test matches we play brilliantly against all teams, but during tournaments things change. The fact that there is a lot more at stake, the crowd, the national flags flying high, the entire atmosphere, everything affects you. Even I struggled to adapt when I came into the national side.

When you see foreign players in top teams, you cannot identify who is a junior player and who is a senior player, because their structure is such that they are used to tough outings.

We have wanted one (mental trainer) for a long time now, especially against the 5-6 top teams in the world, and it is good that we will now have someone until the Olympics.

The new format, followed in various tournaments, will also be used at the Olympics. Which means it will be easy to play the quarterfinals and that one game can ensure a top-four finish. So how is the team looking at the whole format?

At the moment, we are waiting to see which teams are in our pool, and then we will plan accordingly. Of course, we will try to win matches and finish higher up in the pool to ensure a clash with a lower-placed side in the other pool. Yes, the format is helpful because it is easy to reach quarters. But we cannot take anything lightly. After all, it’s the Olympics.