In the aftermath of the surprise World Cup exit in the crossover stage last week, India head coach Graham Reid felt it was time for the team to work with a mental conditioning coach. “I think following this, we will try and work out how to get a mental coach involved. We need to do something different perhaps,” said last Sunday.
While the team has improved with its goalscoring in the final quarter of matches – 56 goals – since the Tokyo Olympics, it has found itself faltering in decisive moments, time and again. Since the Tokyo Olympics, India has played 41 matches and has gone on to draw or lose in 11 of them where it had a lead. The latest was the penalty shootout defeat to New Zealand in the World Cup, where it took a two-goal lead twice.
Reid understandably protected his dejected Indian players from facing questions from the media so they could play the classification playoff against Japan without any pressure. Former captain Manpreet Singh later said that senior players, including himself and P.R. Sreejesh, had come forward to motivating the players in the last four days.
The current captain of the side Harmanpreet Singh, whose struggles have been well-documented in the tournament, admitted the pressure of playing in front of packed crowds.
But this was not the first time Reid had called for a sports psychologist to be involved in the team. He first talked about the subject when Hockey India appointed him in 2019.
“It’s come up before, but I didn’t really think it was needed at that point,” Reid said after the win over Japan on Thursday. “I felt I had enough experience to impart that kind of stuff that we have been talking about. It’s hard. We have had a culture coach in Australia and Holland, who operates inside the teams. You need the ability to trust. You had Covid-19, which made it difficult to make things happen. And then there was Asian Games happening, but it got postponed. I take responsibility for it.”
However, Reid is not the first Indian men’s team coach who has raised the need to seek the help of a mental health professional. Before the Australian, Roelant Oltmans (2013), Terry Walsh (2014), Paul van Ass (2015) and Harendra Singh (2018) have done so in the past.
Presence of physiologists help
At the ongoing World Cup, three teams – Australia, England and Germany – among the 16 have a psychologist on board in Odisha. Spain and Malaysia had worked with professionals back home in the lead-up to the tournament but did not bring them over with the team.
Australia has worked with culture coach Brian Fitzpatrick since 2017. The Kookuburras were 2-0 down in the quarterfinal against Spain till the 24th minute, but they fought back to win the match 4-3.
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Head coach Colin Batch hailed Fitzpatrick’s work in helping the team get in the right shape, mentally. “He helps prepare the team in a positive way and Brian is an important part of our team. Sometimes he speaks with the players individually, sometimes he is there in group situations. He does some work with the staff as well. It’s a clarity of what we are trying to do out there and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t,” said Batch.
Attacking midfielder Tom Craig added, “When things are easy, it’s easy but when things get hard, that’s when all the work you have done beforehand stands up. We are a big process team and we are focussed on our preparation and have faith in it. We know that no matter the situation, we have done worse and that’s what happened.”
Reigning world and Olympic champion Belgium had a psychologist with the team for a long time before Shane McLeod, who coached from 2018 to 2021, requested a change before the last World Cup in Bhubaneswar.
While what didn’t work for Reid, it certainly did with McLeod. Midfielder Florent van Aubel provided an insight into McLeod’s workings behind the scenes.
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“He felt that as a coach he could also be a good role as a psychologist. So we did a lot of mental exercises with Shane to become better mentally. We did many things. We call it the circle of trust, where we open up with each other. Now when we play together, we know each other so well. We are kind of a family and we want to work for each other. We have known this group for 10-15 years and there is a tightness to this group,” said van Aubel.
One of the strengths of the Belgium team is that the core of the group has been together from the age group to the senior level for nearly two decades. Van Aubel says the team has recreated situations over the years to help the players become accustomed to match.
“We did a lot of exercises like this. We projected ourselves in the future in a situation where you are winning 2-0, what do you do? You win the ball, do you go for another goal or for time or play it safe so all these situations we have been talking about. Obviously when that situation occurs, because we talked about it, doesn’t mean we don’t get stressed. We can’t predict the outcome of the result but we are continuously working on it,” he said.
England is another team currently working with the performance psychologist Katie Mobed, also associated with Team Great Britain, for several years. According to goalkeeper James Mazarelo, Katie works with the players on a team basis and one-on-one sessions for scenario planning and finding ways to help them prepare for high-pressure situations.
With the latest failure in its strides, India now looks to pick up the pieces and build up to a busy 18 months ahead, focussing on the Asian Games and qualification for the Paris Olympics. After repeated calls for a psychologist, Hockey India needs to address the matter when it sits down to review the World Cup showing.