Sardar: 'The accent is on team-work'

The technical details are left out as Sardar Singh prefers to talk about how unity is the only motto now for a hockey team that has been rallying around a common war cry — Road to Rio.

Sardar Singh says that intense focus and purposeful practice have been a part of the Indian team's training regimen.   -  K. MURALI KUMAR

It isn’t easy being Sardar Singh. The talismanic midfielder of the Indian hockey team and one of the most respected and applauded players in the sport, the 29-year old knows the pressure of expectations and has been carrying them for quite a few years now.

The Rio Olympics may well be his best chance to write himself into history books. The recent revival of Indian hockey on the world stage and its gradual climb up the ladder of success and rankings is proof of the distance the team has travelled since the humiliation of finishing last at the London Olympics four years ago.

“The team and players weren’t bad back then also. It was definitely a better side than the 12th place we got. But losing back to back matches affected us a lot in 2012. It put a lot of pressure, most of the players were playing their first Olympics and we couldn’t recover from the early setbacks,” Sardar told Sportstar in an interview.

More than on-field performance, off-field troubles let the team down and Sardar admits that. Ironically, it was his own off-field struggles that led to him being relieved of the captaincy after several years, though he is quick to take it in his stride. “Unfortunately, we see and hear of infighting in the team before every major event, a lot of it true. Personally, it was quite an experience for me and since then I have only thought of getting better as a player and as a team.

“Fortunately with this group, so far there are no ego battles. We are all united and we all know that this is the best chance we have had in years to leave a mark and make a change to the sport. Captaincy is not a big deal, on field everyone has a responsibility. Everyone talks to each other openly and even if there’s a problem, it is sorted out in the open instead of back-biting. There are no seniors or juniors and that helps,” he adds.

This time, he says, there are no half measures. The team even as a Whatsapp group, created by the trainer Matthew Eyles, has every player uploading his muscle soreness, tiredness and even the sleep pattern and quality on it first thing every morning. “We take care of our fat and muscle quality and quantity both in and out of training. There is no missing training and we are a team all the time.

“Everyone pushes each other during training to get better. Proteins are in, carbohydrates and fats are out. During outings, we are very careful now on what we eat, there is no junk food or sweets and no one is allowed to get tempted. Even the skinniest player in the side now boasts of at least four-pack abs! It’s very simple — if everyone is responsible it becomes easy to manage, if one gets off-balance it upsets the entire team’s planning and purpose,” he says nonchalantly.

The run-up to Rio is anything but nonchalant, though. And that reflects in the supreme fitness and physical strength of the team. “No one gives up on anyone during training or matches. More competition in training and practice helps one do that much better in tournaments. And modern hockey is all about fitness and strength and stamina. Skills are of no use if you get tired midway through,” he says.

Coach Roelant Oltmans and strategy coach Roget van Gent have been bringing new things to the table, he says, without divulging what. “Ab rehne do na, choti-choti cheezen hain, kaam aati hain (let it be, they are small things that are useful in games),” he smiles. These include, besides others, psychology classes, team bonding exercises and ensuring there are no phones during meals that everyone has to take together, talking everything except the game.

The technical details are left out as Sardar prefers to talk about how unity is the only motto now for a team that has been rallying around a common war cry — Road to Rio. So is he looking at a medal? “No one goes to the Olympics to make up the numbers, everyone wants a medal. We know we can do it, it depends on how we take the pressure and do out there on a particular day. If things go fine, why not?,” he signs off.