Bullish on the turf, near-eccentric with his podcasts and eloquent in his columns, Australian hockey star Simon Orchard isn’t exactly the fast car-chasing, hairstyle-changing, stereotypical modern day athlete. Not that he really cares for conformity. “What is normal?” Orchard asked recently in a >hard-hitting article he wrote for an Australian publication The Roar, while highlighting the need to embrace diversity in a sporting fraternity marred by homophobia.
Orchard, a multiple medal winner with the Australian national hockey team, including gold at the Champions Trophy (2009 and 2012), the World Cup (2010 and 2014) and the Commonwealth Games (2010 and 2014), is a champion off the field too, vocal as he is on mental health and other social issues in a world where such topics still remain a taboo.
Orchard is in India playing for Jaypee Punjab Warriors in the 2017 Hockey India League (HIL). In a chat with Sportstar, the ever-lively Kookaburra star talked of his battle against anxiety and the need for professional athletes to have alternate career plans among others.
Question: How does it feel to be back in India?
Answer: India is always a very nice place to come to. I enjoy playing in the HIL, and I love not only my team-mates but also the Indian people. They are always very welcoming and it’s great to be back here.
Jaypee Punjab Warriors’ first match this season did not go quite well — a 10-4 defeat to Dabang Mumbai. What do you think went wrong in the match?
Obviously it was a little disappointing. We had spent a lot of time discussing where we can improve. We had played some practice matches together, but there are very few teams of the quality of Mumbai. It was the first match of the tournament and there was a lot of pressure on the players, especially the young Indians who have come after a World Cup victory and would be pushing for a place in the senior team. There’s a lot to play for, and the competition is so close this season. A lot of teams have improved and if you are not at your best you could end up being beaten 10-4 or 10-0, as UP Wizards defeated Kalinga Lancers.
The 10-4 scoreline looks like something out of a badminton match. What is your take on the HIL rule of counting a field goal as two goals? Is it making the game more attractive?
I think it’s a great innovation by the Hockey India League. I personally feel that field goals are much more important than the penalty corner goals, and I know a couple of drag-flickers will disagree with me, but I like the rule change. At the end of the day, if it leads to bigger scorelines and more excitement for the people who follow hockey, then that’s great. It (HIL) has opened up recently, but at the start of the tournament there were some low-scoring matches. I like to see more attacking games and a shoot-out than a 1-0 victory.
Would you consider 2016 as a disappointment for the Australian national team, considering you were one of the favourites to win the gold at the Rio Olympics? Or is too early to press the panic button?
I think, at the Olympics — which a lot of people are not aware of — teams (Argentina and Belgium) which were ranked sixth and seventh in the world (Argentina is No. 2 and Belgium No. 5 today) actually played for the gold medal. In a lot of sports around the world, you would be hard-pressed to find teams ranked sixth and seventh playing in gold medal matches. It goes to show that the strength of international hockey is probably at its peak with Argentina and Belgium becoming superpowers, and India dangerously close to being a competitive unit.
We are of course disappointed (about missing out on a medal at the Olympics). We just had too many players who didn’t perform when it was needed. There’s a new hockey coach now. So in the next 12-24 months leading to the World Cup in India, there might be some changes in the Australian team.
The Indian team won the 2016 Junior World Cup, and there is a feeling that the current crop of Indian players is the best we have had in the last decade. What is the general word about India in the international circuit?
It’s scary how much talent, how much muscle, skill, flair and technical ability the Indian players have. Just to watch Indian players trap and dribble the ball is so exciting. I think it’s in the Indian culture to dribble. It’s called the ‘Indian dribble’ for a reason. The junior coach said that the current crop of Indian players, especially the juniors, is stronger than others in the world. There are some really good coaches involved in the Indian system for the last 3-4 years. To have someone like Roelant Oltmans, who has been here more than most international coaches, will bring consistency to the senior Indian team.
It’s a big jump from the junior team to the senior level. Barring Harmanpreet (Singh), hardly anyone from the junior team has been consistently playing international hockey for the senior side, and it will be important for players like Armaan Qureshi and Varun Kumar to work hard.
What brings foreign players to HIL? Is it just money, because Florian Fuchs recently said he was using the HIL money to pay his tuition fees? How different is HIL in comparison with say a hockey league in Europe?
If you are talking about money and how it compares (with Europe), then it’s phenomenal. I think in Europe you would be lucky to get maybe USD 30,000 for six months, while here some players like Florian (Fuchs) are getting almost USD 100,000 for six weeks. So it is beneficial to a lot of young hockey players who don’t probably get a lot of funding in their home country, and I guess it is one reason why they come to India.
Money aside, I love the experience. As I said in the beginning, I love the people and I always have a smile on my face when I’m in India. I love the culture. I love the fact that you can talk to a Muslim one day, a Sikh the next day or a Hindu another day. They all combine to make this really flamboyant country. Every day you get out in the street in India, you see something new — sometimes sad, sometimes exciting, sometimes just astonishing, but there are always different things to see.
In 2015, you took some time out from hockey to address anxiety-induced issues. It was a very brave move, especially at a time when things were heating up with the Rio Olympics round the corner. When did you know you had to take a break and how did that period help you?
Thank you, firstly. I used to get quite upset and my team-mates also suggested that I take some time out from the game. It was very important for the preparation for the Olympics. Looking back, I wouldn’t change anything. I really enjoyed the time-out and it gave me a mental break, which helped me make it to the Olympics. I don’t know if I would have made it otherwise. And it was probably the fairest thing not only for me but for my team-mates as well, as I couldn’t continue to show up for training and be totally committed. We were working so hard, we trained every day, we were in it together and I just felt I was letting people down as well as myself by not being in the right frame of mind.
It (the break) did a lot of good to other people as well. The message got delivered to plenty of people out there and it was inspiring, I guess. A lot of people contacted me and shared stories, shared information, confided in me… It (mental health issue) is something not talked about; something that’s kept very much behind closed doors.
If you had just taken a break, many of us wouldn’t have known it was due to anxiety. It is only >when you blogged about it that the rest of the world got to know about it. How important was it for you to write on it?
It wasn’t 100% necessary, I guess. But putting it on a page helped people access it. There are a lot of people out there who are maybe struggling with different issues and it sort of gave them something to identify with.
How was it coming back? A discussion on mental health, especially in sports, is seen almost like a taboo. Was it seen by your peers and others as a sign of weakness?
If you can go through anxiety and come out stronger, then there are not too many things people can say. At the end of the day, I had the confidence that my team-mates would understand and accept it. Not only accept it, but also invite it. People who don’t, I don’t have any time for them. Yes, there are people who view it as a sign of weakness or frown upon it, but as far as I’m concerned, those people don’t matter.
Sports people have a lot of benefits, a lot of things going right for them. But it can happen to anyone. Mental health doesn’t discriminate, I guess. It doesn’t care if you are an Indian or an Australian or Muslim or Christian or female or male… It can strike anyone at any time, and it’s a really hard state to be in, especially for young people.
You recently wrote a hard-hitting piece on homophobia affecting sports. How do you think sports can combat this problem?
As is the case with some issues, some people see them as a taboo, which I don’t understand. For whatever reasons, India is probably quite similar to Australia (in homophobia). It’s like mental health and is a topic that is not discussed often or is always frowned upon.
Homophobia in sport is very much present. In Australian hockey system, there are gays, lesbians and bisexuals. They are there in the Indian system too. But for whatever reasons, they have to hide who they are, or hide their true self and that is disappointing. With understanding, we can remove the taboo. More people should start conversations and discussions on the topic and make it easier for people to accept who they are. There are a lot of people in sports out there suffering because they don’t accept themselves as who they are because there is a stigma attached to it. At the end of the day, a lot of people don’t care about your sexuality. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t change you as a person. It doesn’t make you any less or more than the others.
You are a journalism and PR student. Do you fancy yourself as full time writer?
Yeah, I study journalism and PR in Australia. That’s what I want to do. At the moment, I’m writing a little bit as a freelancer for a few different publications in Australia. I like discussing topics which aren’t otherwise written about. I guess some of it rubs people the wrong way, but that’s what being a journalist is all about.
Tell us about the importance of having alternate career options…
Extremely important, and this should probably be the next big step for Indian hockey. The players spend a lot of time playing hockey, travelling, living with one another… Hockey is life. I was talking to some of my younger team-mates. They sometimes finish schooling, they don’t have any tertiary education, they spend a lot of time playing hockey. That’s all great, but you are only one injury away from your career being over. One bad tournament away from not being selected, one change of coach away from not being involved in the game any more. Then all of a sudden a lot of people lose their identity.
I think in India, it’s extremely important that someone identifies and explains to a lot of these young guys that although hockey is important you need something else because hockey doesn’t last forever. There will be a time when you are a little older, a little slower and you will need to leave the hockey stick and maybe go and work somewhere else. It is a great system here and the Indian players can get jobs in the police, or railways or air force, but that’s not for everyone.
There will be a lot of other guys still left trying to make their way in the world and that can lead to what we talked about earlier — mental health problems. It could lead to potentially really bad outcomes.
How did you come up with the idea of NaanUpInHere (a podcast on HIL with fellow Australians Mark Knowles, Matt Gohdes, Jacob Whetton and Tristan Clemons)?
It is a crazy idea and the more we think about it, the more we wonder what we are doing. But we are having fun. I guess the idea initially was to try and provide a platform for the Punjab Warriors players and hopefully other players as we go along, to contribute anything really funny, silly, educational, informative that will help establish a connection with the fans. It has been fun and it does take your mind off hockey.
At the end of the day, we are here to do a job and hockey comes first. That’s why sometimes our podcasts are little bit delayed, or why we are quiet for a few days or few weeks. But when there is some time off and when everyone’s in a good mood we are up to stupid things such as scaring people in our team. It brings a little bit of lightness to the Hockey India League. For us it does, at least.
Does having so many Australians in the same team help?
Having Australian players and an Australian coach (Barry Dancer) makes it comfortable. We are few less Australians now as compared to other seasons when we were pretty much all Australians. We have a few Dutchmen (Robert van der Horst, Mink van der Weerden) and an Englishman (Mark Gleghorne) as well now. And that’s great; always great to have some diversity in the dressing room. We (foreign players) don’t just follow each other around. We don’t share rooms. Off the field, that’s our great strength. And on the field, yeah, knowing how each other play is probably beneficial for our team.
You are one player who really seems to be soaking up as much as you can during your stay in India. Any wish list for 2017?
Another HIL title — for everyone in the Punjab region. This could be my last time here, so I want to make the most of every situation. I really want to try some street food, but I’m unsure if I will get sick. We had a coconut the other day off the street. Chopped it right in front of us... And we woke up next day feeling really energised. I have never been to the Taj Mahal, so maybe I will try to spend some time at one of the best landmarks in the world. I have really enjoyed my time here, made some really good friends and I would like to think that I have made some impact on a lot of Indian players and hopefully they’ve enjoyed everything I’ve tried to offer.