Indian hockey players getting back to business, slow and steady

A semblance of normalcy returned in early June, when the Indian players in the core probables group resumed basic sporting activities on the hockey pitch. The chance to go outdoors couldn’t have come soon enough.

“Since all of us had been doing some basic fitness exercises in our hostel rooms, we were not stiff when we returned to the pitch. We are going about a very simple routine without putting too much pressure on our bodies,” said men’s captain Manpreet Singh.   -  K. Murali Kumar

It has been a rollercoaster ride for the Indian hockey teams, until only recently housed at the sprawling Sports Authority of India (SAI) campus in Bengaluru, over the past few months. Their international tournament schedule fell apart, they were quarantined when the lockdown was imposed, and even suffered a major scare when a cook who worked at SAI tested positive for COVID-19 and passed away.

These distractions severely tested their ability to focus on the major goal — clinching a medal at the Tokyo Olympics. After a long, anxious wait, the Olympics itself was postponed to 2021, only adding to their worries.

The uncertainty started in March, when the coronavirus was just beginning to affect the world. A string of tours and tournaments were cancelled, even as the teams continued to train at SAI. For the women, the tour to China, the Asian Champions Trophy and the tour of Netherlands and Germany were called off over safety and international travel concerns. The men’s team suffered too, as the FIH Pro League was cancelled due to similar reasons.

At the time, Graham Reid and Sjoerd Marijne — the men’s and women’s head coaches respectively — put on brave faces. “We’re training as though everything will go on as normal,” Reid said, echoing the sentiments of Marijne.

READ| Everyone’s focus is on the Olympics, says men’s hockey team coach Graham Reid

But it was not to be, as the nation came to a standstill with the lockdown being imposed. Training was stopped, and the players were instructed to stay indoors. With inter-state travel banned, the players could not join their families in their hometowns during this troubling time.

Striker S. V. Sunil, whose wife Nisha and one-year-old daughter Shanvita stay just 20 kilometres from SAI, took the tough decision to not meet his family. “Most of the players here in camp would have loved to be with their families, but my wife and I decided that it was in the best interest of our family to stay put where we are and follow the guidelines strictly. I do miss my wife and daughter, but these are trying circumstances,” Sunil said.

The women’s team goalkeeper Savita Punia, who hails from Haryana, also greatly missed her family. “I have missed my family a lot, but I have also been very happy that they are all safe and healthy,” Savita said.

The players spent more than three months confined to the SAI campus. They were kept occupied with theoretical sessions of game analysis and mental exercises, but this could not replace the contentment of being out on the field.

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The frustration was not limited to the players. Marijne was desperate to fly home to join his family in the Netherlands, and reportedly even packed his bags and headed to the airport. Realising that he may face difficulties entering the Netherlands and then re-entering India, Marijne cancelled his plans and returned to SAI. “Hard times for everyone and for me now that I can’t see my family and I don’t know when this is going to happen…,” Marijne later tweeted.

“The coaches had individual discussions with us on how we are feeling both mentally and physically. All players are urged to express any issues they are facing. The coaching staff also checks with us about the well-being of our families,” women’s captain Rani Rampal said.   -  K. Murali Kumar

 

Things only took a turn for the worse in May, when a cook employed at SAI tested positive for COVID-19 and passed away following a cardiac arrest. Hockey India officials and SAI assured the public that the cook had no contact with the players. As a precaution, SAI officials tightened the already strict precautionary measures in place at the facility.

The cook’s death came when the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Sports Ministry were set to grant permission for outdoor training. Apart from the hockey players, a few international track and field athletes like Asian Games 1,500m champion Jinson Johnson and distance runner T. Gopi stayed at SAI. Their hopes of returning to outdoor training were dashed, as officials wisely decided to extend indoor lockdown measures.

In the midst of gloom, there was some good news when Hockey India nominated women’s captain Rani Rampal for the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award, and her teammates Vandana Kataria, Monika and Harmanpreet Singh for the Arjuna Award.

A semblance of normalcy returned in early June, when the players in the core probables group resumed basic sporting activities on the hockey pitch. The chance to go outdoors couldn’t have come soon enough.

READ| The 14 men who won India's first Olympic gold

“Since all of us had been doing some basic fitness exercises in our hostel rooms, we were not stiff when we returned to the pitch. We are taking it slow and steady. We are going about a very simple routine without putting too much pressure on our bodies,” stated men’s captain Manpreet Singh. It will take time for the players to get used to the several COVID-related precautionary measures in place while training and playing matches.

The teams follow the Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) and guidelines specified by SAI and Hockey India.

“Our sessions are conducted in small groups to ensure social distancing. Earlier, we never used hand sanitisers, and we used the same tumbler to drink water. But all that has changed now, with players consciously rubbing their hands with sanitisers, not just before entering the ground, but also every time there is a break. We carry our own bottles and we don’t share it. We also change the grip on our stick regularly, and our temperature is recorded after the session. This is the ‘new normal’ for us and we need to follow it to the ‘T’,” Manpreet explained.

The coaching staff is making a big effort to address any concerns — mental or physical — that players may have. “The coaches had individual discussions with us on how we are feeling both mentally and physically. All players are urged to express any issues they are facing. The coaching staff also checks with us about the well-being of our families,” Rani said. Much like Manpreet, Rani emphasised on the need to take it slow for now, in order to avoid injuries that may arise from going all-out too soon.

READ| How India won its first Olympic hockey gold

Just as the players were beginning to take their first steps on the field, Hockey India announced a month-long break in training. This meant that after staying for nearly 100 days at SAI, the players were finally allowed to return to their hometowns and reunite with their loved ones. The decision, taken in consultation with both head coaches, should rejuvenate the homesick players. The core probables will be recalled to SAI on July 19, to resume their preparation for the Tokyo Olympic Games.

The women are keen to put aside the bad memories from their disastrous campaign at the 2016 Rio Olympics, where they failed to record a single win and finished at the bottom of Group B. “I think our team was really raw at that point of time, and we did make a few mistakes. However, 2021 in Tokyo will surely be a great chance for our team to make history,” a confident Savita said.

The goal is similar for Manpreet and his men. “Over the next few months, each of us have a plan and a target to improve on our individual game. We are focusing on little things that we need to do to be as good as possible for the Olympics,” Manpreet said.