He was marked out for greatness as a player and a leader even before he became a constant in the national side. Having led the Indian team at the Junior World Cup, Manpreet Singh has always had confidence in abundance but it has been tempered with a sense of responsibility as captain. The successor to Sardar Singh in the side had big boots to fill and Manpreet eased into the role, both as a player and as a captain, as if he always belonged there and the FIH Player of the Year award in 2020 only reaffirmed his status.
Ahead of his third Olympics, the Indian skipper shared his plans, disappointments and determination to succeed at Tokyo.
With preparations entering the final stretch now, how is the training at the moment?
Training at the moment is going very good. We are working on a lot of things right now — our attacks, penalty corners both in attack and defence, plus we are also working on a lot of key points that will be important factors in Tokyo outside the actual game. For example, the weather. We know it will be very hot and humid in Tokyo during the Games, so we are training accordingly. We train during the afternoons when the conditions are a lot similar to what it will be like in Tokyo to adjust and get used to it.
How is the overall mood and excitement in the team, especially the youngsters?
The mood is positive and excitement levels are really high. Everyone is keen to just get it started and get going, especially the youngsters who will be going for the first time and are eager to give their best and feel the Olympic experience. The only mindset right now is to go out there and perform at our best.
At the same time, we also talk a lot about all the rules and protocols that need to be followed because these will not be like any other Olympics before. There are a lot of things to keep in mind and we try and make sure everyone knows them so that there are no let-ups or issues at the last moment or once we reach there.
Given all the restrictions, is there any pressure on being able to maintain focus in Tokyo?
To be honest, I don’t think we will have any problems at all! For more than a year now, we have been following almost all the same protocols during camps or even during the tours we had. Here in Bengaluru, we go from our rooms to the ground and back, rooms to the dining hall and back. We have not gone out anywhere or met anyone outside the SAI Centre for so long that we are now used to this. In fact, with their countries opening up so much and even masks not being mandatory and with all the freedom to move around, I feel Europeans might have a lot more problems adhering to the protocols.
There were a lot of hopes from the team in Rio but things didn’t go our way. This time again there is a lot of hope. What has changed in the last five years?
I will be very honest, I think the draw against Canada in the pool stage in Rio hurt us. I will not say we were complacent but they were ranked far below us and we should have won that game. Also, we let in a goal against Germany in the last few seconds in the pool stage to lose 2-1. All those things affected the draw when we faced off against Belgium in the quarterfinals. I know everyone says the last 5-10 minutes are important and trust me, we have worked really hard on that aspect in the last 4-5 years.
We have worked on how to manage the last 5-10 minutes because it’s the Olympics and nothing comes easy at the Olympics. We have personally experienced it and we know that it will be a mistake to underestimate any side; no team is there to simply participate or roll over for you because of the rankings.
In fact, rankings mean nothing on that stage, every team comes to give its best 100 percent in every game, to beat you. So we have to perform at our optimum in every game and also stick to the gameplan, not worry about micro situations and concentrate on our strengths, not others’ game.
We are also working on strengthening our defence because only a strong defence can lead to a strong attack — how to control the last quarter, how to hold the ball and, more importantly, where to hold the ball. I think the results are finally beginning to show now — in the Pro League games, we have scored both at the very beginning and at the very end.
Do such mistakes remain at the back of a player’s mind even after all these years?
They definitely do and they keep hurting. For players who were there, players like me, Sreejesh and others, all those experiences and memories are stuck with us and they continue to hurt. If we talk of Asian Games, we had prepared very well and we were full of confidence but that semifinal against Malaysia is still painful, the memories and feelings are still there. We are determined to not repeat those mistakes and keep faith in ourselves till the very end and know we can score at any time. We also know not to get desperate or lose the plan in the process.
Given the absence of competitive matches in the last almost six months, how does the team prepare for individual opponents and situations?
We were aware that things may not be in our control even when we came back from Argentina. We knew there were restrictions and travel wasn’t possible. Our coaches had prepared us for a situation where we may not get any matches before the Olympics. But it was not in our hands and there was no point worrying about it so we decided to change our mindset accordingly and do our best here. The intensity level of our training and even practice matches have been very high with full-out competition, maybe even higher than some competitive games we might have played.
As for analysis, we have managed to get footage of all the games and teams from any competition that has been played across the world including the European Championships. We saw all the games of all teams and noted every small detail — the players, both new and old ones, the strategies being used, how they were playing, what has changed from before — we worked on every single team and every single player, their strengths and weaknesses, where we need to cut them down, where we can hurt them, who are their key players. Every player has the complete data of every opponent. We are ready.
How has it been post-COVID in terms of recovery and fitness?
Not easy. Firstly, when you are alone in a hospital, the most important thing is to stay positive because there are a lot of negative thoughts and vibes around you. Once we came back, it took us at least 2-2-1/2 weeks to get back to around 80-90 percent of pre-COVID level fitness. No one knew what the side effects could be and no one wanted to take any risks, so we gradually eased into training. We could not rush back and personally it took me around three weeks to get back to 100 percent.
When I first returned to training, I saw my teammates training and they all seemed fitter and faster and I could not match up to them and I wondered how long it would take for me to get back to that level and whether I would be able to recover in time. But there was a lot of support from everyone — players, coaches and staff — and everyone motivated and cheered us and ensured we never felt low or had any doubts in our recovery. Their support actually made us get back to peak much faster than we had hoped.
Has marriage made any difference?
Not at all! In fact, I sometimes wonder if the marriage was a dream or something given that nothing has changed. I used to be in camps all the time earlier and with Illi (his wife) also back in Malaysia for now, everything is just like it was before marriage (laughs)!
What’s the plan in the coming weeks before the Olympics?
The only plan is to just get to our best. Every time we get together we talk about the fact that if anyone thinks he is lacking or lagging in any area or there is something to work on, this is the time. Anything that needs to be done, has to be done now because you don’t learn or work out niggles at the Olympics; you only perform. Every match will be important and time flies. We are working on our finishing — once we reach the opponent’s circle, we need at least one of the three — a PC, a goal or a good shot at goal. In defence also we are concentrating on three areas — structure, attacking and defending PCs. We are ready.
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