Rani Rampal on Indian women's hockey team's for Tokyo: We’ve improved a lot in last four years

Ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, the Indian women’s hockey team captain Rani Rampal spoke at length about her dreams and the aspirations of her side and the lessons learnt over the years.

“The mood in the team is good and we are ready to give our best,” says the Indian captain Rani Rampal.   -  BISWARANJAN ROUT

She is the golden girl of Indian women’s hockey, its most prominent ambassador and an idol for an entire generation of younger players. In the spotlight ever since she made her debut at the age of 15, Rani Rampal has come a long way from the shy, awkward girl with a natural talent to the confident leader and talisman of the national team, all by the age of 26. Ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, the ace Khel Ratna and Padma Shri awardee spoke at length about her dreams and the aspirations of her side and the lessons learnt over the years.

From Rio to Tokyo, what all and how much has changed?

Rio was our first experience of Olympics and we had no one to tell us what it is like. Yes, the results were not good but we definitely know now that it was a huge platform for us from where women’s hockey changed completely. It has grown a lot in the last four years and there is a lot of difference, both in the team and the teammates.

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Where has the team improved the most in the last four years?

Fitness. We were fit back then also but it was fitness according to our standards. When we played there, we realised we were not as fit as the other teams, especially the ones in our pool like England or USA. When we reached there and saw their fitness levels, we realised we have to work a lot and in the last four years, the team has improved massively. Now our fitness is one of our strengths, where we can compete with any team. Also there is a lot more experience now. Pressure is there for everyone at all times when you play for the country but we now know how to handle it, take things one match at a time and not think too far ahead or even at a specific target to reach. Because then we don’t stay in the moment and lose focus in that game on that day. We need to let things happen at their pace.

Many players in the current side for Tokyo have been playing together for a long time. How much does that help in terms of combinations?

It helps a lot. There is a good understanding when you are playing together for a long time. You experience so much together, both good and bad, and you talk about it. When you implement plans on the field, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t and then you discuss why it worked or didn’t. Many players from the side at Rio are still playing so it helps a lot. They also now have the experience at that level — how to slow down if the game’s going at a very high tempo or to control things if we are leading or stay calm if we are trailing — these things come only with experience and understanding after playing together for many years. You know exactly how and where a player will run or be placed at a moment, how to pass to them — that co-ordination is essential to succeed. You have to be connected in the mind with your team as much as in body, otherwise all the running and hard work is useless.

Rani Rampal celebrates after the first goal against USA in the first leg of the women’s hockey Olympic qualifiers match at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar in November 2019. India beat USA 5-1. “We have improved our fitness levels. Now our fitness is one of our strengths, where we can compete with any team,” says Rani.   -  BISWARANJAN ROUT


Anything specific the team has worked on in terms of on-field communication?

Over time, you understand the importance of eye contact because if you cannot understand a player without speaking, then you cannot co-ordinate even with all the shouting to give or receive a ball. Eye contact is important to understanding exactly when a player is ready to give or take, specially in one-on-one marking situations. We have the advantage of language because not everyone understands Hindi but general playing signs are same so the opposition players can still get an idea of what you might be thinking. But with pre-determined signs that only you know, the opponent cannot always keep looking at the ball and the stick and body language at the same time. But that is not easy. It takes years to develop that level of trust, co-ordination and spontaneous understanding, you have to talk a lot and that’s why having a stable core group is so important.

How much has the absence of competitive matches affected the team’s preparations and chances at Tokyo?

We did think it was perhaps a disadvantage initially that we did not play enough matches. We have not not played after the Germany and Argentina tours and those came after a year but then we sat down with the coaches and the staff and decided it was not in our control, so no use fretting about it. We changed our mindset, accepted that the travel ban was the reason and decided to stay competitive among ourselves. We have worked to make each other better by training at match-level intensity, having sessions in heat and humidity as per Japan conditions.

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We are doing the best we can and credit goes to the coaches for planned training sessions not just for the day but weeks in advance. Deciding how much load to give per week, varying between training and competition level loads and how to cope with it. We also do breathing and mindfulness exercises to stay in the moment.

What about assessing the opposition? The Europeans are playing constantly so how has the team prepared for them?

Last year, before the Olympics were postponed, we had trained according to every opponent and planned everything in detail but not now. However, the European Championships and all the other games are available on various FIH platforms so it’s not like we do not have any idea about them. The players watch them and the coaches record the games, especially the ones in our pool, and plan accordingly. We watch and discuss an opponent, then train accordingly in different aspects — attack, defence, PCs etc. For example, if we are training for PCs one day, then we decide that the attacking team is Holland and we are defending and then train accordingly.

Ever since she made her debut at the age of 15, Rani Rampal has come a long way from the shy, awkward girl with a natural talent to the confident leader and talisman of the national team, all by the age of 26.   -  SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR


How has the recovery been from COVID and how much did it personally affect your training?

It was difficult because a 14-day quarantine for any athlete is very hard. Especially in a sport like ours where you feel lagging a lot if you miss even a single training session. Also, you cannot return to high-intensity training immediately after recovery because the doctors do not advice it. On top of it, the first month was made more difficult because everyone had different quarantine periods returning to the camp so the entire squad was not available to train together which makes it difficult to make plans. The first two weeks was light training and it took time to get back into rhythm but all credit to (scientific advisor) Wayne Lombard for the programmes he designed for every one of us.

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So what’s the plan for the next few weeks till the Games begin?

At the moment the main concern is to stay fully fit and ready for the Games. We train hard and at high intensity because we have to get used to that level but we are also conscious that recovery is equally important to avoid too much fatigue or peaking too early. The mood in the team is good, we do breathing exercises thrice a week and we are ready to give our best. We do not want to go there and then think we could have done better or we did not prepare enough.

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