HT Brunch Cover Story: Smells like team spirit
Five members of the Olympic-winning Indian national field hockey squad explain how a closely bonded team will always bring honour home
For the five players of India’s national field hockey squad representing the team for the HT Brunch cover, very little about the interview and shoot is different from how they usually work and play.
As PR Sreejesh, currently one of the best goalkeepers in the world, comments, the only thing that’s different for them is changing into outfits selected by fashion guru Prasad Bidapa and posing for photographer Kiran Aditya, rather than being shot in action during a game.
The rest of it—the camaraderie between the five team members as they ham it up for the shoot at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) campus in Bangalore where they stay and train—is as natural as everyday life for them. Because this is a team in which each member is bonded to the other for life.
This is the team that beat Germany at Tokyo in 2021, bringing home the first field hockey Olympics medal that the country had seen in 41 years.
And this is the team that is currently preparing for the Commonwealth Games that will begin in Birmingham, UK, on July 28, not to mention the Odisha Men’s Hockey World Cup in 2023, and the Paris Olympics in 2024.
The tease that binds
Sreejesh, 34, is one of the senior members of the team, having played for India since 2011. Of the other four players who represent the squad for HT Brunch, Manpreet Singh, 30, the team captain, has also been playing for India since 2011, drag-flicker Harmanpreet Singh, 26, joined the team in 2015, and midfielders Hardik Singh, 23, and Vivek Sagar Prasad, 22, have been part of the squad since 2018.
But age is just a number as far as the Indian team is concerned. Hardik and Vivek are just as comfortable teasing Manpreet about the ill-fitting outfit he’s trying to wear for the shoot as Manpreet is pranking them at any given opportunity. And it’s Sreejesh who motivates the younger team members to remove their shirts for bare-chested shots by taking his off first.
“After our families, our colleagues are the closest to us and are just like a second family,” says Harmanpreet. “Since all of us stay together at the SAI campus, we are quite close to each other, sharing our happiness and sorrows with each other.”
The bonding extends to the grounds where, says Hardik, Manpreet and Sreejesh exert discipline over the younger team members in unusual ways.
“They may seem very sober and serious, but they are the leaders of fun,” says Hardik. “For example, we are not allowed to carry our phones with us while we train, nor are we supposed to forget our water bottles. If any of us has done one or the other of these things, we are made to dance or sing or perform in some other way to atone for our lack of discipline! Despite being our seniors, they never let us feel unheard or uninvolved, which creates a great environment for the team.”
According to Hardik, there is no question of any team member being too nervous to talk to his seniors regarding issues related to performance anxiety or anything else. “Sreejesh sir and Manpreet have played an important role in improving this team’s world ranking from number 12 to the current number 3 over the last 10 years. So, whenever we have any doubts about our performance, we discuss it with them. They help clear our doubts and guide us in the right direction,” he says.
For Manpreet, 30, guiding team members is part of his duty and responsibility as team captain.
“Your experience over the years teaches you how to overcome pressure, how to handle stress, or how to perform in a better way, and that helps you guide the youngsters and put them at their ease,” says Manpreet. “I think our USP is our ‘the team comes first’ mentality. This innate quality has helped us achieve the desired results.”
According to the other four players, Manpreet is something of a magpie. Anyone careless of his belongings must beware, because Manpreet will just pick up the item and hide it!
“This has become so common now, that whenever we can’t find our shoes or slippers or anything else, we just go straight to Manpreet and ask for our stuff back,” laughs Sreejesh.
Covid and camaraderie
That the team has bonded so well says much about the players’ mental health. The pandemic and the nationwide lockdown just before the Olympics were trying times for them, especially the social distancing rule that had everyone on the SAI campus staying away from each other.
“We were not allowed to come out of our rooms which was very difficult,” recalls Vivek. “After a point, we got bored watching movies or playing games on our phones. We wanted to interact with each other and have fun the way we did earlier.”
Paradoxically, the lockdown also helped the players come closer as a team. “We are a close bunch on and off the field and I truly believe the lockdown where we remained in camp for over eight months before the Olympics really brought us together,” says Manpreet. “Because we couldn’t leave the campus or get a break to go meet our families, we developed a support system within the players and coaching staff. We also cooked food in the canteen for everyone living on campus because no one from outside was allowed in. Whenever someone felt low, there was always somebody to lift their spirits.
We faced the struggles as one unit, and had just one goal in mind: to win an Olympic medal,” he continues. “That single goal kept us motivated and now we are working on improving the colour of the medal in the Paris Olympics 2024 and finishing on the podium at the Odisha Men’s Hockey World Cup in 2023.”
The lockdown forced the players to change the way they relaxed and bonded after training and tournaments, and those changes remained after India unlocked.
“Instead of going out for parties or dinners, we order food here in the campus and create a pool party kind of atmosphere since we have a swimming pool. We also create our own movie nights by putting a projector in someone’s room. These things help us to relax and feel good together,” reveals Sreejesh.
Every player’s birthday is celebrated with enthusiasm. “We bring a cake out during dinner time, but no one actually gets to eat it because it ends up on the birthday boy’s face! And if some of the teammates don’t get to smash the cake onto the birthday boy’s face, they throw anything they can get their hands on, including ketchup, dal, anything!
And then we make the birthday boy perform on a song or do a ramp walk,” laughs Harmanpreet.
The stylist for this cover story is Prasad Bidapa, an iconic fashion consultant, choreographer and image consultant
From HT Brunch, July 23, 2022
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