Taking care of minds and adaptability the key, says Manpreet Singh as India hunt for elusive 4th Asian Games hockey gold
The Indian men's hockey team have gold and Paris Olympic qualification as their primary goals in the upcoming 2023 Asian Games.
Indian men's hockey's incredible domination in the Olympics is well documented - the team won all six gold medals on offer between the 1928 and 1956 Games and then went on to win two more in 1964 and 1980. Despite not having won a gold in over three decades, their record of eight gold medals is twice as much as second-placed Germany have managed.
It is a different story in the Asian Games though. Men's hockey has been part of the Asiad since 1958 and India have won gold just thrice. They won silver nine times, the last of which came in 2002. India's third gold medal win came at Incheon 2014, which was seen as an indicator of the team's stock getting back to near the top of the international table. They were in a far better position going into the 2018 Asiad and faced Pakistan, to whom they have lost in the final on six occasions, in the medal match. However, the medal the two sides fought for was bronze as opposed to gold. It was a sickening blow amid all the progress, exacerbated by the fact that the reason why they were not in the gold medal match was a semi-final defeat to Malaysia. India were ranked fifth in the world at the time and overwhelming favourites to defend their gold, Malaysia were ranked 12th.
Among the players who walked away from the Gelora Bung Karno Hockey Field with their shoulders hanging was Manpreet Singh. “We dominated all the teams up until the semi-final. In the semis it just becomes a different game since everyone wants to go to the final. We made a few errors because of which we drew the match and then lost in the shootout,” Manpreet told Hindustan Times, recalling that fateful day in Jakarta.
Three years later though, Manpreet would be among the players beaming away on the podium in Tokyo as India won an Olympic medal in hockey for the first time 1980. As it turned out, the Indian team kept at it after the disappointment in the Asiad and they now go into this year's Games in an arguably better position. If India were ranked fifth in the world going into Jakarta 2018, they are now third going into Hangzhou 2022 (The Asiad was originally scheduled to be held last year but got postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic). However, they still had a major hiccup in the form of the stunning early exit from the 2023 Hockey World Cup which led to Graham Reid resigning as the team's head coach. Manpreet says that this time around, the team is looking to focus on sticking with their game plans regardless of what the scoreline or what the opponents ranking on the FIH table is as they hunt for gold once again. Apart from the obvious glory of winning the medal, there is the added advantage of automatic Olympic qualification for the team that wins gold at the Asiad.
Minding the mind
“We are not underestimating anyone. We might play against a team who are pretty low in the rankings and the very next day we might face a good team. Our approach is going to be the same regardless of what team we are facing,” he said. “This time we are just looking to keep the same mindset throughout and we want to ensure that no match goes to a shootout. Just follow the game plan regardless of who we play in the knockouts and stay focussed. I'll say this again that we will be ensuring that we don't underestimate anyone regardless of who we face in the semi-final or how we perform in the group stage.”
This is all easier said than done, with the mind being a fickle thing. It is in handling this fickleness that mental conditioning coach Paddy Upton come sin. Probably best known to Indians for being part of the backroom staff of the men's cricket team when they famously won the 2011 World Cup, Upton has been with the team since June 2023. Manpreet says that among other things, Upton has been getting the players to visualise the atmosphere that they might encounter at the Asiad, particularly during the knockout matches. “One day he had spoken about how he had started preparing the players for the 2011 final about 11 months prior to it. It was to be in Mumbai and he knew that is place where the biggest crowds would be. So he had already got them to visualise how that atmosphere will be back then. We are doing something similar here,” said Manpreet.
“He says that 90 percent of our training is all about the body but we also have to be careful about how we take care of our minds. The coach also believes that we have to make our minds strong. We have sessions with (Upton) to identify areas of improvement, how to focus on the things we can control.”
Another key difference in the Indian team that played in the 2018 Asiad is the head coach. Harendra Singh, who had won silver at the 1990 Asian Games as a player, was leading the team in Jakarta whereas it is South African Craig Fulton who is helming the team this time. In the intervening years, India were to their historic Olympic medal by Reid, who had moulded the team in accordance to his typically Australian attacking philosophy. Fulton is a bit more pragmatic - while he asked the team to not shed their attacking philosophy, he wants them prioritise taking care of their own “house” as well.
“Graham Reid was more about attacking whereas (Fulton) says 'defend to win'. He says that if we get our defence sorted, then the goals will come. We can go their house and score only if we keep our house safe. This is the difference. But apart from that, both are similar in the way that they encourage us to use our skills whenever we feel it is required, try variations in PCs whenever needed,” said Manpreet. Fulton's aim seems to be to ensure that India are not reliant on one set of tactics alone. Traditionally, and especially under Reid, India have developed a reputation of a high pressing team but under Fulton, they have often chosen to sit back on a half-court press and hit the opposition on the counter. But their adaptability was on display in the Asian Champions Trophy final last month. They were trailing by two goals to Malaysia, the team that shocked them a spot in the final at Jakarta 2018, at half-time in the final of a tournament in which they frankly bossed almost every other opponent. They went on an all-out attack in the second half, levelling the scores and then leaving nothing for the shootout by winning 4-3.
Manpreet says that Fulton has ensured that there is no lack of clarity for players about their roles despite asking them to be fluid with their tactics. "He says that we need to keep changing so that the other team finds it difficult to identify what our plans are. When we do the half court, then the players in the other team who are staying back will come forward and that creates chances for us to counter attack. Our fast players then get a lot more space to exploit. That is why he gets us to change tactics and structures so that the opponents find it difficult to read us.
“The coach gets us to train in a few different set structures and on the ground when he asks us to change, he makes a call and we know which positions we need to switch to. After every quarter we have a conversation about what the other team is doing and based on that we decide if we want to do a block or not,” said Manpreet.
In the end, Manpreet says that it will come down to how well India use their strengths. “We have good strikers and we have good penalty corner takers. The more we use that, the better it will be for us. We have one of the best drag flickers in the world and some great strikers. So it will be important for us to try and get penalty corners at least if we are not able to score,” he said.