The hockey way: Bonding and refuelling off the pitch | Hockey - Hindustan Times
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The hockey way: Bonding and refuelling off the pitch

By, New Delhi
May 24, 2024 09:09 PM IST

Fulton's unusual team-building strategy hopes to put the Indian team in a good head space at Paris

“Nobody wants to go to another country and return empty handed,” said India vice-captain Hardik Singh.

Indian Men's Hockey Team captain Harmanpreet Singh with the team's head coach Craig Fulton after a press conference.(PTI)
Indian Men's Hockey Team captain Harmanpreet Singh with the team's head coach Craig Fulton after a press conference.(PTI)

It was a tough pill to swallow. Five matches, five losses. The formidable Aussies had not just beaten India but ripped apart the momentum and belief Harmanpreet Singh and Co had been building over the last few months since qualifying for the Olympics.

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Chief coach Craig Fulton knew it was important to keep the mood lively. He regularly took the team to the beaches in Perth where they spent hours swimming in the sea. The South African also encouraged the team to spend time with the Indian community Down Under who had invited the players for dinner.

“These activities will not necessarily improve your hockey but what it will improve are your relationships, understanding and trust of your teammates,” says Fulton. “Investing in team and individuals and doing things outside hockey are ways to refuel the process because if you just train, you’ll end up running out of fuel.”

India resurrected themselves by beating 2016 Rio Olympics champions Argentina in the Pro League on Wednesday in their first match since the debacle Down Under, emphasising on the importance of keeping the mood light.

The activities in Perth were not a first but part of a process which Fulton, with the help of renowned mental health expert Paddy Upton, regularly devise to get the squad to detach itself from hockey to focus on friendship, trust and bonding within the group.

In such an outcome-based environment where the chatter continually revolves around winning and losing, it is critical to loosen the mood a bit, take the scale a few new notches lower. Otherwise, you could get a scenario like the 2023 World Cup where the Olympic bronze medallists buckled under pressure to finish a lowly ninth at home.

Take the team’s tour to South Africa in January for example where the team trekked up Table Mountain, a prominent landmark overlooking the city of Cape Town.

“You don't get many chances in a programme to invest in the group from a cultural and team point of view because it is always about high performance results. The relevance of why we went to Cape Town was geared around hiking up Table Mountain which is beautiful but at the same time it is quite a tough hike; it resembles our journey from Tokyo to Paris which is having to qualify and trying to summit the mountain," said Fulton.

“That is our objective – to be very competitive and not be too far away from our best when the time comes. It is like summitting a mountain where you don't want to be too far away so you set up camp at base camp. That is what we are trying to do, have a certain level of performance and when the time comes, we are close enough to summitting the mountain and that is by playing our best hockey when it counts in Paris.”

Following a climb of three-and-a-half hours where the athletes halted multiple times to enjoy the view and take photographs, Harmanpreet’s outfit stood atop the mountain to soak in the majestic view, later holding a meeting there.

During the meeting the team discussed that there were some players who climbed quickly, some were slow while some wanted to spend more time at specific spots to take in the view or just click photos. The idea was to realise that in a team you must look after everyone, communicate, understand and go up together, that there will be differences in ideas and how to overcome them and summit together.

“They were small but important things. Some had issues with the altitude, some were nervous looking at the climb, some got tired. The idea was to support, boost each other and take everyone along. That is how you win,” said India forward Lalit Upadhyay.

Fulton also introduced the players to surfing, something most of the team had never tried. The unit had a laugh riot in both South Africa and Australia as everyone kept slipping off their boards. Harmanpreet finally seemed to get the hang of it as he stood on the board, riding the waves.

Another exercise that induced extreme hilarity was the ‘Oscar night’ just before the 2023 Asian Games. The entire squad, including the staff, was divided into groups who then had to make short films based on certain themes. They had to come up with their own scripts, act, film it, edit and put it all together. The entire squad then watched the films together during a special screening which turned out to be a laugh riot following which ‘Oscar’ awards were also handed out.

“The name of our movie was Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar. Just think – Akashdeep (Singh) was a king who had to deliver justice. Raj(kumar Pal) was playing a female dancer who had been teased. I was senapati (military chief), the movie was shot by Shamsher (Singh). It was super fun. All teams had a director, actors, cameramen. We shot the entire day and it was screened during a team dinner. The entire campus was filled with laughter,” says Hardik.

The brainchild of Upton, the point of the exercise was to remove a person from what they are good at and put them in a totally different environment and see whether they can excel there too. The task was to present an unknown situation and how the team uses presence of mind, enjoys creativity and brings out the best despite the suddenness

A few days later, a rejuvenated Indian team climbed out from the failure of the World Cup to the top step of the podium at Hangzhou to qualify directly for Paris. One hopes these bonding exercises also help the team in Paris.

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