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Want To Transition Into a Coach – PR Sreejesh On Post Hockey Retirement Plans

In a conversation with The Quint, PR Sreejesh spoke about India's training regimen, his retirement plans & more.

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As the 2024 Paris Olympics draw nearer, the Indian men's hockey team finds themselves amidst a packed schedule. Set to embark on the second leg of the 2023-24 FIH Pro League in Antwerp, Belgium starting from 22 May, Craig Fulton’s men will face tough opponents like Argentina and Belgium. Following this, the team will conclude the tournament in London, squaring off against Great Britain and Germany.

In the midst of this intense schedule, we caught up with PR Sreejesh, a stalwart of the Indian hockey team. Having captained the team at the 2016 Rio Olympics and playing a pivotal role in securing the bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics, Sreejesh shared insights into India's training regimen, his past Olympic experiences, the challenges posed by their opponents, his retirement plans, and more.

Here are the excerpts:

How's Team India's training progressing amidst a packed schedule? What's the atmosphere like in the camp?

We're getting ready really nicely. Our preparations are going great. We're getting ready for the Pro League. Next Monday, we're heading to Belgium for four matches, then off to England for the last leg of the Pro League. After returning to India, we'll take a short break before training at the SAI centre in Bangalore for 10-15 days. Then, we'll go to Switzerland for a few days for an activity with our mental conditioning coach, Paddy Upton. Following that, we'll train and play matches against Netherlands, including one against Malaysia. Finally, we'll head straight to Paris. The team's all about getting ready for the big challenge ahead. We're aiming to play as many matches as possible before the Olympics. We just want to make sure we're totally prepared when the time comes. So, we're giving it our all.

In a conversation with The Quint, PR Sreejesh spoke about India's training regimen, his retirement plans & more.

India will start the second leg of the 2023-24 FIH Pro League on 22 May.

Image: Hockey India

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Do you feel any pressure to perform well in the lead-up games to the Olympics?

These matches are great for learning, not for stressing out. Just play and learn. Sometimes your plans for certain teams won't work out, and that's okay. You can adjust your strategies as needed. It's a time for self-reflection, not worrying about outcomes or what other teams are doing. So, don't stress too much. It's all about how well we perform. That's what matters.

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How critical is India's upcoming Pro League matches against Argentina, Belgium, Germany, and Great Britain, especially with the Olympics looming?

These teams have the potential to reach the quarterfinals and semifinals. So these matches are like practice rounds before the Olympics. Many teams are still trying out new players and tactics. It's a new challenge for us too, a chance for everyone to gain experience against tough opponents. All the teams benefit from this exchange, helping them pick their best eleven for these matches and figuring out who will be in the Olympics. It's a good warm-up before the big event.

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What areas do you see India struggling against Australia in both the FIH Pro League and the Test series? Do you believe India can overcome the Kookaburras at the Olympics?

We're facing Australia in the league round, which isn't as critical as the quarterfinals or semifinals, so that's a good thing for us. When it comes to playing against Australia, we've been strategic about giving all our players a chance to shine. We haven't used our main team setup, opting instead to field all 27 players. This rotation helps the coach assess everyone's abilities for the Olympic Games. We've had mixed results against them, but we're improving and we know we can beat them. Australia plays a different style of hockey at a faster pace, so we need to focus on our game and prepare well. It's crucial not to make easy mistakes because they're quick to take advantage of them.

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Who do you think will be India’s strongest group-stage opponent at the Olympics?

Every team we face poses a potential challenge for the Indian hockey team. So, it's crucial for us to bring our A-game to every match, no matter who we're up against. Whether it's Belgium, Australia, or New Zealand, we're facing tough competition. Our focus should be on giving our best performance in every game to secure points and secure a spot in the quarterfinals and semifinals.

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As you enter your fourth Olympics, how does your approach differ from the previous editions?

Every time we prepare for the Olympics, it's like starting anew. It's a new experience all over again. I always strive to be my absolute best for the Games. That's my main focus. I do whatever it takes to reach that goal, whether it's learning from junior goalkeepers, consulting experts, or talking with friends. Their advice always helps me improve. Plus, having been to the Olympics twice and winning a medal once, I feel more confident. This experience will surely help me perform at my peak during the Games.

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With Krishan Pathak emerging as another outstanding goalkeeper, what's the dynamic like during training sessions between you both? Are there any specific pieces of advice or guidance you offer him as a senior player?

It's all about sharing experiences. Another thing is when I'm observing Krishan from the sidelines while he's in goal, it's easier for me to spot his mistakes and offer guidance. I don't dictate how he should do things, but I suggest ways that could benefit him. I want him to maintain his natural style but find solutions for his errors. I often point out where he could have done things differently or made better decisions in certain situations. We also discuss defensive strategies for various match scenarios. Overall, we're always engaged in technical and tactical discussions. During training, there's a healthy competition between us goalkeepers, including Suraj, who's also performing excellently. We're constantly striving to outdo each other, whether it's in stopping goals or penalty corners. This healthy competition among us is pushing us to become some of the best in the country.

In a conversation with The Quint, PR Sreejesh spoke about India's training regimen, his retirement plans & more.

PR Sreejesh with Krishan Pathank.

Image: Instagram

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How effective has the involvement of mental conditioning coach Paddy Upton been?

Paddy has spent a lot of time with the cricket team, facing high-pressure games in front of big crowds. Cricket is intense, with a lot of pressure on the players. He's learned how to handle it. The same kind of pressure awaits us at the Olympics, where the whole world is watching. I think his experience with cricket will help us deal with pressure individually. While we support each other as a team, every player still faces their own challenges managing pressure during games. Paddy's experience will be crucial here. Plus, it teaches you to stay calm and focused on your responsibilities, rather than worrying about things beyond your control. I believe this aspect will be the strength of our team.

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Will you retire after this Olympics, or are you thinking about the next one too?

I haven't made a decision on that yet. As I get older, my focus shifts to the next tournament rather than planning for events years down the line. Right now, my main priority is how I perform in the upcoming tournament. I'm concentrating on that. Also, I haven't thought much about what comes after the Olympics because my main focus is on preparing for the games ahead.

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What are your post-retirement plans?

The other day, someone asked me about my plans for the future. I said I'll take a break first. After my sports career, I want to transition into coaching. I've been playing this game for nearly 24 years and worked with over 10 coaches, including some from abroad. I have a lot of experience and played many matches. I don't want to let that go to waste. I want to share my knowledge, especially with younger players. Even if it means working at the grassroots level in my state with kids, I'm okay with that. As a player, your focus is on pushing yourself to be the best. But as a coach, it's about understanding players and helping them improve. Transitioning from player to coach takes time, so I know I'll need to take a break to make that change.

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