Underdogs in Rio to Contenders in Tokyo: Rani-Led India Have Come a Long Way
The Indian women's hockey team were stationed in SAI at Bengaluru ahead of the Tokyo Olympics through the pandemic.
On the eve of the Indian Men and Women’s Teams departure (on 17 July) from Sports Authority of India (SAI) Bengaluru, there was a farewell dinner organized for the Tokyo-bound athletes and their support staff. The canteen hall was decorated with tri-colour balloons, festive lights, posters, and there was also a cake with ‘good luck Team India’ icing on it.
The SAI staffers had created an atmosphere of celebration. “It was really so nice of them to do that. We felt really special,” expressed India women’s team captain Rani.
The next day, members of the junior men and women’s core group along with several SAI staffers lined up to cheer for the Tokyo-bound teams who were boarding their buses to the Kempegowda International Airport, about 43 km away.
While emotions ran high among Rani and her compatriots as they left from SAI to represent India at the greatest sporting spectacle of their lives, they were filled with gratitude as they got to train without any hindrance despite a raging pandemic.
“There were days when we felt like – when will this end. Training in a bio-bubble can get exhaustive but we were fortunate that we were able to train in the first place and SAI officials as well as our support staff would engage us in several team activities that made the stay easier,” explained Savita, the team’s vice-captain and one’s India’s most dependable goalkeepers in modern hockey.
To keep the teams from feeling mentally fatigued, the officials in SAI would arrange dinners by the pool or have movie nights on weekends where inspiring movies, such as Dangal, Mary Kom-biopic, etc, would be shown. The team, too, would indulge in several team activities over the weekend to unwind before starting off another hectic week’s training.
Long Yet Productive Days in the Bubble
The Women’s Team had checked in to SAI, Bengaluru in February 2020 after a tour of New Zealand. They were training for their forthcoming tour to China when the pandemic first broke out in India. The news of the Olympic Games being postponed was delivered to them by Chief Coach Sjoerd Marijne during an evening team meeting in March 2020. While the instant reaction was that of disappointment, the team took the news as an opportunity to get better and stronger. And they did.
A testimony to their improvement was seen in Argentina earlier this year where they took on the home team ranked No.2 in the world. Though they did not win a game, they challenged their opponents, famously known as 'Las Leonas'.
“This was our first tour in almost a year and it was the longest we had not played a competitive tour. But the entire 2020 in SAI was spent working on our fitness, agility, and speed. We knew if we had to play the style (aggressive, attacking hockey) we wanted, these aspects would really help us,” explained Rani.
A big factor in the team’s improved performance in recent times is their fitness, and the team’s Scientific Advisor Wayne Lombard has successfully brought about a massive change in the way the team thinks about strength and conditioning. He has made them more aware of rest, recovery, rehabilitation and has improved their knowledge on how their body responds to high intensity training.
“He has been a big boon to the team. As a team, we are more knowledgeable now of how we need to take care of our bodies. When the Olympics was postponed, one of the concerns was to maintain our fitness particularly during the lockdown and also to remain injury-free. Today the team averages anywhere between 19 to 21 in Yo-Yo scores which is a huge advantage for us because we are physically not giving up in the last quarter. We can now keep the tempo up and put pressure or even come back into a game in the concluding minutes,” added Rani.
Change in Mindset
Apart from higher fitness standards, a marked difference in the Indian Women’s Team at Rio and at Tokyo will be their mindset. Their belief that they can challenge any top team in the world is a stand-out feature of this team.
“This has happened over time. Earlier we would go into matches hoping we don’t lose by a big margin. But now we go into a big game knowing we will challenge the opponent with all our might,and I strongly believe the top teams of the world don’t take us lightly anymore. We don’t give up if we concede early and we fight back,” expressed Savita.
Success at big-ticket tournaments has been one of the key factors that has brought about this positive change, believes Marijne. “This group was always talented,but we had to work a lot on their self-belief. I am satisfied that over time we have been able to inculcate the belief that they can challenge any top team of the world. Also, their success in big tournaments like Asia Cup, Asian Games, Asian Champions Trophy and even the World Cup in London has made a lot of difference to how they think about themselves and their capabilities,” stated the Dutchman who took over the reins as chief coach from Australian Neil Hawgood in January 2017.
The addition of Analytical Coach Janneke Schopman, a former Dutch defender who was part of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games Gold medal winning Netherlands squad as well as the 2006 World Cup winning squad, has been a big boon to this team. Her own personal experience as a player has inspired this group to think differently and aim higher. “I think Janneke has been a great addition to the team’s support staff. Both Sjoerd and Janneke are great believers of mental toughness and conditioning the mind. Janneke leads our mindfulness sessions, and this has helped us particularly in dealing with the pandemic, living in a bio-bubble away from our families and also the way we must prepare mentally ahead of big matches. Her own story as a player has inspired us a great deal,” Savita explained.
First Hurdle is to Make the Quarterfinals
On Saturday, when the Indian Women’s Team begin their campaign at the Olympic Games – their first-ever successive appearance at the quadrennial extravaganza – against World No.1 Netherlands, everything they have done over the past couple of years will be at stake. “It will all come down to how we execute our plans. We have looked forward to our first match against the World Champions and if we coordinate well on the field, play to our potential, we will be able to achieve good results,” asserted Rani.
Following their first Pool A match against the Netherlands, India will take on Germany (26th July), Great Britain (28th July), Ireland (30th July) and South Africa (31st July) before the knockout matches begin on 2 August 2021.
Marijne’s plan for the team will be to take one match at a time and aim to finish top three in their pool.
Once they are into the quarterfinal, this Rani-led squad consisting of eight players from the Rio Olympic Games and some incredible young talent is capable of surprising their opponent. “My priority would be to give our best in every match. In a tournament like the Olympics, we have to go match-by-match and build on our momentum. We are in a challenging pool with just South Africa ranked below us and no team can be taken lightly,” stated Marijne.
Schedule for the Indian Women's Hockey Team in Tokyo:
India vs Netherlands - Saturday, 24 July 2021 - 05:15 PM IST
India vs Germany - Monday, 26 July 2021 - 05:45 PM IST
India vs Great Britain - Wednesday, 28 July 2021 - 06:30 AM IST
India vs Ireland - Friday, 30 July 2021 - 08:15 AM IST
India vs South Africa - Saturday, 31 July 2021 - 08:45 AM IST
(Nandini Kumar is a former National Swimmer. She has worked with various English dailies in her stint as a journalist. She now leads content at WordsWork LLP)
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