India Hockey team shut itself off emotionally before playing Pakistan: PR Sreejesh

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PR Sreejesh, captain of the Indian hockey team that reclaimed the Asian Champions Trophy with a 3-2 win over Pakistan on Sunday in Kuala Lumpur, is a happy man following the team’s success. And for a good reason, because beyond the success over the last 10 days, he sees a bright future for Indian hockey.
Speaking to TOI Sports after the Indian team’s return from Malaysia on Tuesday, Sreejesh addressed a range of issues, pertinently how his squad shut itself off from social media when preparing to play Pakistan and how this is the fittest group of Indian hockey players he’s played with.
About a month ago, you vowed to beat Pakistan in the Asian Champions Trophy and dedicate the win to India’s soldiers. As it panned out, your team beat Pakistan not once, but twice. How tough is it to prepare for a match of that intensity?
It’s an emotional factor, because a lot of feelings go through you when India plays Pakistan. Nowadays the players tend to focus more on their performance rather than what happens outside the hockey field. What we did here in this tournament was shut off the outside world and not let emotions get to us. This tournament was more about individuals focusing on their roles, and planning to win the title with a proper system and performances.
Secondly, we stayed away from social media because when it comes to India and Pakistan, chances are there will be a lot of comments and negativity and controversies. I think that was the best factor, apart from these players.
It’s a team with several youngsters but they showed maturity on the field. We dominated this tournament. Of seven matches, we won six and drew one. That shows how good we are at the Asia level. That’s how we prepared for the league match against Pakistan. The final was difficult for me because I didn’t play, but I had faith in the team that they would win the title for us. It was a different feeling this time. At the Asian level it seems this team is one step ahead of the opposition. But looking at the top three in the world – Australia, Germany and Netherlands, even Belgium – where do you see India?
And how do you close the gap?
It will take more time to beat the top three which you mentioned, but teams like Belgium, England and Argentina are beatable. It’s all about how we perform against them on the day. If you see the Rio Olympics, we had close matches with Germany and Holland, and we beat Argentina. Earlier, we had beaten England in the quarter-finals [of the Champions Trophy]. We can beat any team in the world, but we need to show consistency. We need to step up in higher level tournaments, we need experience.
(Image credit: Hockey India)

Over the last three years we’ve been carrying a bunch of players as a core group. If you compare this to Australia, Germany, Holland and Belgium, you will see that they’ve been carrying the same performers for ten years. Hence they are consistent. If you keep a core group for a long time, the understanding between players increases. These teams, before they take the field, are already talking and training in the way they want to win.

Tell us a little about the team’s mental strength. In the last quarter of the final versus Pakistan the team refreshingly did not show any jitters, which has been the case so many times before.

Correct. That used to happen to us a lot before, especially in the dying moments of matches in even those where we were leading. There was a tendency to relax. We gave 100 percent and 200 percent but in the last minute or so it was often like ‘Oh God, it’s over now’. But in modern hockey that time is sufficient for an opponent to score a goal. This happened to us against Germany in the final minute. We just relaxed and they scored a goal. This is where we really have to learn from the big teams, the champions.

They don’t give up or spare a second for opponents. That’s what we are learning from Germany. In their Olympics quarter-final versus New Zealand they were down 0-2 [with six minutes to play] and then in the last minute they scored two goals to win the match 3-2. That is how we need to step up. We need to activate our brains in the dying moments of games.

Often in the third quarter when the break comes up, we start to lag but now the coaches say to us that we cannot afford to and that we have to give our best in the first five minutes and the last five minutes. In Malaysia the players stepped up and did this. That was a big positive for us from this tournament. This shows the maturity of the players in a psychological way.

The game is now played at such a high intensity that fitness levels are absolutely paramount. Where do you see this Indian team in comparison with the best in the world?

I think we are one of the fittest teams in the world. I felt this in the Champions Trophy and the Olympics and now in the Asian Champions Trophy. Things changed after foreign coaches came in. We changed our training methods, focused on strengthening sessions and our fitness levels were raised. In modern hockey, fitness is the key and with rolling substitutions a player is getting about three or four minutes and then a break. So in those minutes he needs to give his best and push really hard. We have worked hard on this. On training days we hit the gym and on other days we do a lot of running, so I feel we are one of the fittest teams.

How tough is communication in a team where the coach speaks English but players come from various parts of the country where they aren’t so fluent?

There is an issue but we have a translator, Tushar [Khandekar] (part of India’s coaching setup), and the senior players help the youngsters. Now we have common terms and when we train we can show the way with our actions, like doing push-ups to get everyone on the same page. That is easy to understand.

It’s tougher during matches when the coach lays out his points at the quarter breaks. At these times some players take a few seconds more to understand. But a good quality of the seniors is that they take initiative and try to ensure that what the coach says is communicated to everyone.

How is the bonhomie among team members?

Nowadays, we know the focus has to be as a team. You cannot focus on individuals. Our mentality has changed; we feel that as a team we can win. Individuals cannot win tournaments, unless he’s a goalkeeper. As far as players go, they can win you a match but not a tournament. One extraordinary move can win a match, yes. Our focus is on the team. We bond well and I think everyone is happy.

You have players like Sardar Singh and Rupinder Pal Singh from north India, several from the south, such as you and Nikhil Thimmaiah and SK Uthappa, and some from the north east. How do you mingle when on the road? Do your families meet?

Generally when we play in the north, players’ families come and visit us in the hotel but we don’t go to their homes. We try to create opportunities for players to mingle, such as going for movies together or to the beach and also during recovery sessions we engage in fun games. We talk a lot, which is good, because we discuss more than hockey.

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