Editor’s note: The article was originally published on September 29. On October 5, Savita Punia was named as the women’s FIH Goalkeeper of the Year 2021-22.

A teary-eyed Savita Punia put up a brave face in front of the camera during the post-match interview. Moments earlier, her team found themselves at the receiving end of an ill-timed, controversial officiating error in the semifinal of the women’s hockey event at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. The Indian team had produced a brilliant display to take Australia to a shootout but heart-breakingly lost out.

It was undoubtedly a devastating end for all the players but it probably stung Savita more. She has to lead the side and guard the defence. But to be told that her perfectly good save to start the shootout would be nullified for no fault of hers - the clock wasn’t running. An error like that is bound to disrupt any rhythm, halt momentum and perhaps, dent confidence. India went on to lose the shootout after playing one of their best matches in recent times.

The double whammy is having to face the camera when the emotions are brimming.

But Savita handled that night as well as any leader could... and after a day’s break, she did what she does best once again - saving India in the bronze medal match against New Zealand, as India went on to reach the podium at 2022 CWG.

Savita, nominated for the FIH Women’s Goalkeeper of the Year for the second consecutive year has indeed had quite the season. She has produced stellar moments between the posts at the FIH Pro League 2021/22, Women’s Hockey World Cup and the Commonwealth Games... and through it all, as the captain of the side.

In a conversation with Scroll.in, she reflected upon on the year she had, her thought-process through it all, the methods she follows and the learnings that she imbibes.

Excerpts from the interaction:

You mentioned in the interview before the World Cup that because of the good hockey you have played as a team, there are a lot of expectations from the outside. Did the pressure of expectations during the Commonwealth Games become heavier after the disappointment at the World Cup?

When we think about it match-by-match in the World Cup, I don’t really think we majorly lacked performance-wise as a team. Sure, we did not get the desired results but one positive takeaway was that our attacking was often more relentless than the opponent. Otherwise, it used to largely be us on the defending end more. There was also the fact that we created several penalty corner opportunities in the World Cup but our penalty conversion wasn’t as good.

Sometimes it so happens that we players know that our performance is good but for that to show in the result is also important. As soon as the players and the coaches left from the World Cup to go directly to the Commonwealth Games, we focused on maintaining that unity because of having back-to-back tournaments. Our morale wasn’t down at any point. If we hadn’t necessarily played good hockey, maybe we would have been a little baffled heading into the CWG. But we knew we had to continue playing good hockey and only needed results now. What we couldn’t execute at the World Cup, we wanted to execute and prove in the the other opportunity we got at the CWG.

We had been on the road for two months on the trot and that was a bit of a struggle but everyone was mentally strong and the day we left from Bangalore here, we knew what we were heading for. Our last meeting with the coach after the World Cup left everyone with one goal: Commonwealth mein medal chahiye. Koi individual kaise khelta hai, team kaise khelti hai nahi pata but humein apne aap ko har ek match mein aise khelna hai ke medal chahiye. (We want the Commonwealth Games medal. How individuals play, or how the team plays does not matter. We just need to play every match like we want the medal).

We know for a fact that since Janneke (Schopman) started coaching us, we have improved a lot since the Olympics. She always stands with us... she says, ‘When we are successful, it is for us all but wherever we don’t have the result, I am there to answer everything.’ We knew nobody could make us work as hard as she did and we had to prove to her too, that she is the best for us. That was a motivation too and I think, as a team we ended up proving that too.

Also read: Janneke Schopman interview: This group of girls is special, they are always ready to have a go

Can you walk me around your mindset, the players’ state of mind and the team environment during the brief gap between the World Cup and Commonwealth Games? How tough was it navigating those days?

The results didn’t come our way and we are left feeling that we deserved to go across the line and do better and be among the top four or six and we didn’t live up to that. Mann mein ek malal tha, wo khushi nahi thi. (There was a regret in our minds, we weren’t happy.) That is when we need our family, friends and support systems around.

I personally discuss everything with Papa or my coach, for example. But keeping us all together, compensating for the absence of our families was all down to Janneke.

Usne hi wo kami poori ki. (She compensated for our families’ absence.) That is why we call her an all-rounder. Whether it is being there for us physically, mentally, for hockey or our personal issues... it’s almost like she face-reads. She observes everyone so closely. She can understand their emotions even without them saying anything.

For us, the best thing was that we can’t get a better coach and that is why it is better that we leave certain things behind as soon as we can. There is great unity in our team and we support each other a lot so we never really felt lonely. But that one week, all we thought about was, what I as an individual can do differently for the team? When one has that feeling, it doesn’t become very evident that we are missing our family a lot. In any case, we want to come back home to our family happy. We want our parents to become happy when we return.

If, for instance, the CWG were a little later, and we had to return home after the WC, we would try to hide our sadness from our parents, pretending to be happy and our parents would pretend it is all okay and try to show that they are happy. (laughs) When we bring a medal back, it covers everything up. It wasn’t any kind of pressure but we just knew we deserved it so that was the target as well.

How do you manage to excel in the double duties then, making sure that you are lifting everyone’s morale and maintaining a great level of individual performance for yourself?

When I started playing, I didn’t think my journey would be this long. Today, I feel very happy thinking about that because a lot of work has been put in for this and there is much more I want to put into it. A kind of positive energy in the body keeps you energetic to do things like these. I am perhaps active only on the ground.... for activities off the ground, I doubt it (laughs).

In the ground, I feel like working so hard... there is only one thing on my mind there and it is that I just want to make the team win. The happiness I see in my parents eyes for me, I see the same happiness in my teammates’ eyes for me when I am their goalkeeper. My motivation is to maintain that. I learnt one thing from Janneke, you can learn something everyday. If I tell myself that I am the best, my growth stops right there so I believe in a learning process and work upon that. The more the experience, the more I enjoy playing. Earlier, I did think that I would retire but no... now I just want to play more. You’ll probably understand when I say that there is pressure but there is a kind of thrill and fun in handling that pressure.

When it comes to captaincy... as a senior player and having worked alongside Rani [Rampal] when she was captain, I knew that things are not like cricket where only captain calls the shots on the field. When you win, everybody wants to talk to you but when the results don’t go your way, everybody looks at the captain or the coach and they are answerable.

Janneke and seniors like Sushila, Monika, Navneet, Grace, Vandana and myself all work together in that regard. We are lucky that the young players are all so smart and so there isn’t much difficulty but sometimes, we must keep a balance and follow a routine. If for example, a certain player hasn’t done well even when we have won the match, you have to take care of that too. I think my strong point is that I am able to understand them even if they don’t say much.

In your words, could you walk me through the emotions and thought-process during the Commonwealth Games that saw India suffer the heartbreak against Australia and then win the bronze against New Zealand?

My father often reminds me about our performance against Australia during the Olympics. We were talking about how the quarterfinal against them was expected to be tough because they are the pool’s table-toppers but I remember telling him, ‘We will win, Papa. We know it’s Australia, a great team but we have fought well against them and so we will win this time.’ He tells me now that when he saw my confidence back then, he knew something different was bound to happen.

With the same approach, we headed into the match at the Commonwealth Games. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy but we sportspersons often have an innate tendency for revenge (laughs)... ‘If they did well earlier, this time it will be us.’ It’s like that for them, us and everyone who plays sport. That is why, when they scored the first goal early in the first quarter, there wasn’t any kind of negativity in our camp. We just knew we would make a comeback and thanks to our experience in the Pro League and World Cup, we knew we had to fight till the last second.

A draw is acceptable to us because we back ourselves to do well in the shoot-outs. So when the match came down to the shoot-outs in the CWG, everyone was positive, we were looking into each others’ eyes with confidence that all will go well. Even the coach asked us to stick to our learnings from training.

I don’t want to talk about the first save (when the hooter did not go off) because honestly, it’s not in our hands... it was up to us to do what is expected of us in the ground. And whatever happens, a sportsperson should be ready to face all kinds of situations. However, that happened to us for the first time and we didn’t know how to handle that. There were a lot of youngsters in the team and we were probably not able to bounce back from that moment. Everybody knows what our condition was like when the match ended.

But Janneke said only one thing – ‘From this night, to the morning is your time... if you want to be sad, if you want to cry, if you want to be alone, if you want to talk to your parents, spend time with someone else, talk to me at any moment, you are allowed to feel whatever you want to, in order to cope. But only until morning. Because a new day begins after that and the bronze medal match against New Zealand is going to be tougher.’

The next morning, the coach asked us about the state of our mind and some answered that they were still frustrated, some were fine, some were angry with the umpires, but by the end of the one and a half hour meet, we were all on the same page. We believed kal humara din hai (Tomorrow is our day), if we really are that good, we will prove it on the field. We had that positivity.

We started well against New Zealand. The last seconds were not good. At all! (laughs) When the match was drawn, everyone felt the jitters because we faced that against Australia in the shootouts and now we are back to the same situation. However, I felt a rush of energy that day, I believed we would win. I just told them to relax and remember what they said about having something to prove.

I was asked many times after the game why I was looking at the screen repeatedly. Even when New Zealand had gotten the first goal in, I knew I had four other opportunities to do well.

Sangita was the first striker from our team and her goal was saved. There was a moment when our eyes met after that and it felt like she was apologetic, sorry about not being able to score. I had goosebumps in that moment and I just kept thinking about how she is the youngest in the team. I even told the coach later that I just could not see this kid upset. Whatever happens, she cannot feel dejected. Uska pehla bada tournament hai, isko regret nahi hona chahiye ke maine shootout mein miss kardiya (It’s her first major tournament, she shouldn’t keep feeling regretful about not scoring during the shootouts). After that I was able to save and there was an automatic positivity in the team and we backed ourselves for a comeback. And we were successfully able to.

How does it feel to be nominated for the FIH Women’s Goalkeeper of the Year?

Definitely feels good because these are back-to-back nominations. Along with me, my teammates are very happy, the coaches are happy. It feels like that my hard work and training is probably bearing fruits and is going in the right direction. It is not like I think about getting nominated or getting an award but there is a target – I got nominated and won it the last time so my responsibility to work harder increases. The expectations also increase. However, these things are not the only things that drive me. I feel happier after seeing my teammates happy because I’m the goalkeeper of their team. If I perform well and get these accolades, they feel happy and that happiness matters to me more.

What is your own assessment of your performance as a captain and a goalkeeper?

I am still thinking about the mistakes more (laughs). I think about how I could have avoided them and how I need to work on those things. I always take feedback from my coach and defenders regarding that. If you ask me to compare my performances from four years ago, I definitely enjoy playing more and I am far more confident. Experience teaches you a lot. Now, when I enter the ground, whatever situations come forth I don’t panic much now. I keep myself calm. In major tournaments and important matches, that helps.

If you had to choose your best performance in the last year – whether at FIH Pro League, World Cup or the Commonwealth Games, which one would you rate the highest?

When I think of a best performance from a goalkeeping point of view, I remember shootouts. In the Pro League, the match we won against Argentina... that is one. The position match against Canada in the World Cup was very interesting. The last match in the Commonwealth Games against New Zealand, because winning that secured a medal... so it has to be that one.