A few years ago, Sonika Tandi would get nervous when executing even a simple five-yard pass to a teammate on the hockey pitch. She recalled that time as a period of uncertainty in her life. A time when the anxiety of sport would get the better of her, and after being diagnosed with depression, she’d be forced to take a break from the national team altogether. She felt she didn’t want to be in front of a crowd, didn’t want to be anywhere.
But she returned to the squad earlier this year. And on December 17, along with her teammates, she danced her way – gold medal hanging from her neck – and celebrated as India won the inaugural FIH Women’s Hockey Nations Cup, in Valencia, Spain.
This was a complete turnaround for the 25-year-old from Hisar, Haryana. She always had the talent to do well, but in Spain she often dictated terms in midfield. Her charge forward was purposeful, her passes were measured, and her dart back to defend was meaningful. She was everywhere her team needed her to be. She felt it as well.
“I felt good. At the Commonwealth Games (where the team won bronze) I felt I was okay. But in this tournament, I felt good,” Tandi told Scroll.in. “There are still a lot of things I want to improve on. Things I know will benefit the team, these are things I know I am capable of. But after a long time, I felt that I played well.”
There was a sense of satisfaction in the work she put in for the national team. At the Nations Cup, she scored in the group stage match against Chile, and then slotted home in the semifinal shoot-out against Ireland under high pressure. Earlier though, despite the effort and value she brought to the squad, she always had the nagging sensation that she was dragging the team down.
“When I was depressed, I’d feel that even a simple pass over five yards, I had no confidence that I could do it. There was a time when I didn’t want to be in front of the crowd, didn’t want to be anywhere. Didn’t want to put in a performance for the country that would cause people to say things like ‘women’s hockey kya hai, kya khelte hai.’ (What is women’s hockey, look at how they play),” she said.
“I used to fear those things.”
The anxiety got to a point that in January 2020, after the tour to New Zealand, she decided that she wanted to take a break from the national team. She informed the coaching staff, and on the insistence of then head coach Sjoerd Marijne, she consulted a doctor and counsellor.
Before she left though, Marijne asked her to tell her teammates why she was leaving.
“I didn’t want to tell anyone before I left, but the coach insisted that I need to tell the team what I’m going through so that they know what is happening to their fellow athlete. But the people around understood me and what I was going through, which I am very grateful for,” she added.
“But when I used to get messages from Sjoerd, and my teammates asking me how I am, somewhere there was hope that if I recover, I can still come back and play for India. Maybe that’s why I recovered so quickly.”
While at home with her family, she did all those things she had not been able to do while playing international hockey.
“I felt that rest was the most important thing for me,” Tandi recalled. “For six months I didn’t do a thing (sport-related). When the doctors and counsellors told me I could, I started. I used to go with my father to the field. I’d go with my pet dog. I spent time with my family, I went back to my village. I did all those things that I missed because I didn’t want to feel that if I did go back to the team, I’d have a regret that maine time off ka fayeda nahi uthaya (but I didn’t take advantage of the time off).”
She was away from the sport, but wasn’t unaware of how her teammates performed at the Tokyo Olympics – punching above their weight to finish fourth. She noticed a great difference in the team in Tokyo than the team in the previous years. And she’d feel inspired by them as well.
“This was a team that didn’t want to lose, they’re ready to fight. That team spirit, I felt that, yes, I also should get back to it. At least I should try to get back to my colleagues, my teammates,” she said.
A year after she left the team, she was back to playing on the domestic circuit. And in early 2022, with Janneke Schopman in charge, Tandi got a second chance to play for the national team.
“I felt that it was my second life,” Tandi said. “I know that I’ve got this second chance, and it’s up to me how I want to use it. I play and live with that mindset, that each game could be my last. I keep it in mind that I’ve got the opportunity today, I don’t know if it will be there tomorrow, so I need to perform in a way that I have no regrets. And I want my teammates to feel that yes, I have given my 100 percent.”
“Looking back at my mentality, I’ve completely changed. I know what I’m doing on the field. If I make a mistake, I recover on the spot.”
Tandi is now a part of a team that has risen from being a team that ‘also-plays’ to one that will next season rightfully compete in the FIH Pro League. It’s a team that plays for each other, makes mistakes together, recovers together, and wins together. And believes together.
“Earlier, if we conceded a goal, we’d go into a shell. Ghabra jaate the (We would get scared),” Tandi said. “But now we’re fighting till the last second. The self-belief has grown so much, and so has the fighting spirt. When we’re on the field, we want to show that to our (opponents), we want them to know that we’re here.”
So far in her senior career, Tandi has played 64 matches for the national team. It’s a relatively small number owing to the brief hiatus she took. Yet she holds no regrets. In fact, she’s grateful for it. It has helped her erase distractions, and that nagging sense of anxiety from her mind. When she looks back, she admitted, she feels that she’s a completely different player.
“Today when I get out onto the pitch, I feel that taking the break was worth it,” she added. “I know this is my passion. This is what I enjoy.”