In many ways, Vandana Katariya has been the epitome of the Indian women’s hockey team over the past few years. Hungry for success, never backing down from a good challenge and bouncing back spectacularly from even the most heartbreaking of circumstances.

Now 31, Katariya has been thrown a new challenge in recent times of being India’s main goal threat with the continued absence of former captain Rani Rampal from the senior set up. And it is a challenge that the veteran of over 284 caps has relished as India won bronze at the Commonwealth Games and won the all-important FIH Nations Cup with Vandana coming up with goals in crucial matches.

With the Paris Olympics on the horizon, India enter a very important six months to qualify for the Olympics by targeting a first Asian Games gold since 1982. Key to India’s chances in Hangzhou will be Katariya’s tenacity and ability to find the back of the net.

Interview with coach Janneke Schopman: What next for the Indian women’s hockey team?

Ahead of India’s five-match tour to Australia, Katariya spoke to Scroll about the importance of the Test tours in the absence of the Pro League, her role in making the Indian team a place of growth for upcoming players and life after the Tokyo Olympics.

Excerpts from the interaction:

The Indian women’s team hasn’t played a lot of matches when compared to the men’s team because of the lack of Pro League. With the Asian Games around the corner, how crucial is the Australia tour?

We don’t have a lot of matches before the Asian Games so we have to make each match and each training session count. So the Australia matches are crucial because that is where we’ll be trying to execute the plans we have made in training. We’ll be taking it match by match in Australia.

2022 was a busy year for the team with the World Cup, the Commonwealth Games and the FIH Nations Cup. After two close loses in the World Cup and CWG, how did you prepare for the Nations Cup final vs Spain?

Our goal when we were training in India for the Nations Cup was to make sure we come first no matter what. We got to play in the Pro League (last season) because Australia and New Zealand did not play and that experience was invaluable for us. So we knew we had to finish first because we had to play in the Pro League no matter what. Playing the big teams is a good experience for us because that will help us improve our game and will remove the fear factor, giving us some confidence.

The World Cup loss was in everyone’s mind and we weren’t able to get the manner of the exit out of our minds. We knew where we fell short as a team.

As someone who has been an integral part of the team’s success story over the past few years, how do you see the growth of the team over the past few years? Where has the team been able to raise its levels?

The team has grown steadily since 2017. We developed this hunger in us after winning the 2017 Asia Cup. The confidence just grew from there. Before we went to the Olympics, Covid struck and SAI and Hockey India pulled out all stops to help us prepare. We realised the sacrifices each of us have made and the efforts people had put in to help us. Our mentality was good and we had a lot of confidence. I believe it was that hunger that we have had since 2017 that saw us finish fourth in Tokyo. Playing in the Pro League also gave us a lot of confidence. We went to the World Cup targeting a quarter-final or a semi-final finish but we didn’t know we would lose by that close a margin. It still stings. It is a credit to the team that we didn’t take the loss negatively and we managed to get over the disappointment to focus on the next tournament and try and win a medal there. Coach Schopman made us work on our mindfulness and the players also took the initiative on the pitch.

What exactly is mindfulness when it comes to hockey?

We always think about success but never about failures. Sometimes after a loss at a tournament, you feel it’s over for you but that’s not always the case. In Tokyo, we lost to England and our confidence levels went down. We thought our tournament was over. But we faced that negativity and looked to take positives from it. Mindfulness has helped us in matches a lot. For example, when we come off as substitutes, we take a couple of deep breaths and visualise the mistakes we made and think about how not to commit them and again. It helps us to not be frustrated by mistakes and calm our minds.

In an earlier interview, you spoke about changing the culture of the team to help junior players settle in the senior team. Could you elaborate on that?

To be honest, there isn’t much difference between the first team players and players coming up. The training in the domestic circuit has increased a lot, be it through Khelo India or hockey nationals. The level of hockey is almost the same as us I believe. When junior players come to the senior camps, sure they face some difficulties adapting to the structure, but they come prepared. It is important for the senior players to guide the junior players. Mistakes happen for everyone. At the senior level, you play for the team and adhere to the structure that the coach comes up with. So it becomes the responsibility of the senior players to make sure the junior players are able to learn and adapt to the structure. You also have to listen to them when they say something even if they are pointing out your own mistakes. Eventually, it helps the team.

I think communication is key between junior and senior players. There needs to be a level of comfort between all. I need to be ok with going to the junior players and telling them how they could have trained better on a particular day. Similarly, a junior player should feel ok approaching me for help when they need it. Ultimately, it falls on senior players like me to develop that comfort level. It becomes one of our duties towards the team. We are like a family where anyone can voice their opinions without fear.

As a senior player, how do you deal with the pressure of expectations?

Firstly, you need to understand the pressure you are under. Some can bring you down but some can liberate you. When you are on the pitch and you do not have your coach to guide you, then you need to make your own decisions. That pressure makes you a better player. As long as you are following the plan, nothing can go wrong. Mistakes happen but as long as you learn from them, the pressure makes you better.

Hockey India

Something we have seen you do countless times, apart from scoring goals, is throwing yourself in the path of the ball in penalty corner routines to try and get the tiniest of deflections past the opposition. How does one prepare for such a risky maneuver?

It’s all about resilience. We should not be scared. My job as a forward is to be near the goal to make something of the penalty corner attempt. Sure the chances of being injured are there but you need to be resilient to still make that move. It’s not just me, there are many players in the team who take that role. Be it Lalremsiami or Nikki. Even if I am not there, there will be someone on the pitch to take that role.

Rani Rampal has been an icon in Indian hockey for years. She did play on the South Africa tour but has been left out once again. As someone who has played with her in so many matches, what do you make of Rani’s situation?

Rani’s contribution to Indian hockey has been immense. She had injuries but she worked really well on recovering from them and played well in South Africa. But a lot of youngsters are coming into the team. They are built differently and hungrier to make it to the senior team. Which means senior players like Rani and I have to perform consistently at a high level to stay in the team.

At the Tokyo Olympics, you became the first Indian women’s player to score a hat-trick at the marquee event. How do you compare life before and after Tokyo 2020?

Before Tokyo, I faced a lot of difficulties. I lost my father who was a constant support for me. I wasn’t able to go home because of the lockdown and I thought my world had come crashing down. My teammates helped me a lot then. Even with Covid restrictions in place, they ensured that someone was always there with me. They never made me feel alone. I have realised that whatever I have achieved so far is because of the support this team has given me.