Mohith Honnenahalli Shashikumar, the Indian junior men’s hockey goalkeeper, is no stranger to hard work and stress. As a child, the player from Karnataka participated in the volleyball state championship. He recalled how a hockey coach was on the lookout for a goalkeeper and his eyes fell upon Mohith.
“I was playing volleyball and hockey, one session of volleyball and then hockey,” Mohith told Scroll. “And after that I basically decided to go on with hockey because I didn’t add more height to continue volleyball.”
From then on, it was all about progressing through the different age levels and working towards the ultimate goal of representing his country on the international stage. “I wasn’t going to college because I could practice more. I’ve worked a lot and sacrificed a lot. And I still think (I have to) work a lot in order to get into the senior team and to win the World Cup,” he said.
The Indian men’s junior team recently won the Men’s Junior Hockey Asia Cup earlier this month, beating Pakistan 2-1 and Mohith was given the accolade of the Goalkeeper of the Tournament. Rightly awarded to the 21-year old, as Mohith and the Indian defence conceded only four goals in six matches in the Asia Cup. Speaking to Scroll after his title-winning performance in the tournament, Mohith credited his exploits during the matches in Oman to his ‘trial by fire’ about seven months earlier at his international tournament debut - the 2022 Sultan of Johor Cup.
Mohith began his international career in memorable fashion – keeping calm during a penalty shootout against Australia in the Johor Cup final. The result – Mohith denied Joshua Brooks the chance to level and India lifted the title for the first time since 2014.
Watching the highlights of the final in Malaysia, one would not assume that it was Mohith’s rookie international tournament. On the surface, the 21-year-old was unflappable, but inside, he was incredibly tense and stressed.
Conceding that he didn’t have a lot of experience upon entering the tournament (19 goals conceded in 6 matches), Mohith was honest about the challenges he faced in the Sultan of Johor Cup. “Playing as a rookie in the team is hard. As goalkeeper, there was a lot of pressure and stress on me,” he added.
“The pressure and stress is very good and will make you play very well in the game if you have the experience.”
Granted, the calibre of teams faced in the Sultan of Johor Cup, according to Mohith, was significantly higher than who they competed against in the Asia Cup (India conceded one goal each to Japan and Korea and two to Pakistan). But Mohith pointed to the experience gained in playing against teams like Australia and Great Britain in Malaysia as part of his and the team’s success in winning the Asia Cup.
As a goalkeeper, there are moments in a game when you are all alone in your half and watching as your attack runs riot in the scoreline. Mohith was in a similar position throughout the group stage of the Asia Cup with score lines like 18-0 against Chinese Taipei and 17-0 against Thailand. What is a goalkeeper’s secret to remaining focused during such types of matches?
“The problem is, if the match is one-sided, like the score is about 10-0, there is no high probability the ball won’t come to our team. So the main thing is to be ready – communicating with the team members, being involved in the game and doing some exercises,” he explained.
“If the ball doesn’t come, also moving around in the team and interacting with the players makes us be in the game for a longer period. When you are playing against a good team but you are up by 3-4 goals, then you should be really alert.”
Mohith indicated that it was imperative for a goalkeeper to maintain their focus irrespective of the scoreline. With conviction and the air of a seasoned player, he said, “It’s a duality situation for a goalkeeper – we should not take any pressure. Even if we are leading, we should be active. Even though we are losing, we should be active and we should not lose confidence.”
That was on display in the final. When India started well and had a two-goal lead, there was no time to relax because Pakistan came roaring back. Mohith, though, was alert. In the second quarter, he put out his left leg for a world-class reflex save to make sure India led 2-0 going into the half time. In the third and quarters, when an increasingly nervous Indian defence brought pressure up on themselves, Mohith was working overtime. There was a phase of play where he and the defence had to pull off saves after saves and blocks after blocks to keep the lead.
A lot of the advice and knowledge that Mohith and the other goalkeepers in the junior men’s team have gotten (including strategies to employ during penalty shootouts) is courtesy their senior counterparts in PR Sreejesh and Krishan Pathak among others. The junior men’s hockey team coach CR Kumar elaborated on the importance of having both the senior and junior men’s teams train together in Bengaluru.
“Sreejesh is a big motivator for all the goalkeepers in the country, no doubt and they are following in his footsteps,” Kumar told Scroll.
“They have been regularly working with them on the small aspects where we really lack. And now he (Mohith) has gained a lot of confidence and he can contest with the seniors at any moment.”
Mohith himself was very thankful for the presence of seniors like Sreejesh and Pathak who were able to spend some time with the junior goalkeepers during their training in Bengaluru.
“Just little tips and tricks from him so that you can boost your performance,” said Mohith, as he recollected the session with the men’s senior team. “He came to our training one day for the goalkeepers and it was good because our basics was only corrected by Sree bhai. Whenever we have any doubt at all, we go to him – he is a very kind person.”
Speaking about Mohith’s performance at the Asia Cup, Kumar added, “Of course, he can challenge anybody in the seniors at the moment. He was the best goalkeeper of the tournament. So it’s a big credit to him. He really performed well. He took some of the goal-bound balls, at very crucial times. Of course, the defence was supporting (him), but every team wants to put pressure when they are down by two goals. That is what happened against Pakistan.”
For Mohith, winning two major tournaments at the start of his junior hockey career is only the beginning. When asked about personal milestones that he wanted to achieve, he said, “We won the two major tournaments but there is still more to come. We are the continental champions and we have played Australia also in the World Cup. So our next main aim is to play the European teams.”
With two titles secured and the biggest one (the Men’s Junior Hockey World Cup in Malaysia later this year) yet to come, the young and enterprising Mohith definitely has more opportunities to prove his mettle on the big stage.