As part of the post-tournament analysis, then India men’s hockey coach Graham Reid spotted a missing piece in the team’s preparation. India, favourites at the FIH Hockey Men’s World Cup held earlier this year, lost in the crossover to New Zealand. Reid suggested that the extra pressure of being hosts made matches “difficult to process.”

He added that the team would benefit from the presence of a mental conditioning coach.

India now have a new coach in Craig Fulton, and as the team prepares for a Four Nation tournament in Spain, the team will be armed with the presence of experienced mental conditioning expert Paddy Upton.

India rope in Paddy Upton as mental conditioning coach to work with men’s team

The South African, a compatriot of Fulton, is familiar with India. He had worked with the Indian men’s cricket team en route to their triumph on home soil at the 2011 Cricket World Cup.

He was also part of the South African men’s cricket team when they achieved the world No 1 ranking in all three formats of the game. He was also the head coach for the Indian Premier League side Rajasthan Royals for three years. Aside from cricket, Upton has also conducted mental conditioning workshops for Indian Super League FC Goa and FC Hyderabad, the England men’s rugby team, and many other sports teams.

While hockey isn’t a new sport for Upton, having previously worked on short stints with the South African and Australian men’s hockey teams, Fulton mentioned that his compatriot’s prior experience in India would be something new for the mental conditioning expert.

“It’s early stages for us, but with Paddy joining, (he) was just to try and understand the history of Indian hockey”, said Fulton during an online press conference on Friday.

“But being on the ground, watching the team train, watching them in the gym, watching them off the field – that’s been his main priority this week, to understand how everything is set up and how it all connects and how it all works. We’ve had a really good staff session and we’ve had some good individual sessions and Paddy addressed the team this week”.

Captain Harmanpreet Singh meanwhile was clear in outlining the way Upton observed the players’ training session and what the players themselves wanted out of working with the South African.
“If it’s an intense [training] session, how the players are applying [is] what we’re talking about,” Singh said. “We had a session – it was really good”.

He explained, “We told everyone where we stand in hockey and what improvements we need and how we can grow as a team. So that meeting was really good and everyone said that we’re doing well and we have to continue. But sometimes, where we struggle, [we need to know] how to overcome that”.

India bowed out of the FIH Hockey World Cup after losing to New Zealand at the crossover stage in January 2023 (Courtesy: Hockey India)

Hopes for a brighter future for Indian hockey

Fulton asserted that Upton joining the team is a “perfect fit.”

“Because of the fact that [Upton] knows the Indian culture and knows the sporting terrain very, very well,” the coach said.

Fulton had taken over the squad in May, ahead of the team’s FIH Pro League matches in Europe. It was a crucial juncture for the Indian team, as the squad prepares for the upcoming Asian Games which comes with the prized ticket of a Paris 2024 Olympics berth.

The coach claimed that he wanted to identify “a new Indian way of how we can do things better than what we’ve done up to this point”.

He clarified that he wanted to build on the work done in the past by Reid.

“We’re trying to keep that trajectory, but then how do we improve what was already being done?” he said. “So that’s by meaning the new Indian ways, we want to search for ways to do things better than we’ve done before”.

The Indian coach cautioned that things with Upton, who was also present at the training camp ahead of the Four Nations tournament in Spain, were in the initial stages and “there’s nothing set in stone. It’s all discovery at the moment. So these are open conversations that the team has been having. It was really refreshing and it’s given everyone a bit of a new vision in that space”.

This kind of mindset, if it does convert to results in the upcoming Asian Champions Trophy in Chennai and the Asian Games, will be incredibly motivating for a team that has always fallen short of achieving expectations. While the men’s team ended a 41-year wait for an Olympic medal at Tokyo 2020, a run of important games could make or break the team that is looking to qualify for their fourth Olympic Games in a row – they had failed to qualify for Beijing 2008.

Harmanpreet, Hardik Singh lead 24-member Indian men squad for Four Nations series in Spain

Singh pointed out that Upton would help the team in maintaining consistency and having a positive mindset, irrespective of the opponent. “When we’re playing with a top-ranking team, we have a mindset that we know they’re good, we’re good too and we want to do well till the last whistle,” he said.

The India captain continued, “But suddenly, when you play with a lower-ranking team, then somehow you realise that you’re playing with a lower-ranking team and you have to take it easy.”

Describing one conversation with Upton, Singh recounted: “He gave a great example that you can’t do well every day, but sometimes it happens that you beat a team like Australia, but it doesn’t mean that you’ve won everything and you’re the best. Sometimes you lose to a lower-ranking team but that doesn’t mean that you’re bad. You have to maintain consistency – that’s what we’re working on. So a positive mindset and helping each other when a tough situation comes up, how you can come up as a team.”

Fulton and Upton, now in command, have a crucial few months up ahead of them. But there’s a stern focus on the process now, a possible and welcome distraction to the pressures of competing at the Asian Games. “If we put all our processes in place properly and we’re doing it daily and improving it daily, individually and collectively,” Fulton added, “the results should take care of itself.”