Janneke Schopman and Savita Punia looked tired during a virtual press conference. And not without cause. The Indian women’s hockey team, who Schopman coaches and Punia is the captain, has been constantly training and playing matches since April. And there is no sign of the season ending.
It is a test of the players’ mental and physical fitness that after a week-long break, they will be back on the field as they prepare for the crucial Paris Olympic qualifiers in January. When you have a coach like Schopman – a World Cup winner and Olympic gold medallist with the Netherlands team during her playing days – being tired is not really an option, Punia said lightly.
“If you have a coach who doesn’t believe in being tired, then we don’t have another option,” Punia said at a press conference days after she led India to the Asian Champions Trophy title, while battling a fever.
“Sometimes players say that they’re tired. But she will say, ‘I don’t care. You still have to do it’,” Punia said, as Schopman, also present at the interaction, cracked a grin and nodded approvingly.
After their week-long break for Diwali, the players will show up for their respective teams in the inter-departmental tournament before going back to the national camp in Bengaluru.
The national team then flies to Spain in the middle of December for a five-nation tournament featuring Spain, Belgium, Ireland and Germany, which will give them valuable game time ahead of the Olympic qualifiers.
It is the price, as Schopman said, the team has to pay for not booking their place for the Olympics in at the Asian Games in Hangzhou.
“It is tough but the girls are professional and they know what’s at stake until January,” the former Dutch international said.
“We’ll play the five-nations tournament there which gives us a taste of European hockey which we need and a little bit of western hockey after all the Asian hockey we’ve seen in the last two months. I told the girls, especially after this tournament, they needed a mental break and a physical break so that’s why this week is very important,” she added.
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Schopman has always been a proponent of mental conditioning for athletes. Players have spoken about how her approach of being mindful has helped them prepare better for matches.
Ahead of the Asian Champions Trophy, Hockey India roped in former ice hockey player Peter Harberl as the mental conditioning coach of the women’s team. Earlier this year, the men’s team had recruited former Indian men’s cricket team mental conditioning coach Paddy Upton to conduct workshops.
Indian hockey has seen an increased focus of mental conditioning over the last few years. For young players eager to cement their place in the team, being better equipped to deal with the pressure and handling setbacks becomes crucial.
“There are a lot of players in the team with 15-20 international caps who don’t have much experience,” Punia said.
“You cannot deny that you don’t have pressure. The first thing to learn is to accept that there is pressure on you. After [Schopman] came on board, she explained it to us. She herself has played with a team like Holland in two Olympic Games and how even she would be nervous. That helped players open up and speak.
“In India, players are hesitant and don’t share their feelings. Now we are being open about how we feel and ask for help when we need it. Now mental health is as important as physical health.”
By sharing their views freely, Punia said, players have realised that many of them have gone through or go through similar experiences.
“Earlier we would say a few words,” Punia added. “Earlier, after our matches we would say our legs felt heavy. But it is now that we realise that our legs weren’t heavy per se. We were taking so much pressure that our bodies were freezing up. And there was a fear that if we told our coach, maybe they wouldn’t play me. Everyone has felt this. So when all of us start sharing, we realised that all of us go through the same feelings.”
Though it has taken time, Schopman believes that her team has begun showing the mental fortitude that elite teams need to grind out results even when they might not be at their best. Case in point was their semi-final match against South Korea.
“The Korea semi-final was an interesting game for me because we beat them so heavily the game before,” said Schopman. “What I was really happy with there is that you know we didn’t play well necessarily but we were able to play and there was no one that was hiding. In the past, we would have players that didn’t perform so well who would then kind of say ‘don’t give me the ball’.
“I was really really pleased that the players out there on the field did their job and took responsibility. It wasn’t perfect because we actually made quite a few mistakes and I’d rather have us not make those mistakes. But I think that was maybe the best learning from this tournament that we can be very good but also when we’re not so good, we actually are a very tough team to beat,” Schopman added.
The next challenge for Schopman’s team is the Paris Olympics qualifying tournament, which will be held at Ranchi from January 13 to 19. India have been drawn with New Zealand, USA and Italy in Pool B of the eight-team tournament which also features Germany, Japan, Chile and the Czech Republic. The top three teams in Ranchi will qualify for the Paris Olympics.
India are favourites to qualify for the Olympics alongside 2004 gold medallists Germany. Schopman, however, is not taking things for granted.
“When you know the world rankings, you kind of know who you play against,” Schopman said. “We know New Zealand well. We played them in the World Cup, we played them at the Commonwealth Games, but we haven’t seen them in a while. We played the US in the Pro League. Italy, we’ve never really seen competition,” she said.
“We focus on ourselves so we know what we have to do and we know how we have to play.”
The work continues.