There is something special about 21-year-old Harjeet Singh. Maybe it’s his laidback, pleasant demeanour. Maybe it’s his humility. “Paaji, bas aapke kripa se World Cup jeeta (Brother, thanks to your wishes, we won the World Cup),” says the young hockey player from Kurali, Punjab, laughing when congratulated on leading the Indian junior men’s hockey team to a World Cup triumph last year.

The son of a truck driver, Singh has seen and struggled through it all. His tale has been told countless times since India won the World Cup. As a young kid, Singh knew that hockey was his life but his parents ask him to quit the sport, because of the financial hardships associated with it. Young Singh would sneak out and play at the nearby Gopal Hockey Academy. Slowly but surely, he moved up the ranks and last year, saw his greatest moment, winning the World Cup. The image of the young captain sleeping with the trophy touched the entire nation.

Yet, a few months later, Singh remains rooted to the earth, still with his characteristic grin. He trained in Bengaluru at a camp with the senior men’s probables squad and will be going to Malaysia with the Indian senior team in April to play in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup.

Why fitness is key

“We are working a lot on fitness,” said Singh on the kind the assembled players are undergoing. In the last few years, the team’s pace has caught opposition worldwide off-guard. The junior captain pointed out that pulling it off required innumerable hours of practice on the training pitch.

“There’s a lot of high-intensity training involved. There’s a lot of running involved. In a week, we do shooting training twice and running training twice”, informed Singh.

Fitness aajkal bohot zaroori hota hai (Fitness is very important nowadays),” continued the 21-year-old and provided an example to illustrate. “We went to Valencia last year to play the Four Nations tournaments we encountered very hot conditions. Other teams wilted in the heat but our high fitness levels ensured we kept our intensity high. Agar fitness accha ha, toh match ke time galtiya kaam hota hai (If fitness is good, then there are less mistakes during the match). No wrong passes.”

The arrival of Cody Tribe, the junior team’s trainer, certainly helped matters in this regard. “Pehle itna zyada focus nahi tha (There wasn’t this much focus on fitness earlier). But Cody Sir ensured there was individual focus on each player’s fitness.”

‘There’s no place for negativity’

Apart from skills and fitness, another aspect of hockey and any sport which often goes under the radar is the mental aspect of things. The team which Harjeet captained was, in that respect, extremely strong. They beat England, Spain and Australia after being a goal down and did not let the pressure of a big final bog them down.

“Nothing negative,” answered Singh when asked about what kind of conversation happens at half-time when the team is trailing. “We talk about the problems we’ve had and how we can solve them. Par kabhi negative nahi (Never anything negative). We motivate each other and stay positive. We tell each other how hard we’ve worked to get this far, do we want to let this go so easily?”

Mental training bhi bohat important hota hai,(Mental training is also important) added Singh. “We have sessions at the Sports Authority of India and we have many activities and games to keep us mental strong. The most important thing is lambi soch. Keeping an eye on the bigger prize, not to get affected by small things.”

And the bigger prize is certainly within reach. The triumph in the Junior Hockey World Cup, coming as it did after 15 long years, has certainly raised expectations. The next targets on the horizon are the senior World Cup in 2018 and the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. If India’s junior talents can make the step up to the senior level, Indian hockey is in for exciting times.