With special emphasis on mental as well as physical conditioning, captain Rani Rampal believes the Indian team can challenge the best in the business.
The 2019 season has been special for the Indian women’s hockey team. While qualifying for their second straight Olympics was undoubtedly the highlight, the year also saw the Rani Rampal-led side stitch together some quality performances against top-quality opponents.
Whether it be taking the fight to the reigning Olympic champions Great Britain, to engaging in a fierce battle with 2018 FIH Women’s World Cup bronze medallists, Spain, the Indian team was on top of` their game against the best in the business this season.
But there outstanding achievement came on a sweltering evening at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneshwar when they secured an Olympic spot in dramatic fashion.
So what changed for the team this year? “I think the primary reason has been our physical development,” says the skipper Rampal in an exclusive chat with the Olympic Channel.
“We have invested in taking ourselves to a new level when it comes to our physical as well as mental fitness. Wayne (Lombard, the scientific advisor) has worked a lot on the team to ensure that we were on par with the best teams in the world. Earlier, I think the team would have been intimidated by the Europeans and other big teams, but that’s not the case now. Now, we know that we can compete and beat any team in the world if we stick to our game plan,” she explains.
It’s this mental fortitude that was on display in their second match of the FIH Olympic Qualifier against the USA in early November.
With the Americans wiping away their four-goal cushion in the first half, the Indian team stared at missing the Olympic bus once again.
But with calm and composed heads leading the side out for the second half, the Indians not only defended with all their might but also slotted in a goal to win the tie on aggregate and seal their place for the upcoming Olympics next year.
“I think the team never stopped believing,” Rampal says recollecting the moments from the second match against the USA.
“We knew we could get through this, it was just a matter of time. Agreed that we weren’t very good in the opening two quarters, but in the second half when you usually see teams drop their shoulders and fatigue starts to creep in, we were still pushing and probing. I think the team is such a zone where even if we are 0-4 down, we still believe that we can go and win the match.”
While the emphasis on physical as well as mental conditioning has been one of the key reasons behind such performances, one can’t rule out the shift in attitude India has shown towards the women’s game in the past decade. “Women’s hockey has undergone a sea change in India,” says the skipper attesting to the changes.
“When I started, the national team never had such facilities and support staff. Take injuries into account, Hockey India and SAI (Sports Authority of India) have been investing a lot in ensuring that players are well taken care of. Be it their injury management or be it the rehab, there’s nothing that we need to worry about.
Having signed off another fine season, Rani Rampal is now focused on the task ahead -- the Olympic Games. And she says the team can’t wait to get started. “Oh yeah, we are very excited,” she says.
“It’s a dream for every player to represent her country at the Olympics and it’s no different with this team. We have just seven months, it’s not much time. We need to ensure that we make the most of the camps we have and the matches we play and be in the best of our shape when we head to Tokyo in July."
So what is a realistic target for the India team at the Olympics? Having already shown their appetite for big pressure wins, don't be surprised if the Indian eves cause an upset or two in Tokyo.