If there’s one thing that has often disturbed the Indian hockey men’s team then that’s their tendency to concede late goals.
It happened at the Olympics at Rio 2016 where they ended up giving away goals in the final quarter against the Netherlands, Germany and Canada.
It then happened in the semi-final at the 2018 Asian Games that saw Malaysia make the most of this flaw to draw level with a goal in the 59th minute. And most recently at the 2019 Sultan Azlan Shah Cup final, where South Korea pounced on this vulnerability.
The Indian hockey team found wanting towards the end of their crunch matches.
But the 2020 season, so far, has seen some signs that the Indian hockey team has been overcoming what has been their Achilles heel for long.
In their opening two matches in the FIH Pro League, the Indian hockey team, marshalled by Manpreet Singh, not only displayed great resilience to defend when in then lead, but also showed enough courage to dig deep and grind out results in dire situations.
In the past, the Indians would have let their shoulders drop, allowed the opposition to rule and succumb to their fate without a real fight. But against the Dutch, the Graham Reid-coached side didn’t let any such thought distract them as they stuck to their game plan to eke out two goals to draw level before winning the game in the shoot-out.
And it is no surprise that this shift in attitude trickles down from their Aussie coach. Coming from a culture where consistent performance at the highest level is considered paramount, Graham Reid has ensured that the Indian hockey team gives their best every minute they spend on the field.
And the one area that has helped the team develop this trait is their fitness -- both mental and physical. Speaking to the Olympic Channel, Graham Reid shared insights on how he’s moulding this unit into a winning machine.
“I think there were a couple of issues (when I took over as the head coach),” said Graham Reid, a former Australian hockey player and a silver-medalist at the 1992 Olympic Games. “The first one was their (physical) fitness. But we had some fitness tests done recently and almost 80-90 per cent of the team got personal bests. So we are at the higher end of our fitness levels. I am not really worried about that.
“I am more concerned about the mental side of the players. My thoughts are more about the mentality of the players. We had a good learning experience in Japan (at the Ready Steady Tokyo event) with the younger team where we conceded a late goal to New Zealand.
“We spent a good 2-3 hours picking apart what was going through and what were the few things that we can learn from that to ensure that that sort of thing doesn’t happen again,” he explained.
While Graham Reid admitted that such things could happen to even the best in the business, his job was to have a plan to counter such instances. “An English Rugby Union coach talks about TCUP i.e. Thinking Clearly Under Pressure. And his views are more aligned to mine,” he said.
“As in, to think clearly under pressure, you need to have gone through those scenarios in your head. I want to make sure that we go through the scenarios, the ‘what ifs’. So, when it does, in your brain you’re like, ‘Oh, we talked about this, we need to do this’. Those are the sort of things we have been working on,” elaborated the Aussie.
Helping Graham Reid in this mission is a guy who’s been with him for a long time, the former Aussie drag-flicker Chris Ciriello. The former World champion and 2012 Olympic Games bronze medalist has joined the Indian hockey team as the analytical coach.
Having played under Graham Reid during his time, the 34-year-old has proved to be an able hand for the head coach to implement his plans and ideas. “Certainly, having Chris around meant my transition into coaching here has been a lot easier than what one can expect at times,” said Graham Reid.
“When you are working training routines, it’s a lot easier to tell Chris. ‘Let’s do the one that we did just before this tournament’. Those little things often mean that we are on the same page. But that doesn’t mean we agree on everything. That’s another thing that you need to make sure that the coaches around you are also challenging the way we are doing things.”
The little things seem to be working. And the disagreements are leading into healthy debates internally. The result has been clear to see on the field even if the Olympic year is just two matches old.
But with the coaching staff challenging themselves with ways to improve the team and the players sweating it out on the field, 2020 might be the year the Indian hockey team takes their game a notch higher to challenge the world order. And their performance against the two-time Olympic gold medallists surely has shown those signs.