The FIH Olympic Hockey Qualifiers has been an instant hit for a few reasons.
While the two-legged tie has helped take competitive hockey to various centres around the globe, the teams in the fray for a place at the 2020 Olympics haven’t disappointed either.
Be it Pakistan playing a wonderful brand of hockey against European heavyweights, the Netherlands, or France and Spain entertaining with their no-holds-barred approach, or even the Chinese women rallying for a two-goal deficit to beat Belgium and book their place at Tokyo 2020, the Olympic qualifiers have produced some edge-of-the-seat contests so far.
This could well be a reason why Indian goalkeeper PR Sreejesh is not keen on taking their opponents for the Olympic qualifiers, Russia, lightly.
The Indian men’s team will take on Russia in their two-legged qualifier tie at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar on November 1-2, with the winner making it to the Olympics in 2020.
While on paper, the Russians seem no match for the Indians, the experienced goalie believes that it’s necessary for the team to stay away from the pressure of expectation and prepare for all possible situations. “All of this talk (about pressure and handling it) is outside the team,” said Sreejesh, speaking to the Olympic Channel.
“The primary goal is to ensure that the pressure doesn’t get to the team. Like, keep away from people who are not from your inner circle, stay away from the internet and social media, stay away from negative talks and so on. Secondly, while training, try to simulate the match environment.”
So how is the senior pro helping a young Indian team be ready for what’s in store for them? “Well, I ask them to imagine a match situation and play accordingly,” he said, giving some insight into how the team’s tuning up for the Olympic qualifiers.
“Like, how will you play in front of a packed stadium? Or how will you approach a game if you’re 0-5 down? Recreate that in your head and train accordingly. So, if such situations arise in a match, you’re not taken by surprise but are ready for it. I share my experiences with them. I played the last qualifiers. So, all I do is tell them what it was like to play then and what was it like to handle the pressure and so on.”
Big year ahead
If the Indian team is to get past Russia, 2020 is bound to be a big year for the side. Apart from the Tokyo Olympics in July-August, the Indian team will also be involved in the FIH Pro League, after giving the competition a miss in its inaugural edition. And Sreejesh was excited with the prospect of playing top teams throughout the season in 2020.
“It’ll (2020) be vastly different from what we saw this year. We start the year with the Pro League, a competition that has the top eight teams in the world. That’s like, a great way to start your Olympic year. And we need to be prepared for that. We have a handful of matches there, so I think everyone in the core group will get an opportunity to make a case for themselves ahead of the Olympics. Moreover, ahead of the Games, playing all the teams is a big advantage. There will be a lot of international hockey. I think that’s what we need building up to the Games,” explained Sreejesh.
While missing the inaugural edition of the Pro League didn’t have a telling effect on India’s fortunes this year, Sreejesh admitted that staying away from a competition like that was hard to take in. “Of course, looking at the level of hockey that’s out there, it bad that we missed out on an opportunity to improve ourselves,” he said.
“But unfortunately, the decision is not in our hands. I am happy that Hockey India has taken a wise decision to make the team available for the Pro League next year.”