Being a goalkeeper is a lonely job

I think one of the earlier pieces of advice I have gotten when I initially began taking the role of a goalkeeper seriously was that “Never trust your team.” It came from a man I had a lot of respect for, someone who helped me master the basics of the path I had set up to follow. The conclusion of that nugget of wisdom was that defenders are bound to make mistakes at times. No one can go through their entire career without a few patchy spots here and there. As the one standing between your opponent and their chances at a goal, you have to be as little dependent on your defenders as possible.

If, by chance, the ball finds its way to the back of the net, fingers will be pointed at you. In case of that eventuality, the faults and mistakes of the defensive unit are definitely not going to matter.

Being a goalkeeper is a lonely job. Not only are you completely alone during the match with no one to take over from you in case of a mistake, your training sessions are quite far removed from the rest of the team too. Often, it’s hard for a third person, a normal coach, to understand and instruct you on the nitty gritties of goalkeeping because it’s literally a different ball game. I think, since the time I have been here, I have seen coaches come and go on multiple occasions. Players, in my opinion, are mature enough to understand the circumstances which prompt these difficult decisions.

Also read: Fearlessness is what makes people look up to you

For my part, I never found any difference in training under the different strategies which might have affected the rest of the team. For them, mutability and adaptability is what is required when it comes to unlearning the teachings of one coach and replacing them with the next. But how does that change my job? For me, the only thing that matters is the workouts I am given. During training, I need to be kept on my toes. If that is in place, that is really all that is required.

That’s the only coordination and support I need from them, actually. Say, for example, I played a match where I wasn’t particularly satisfied with my display in a specific position- let’s say the left top. It’s my job to go convey that to the coach so that the subsequent practice sessions can be centered around that position; the players get to lob balls in a way that is conducive to my improvement.

Ultimately, practice is what matters. Fourteen years ago, when I made my debut in the junior team, I got as nervous and jittery as one can get. It’s quite unnerving- standing there in a jersey, knowing that you are the last bastion of resistance; knowing that your team and, by extension, your country will scrutinize every move you make. That is when the loneliness sinks in. All of a sudden, it dawns on you that you are, at once, a part of the team and outside it at the same time. How you deal with that kind of sudden alienation often makes or breaks your career.

As a young kid growing up in Kerala, the main reason why I chose this position in the hockey field was because I hated running. I wouldn’t call myself inactive. Since childhood I had been quite into games and I even got an athletics scholarship which prompted my entry at a reputed sports hostel. My talent was in shotput but the first time I reached the hostel and took a look at the people I was supposed to be training with, I immediately decided I wanted to change my sport. They were big, burly kids. I was always the lean kind and I felt really dwarfed the first time I got a proper look at my competition.

As a state, Kerala has a reputation for being a football, volleyball and athletics oriented one. Travel anywhere, and kids indulge in these disciplines as if it’s a second nature. No one ever has to teach them. It’s something that just comes naturally- the craze is that high.

For hockey to find a stronghold in these circumstances is quite impossible. Perhaps this was why, when I first announced that I would be changing my stream, it was met with quite a few raised eyebrows. My family was never against me prioritising sport but hockey was something alien- not the game itself, just that someone in their vicinity would actually take it seriously. I remember watching the 1998 Asian Games and, somewhere in my subconscious, the image of Ashish Ballal saving two important tie-breakers stuck in my mind. I cannot say that it was what inspired me to become a goalkeeper, though.

The time that I am talking about, Kerala never had a hockey icon that we could look up to. For people choosing to take up that sport, it was more about passion, the chance of representing your country. That is what drives you. For parents, however, the stability in their child’s life is paramount. At that point, they could see other sports offering that but there was nothing of that sort in Hockey. Now, however, I would say things have changed a little bit. All it takes is just one person to look at the system and decide he’s going to beat it.

It’s been a long time since I achieved that very stability that was in doubt during my first few years of taking up the sport. I would like to think that everything I have seen and experienced has helped me grow as a player. But you know what really takes a toll and has the maximum effect? An injury.

There has been a lot of speculation regarding my comeback this Commonwealth Games. I think that is one of the hypes surrounding Team India’s campaign this year, isn’t it? It’s nice to have so much attention centered around you.

But jokes aside, the first few months after an injury, it’s literally a time period where you cannot understand anything that is going on. And that uncertainty takes an equal amount of toll on your mental health as much as the actual injury affects your physical health. It’s a slow process and it really tests your patience.

To come to a national camp from that, a camp where you see your teammates as fit as possible, it’s a daunting task because you must first mentally strengthen yourself to reach that level. You have to prove that you deserve your spot in the national camp. Everyday is a fight.

Have I won that fight yet? Honestly, I do not know. See, the difference between a practice session and a match situation is that, in the former, it does not matter whether you let in two goals or five. But the good news is, ultimately you end up repeating everything you learn in practice during a match situation. I have had two months to fine tune my skills and judge myself since my last international appearance in the New Zealand tour. So yeah, that optimism is always there.

Also read: For the first 14 years of my life, I lived in a slum. Now I play for India.

Initially, I had to struggle a lot to find a spot in the team in the face of great seniors and predecessors. Now, I strive to be the person I needed when I was younger. I do it to mentor these kids like Suraj (Karkera) and Krishan (Pathak); the same way I would have liked someone to see me through my first days. They have a tough journey ahead of them. The least I can do is guide them through it.

Ultimately, you rely on experience. The job of a goalkeeper is one where you are constantly stuck in an internal struggle with yourself. On the field, you just have yourself to conquer- your nerves, your jitters. If you let in a goal or two, it’s important not to panic. Quick recovery is what has always led to greatness on the field. That is the standard I constantly work towards.