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After a good spell in 2018, the Indian women's Hockey team began this year with a bang which saw them take on World Cup 2018 Silver and Bronze medalists Ireland and Spain respective and emerge with a series won and another one drawn. Notably, the Indian women’s Hockey team made its first appearance at the Olympics since 1980 at the Rio Summer Games and the standard of Hockey displayed by them has been quite high since. 2017 saw them win the Asia Cup while 2018 gave us Silver at the Asian Champions Trophy and the Asian Games in addition to a fourth-place finish at the Commonwealth Games and an eighth-place finish at the London World Cup. Despite the cloud of administrative issues which has plagued the team since last year- with the change of a coach, their performance vs Spain and Ireland this year have brought out the positive aspects of the team before they get ready for the upcoming Olympic qualifications. This year, the primary target for the team will definitely be booking an Olympic berth after so heartbreakingly missing out on one at the Jakarta Asian Games. Confidence is high, especially with the performance of the international friendlies in January. The event had a lot of clues as to what one can expect the strategies to be for the rest of the year. The team chosen was an interesting mix of old and young which probably points to the priorities of the management in ensuring enough exposure for the youngsters before Tokyo 2020. The friendlies also saw the return of Sushila Chanu in the squad- a former captain and talismanic player who missed the 2018 World Cup and Asian Games due to an injury. Another remarkable, watershed moment was player Navjot Kaur completing 150 international caps after making her debut for India in 2012. The Bridge caught up with a few members of the Indian Hockey team to get a diverse idea of the way things look to progress this year. Here are the excerpts:
Sushila Chanu(former captain, Halfback)
On her comebackI am quite pleased with the team's performance in the tournament as well as my performance individually. Making a comeback is never easy because, with every break in training, the amount of catching up one has to do it a lot. I fought and pushed myself to do better and it worked. We all played as a team and that showed in the results.
On Sjoerd Marijne's second stint as coachCommunication within the team has definitely improved be it between the players and the coach or between the senior and junior players. Our aim right now is an Olympic qualification so it is better that things within the team are as smooth as possible so the foundation is strong.
On her lengthy rehab during injuryI had knee surgery and the recovery process was equally gruelling and time taking. You need to spend hours at the gym and focus on physical workouts to ensure that your body is ready to take on the strain of regular training again. And the most difficult thing is to keep your motivation through all that. It's a lot of hard work. Success is never easy. Whenever self-doubt plagued me I always reminded myself of the personal targets I had set for myself. I told myself that I have a lot to play even after. Sometimes while exercising and running, there was a lot of pain but I always found a way to put that aside and focus on my goals.
On beating Spain and Ireland in the first tour of 2019- both World Cup medalistsThe biggest learning experience from this tour was the unity this team showed despite a varied age group present. Our third match vs Spain even saw us come back from a goal down to eventually win the match 5-2 and that showed the conviction and hunger in the team that they don't let an opposition lead intimidate or scare them. We know we have it in us. Now we must use the remainder of the year to work on whatever we learnt in this tour. We played in very cold weather especially the last match against Ireland. It was very windy that day. So, we were properly tested on this tour. Beating Ireland in this series was especially great because we had lost to them on penalty shootouts to be eliminated from the World Cup last year. We were determined not to repeat that at any cost.
On the senior-junior combinations in the teamIn my early days, there used to be quite a big gap in the youngsters and senior members of the team played. It is a mark of how far Indian Hockey has come that the difference is not so prominent anymore. They put in their full effort and we eventually become a better playing team for them.
Neha Goyal(22-year old, Midfielder, Scored 1 goal in the third match vs Spain)
Learning experiences from the tour.This is the first time we played Ireland since the World Cup. And we understood that our team is far better than theirs if we can smooth out a few rough edges. We are better skill wise and fitness wise than them. Our girl's team has been putting up consistent performances and that has led to a belief that we will continue doing so even in the Olympic qualification matches we play this year.
On being a youngster in the team in terms of experience and relationship with seniorsI get a lot of advice from them which has helped me improve my game and score in difficult situations where I myself never expected to. Sometimes, I get nervous before matches at the prospect of the work ahead of me. That is when we go to the seniors for advice. We all spend a major part of the year together so we share a strong bond. They are always ready to help. Even during matches, if they find something lacking in our performance, they always take the time out to speak to us about how we can improve. They tell us to never dwell on a single mistake but to always think about how to rectify the mistake and not repeat it. For any newcomer, this kind of support is very important.
Personal targets in 2019It is very important to qualify in the Olympics come what may. My personal target is that when we qualify, I want to win a medal in Tokyo.
On her on-field mentality during crucial matches.When I am at an important juncture in a match, I block everything out. I do not think about the pressure in the situation or the burden of expectations or the consequences of missing an important goal. All I know is that I have to give my best. That is the only thing in my mind. I want to contribute to my team as much as possible. So, if there is ever an instance where I can help them by scoring a goal, I will do my best to, no matter how difficult a position it may be.
Navjot Kaur(Completed 150 caps on the tour, Forward)
Takeaways from the Spain tourThis was our first outing of 2019. Which made it all the more important for our morale to be positive because the results here could end up setting the tone for the rest of the year. When you begin a year well, you will have that confidence to carry you forward. Now that we have that positive attitude, it is important to set a match-by-match target and road map for the rest of the year because right now, all our focus is on Olympic qualification. That is the only thing any of us can think of. Now that we have started so well in 2019, hopefully, we can keep this rhythm.
On completing 150 international capsMore than completing 150 matches, I was actually happier that the team won and it was a 5-2 victory against Spain. It is a huge responsibility and a reality check. Milestones like this tell you that you are now experienced enough to be considered among the backbones of the team. That experience must show itself in matches with difficult situations. Everything you have learnt in all this time is put to the test and each day, you learn new things. You are in a position to understand your and the team's evolution and strategise your performance accordingly. That experience is very valuable but you must know when and how to use it. The juniors are now performing beyond expectations so it is important that they have proper role models within the team to look up to and the space to evolve and grow and become better players.