Firstpost Masterclass: 'Thankless art that is best left uncomplicated,' PR Sreejesh on goalkeeping

How to switch off and switch on during a match? What do goalkeepers think during a penalty corner? How to master shoot-outs? India's ace custodian PR Sreejesh answers all these and more in the latest edition of Firstpost Masterclass.

Shantanu Srivastava August 10, 2020 11:40:01 IST
Firstpost Masterclass: 'Thankless art that is best left uncomplicated,' PR Sreejesh on goalkeeping

Editor's note: Professional sport is as much a scientific pursuit as it is a recreational wonder. What appears routinely mundane is a result of the hours spent honing the craft and deciphering the body mechanics till it becomes a monotonous muscle memory. In Firstpost Masterclass, our latest weekly series, we look at precisely these aspects that make sport a far more intriguing act than we know.

Watching PR Sreejesh in full flight is an experience to cherish. The strapping Indian custodian, among the finest the country has seen in a decade at least, is a livewire on the turf who can be seen goading his defenders and effecting memorable saves under the bar with equal urgency. His quicksilver reflexes, expansive wingspan and fearless decisions have won India countless crucial games, and at his absolute peak, he was consistently rated among the best goalkeepers going around.

An affable man off the field, Sreejesh is a darling of the hockey-watching public across the country. In this edition of Firstpost Masterclass, he discusses the thankless art of goalkeeping, the technical components needed to excel at it, and the mental adjustments he makes during the game.

Tell us something about your childhood. What kind of kid were you and how did hockey happen?

I come from Kerala and hockey is not very big here. The state is known for athletics, and not surprisingly, I was drawn to athletics at school. I used to do long jumps, high jumps, shot put, races...everything. The competition was not of very serious nature though, it was more about having fun. When I was in the seventh standard, my PT teacher told me about the selection trials that were being conducted for sports school. On his insistence, I participated in the trials and got selected on the basis of my athletics' performance. I was quite a decent shot putter and had won a few state-level medals, but at the sports school, I realised that there were a number of shot putters in my age-group who were a lot better than me.

Coming from no sporting background, I thought it would be in my best interest to give up shotput and try something else. I dabbled in volleyball, football, and basketball, but was not comfortable. Kerala is quite good at all these three games, and the players, even at that age, could understand these disciplines way better than I could. Everything was new for me, whereas these kids had been playing their respective sports for a few years.

Then, I came to know that a few kids were learning hockey from a very basic level. That's when I thought of giving hockey a shot. My parents were very skeptical of my choice because back then in Kerala, even if you are good at hockey, there was not much you could do by way of making a career out of it. My parents wanted me to stick to volleyball, but I never wanted to go back because it felt awkward to play with the guys who knew the game whereas I couldn't do anything. I told my father, 'Give me three years. If I am not able to do anything in hockey, I will return to volleyball in Class 11 or 12.' That is how hockey happened.

Were you always into goalkeeping?

No, I started as a defender. At that age, more than the ability of the player, it is about how the player looks... so the bigger guys were put in defence, the lean, medium-built ones were in the midfield and the short, fast boys were deployed in the forward line. I was quite fat at that age and was of decent height, so I was slotted in as a defender. Then, in our age-group, it was customary for Class 8 boys to perform goalkeeping duties.

I was quite a lazy kid who didn't like to run around much. I had always looked at goalkeepers as happy souls who would just stand under the bar and do their thing. So, when the opportunity came, I accepted it with both hands. That's how my goalkeeping career started.

Goalkeeping is a tough art to master, and there is always this fear of getting hit. As a kid, how did you overcome this fear?

Yes, that was an eye-opener. I opted for goalkeeping thinking there's not much to do, but I realised it is completely different from how it may look from the outside. It is like you dangle chocolate in front of a kid before giving him/her injections. Goalkeeping is like that; it is a trap and by the time you understand that, it is too late because you are so invested in it.

Back when I started, we didn't have these latest pads. The pads we had were made of cloth and were quite heavy. I first started walking with them, then I wore them while working out, then I ran with them, and only after I was comfortable in them was I sent to the goalpost. That's when I knew that goalkeeping is a suicide mission.

Firstpost Masterclass Thankless art that is best left uncomplicated PR Sreejesh on goalkeeping

'Overcoming fear simplifies goalkeeping.' AFP/File

At that age, people just smack the ball at you...they don't care if you get hit, or if they are aiming at the goal...they just hit it as hard as they can. For me, saving the goal became saving my soul and life. I told myself that I have to save the ball in order to save myself. So, I started blocking balls from my hands, like a football goalkeeper. I didn't use my legs often; instead, I would just dive and look to save from my hands.

Naturally, since my mindset was not right, I would concede a lot of goals. Then, my teammates began to tease me. They would say that they might as well place an immovable rock under the bar... those kind of things hurt you. It changed me, and I could actually feel the transition happening within me.

My seniors told me how to move and stand under the bar. I thought even if I get hit, I won't let a goal through. My coaches would give me examples of daredevil goalkeeping; they told me even if the opponent tries to kill you, you do not have to concede a goal. Those things pumped me up. At that age, all you want to do is impress your coaches. So, I began to put my body on the line. I got hurt a lot, but I knew I was doing it for the team. In doing that, I found strength and the fear went away.

Today, we use high-quality equipment and protective gear, but back then, there were no arm and thigh guards. The gloves we used were wicketkeeping ones and the pads were not great either. Our bodies were more exposed than covered. So, the players would target the exposed areas and it would really hurt. After every match, I would look at blue sore areas of my body, and after a point, I became numb. I couldn't feel pain anymore. After a couple of years when I moved to Class 10, I got better pads and things became easier.

Was there ever a moment in your career that told you that you're ready for international hockey?

No, no, that never happened to me because playing for India was not a thought when I started out. My biggest dream was to get into the district team and if everything goes well, maybe make it to the state team. In 2000, after the Sydney Olympics, athlete KM Beenamol and hockey player Dinesh Nayak came to my school where they were felicitated. I remember Beenamol tellng us, 'If I could play for the country, so can you.' That sparked a thought in the mind for the first time that maybe if I pay well, I can play for India.

Next year, I was selected for the Kerala Under-16 team and that was the time I travelled to Delhi for Nationals. My coach told me that the selectors will come to watch the matches and if I play well, I can make it to the junior national team. I was excited but didn't give it much thought. At that age, playing Nationals itself was a big deal. Eventually, since I was the second goalkeeper in the team, I never got a chance to play, but I was cool with it.

However, next year, when I played the junior Nationals, I was quite serious about making it to the national camp. It was, I think 2001, and I was in Class 10. I played really well and that paved the way for the U-16 national camp.

How was your senior India debut like? Do you remember that experience?

My first experience playing for India was in 2004 when I represented the junior team. I was in the camp in Chandigarh and we were preparing for a series against Australia. Our coach, Ramandeep sir, announced the team and my name featured in the list. We were given jerseys and I wore it and stayed in front of the mirror for two hours...I would face myself in the mirror, look at 'India' on the jersey, and then turn to see my name at the back... I don't remember how long I did that. It was a dream come true, a really special feeling.

My senior debut happened two years later at the SAF Games. Generally, we do not send our main team for SAF Games (now known as South Asian Games); it is generally the 'A' team that plays in this event. It was the same in 2006. The main team was preparing for the World Cup while another team was sent for this tournament. By that time, I was one of the main members of the junior team and a senior call-up was only a matter of time.

I made my debut in the final of the tournament against Pakistan and had a horrible match. In fact, it is one match of my career that I would like to forget. I conceded two goals between my legs and we ended up losing the match to our arch-rivals.

Goalkeepers, like wicketkeepers in cricket, are noticed more for their mistakes than their saves. What do you make of this?

When I started my career, my coach gave me a very valuable advice. He told me, 'Sree, you can become a hero of the game, or you can become the zero of the game. You are the one-man army on the field who can decide the match.' So, I knew very early in my life that goalkeeping, as you said, is a thankless job. It is a completely different game within the game.

A lot of times, teams score late goals in the dying minutes of the match and people end up blaming the goalkeepers. You must understand that goalkeeper is not the only person responsible for conceding a goal; it is a collective mistake. Recent studies have shown that there are at least five-six different mistakes that lead to a goal. Definitely, the goalkeeper is the final custodian, but it is always a team effort and people must understand that.

How do you get your focus back after you have conceded an early goal?

Whether you save a goal or concede one, you are playing a mental game. If I concede the goal in the first minute of the game, I have the next 59 minutes to think of that goal. Or, I have next 10 minutes to save a goal and rectify my mistake. Those 10 minutes can be very crucial. A lot of negative thoughts can bog you down: What are my teammates thinking? What will the coach say? What will the press write? What will the spectators say? Likewise, if you pull off a very good save, you can be on an emotional, self-congratulatory high for the next 10 minutes.

Neither of the two extreme emotions is healthy because you tend to lose focus. With time, you learn to stay neutral and balanced and focus on the moment.

Firstpost Masterclass Thankless art that is best left uncomplicated PR Sreejesh on goalkeeping

'Conceding an early goal is tough, but it is important to switch off quickly.' Image courtesy: Hockey India

When I concede an early goal, I try to calm myself. I try to talk to myself a lot; I would say I am my best friend. The next step is talking to my defenders. I make sure they trust me because when a goalkeeper concedes an early goal, it can sink the morale of the team. So, I make it a point to communicate. That's how I get my focus back and get over the disappointment.

After this, I do another routine. I sing to myself, I look around the stadium, maybe smile and wave at the crowd, even look at a pretty girl. All of this helps me take my mind off the stress and helps me return to normal. So the next time ball comes in my half, I am ready. This entire process, though, is an individual thing. Each goalkeeper has his/her unique process depending on what works for them.

You come across as a very aggressive player on the turf, but outside the field, you are completely opposite. Do you flick a switch within you when you enter the field?

That happens subconsciously. If you alert your defensive structure and make sure they stick to the formation, you'll be able to keep the balls away. That's why you see me shouting at our defenders, to make sure they keep their structure and avoid balls slipping into my circle. Also, the defenders ask me to talk to them to keep them on their toes. VR Raghunath, I remember, used to always ask me to talk to him because that would keep him motivated. A lot of times I share some harsh words with the defenders, but there are never any hard feelings. It is only to keep them motivated and alert. That's an understanding we have developed.

You talked about switching on before a match. Yes, that happens with experience. It is different for different players, actually. Even after playing so many international matches, I have butterflies in my stomach before a game. That helps me realise that I am getting ready for the match; there's a lot of adrenaline. Then, when I enter the field, I know it is time to play my game. I try to get that 'game feeling' before and during the game, but you can't get it just like that. You have to practice that, and that's what I do during our training sessions.

Some people follow regimented routines on match days. They get up at a fixed time, have a certain fixed breakfast to keep themselves in that zone. For them, the preparations begin at the start of the day. I don't need that. I can do anything all day but when it's game time, I am ready.

When you are playing your first game, you don't know all these things. You need to try certain things, and after a fair number of trials, you come to a conclusion over what suits you. It is like shopping for a t-shirt, for example. You go across the store and pick, say, five t-shirts. You try them and then shortlist one or two. That's how it went for me. I tried various combinations for my matchday diet. Earlier, I used to eat a lot before matches, but that didn't help. Then, I mixed carbs and proteins on matchdays, but that didn't help either. I then switched to a protein-heavy diet, and that worked for me.

Some people develop this ability early. For example, Manpreet came to the national camp when he was 15, even before he made it to the junior team. He could understand these things very early since he was in the company of seniors at such an early age.

Do you visualise before a match? If yes, what is it that you visualise?

Yes, I visualise, but I don't do it before the match. I do it the previous night. I watch the opponents' videos; how they take the penalty corners, how they hit the ball, and so on. I visualise various scenarios, such as if they are going to hit the ball right down, how am I going to save, if I concede a goal, how am I going to recover; if I miss a save, how am I going to calm myself. I try not to dwell on the past. The idea is to feel something new.

It is believed that a goalkeeper is in the best position to control the game. Is it true? If yes, how do you actually do it?

That's true. Goalkeepers' vantage position does help them to monitor the game. A goalkeeper acts like a coach on the field. You have the responsibility to control the team and carry the defence because you have a better view of the game. To control the game, you need to have very good knowledge of the strategy. You need to understand your gameplans very well. You need to be at the players' meetings, attend their training sessions, understand what they are training for, and how, what skills they are looking to implement. These things eventually help you guide the players during a match and make full use of your position.

Why do you get into the bent, deadlift position when the opposition is approaching you? Also, are you looking at the ball, your defenders, or the opposition players?

We do that because that position helps you to stay balanced. If you look at tennis players, they get into a similar position while receiving a serve. It helps you move either way. While standing, we look to distribute our weight equally on both feet.

The rule says that you should look at the ball, not the player, but personally, I look at the ball as well as the position of the opposition players, especially if they are still quite far from me. Some players have peculiar skills, so you need to keep an eye on them. Some players may be good at hard-hitting, some like to slap the ball, some may be great at passing... so you try to see who is most likely to take the shot. That's why I do look at the players also.

I have developed this habit over the years and now my first instinct is to judge who is going to hit the ball, and then, I look at the ball.

You spoke about switching off and switching on on a matchday, but there's a lot of that going on in a match too. Sometimes the ball may not come in your half for a while and then there could be a sudden turnover. How do you manage such situations?

Yes, you are right. It happens a lot when you are playing a lower-ranked team; you dominate their defence and keep the balls in their half but suddenly one ball can come to you which you may or may not be ready to save. I think as a goalkeeper, you should train for such scenarios.

It is a mental game. The human mind cannot concentrate on anything for too long; our attention spans can be really short. So, it is important to distract yourself during the game when the ball is in the opposition half. If you try to focus for full 60 minutes, it will become very difficult for you. I would say it cannot happen. What I do in the middle when the ball is not near our half is quite similar to what I do when I want to refresh my mind after conceding an early goal. I sing to myself, wave at the crowd, look around. That is my way to switch off. As soon as the ball enters my half, my mind automatically gets switched on because it is fresh.

A lot of times we see goalkeepers rushing out towards the opposition players and then return to their spot after covering a certain distance. Do you have an area or a territory marked in your head, or is it just instinctive?

See, it is a very individual thing. Some goalkeepers are really quick on their feet and they are comfortable to come as far out as the top of the circle. Then, there are 'keepers with relatively slow reflexes. Such 'keepers generally stay in their position or do not go beyond five-six metres.

For me, I decide as per the situation. Most of the time, I prefer to stay close to my post, but if I see that there's a one-on-one situation developing at the top of the circle, I will definitely back myself and charge out because my one-on-one skills are better than my skills closer to the post. It is important to back your instincts and strengths.

During a goal-scoring move, there can be more than one opposition players inside the D. In that case, how do you decide whether to dive, rush out, or stand your ground, because there is always a chance of a rebound or a deflection?

It is difficult to explain, but as a goalkeeper, you must remember that all you have to do is react. Do not initiate the action. I always wait for the player to take the action and then react to it. Then, it also depends on who you are playing. Against a team like Australia or Belgium, for example, I know they will most probably hit towards the second post. A lower-ranked team, in all probability, will take a direct shot. That's always a calculated risk.

So as I said, in a one-on-one situation, I always like to charge out and kill the move, but if I see there are supporting players of the opposition around, I always stay back. The main target for a goalkeeper is to gain time in such situations. If you delay the situation, your defenders will come in and try to tackle the opposition.

At the end of the day, you just react. A lot of times, I end up thinking after I have done something, 'okay, how did I do that?' It is because it happens so naturally. I don't act just for the heck of it. I think, analyse, decide and execute, and this entire process comes naturally to me. It is a skill that comes with years of practice. I have been playing for India for over a decade, I have been in so many tough situations, and I have perfected my skills after practising them over 20,000 times, so for me, it just flows during a game.

How valuable is anticipation for a goalkeeper? Do you give it a lot of importance?

It is important, but not a pre-requisite. The job of a goalkeeper is to save the ball from sneaking into the goalpost. If you can anticipate well, that's an icing on the cake. I know people give a lot of value to it, but I have seen a number of goalkeepers whose anticipation goes horribly wrong and they end up conceding easy goals. The ultimate target for a goalkeeper, I repeat, is to save the goal. For that, you should look to get into the right position when the opposition player is taking a shot rather than you anticipating yourself and committing to a save.

Speaking for myself, I react to the situation. Some players follow a pattern, so you know what they are going to do in most situations. When you run towards the goal from baseline, you have two choices, to play a 90-degree pass or a 45-degree pass. When I see such a situation, I immediately check if I have a defender in the 90-degree area. If there's no one manning that part, I know that the opposition will pass there. In such a scenario, I wait and let them pass. Conversely, if I see there is no defender at 45 degrees, I commit and close down the move. So, it is a mix of anticipation and reaction depending on the situation. When the opponent is taking a shot, you forget everything and just look at the ball and react.

Let's talk about penalty corners. What do you discuss with the defenders while getting ready to save PCs? Also, what are you thinking when the drag-flicker is at the top of the D, about to receive the push?

With defenders, we always discuss the way we run. There are different ways of defensive running. You can have one, two, or three players running towards the ball; that is what a goalkeeper decides. I look at the opponents and analyse their attacking set-up, and based on that, I take a call on our defensive running.

The basic rule is to watch the ball at all times, but you do analyse the drag-flicker to get some clues about where they might hit the ball. You have studied the patterns in advance, and you know what a particular drag-flicker likes to do. If I am keeping to SV Sunil, for example, I know eight of his ten flicks will be on my right down because that is what he likes to do. I analyse all these things on video before the match. Secondly, I analyse myself. I look at where I concede more goals. If, for instance, I am weak on my right, I make a mental note that the opposition may target that area.

What we do in a match comes after lots of hours of practice. If you save almost 100 penalty corners each day in training, automatically you develop a sense of judgment. So, when the ball leaves the stick, we just watch and react without consciously realising. Wherever the ball is hit, I have to save it, that's what I eventually tell myself. After all these analysis and calculations, what I do at the end of the day is react to a drag-flicker's action. All my homework helps me make the correct decisions on the field, but at the core of it all, I just watch the ball and react. Plain, simple goalkeeping.

You said you back yourself in one-on-one scenarios during the match. By extension, do you enjoy shoot-outs too?

No, no, no... I do not like shoot-outs! I don't think any goalkeeper does. Shoot-outs are like ticking time bombs; you only hurt yourself. Even if you win one match in a shoot-out and lose the next, the entire blame will come to you, because it is between you and the opposition player. As a goalkeeper, I never want to be in a shoot-out situation.

Firstpost Masterclass Thankless art that is best left uncomplicated PR Sreejesh on goalkeeping

'I back myself to come good in one-on-one scenarios.' Image courtesy: Hockey India

Can you take me through your process of gearing up for a shoot-out? What is your approach to such situations?

For shoot-outs, when I walk from the sidelines to the goalpost, I look at the player who will be coming up. Most probably, I would have watched his video in advance. I carefully study players during video analysis, see what position they play in, how they play, and so on. For me, in shootouts, it is all about killing time. I don't want to save the goal, I just go to kill those eight seconds. If I manage to do that, I know I'll save the goal by default.

When I reach the goalpost, I decide what I am supposed to do. I go through basics in my head, then, the whistle blows and I am ready. Once the whistle blows, I am done thinking; I just react.

Make no mistake, shoot outs are really tense affairs. Your adrenaline is high, the heart is pumping, but you have to keep calm. You have to think on your feet. It is not easy, but that is where experience comes in. I have been playing hockey for 20 years and I must have been in shootout situations 10-15 times in my international career. Earlier, my heart rate used to hit the roof, but with practice and experience, I am able to analyse and judge better.

Do you prefer to tackle reverse flicks during shoot-out by diving or by cutting angles?

It depends on the situation. I think I am comfortable both ways, moving with the ball as well as diving at the ball. I prepare for both situations, but once I am in the middle, I react to the situation. You cannot approach a shoot-out with a rigid plan. You prepare for everything, and then you are in the middle, you just use your weapon according to the situation. Most goalkeepers try to get their body in the line of the ball because when the opponent hits a reverse flick, he is targetting the net, and if you dive, you won't be able to stop the ball.

Generally speaking, I do not prefer to dive because when you dive, that is the end of your movement. That should be your last option. Your only objective to dive is to make a foul or clear the ball because if the ball is close by, the opponent still has a chance to score.

Can you briefly talk about your diving technique?

I follow a very simple technique to dive sideways. The idea is to transfer the weight to the side where you want to dive. So, if I want to dive right, I press my right leg and look to transfer my weight in that direction. The left leg is used to give a push. That helps you to cover some extra distance while diving. It is just like how a frog jumps.

You are one of the top goalkeepers of the world and teams do study and analyse you. How important is it for you to innovate?

You are right. With all the technology around, there are hardly any secrets, but I always look to change my style. I never try to play in the same way for a very long time. Having said that, there's a limit to how much you can change your game. I would not even advise changing your game a lot. Instead, you should look to consolidate your positives and work on your weaknesses while working on the opponents' strengths. Rather than worrying about what others are doing, you are much better off working on your game. That is the approach I have.

How is your workout different from other players? Can you take me through your typical fitness schedule?

Goalkeepers' workouts are quite similar to the rest of the teammates. We need aerobic strength, but not as much as other players. So, if they do 10 repetitions, we do six or seven, that is the only difference. We do more explosive workouts since we need more reactions and reflex actions. We train with the rest of the team, but the goalkeepers' group trains for specific movements. We start our workouts 10-15 minutes before other guys because we have to do targeted warm-up routines to get our hand-eye co-ordination going. We then pad up and join the team for some stability workout. Then, there are team drills and other stuff.

We eat and rest in the afternoon and hit the training again in the evening. On some days, we have gym sessions in the afternoon after training. Goalkeepers generally do not need heavy lifting but I prefer to lift a lot. I quite enjoy it.

Do you remember when were you first addressed as The Wall? How does this moniker feel like?

Being addressed as The Wall feels like a great honour, but for me, the title belongs to Rahul Dravid. He is The Wall. I remember it was after the 2011 Asian Champions Trophy win that some newspapers wrote that I am The Wall of India, and it got stuck. Sometimes, the recognition I get feels surreal. Fans love me across the country, chant my name, wave at me...it feels really special. At the same time, it gives me a great sense of responsibility too because I know they trust me to perform. It is a great feeling and it gives me the energy to keep performing to the best of my abilities.

Any advice for youngsters who want to take up goalkeeping?

Goalkeeping is a tough art. The only way to master it is to not overcomplicate. All I would like to tell youngsters is just stop the ball. Doesn't matter how, but first and foremost, just try to stop the ball somehow because that is what is goalkeeping. You can finetune your technique later. Secondly, don't be afraid of getting hit. Once you overcome the fear, things will become a lot simpler. So just go out and stop the ball and don't be shy to put your body on the line for your team.

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