Persistence, patience and conviction: Key ingredients required for Indian hockey to achieve long-term consistency

Slightly off the National Highway 503, a sharp turn to the right takes you down a lane, wide enough for a couple of cars to pass through, till you reach Charanjit Singh’s Una residence. It’s the NH 205 from Chandigarh that links 503 to Una, a town and district in Himachal Pradesh ringed by small hills. Go past Una on the 503 and you reach Dharamshala. Not known to many, in Una lives the town’s only Olympic Gold Medallist, Charanjit Singh, captain of the 1964 Tokyo Olympic hockey team that won gold. Charanjit is 88, walks slowly. When he speaks, some words slip, a few lose direction. Yet, he is sharp, remembers the matches and is extremely proud that India didn’t lose a single game at the Tokyo Olympics, not a rarity then.

 Persistence, patience and conviction: Key ingredients required for Indian hockey to achieve long-term consistency

File picture of the Indian hockey team. Twitter@TheHockeyIndia

It’s a different era now. Yet, among a host of things that a team places emphasis on, consistency remains a key ingredient in the path to the podium. In the ’50s, ’60s and deep into the ’70s too, consistency wasn’t a bugbear. Structures were tight within various India teams and as advances were made by other nations, trying to catch up with India, consistency remained India's strength. After the ’80s, it became the singular, most important issue and one of the many challenges that Indian hockey continues to grapple with.

Charanjit speaks a lot about consistency. He captained a team that had players like Shankar Lakshman in goal. Full-back and chief goal-scorer, Prithipal Singh. Upfront were Haripal Kaushik, Joginder Singh and Harbinder Singh. The unassuming but solid inside right Udham Singh and the maestro in the midfield, Mohinder Lal. How do you lose with such a team? “We did draw two games,” remembers Charanjit. “But the question during training and even during matches was always of not conceding. We understood the opposition, so it got easier to understand what to do when without the ball.”

Charanjit speaks about consistency as the only ‘mantra’ that takes you to the podium. “You could say that a good team is consistent. But I would say, it’s more mental even for a good team. You are in a bad position and at times, skill is not the only weapon. You need to be able to overcome situations. Training should be to overcome tight margins, or when you are a goal down.”

Both the Indian men's and women’s team are already in Tokyo, the city where Charanjit’s boys won gold. They will play a test event, almost a year to the date when India play the Olympic Games, assuming they get past the last qualifying hurdle, scheduled for November. Hockey statistician BG Joshi compiled a ranking based on the team’s success percentage. The top four nations are Australia (73 percent), Belgium (61 percent), Netherlands (55 percent), Argentina (53 percent) and in 5th spot is India also with 53 percent.

Results of the Rio Olympics (2016), World Cup (2018), Champions Trophy (2016, 2018), Pro League (2019) and FIH Series Finals (2019) have been taken into consideration. There is a considerable improvement in the ranking and therefore consistency of the Indian team. Of course, you can’t compare it to the 1964 gold medal-winning Indian Olympic team – an epochal period. Charanjit’s team at the Tokyo Games, played nine, won seven, drew two. They scored 22 goals and conceded 5. Prithipal Singh was the top scorer with ten goals.

It is during this period (Rio 2016 Olympics till the Pro-League) that Australia have played 39, won 26, drawn 7 and lost 6. World Champions, Belgium have played 42, won 22, drawn 11 and lost 9. The Netherlands have played 37, won 17, drawn 10, lost 10. The Olympic Champions Argentina have played 32, won 15, drawn 6, lost 11. India have played 25, won 11, drawn 7 and lost 7. New Zealand have one of the worst records with 23 played, won 2, drawn 6 and lost 15.

Japan’s coach Siegfried Aikman, who took his team to a stunning 2018 Asian Games gold medal win, speaks about Australia’s persistence. “Australia rebuild their team after the Rio Olympics and started with an extreme focus on basic skills together with a long-term strategy about the way they want to play and perform in Tokyo and Paris. They worked consistently to achieve their goals and for that, they also carried out an enormous physical program.”

Aikman has always been a supporter of playing high-level matches and spoken about bridging the gap between the top teams and the ones that constantly find themselves at the bottom of the heap. He credits Australia with bringing in youngsters and giving them top matches. “Australia played many high-level matches in which they tried many new players. One-third of their selection is younger than 23. In the high-level matches like the pro-league, the players learn to deal with stress.”

A part of the 1986 World Cup-winning Aussie team, former Australian and Indian coach, Terry Walsh, believes consistency is a high-performance element. “Consistency is an outcome of getting the processes correctly in place,” says Terry. “When teams do that, consistency is the natural outcome. Hence the better teams seem to have this ‘consistency’ component in their makeup. The important high-performance element is to retain consistency when playing against the best teams. As is clear for all to observe the best teams achieve this more often than the rest.”

Louisa Thomas recently wrote in The New Yorker about probably the greatest gymnast ever, Simone Biles: “She is arguably the most dominant athlete in the world right now. At the national championships, she had a bad first day—a mistake on floor left her furious, and she muttered that her bars routine was “a piece of shit”—and still won the competition by five points. Serena Williams does not win every tournament; Michael Phelps sometimes lost a race. Biles has not lost an all-around title in six years. In that time, she has won twenty-five medals at the Olympics and at world championships. She has been competing against only herself for a long time.”

Maybe, what Thomas wrote about Biles also stands for great teams like the Aussie cricket team captained by Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting dominated world cricket for more than a decade starting from 1999. The winning streak was 25 games in the World Cups from 1999 to 2011. It started in the final of the 1999 World Cup and the team won every game they played in the 2003 and 2007 editions.

The Pakistan hockey team was one of the most tenacious teams in the World Cups. They won in 1971, finished fourth two years later, then second in 1975 and won the title in 1978 and 1982. Then there was a blip in 1986 where they finished 11th but they bounced back to win silver four years later and then again lifted the cup in 1994. Quite a terrific record!

The time spent in refining skills, poring over countless training sessions and understanding the opposition goes a long way in bringing consistency. India last lifted the World Cup in 1975. Since 1980, they are yet to reach the semi-finals or even the last four of a World Cup. Why? It's difficult to answer.

Of course, you need a team picked with the right players who understand stress situations and how to deal with them. Terry believes Belgium have achieved it after spending so much time trying to deal with these situations. “I think Belgium have spent serious amount of time - over 15 years - building their performance ‘consistency’,” says Terry. “It has not been a piece-meal exercise, rather a deliberate and clearly implemented process that has continued to jump difficult hurdles to enter the realm of the world's top teams.”

Belgium are World Champions and Terry feels that it does not guarantee them success. “To stay there, this implementation will require to continue but even with all the procedures in place there is no guarantee of success - only clarity that they will give themselves the very best chance of success,” feels Terry.

India finished ninth at the 2014 World Cup coached by Walsh. And there were moments in both losses – Belgium and England – where India led and gave away goals in the 70th minute. Consistency in the field was apparent. Yet, it didn’t result in winning matches.

“These aspects take years to develop to an effective level for high-end international performance,” says Terry. “What I referred to as the Indian ‘masala’ is quite magnificent - but the real trick is for players to understand when to best utilise these incredible stick and ball skills. My tenure in India was very much in its infancy when it came to an end. Yes, we had developed significant changes in several of the ‘other skills’ but the understanding of the required levels to implement effective change was seemingly very new to most players. Breaking down these barriers requires time and concerted effort.”

Terry believes India can be in the top echelons of world hockey. “However, they (India) must review how they assess 'skill' across the development in hockey across the country,” says Terry. “There is no doubt that national coach Graham Reid will be implementing these aspects into the present Indian Team - but is that the ‘key’ for the long-term development of Indian Hockey?

“In my opinion, much needs to be done in the development of the game in the academy settings across India. Education in what these other ’skill sets’ are and how they can be taught and implemented without losing the Indian ‘masala’ is crucial for long term development. If a quality model was implemented in India, after six years the national teams would spend significant time on the podium at the Olympic Games and World Cups.”

In the hockey world, the definition of skill has changed. The dribble, feint, dodge, deception are what players develop and some are born with those attributes. In India, the premium on skill, till almost the turn of the decade, didn’t allow players to look closely at changes happening across the hockey spectrum.

Terry explains: “The biggest issue is the definition of ’skill’. Most Asian Hockey supporters believe the skill component to be one that can only be derived with the stick and the ball. Therein lies the trap — and the outcome is that the culture of playing the game is driven by the skills off the stick and ball. Simply put the skills associated with physiology, mental-strength, game strategies and tactics are all dominant in the modern game; these are where the real changes have been made in the game.”

Charanjit belonged to a different age, generation but the principles of achieving consistency were the same. “Training, training and more training but we created situations which we might encounter during a match and that is how we developed,” he says.

Graham Reid, the Indian coach, was asked about the lack of consistency to which the former Aussie player and coach replied: “I don’t want to delve in the past. But yes, we are focusing and training on things we can control…if we do that, we would bring in the consistency.”

Tenacity is required in every aspect of a sport. It’s not always the performance on the field that matters in the run-up to a big tournament. In an environment where changing players and coaches are considered routine after every few tournaments, stability for a player is reduced to holding onto his spot in the team. Anything beyond that, in terms of results, is considered a bonus. In the last three decades, India have been at the deep end in the hockey ocean. Players, coaches, support staff and Hockey India need to understand that consistency is not a pill you swallow and voila, the results will follow. There needs to be persistence, patience and conviction.

Updated Date: Aug 14, 2019 13:42:10 IST