Starved of matches, Indian men’s hockey begins Olympic year in Germany

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Graham Reid, the chief coach of India’s hockey team, refers to a ‘wellness report’: a sort of fitness and happiness index that he and Robin Arkell, the strength and conditioning coach, have designed to know how players are doing. “Both, the mental and physical side,” Reid says. “We ask them basic things like, ‘have you recovered?’, ‘how are you feeling?’…”

For a major part of the last 12 months, none of them were feeling good. “Not playing competitive matches in over a year has been very difficult, mostly mentally than physically,” goalkeeper PR Sreejesh was quoted as saying in a Hockey India media release on Saturday.

In the last few days, however, Reid noticed a collective spike in the team’s psyche. The reason for that is the tour to Germany and Belgium for back-to-back test series. “It is amazing how the physical surroundings impact the mental side of things positively,” Reid tells The Indian Express from Krefeld, where they will take on Rio Olympics bronze medalists Germany in the first of the two matches on Sunday.

This will be India’s first game after 370 days – their last match was against former world champions Australia in the FIH Pro League on February 22, 2020. For most of the time since then, the whole team was cooped up inside the training centre in Bengaluru, allowed out of their rooms only for meals and practice.

Of course, hockey wasn’t the only sport that suffered – it’s been the same for all Indian athletes, regardless of the sport and level. But for Reid, the pandemic made things a little more complex.

He took over as the chief coach in May 2019. But that was a rare year when India did not play even one top-10 ranked opponent in a competitive match. Hockey India’s decision to not play in the first edition of the Pro League, a tournament where the world’s best teams go head-to-head, robbed India of quality match practice.

Then, after Pakistan withdrew from the event owing to financial problems and a slot opened up, India snuck in. At the time, Reid was happy that the format of the Pro League would aid India’s preparations for the Tokyo Olympics. “It sorts out scheduling concerns for a coach. In an Olympic year, you are always thinking… ‘who do we play?…’ So in that sense, the Pro League is nice. We don’t have to worry about any of that,” Reid had said.

But the pandemic disrupted all plans, and in the year of the postponed Olympics, India are staring at the very problems they believed were taken care of last year. The tour to Germany was largely by chance.

“I had been contacting a lot of coaches in the last 3-4 months to get competition. I happened to talk to (Germany coach) Kais (al Saadi) and he was also looking for competition – everyone is around the world, everyone is starved,” Reid, the former Australia chief coach and the Netherlands assistant coach, says. “So it was a matter of ‘can we make it work?’ And we were lucky and it’s good that SAI and Hockey India were able to make it happen.”

The two test series – India play Britain in Belgium after the matches in Germany – will give the coaches and players a lot of ‘feedback’ about all the things they have been working on, Reid says.

During the lockdown, when the training was restricted, the coaching staff’s focus was on improving the individual skills of the players. More recently, the focus has shifted to tactical aspects; more specifically, on transitions while attacking and defending.

Some of these things were tried during the intra-squad matches that took place every week. In December, just before the Christmas break, the team played a four-match series internally in an attempt to simulate tournament conditions.

But Reid knows it’s practically impossible to recreate the same scenarios as an international match. So, the purpose of the matches against Germany and Britain is to ‘get a lot of information’ about his players, the tactics and their skills. “You get some feedback from the internal matches but when you are with the same group for a long time, you lose perspective and objectivity a bit. The objective of this tour is to get feedback of where we are at so we can plan what needs to be done between now and the Olympics,” Reid says.

India are without their regular captain Manpreet Singh and drag-flicker Rupinderpal Singh for the tour, and Hockey India has not given any reason for their absence. Sreejesh will lead in Manpreet’s absence while the rest of the squad is unchanged from last year.

Match schedule:
February 28 and March 2: vs Germany
March 6 and 8: vs Great Britain





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