The Indian hockey team was riding high on success in the Pro League tournament at the start of the year. A win over the Netherlands in January was followed by a win over the World Champions Belgium in February. India also made sensational comeback against Australia in the same month, and the team was looking destined for success at the Tokyo Olympics 2020 which was to begin in July.
But the Covid-19 pandemic brought a halt to the sporting world. The Pro League games were stopped. Tokyo Olympics were postponed for a year. In March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown. At the time, the Indian hockey teams, along with the coaching staff, had to remain inside the SAI center in Bengaluru, away from families.
Now, with restrictions starting to lift up, the Indian team players returned home last month. With one year left for the Tokyo Olympics to go, India men’s hockey captain Manpreet Singh’s entire focus is on ensuring his team’s fitness levels do not go down at a time when training has not yet restarted and there are no competitive tournaments taking place.
In an exclusive interview with Hindustan Times, Manpreet speaks on the life amid lockdown at SAI Center in Bengaluru, and the plans to prepare for Tokyo 2020.
Q) You all were at SAI Center when the lockdown was announced with the rest of the team. Tell us a bit about those days?
“When we were under the lockdown, we went back to the drawing board. We kept our focus on the sport. We were having communication among ourselves and analysing our opponents. We wanted to know more about the teams we would be facing in the future. We were studying them – their strengths and weaknesses. Which player from the opposition’s team is more dangerous, who is weak. We were doing all of this. So, we had quite a productive time there. Even though things outside were not going well, our team utilised that time quite effectively.”
Q) Staying away from family in such unprecedented times must be difficult. How did you keep yourself positive and motivated?
“Yes, it was tough. But to keep myself motivated and positive, I read quite a few books. I also watched the Michael Jordan Documentary ‘The Last Dance’ on Netflix. It was quite good. It gave me positive vibes and I got to learn a lot from it. Money Heist was also running on Netflix at the time, so I watched that as well.
“I read quite a few books on how I can stay positive, and how can I increase my mind. I was watching online series which can help me in matches. I was also watching online videos of Cristiano Ronaldo. I read a lot about top athletes who have battled hard times to become big.”
Q) What all you learned from the lockdown period that you believe could help you on a personal level?
“On a personal level, I learned a lot of things. The biggest thing I learned was the importance of hard work. Even though I was in my room, my focus remained that I do not want to gain weight, and I need to keep myself fit. So, even when I was in the room, I did all the exercises that I could do. I knew fitness is very important for my game, so I was personally focusing on it a lot. I was just trying that all the players remain positive and we all keep communicating with each other.”
Q) Tell us a memory during lockdown at SAI Center in Bangalore which you will remember forever?
“I would always remember the bonding that developed between the team. It was so strong. Even in such a difficult time, we stayed together. If there was any problem, we would share it among ourselves. So, I feel it would help us in the future because all of us shared a lot of personal things with each other. We became even closer. Sometimes, when you are facing difficult times, it becomes hard to stay positive. But we all remained in a positive headspace. And we would always get positive vibes from each and every one. I will always remember we spent time like a family.”
Q) You returned home last month. How did you feel returning home and meeting family?
“It was great to reach home and meet my family. But most of the time we, as athletes, stay out of the home. My team is like my second family. So, I enjoy a lot with them because I come home only a few times. So, I reached home, met my mother, it felt nice. But I always miss my team. All the batchmates have fun with each other, pull each other’s legs, we enjoy with each other, and share a few laughs.”
Q) The camp has not started yet. What are you doing in your free time?
“I am focusing completely on my fitness at the time. I go for cycling early morning. In the morning and evening, we are following the program given to us by Robin Arkell sir at the gyms. We believe that we should not suffer a dip in our fitness levels because it would make it difficult for us to return to camp and restart everything if we do not remain fit. I also became a part of Adidas’ ‘what’s one more’ campaign, which has been designed to push us to work hard for another year to win medals from Tokyo Olympics next year. Everyone wants all the athletes to win medals in Tokyo next year.”
Q) With limited training and no competitive games in the past few months, would the players return to the same level of fitness and skills they had before the pandemic?
“To ensure that we remain at par with what our level of performance was before the lockdown, we are focusing our fitness at the moment. As I said, the most important thing at the moment is that our fitness levels should not be dropped. Our coaches also want us to maintain our fitness. So they send us programs daily to do so. They keep chatting with us and asking us if we need to make a change in any program. They keep asking us what kind of running program we need.
“One thing that must be noted is that the lockdown situation has been the same all over the world for other teams – and not just for India. The training has not fully started in most countries at the moment. When we return to the camp, our main concern would be to pick up from where we had left off. We would need to bring our fitness levels back to the same level. We will talk about our opponents together which we will face in the Pro League and at the Olympics. We will look to improve our strengths and reduce our weaknesses.”
Q) FIH has announced a schedule for Pro League schedule next year. Do you feel that it will help the team in planning the training schedule with some sort of target in mind?
“Pro League schedule will really help us. When you get to play big teams before the Olympics. So, we will get to play Pro League matches before the Tokyo Games. We can try out youngsters, and try new variations in our team. So we have a lot of things which we can try in those Pro League games.”
Q) How will the planning and targets for the Tokyo Olympics change with the change in training and competition schedule?
“We believe that when we return to the camp, we want to work on improving ourselves and not worry about things which are not under our control. We do not see what else is going on, we want to work on things which we have in our hands. If we focus on things out of our control, we will not be able to focus and our minds will remain diverted. The coaches believe that we just need to focus on ourselves instead of what else is happening around us. We will work on our attacking, defense, our skills when we return at the camp.”
Q) So, the target is still to win a medal in Tokyo?
“100 percent. Our aim is to win a medal at the Olympics. How the team has performed in the past year, we are quite confident that we will earn a podium berth in Tokyo next year.”
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