Manpreet Singh, Captain Indian Hockey Team, in the centre, talking to the team. Image: Hockey India
Ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, which begins in July, the Indian Hockey team is all geared up to compete at the games.
After all, the Olympic Games have been a prized possession and an old playground for Indian men's hockey. The team is not just the most successful in Olympic history having won eight gold medals; it has scored more goals than any other side.
Things, however, have been far from easy for the hockey players due to the impact of coronavirus that has already delayed the Tokyo Olympics by a year.
"It was disappointing for the players, no doubt, because they were in very good form and they were all really looking forward to the Tokyo Olympic Games," Hockey India President, Gyanendro Nigombam, told Moneycontrol.
Despite the disappointment, Manpreet Singh, Indian hockey captain, said that the players took the news positively, and looked at the postponement as gaining another year to prepare well.
"Our collective belief that the Tokyo Olympics Games was our best shot at winning a medal itself was a big motivation for us and that continues to keep us going," he said.
Notwithstanding the motivation, training in COVID times has been a trial. "The biggest challenge was not being able to compete or tour for events due to travel restrictions," says Nigombam.
While competitions were a missed opportunity last year, the teams were able to continue their training.
Nigombam says that during the lockdown, the Sports Authority of India (SAI) and Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports (MYAS) ensured that the teams remained in the camp.
"And to ensure that training resumed as soon as the nation-wide lockdowns were lifted, Hockey India was the first national federation to come up with standard operating procedures (SOPs). This was ready as early as May last year. Having this helped when players got back onto the field," he adds.
For Manpreet, the one thing that really helped was that all 33-members of the Indian men's hockey core group were camped together at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) Centre, Bengaluru.
He explains: "We had each other for support and if one day someone felt out of sorts, there were always other players to lift up the spirit. Our coaching staff was very encouraging and Hockey India has provided us with all the necessary facilities to ensure our training is not interrupted."
``This is why,” says Nigombam, "though it was a tough year, with collective efforts from Hockey India, SAI and MYAS, we were also able to resume international competition from early 2021, which has helped us in the preparation for both the men and women teams."
Along with the training, to keep the teams motivated throughout the lockdown last year, Hockey India kept constantly in touch with the teams' support staff to check on their well-being.
"We wanted to ensure players are doing well both mentally and physically. Also, to keep them occupied, we encouraged players to attend Hockey India online classes, particularly the Coaches Education Pathway, which will help them in the future," explains Nigombam.
He adds: "The women's team also engaged in an online fitness challenge during the lockdown where they raised Rs 21 lakh to help feed over 1,000 families who had suffered. So, a number of such activities helped in dealing with uncertainties and to keep us focused on our goal for the Olympic Games."
The men's team, which recently toured Germany, Belgium and Argentina, is back at the coaching camp. "We are preparing for our next event in May where we play Spain and Germany in Hockey Pro League matches," says Manpreet.
With a strong build up, the Indian captain says they are confident of a good show at the Tokyo games.
In addition to preparations for the upcoming Olympics, Hockey India is trying to engage fans by launching a podcast series called Hockey te Charcha (discussion at Hockey).
According to Manpreet, the intention behind the podcast series was to get hockey fans from across the globe listening to the heroes of the sport and relive its glorious moments.
The first two episodes features legends Harbinder Singh, who spoke extensively about the 1964 Olympic Games Gold medal feat, and V Bhaskaran, who captained the Indian team to victory at the Moscow Olympics in 1986, he explains.
Along with former hockey players, the podcast will also feature players from the current Indian team.
"It was great to listen to Harbinder Singh in the first episode where he talks about playing conditions in New Zealand where they toured before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and how they didn't have proper shoes to play in those conditions. Stories like these are very inspiring for us and motivates us as players," says Manpreet. They will need it in good measure when they step out on the field to begin their Olympics campaign in a few weeks time.