An unbeaten run to win a trophy has been rare for the Indian women's hockey team. But they did exactly that at the recently concluded Asian Champions Trophy in Ranchi.
India won all their seven matches with senior players like Savita Punia and Vandana Katariya coming good in crunch situations while youngsters like Sangita Kumari and Baljeet Kaur proved their mettle in international hockey.
But this performance was about more than the perfect record, it was the imperfect nature of the wins that held the greater significance. India did not play their best hockey in all the seven matches, but a mix of mental toughness and not shying away from expressing themselves on the pitch resulted in what was a deserving trophy.
While Indian women's hockey has progressed rapidly over the last three-four years, they have struggled to make it count with a title win. They won the FIH Nations Cup, a qualifying tournament for a better quality FIH Pro League, but mostly faltered in the knockout stages at the World Cup, the Asia Cup, Commonwealth Games and most recently, the Asian Games. When the pressure was on, sloppy moments increased and led to defeats.
In Ranchi, it ended differently. According to Head Coach Janneke Schopman, when things became tougher on the pitch, the players didn't hide. They wanted to take the responsibility, which wasn't always the case before.
"The semifinal against South Korea was an interesting game. What I was really happy with is that we didn't necessarily play well but we were able to play and win. There was no one who was hiding. In the past, we would have players who didn't perform so well who would then kind of say, 'don't give me the ball' or whatever," Schopman said during a press conference with the media on Thursday.
"I was happy that we had 18 players who took the responsibility. It wasn't perfect, we made quite a few mistakes. But I think that maybe the best learning from the tournament is that we can be very good but also when we are not so good, we are a tough team to beat," she added.
Contrast this to the semifinal against China at the Asian Games last month, where one bad game proved costly as they lost the match 4-0. Up until, India were unbeaten in the tournament and had the belief to clinch the gold medal.
The presence of the newly appointed mental conditioning coach Peter Haberl has played a big role in this change and both Schopman and captain Savita Punia acknowledged it.
"I think with the help of Peter Harberl, we were able to address things that were previously on my shoulders. I am not an expert in the mental side of things, I do know a lot about it, but I think having an expert is very important," Schopman said.
"I worked with him in the past so he knows me pretty well. It was refreshing for me to have someone to give me feedback from day one till the end and someone who can help us perform better. Because in the end, it's not so much about winning or losing, it's always about us, how we can be better," she added.
Haberl, a licensed psychologist from the USA, has plenty of experience of working with high-performing teams and individuals, including at the Olympic Games. There's a visible impact right from his first assignment, where young and experienced players stepped up in difficult matches against the likes of China (2-1 win) and Japan (another 2-1 win) and in the semifinal (2-0 vs South Korea) and final (4-0 vs Japan).
"Like the coach was telling, there's a difference when he, an expert, conducts our sessions and when the coach does. When the players had a 1v1 meetings with him, they all felt really good," Savita said.
Inability to handle pressure was one of the major reasons behind the Indian men's hockey team's underwhelming performance at the World Cup earlier this year. Both the previous coach Graham Reid and captain Harmanpreet Singh spoke at length about wanting to get a sports psychologist for their team. Later, Hockey India appointed Paddy Upton, whose sessions, according to the new head coach Craig Fulton, benefited the team heavily. Since then, India won the gold medal at the Asian Games and qualified for the Paris Olympics. The core aspect when dealing with match pressure and mental toughness is mental health itself. A decade back, players didn't have the knowledge and capacity to understand their mental health needs. It's not the case anymore and Savita says the national team players recognise the importance of mental health and its correlation with on-field performances.
"Usually in India, players hesitate to share their feelings openly. A lot of players got rid of the hesitation (now). It is very important to realise that if you keep things inside and not talk about it, it becomes difficult to perform on the pitch," Savita said.
"In today's times, mental health is equally important as physical fitness. We have been working on this since Janneke joined our team but now Peter is explaining it much better. The more we talk about things like pressure, your body will feel more relaxed."
Savita shared a real-life example of this and how it affected matches. "Earlier, when we couldn't perform to our best, we used to say 'heavy legs'. You are training well, you are doing everything perfectly but during matches, you start feeling the heavy legs. We realised later there's nothing called heavy legs. When you start feeling the pressure, your body freezes. Players were not sure about sharing their feelings with the coach, afraid of being dropped for the next match. Now they have realised that it's normal. I have played 250 matches but I talk about feeling the pressure. This is normal and we shouldn't hide it."
The big test will come in January when India will play the Olympic Qualifiers at the same stadium in Ranchi. The pressure quotient will be a lot higher then and so will be the expectations. They couldn't get a direct Olympic berth with an Asian Games gold and that could weigh in their mind.
But the difference is that now there's a belief among the players that they are doing all the right things to improve both on and off the field, physically as well as mentally.