The women are going to Rio. But they aren’t able to win.
Since qualifying for the Olympics for the first time in more than three decades, the Indian team has been on a freefall. They’ve been to Argentina, South Africa, New Zealand and England for tournaments and bilaterals, but have won only a handful of matches. They’ve beaten South Africa, Canada and Scotland – neither of the three will be at Rio. And they have lost to teams ranked both above and below them – New Zealand, Germany, Japan, China, Ireland and Britain. While Ireland have not qualified for the Olympics, the team’s tour to England last week ended in five consecutive defeats, with the last one being a demoralising 7-0 whipping.
With less than three months to go for the women to open their campaign against Japan, it is not an ideal scenario to be in. But Neil Hawgood isn’t panicking yet.
During his first stint as the coach of the women’s team, the Australian spoke at length about the team’s endless potential. He had a group of girls at his disposal who were smart and skillful, and with proper physical condition, he assured they would do wonders.
Which they did. Under Hawgood, the women won the first-ever junior World Cup medal, a bronze. They continued to impress even after he quit to join Malaysian men’s team. Now back after a short time away, Hawgood stares a challenge that appears bigger than when he first took over.
Hawgood, though, is unperturbed. “Of course, we are disappointed. We didn’t do well in England and at Hawkes Bay Cup (in New Zealand), we finished sixth out of eight teams, which shows where we are placed in the world right now. The girls realise they weren’t good enough,” he says. “But I am pretty confident their performances will be far better at the Olympics.”
As a coach, Hawgood is expected to speak positively about his players so close to the Olympics. But he says the players are at present feeling the pressure of just being selected for the Games. “It’s one thing to qualify for the Olympics and it’s a completely different thing to actually be there. Right now, these girls are realising how much pressure just the possibility of being selected for the Olympics puts on you,” he says. “Then you have other things that distract you from hockey… TV crews are turning up at training sessions… all these things are new for them.”
That, combined with the fact that none of these players have ever been in this scenario before adds to the anxiousness. Hawgood points out that most of India’s opponents at the Olympics have previous experience of being there. Britain, for instance, are the defending silver medallists whereas the likes of Argentina, China and Germany – some of the opponents against whom they’ve played recently – too have a decent history in the women’s game.
India, on the other hand, are still upstarts. “The opponents they’re playing against have a history. They know how tough the first one was… Now, they have an understanding of what they’re going for, what’s expected of them and what that pressure is. You don’t know that pressure until you actually feel that. That can play a big psychological impact,” Hawgood says, adding that they have a sports psychologist who is helping the players deal with the pressure.
On field troubles
While he grapples with the off-field distractions, the team’s performances on it is something he believes will improve in Rio. India’s tour to England earlier this month was one of the worst the team has endured in a long time, with the team suffering some lopsided defeats.
They’ve been found wanting on several aspects, physique being the key. That will come crucial especially at the Olympics, since each team is allowed just 16 members in its squad instead of the 18 in other international tournaments. The Indian girls haven’t looked strong on the ball, their passes and shots on goal at times have been too slow to bother the opponent and are frequently outmuscled by the rival teams.
Hawgood says the physical condition of the team is better than his first stint but agrees there is still a lot more to be done. “We are probably being tied down physically. The team has had a physio for last 2-3 years. But we must take into account that the other teams have been doing this for the last 8-10 years. They have that many years of strength in them,” he says. “At the Olympics, 16 players will have to match the work rate of 18. So they have to work harder than they have before, and they’ve got to get used to that. It’s a mental thing as well.”
The physical condition of the players will be put to test next week when the team will travel to Australia. India will play four matches in five days against Japan, New Zealand and the hosts.
Going by the previous outings, it’ll be a miracle if the team returns with a superior win ratio. But Hawgood is confident. “Eventually, it will happen. You just have got to be patient.”