PR Sreejesh calls it the ‘water off the back of a duck’ principle. In 2014, before he became the goalkeeper that he is today, the India captain went for a brief stint under Dutch goalkeeper trainer Martijn Drijver, who introduced him to this phrase.
And since then, it’s stuck with him.
So much so that it was the first thing Sreejesh mentioned to the two junior team goalkeepers when he joined the support staff as a mentor for the World Cup. “When water drops fall on a duck, it doesn’t stay there. It just flows away off its feathers. Just like that, Martijn told me, you shouldn’t let a goal bother you. Goal hogaya, hogaya. Usko bhool jao. Prepare for the next,” Sreejesh says.
In the senior team, the 28-year-old may be the designated prankster. But for a fortnight in Lucknow, he has turned into a philosopher. Instead of the technical aspects, Sreejesh says his priority is to develop the two custodians — Vikas Dahiya and Krishan Bahadur Pathak — psychologically.
It’s an area Sreejesh himself has focused on considerably in the last two years. He is an avid reader of philosophical and sports psychology books.
At one point, he carried Rudi Webster’s Thinking Like a Champion wherever he travelled and credits the book for bringing a turnaround in his career.
On the eve of India’s match against fellow-contenders England, Sreejesh spent considerable time talking to the two goalkeepers. The conversation primarily revolved around the mental aspects of goalkeeping. “I talk to them mainly about preparing mentally for the match and the ways to control the negative or positive moments in a match. You need to keep your mind stable — no matter if you concede a goal or make a good save. Similarly, you’ll be a spectator for long stretches. What you think during those moments is crucial,” he says.
Dahiya, the first-choice goalkeeper, would know a thing or two about being a spectator on field. On Thursday against Canada, he did not even have to make one save. But European U21 bronze medalists England will be a tougher opponent. It might help gauge if Dahiya – or Pathak – have the potential to fill the huge void in India’s goalkeeping cupboard after Sreejesh.
In the last two years, India have not had even a half-decent back-up to Sreejesh, who has often been over-burdened.
He, however, does not expect the juniors to make an immediate successful transition to the senior team. “It’s about experience. I didn’t play 10 or 15 junior tournaments and get into senior team. Junior and senior level hockey are very different,” he says.
“The pressure, atmosphere and importance given to seniors is very different compared to juniors, apart from events like the World Cup. You need to be patient.”
Sreejesh played the 2005 junior World Cup under Harendra Singh. That team, which also comprised Sardar Singh, lost in the semifinals. And while Sardar was swiftly included in the senior team, Sreejesh had to wait until 2009 before making his India debut.
He has close to a hundred junior caps, playing for them till 2008 before he was called for the senior national camp.
However, with Adrian D’Souza, Baljeet Singh and Bharat Chetri ahead of him in the pecking order, Sreejesh had to bide his time. His first big break came in 2011 before upstaging Chetri as India’s number 1 goalkeeper in 2013.
“That’s the reason I say patience is essential. When you compare these players — not just goalkeepers — with the seniors, they need to really work harder, they need to gain more experience. So, I think they will take some time to fight with the seniors or replace the senior players in our team. But there’s no doubt that there is a lot of talent there,” he says.
Eleven years after playing a junior World Cup under Harendra, Sreejesh has joined his support staff, albeit in a stop-gap role. And he has returned wiser. “You control your mind and you control the game. It’s the simple rule,” he says.
“I share these things with juniors. But it takes time to change thinking habit. Even if there’s one percent change, it’s beneficial to us.”