In 2016, the Indian women’s team ended a 36-year wait to compete at the Olympics. Now, they will have to beat the United States in a two-match series to make back-to-back appearances at the Games for the first time. It’s hard to think of two more evenly-matched teams competing in a winner-takes-all tie – this is like South Africa and New Zealand squaring off on a cricket field or, say, Mexico facing Colombia in a high-stakes football match.
“It is difficult to say if it is 50-50 or 60-40 (in India’s favour) or 40-60 (in USA’s),” Sjoerd Marijne, the women’s team coach, says. “If I think about the US, the first thing that comes to my head is that they are physically strong. They played a lot of matches in the Pro League so the players have a lot of experience via those matches. That would definitely help them.”
It’s the only conceivable advantage the USA enjoy over India, and Marijne is quick to point that out. “It’s not that I feel we are not (strong physically), because we did yo-yo tests on Monday and it’s amazing what we ran. So we will be equals in that part. Then it’s about skills, and we are good in that too,” he says.
It’s only natural for Marijne to talk up his team. But there’s an element of genuineness to his claims. Eighteen months ago, India would have been underdogs against USA, a team that finished fifth in Rio and narrowly missed out on a medal in the 2014 World Cup. However, as the men’s team dished out disappointing performances – failing to medal at the Commonwealth Games, losing in the semifinals of the Asian Games, exiting the World Cup in quarterfinals – the women have silently worked their way up; not quite world beaters or medal prospects yet, but a team that constantly punches above its weight.
The first signs of resurgence were seen at the World Cup last year, where India came closer than ever to qualifying for the semifinals. An Asian Games gold eluded them but the fact that they won a silver for the first time in two decades was further proof of recovery after spending years in the shadow of men’s team.
This year, the women have lost just two matches out of the 23 they’ve played (15 wins, 6 draws). Although a chunk of those matches were friendlies, and some were against inferior sides, there have been some eye-catching results against quality teams like Australia, Spain and a bunch of Asian countries, including China and 2020 Olympics hosts Japan.
Martial arts as a tool
Results, however, are just one way of looking at things. A more visible improvement has been in the body language, which has been far more aggressive, and strength players have shown during matches — a change Marijne attributes to a curious addition to the routine: taekwondo.
The martial art, Marijne says, was introduced to the training routine this year to make the players, who had a reputation of being timid, aggressive and also improve their core strength. “Taekwondo is for aggression and improving core stability, which helps us in defending better. If, as a defender, your balance is not right, you will get beaten. Just like in taekwondo, where if you are imbalanced, you will get hit. And of course, it also has helped them improve their defence,” Marijne says.
Not just the physical aspect, Marijne says greater attention has been paid to deal with the confidence crisis the players frequently go through. “Most common problem the girls face is (lack of) self-confidence. Some of the girls feel a lot of pressure before the match. A few feel pressure from the family,” Marijne says. “Wayne Lombard (physio) and Priyanka, who is the psychologist, have been working very hard to improve the performance levels.”
The peak performance pressure, Marijne knows, will be felt on November 1 and 2, when the team takes on USA in the do-or-die matches in Bhubaneswar. All the claims of improvement will mean little if India do not make the cut for Tokyo Olympics. “We are well prepared for the matches. Then again, it’s sport,” he says. “Of course there will be pressure. But without pressure, it will be boring.”