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India hockey star Hardik Singh focuses on team play for Olympics success

India's star hockey player Hardik Singh talks to Lounge about his career, the importance of team spirit and how India is preparing for the Paris Olympics

Hardik Singh in action for India.(Getty Images)

By Arun Janardhan

LAST PUBLISHED 03.04.2024  |  07:30 AM IST

Hardik Singh uses the analogy of a family to explain his “team game mindset". While growing up, the India hockey player was surrounded by hockey lovers in his family—an extended unit of uncles, aunts going back a few generations. Watching the sport at home was a group activity, and the game also dominated dinner table conversations, where everyone had an opinion. 

“Growing up in this environment, you don’t think as an individual. That team game mindset comes from there," says Singh, whose uncles include Jugraj Singh, the former drag-flick specialist, and Gurmail Singh, member of the 1980 Olympic gold medal-winning team.

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The 25-year-old midfielder emphasises repeatedly on the word “team". Even when talking about the FIH Player of the Year (2023) award that he won in December, he says being nominated among the top five made him happier, knowing that he was in the company of players he had looked up to since making his international debut in 2018. “Then you are in that company, you share a stage with them. For me, this is a team game. I would have chosen an individual game if I wanted individual awards," says the India team vice-captain over a call.  

In the over five years that he has been playing for the national side, Singh has established himself as an invaluable cog in the team machine. Last year’s award came on the back of an Asian Games gold medal and a title in the Asian Champions Trophy, both of which followed a rare medal in the Olympics—a bronze in Tokyo 2020/21.

In another Olympic year—Paris 2024 is this summer—the mega event tends to get a disproportionate amount of attention, more so for the hockey players who have the expectation of improving upon the previous bronze. “If there was no pressure, you would not get a diamond," says Singh, a veteran now with over a hundred games for India.

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“We will play better and positively because we know what it is like to be in the quarter-finals and semi-finals (after Tokyo) of the Olympics. Also, we have more experienced players now as opposed to the last time when there were 11 (Olympic) debutants (including Hardik). We are a young but experienced team."

The Indian team will tour Australia for a five-match Test series starting 6 April in Perth as part of their preparation for the Olympics. The series against one of the world’s best teams is expected to give the team management a realistic idea of their preparedness. “We have to work on those small things, tactics. Like we need to attack first, make sure we don’t get into a comfortable place if we score, but look for more. Don’t give them a chance. 

“The important theme is we need to score first. We sometimes play well and then," he pauses to look for the right words, “how do I put it, we get bored. Then as an individual, you start to think that I should do something special here. Whereas we need to play as a team, play with the coach’s tactic."

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Since the time Singh first made it to the Indian national camp, he says the team has evolved from being good in counterattacks to getting good in attack, defence and in the jittery last stages of a match, which used to be one of the team’s weaknesses. The team’s mindset has changed as India, an underdog in 2020, will go to Paris as a medal contender. “Now we know that we will win a medal but need to change the colour of it," he says. 

The 25-year-old has also gone through his own process of evolution, having returned from an injury that ruled him out of most of last year’s World Cup in India. The host exited the tournament early, in part missing Singh’s influence in the midfield. 

“There have been some setbacks," he says, “But how you come out of it is how you show character. Sometimes, you lose in the shootout, there are occasions when you feel you could have won… But you learn, from experienced players like (teammates) Harmanpreet (Singh), Manpreet (Singh), (P.R.) Sreejesh... You should have no ego, that I have won an Olympic medal or some such. The sport is part of your life for a bit, but you have (a longer) impact as a human." 

The injury break helped him change his attitude a bit, like focusing on the present. “There are so many things going on in your head—you have just lost the World Cup. What hurt most is we lost in the quarters; that hurt more than the injury. Sometimes, you can over-think these things."

Singh credits coach Craig Fulton, who took over from Graham Reid after India failed to reach the World Cup quarter-final last year, and mental game coach Paddy Upton for his evolution as an athlete. From a player who was all “action and go", Singh has become more analytical, looking at his turnovers. “I will call myself a team player," he says, using the phrase again.

“I need to see my teammates shine, then I feel happier. More if I assist than if I score. That’s always been the case—if the team is winning, I am winning. Many players have come and gone, having played 400 matches or such. No one knows them. But if you win with a team, everyone knows you."

Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle.

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