Every morning when the members of the Indian hockey team wake up, they have a special message awaiting in their team Whatsapp group. And it has got nothing to do with hockey.
The instructions read something like this. “No use of abusive words today”, “Please drink fluids using only left hand today”, “At lunch and dinner table, everyone will hold a spoon in their left hand”, “Greet everyone with folded hands and a namaste today”, “wear t-shirts and shorts inside out”, "no communication at the lunch table" and so on.
These instructions last for 24 hours before another one replaces them as the team prepares for their quarter-final at the World Cup in Bhubaneswar. For someone uninitiated into the world of sports, these may sound bizarre or unnecessary instructions but in the fast-paced sporting world, teams are known to go to any length to find that winning edge.
Sports is as much about tactics and technical inputs as about team work, bonding and working together in pursuit of excellence. History has shown that teams which cover the most aspects often last the distance. One never knows what might click.
Chief coach Harendra Singh says these are some of the ways to keep the players “focused, energised and together as a team”.
“If one thinks sport is only about what we do on the field, it is not just only that. We have had three intense matches and we have to keep the players engaged and together,” says coach Harendra.
“The energy and focus can go down when there are long breaks between matches and these activities spur the mind. Also, they are all in it together and we have fun punishments when anyone forgets to follow the rule of the day. Even I am not spared in this!” the coach says with a smile.
A day ahead of India’s opening match against Belgium, the players were suddenly asked to go silent on the lunch table. The following day they were asked to drink fluids only using their left hand and day three meant wearing all clothes inside out.
“It is not easy doing silly stuff out in the public eye,” says the team’s analytical coach Chris Ciriello of Australia. “But when you see one person doing it and others too join in, it becomes a fun thing. It is like a secret that everyone is sharing and you bond really well.
“We used to do it a lot during my playing days in Australia and it helps break the ice between players,” says Ciriello, who comes up with a lot of innovative ideas for the Indian team.
This is not the first time that the coaches have introduced such activities for the team. At the Asian Games in Jakarta, the team players and support staff were made to wear a rooster hat and a skirt if they were late for training or forgot something in their rooms.
At the Junior World Cup in Lucknow where India won the gold in 2016, Harendra had one day asked the support staff to dress up in colourful clothes – mostly women clothing -- and spend time at a restaurant in the team hotel in full public eye.
“When the players see that our coaches can be so uninhibited and cool, they also open up and perhaps adapt a different view of things,” says Harendra. “It helps them give up inhibitions even on the field.”
Says a player, “I think besides being fun, it also teaches one discipline and self control. There could be times when you do not feel like holding a spoon in your hand throughout the meal or say drinking coffee only using the left hand, but these activities keep you alert. Every time we break the rule, it leads to a fun punishment which could be push ups or anything else, so it is a great way to bond.”
Warne, The Master of All
The concept of trying out off the field things isn’t new to the world of sport. Master tactician and one of the greatest spinners in the world, Australian cricketer Shane Warne was among the first ones to introduce such things at the Indian Premier League almost a decade ago.
Coach and captain of the Rajasthan Royals team, Warne had special nicknames for all his players and had introduced a doll named ‘Pinky’ which was handed over to the player arriving late for the team bus or training.
‘Pinky’ would accompany the player for 24 hours — even during toilet breaks with the only exception being training and match timings . Although no one can say for sure whether this helped, but the unfancied Rajasthan Royals went on to win the inaugural IPL title.
Perhaps the Indian hockey team could take a cue from that win.