The Indian forward revealed how they achieved success at the Tokyo Olympics.
Mandeep Singh has become a vital cog in the wheel of the Indian hockey team in recent years. He made his senior debut aged just 18 in 2013. Since then, he has gone onto amass 159 international appearances for the country, netting 82 goals.
Now 26, Mandeep is approaching his prime and is set to be a pivotal member of the national team in the coming years. In an exclusive conversation with Khel Now, the forward spoke about how the team tasted success at the Tokyo Olympics, the mentality in the dressing room during Tokyo 2020, his thoughts on the Hockey India League (HIL) and much more.
Mental state ahead of Tokyo Olympics
The Tokyo Olympics was a significant tournament for Mandeep Singh. Despite making his national team debut in 2013, the forward was overlooked for Rio 2016. Hence, he was trying to make amends and give his all for the country on the grandest stage.
“I am a part of the Indian team since 2013. I got a chance after a long time, after 7-8 years I was going to play at the Olympic Games. There was no pressure, but every player aims to play at the Olympics. Every member of the team was going to Tokyo with the determination that this time we will bring back a medal home.
“So, it was a momentous occasion for me when I got to know that I was selected as part of the Olympics squad. After that, I wanted to do well for the team. I play as a centre-forward, so I wanted to press higher and score goals. I also wanted to win penalty corners for our drag flickers. So, it was a great feeling that this time we were able to bring home a bronze medal,” revealed Mandeep Singh.
Bouncing back after defeat to Australia
The Indian men’s national team started their campaign with a 3-2 victory over New Zealand. However, in the following match, they went onto suffer a crushing defeat against Australia.
He remarked, “Our start against New Zealand was very good. But, in the second match against Australia, it was not our day because normally we do not concede so many goals. After that, the boys motivated each other. There were still a lot of matches to go and we needed to just focus on the basics. The loss we suffered can’t be rectified, so we wanted to focus on the upcoming matches. After that, we made a comeback against Argentina and won that match. From there on, gradually the level started to increase.”
Mandeep Singh also pointed out how a team-first mentality helped the team achieve success in Tokyo. “The striker is the first line of defence. We win as a team, we lose as a team. This is a team game. No matter who scores a goal, it goes to the team. So, as a striker, I thought that this time even if I do not score goals, I need to create PCs for my team. Because we have some of the best drag flickers in the world,” quipped Mandeep.
Focusing on penalty corners
The forward also said that winning penalty corners regularly was a tactic that they employed throughout the tournament. “Whenever the ball goes into the box, we tried to not think anything unusual. We simply knew we had to win a PC. We have to normally hit the ball on the opponent’s leg. This is what the thinking was beforehand,” he revealed.
“In Olympics, most of the goals have been scored by the drag flickers courtesy of the PCs. We can’t take any team lightly. Every team comes with their own preparations. Very few field goals were scored this time, most of them came from PCs. But, we have scored a number of field goals and goals from PCs as well.”
Motivating each other during tough situations
It wasn’t plain sailing for the team at the Tokyo Olympics. The team had to overcome several difficult situations in the Japanese capital. Ultimately, unity and trust in each other saw them over the line in crunch moments.
“Even if we are trailing in a match, the senior members keep motivating us. They keep saying that we can still do it and there is still time remaining. Just keep focusing on the basics. We keep saying that we need to create PCs which might lead to goals, whenever we are struggling to score field goals,” he said
Eight members of India’s Junior World Cup triumph in 2016 in Lucknow were part of the success in Tokyo as well. “When we had won the Junior World Cup, there were eight of us together. We have played together since the beginning. We had trust in each other and there was a belief that we can do it. Finally, we brought the bronze medal home. The best moment of the Tokyo Olympics was when we were standing on the podium and putting on our medals,” said a joyous looking Mandeep Singh.
Words of praise for Graham Reid
The Indian men’s national team has grown leaps and bounds ever since the appointment of Graham Reid. The Australian has instilled a winning mentality amongst the boys. Under his stewardship, apart from winning a historic bronze medal, the team have managed to break into the top three in the FIH World Rankings. Mandeep Singh was quick to point out the influence of the coach on the national team.
“Our coach supports us a lot. He keeps telling us to be positive and help each other on the pitch. Goals will come even if there is still 5-10 minutes remaining. Just focus on your basics and goals will come normally. That’s why we have been able to score so many goals,” he noted.
The wall at the back
Much of the talk surrounding the Indian team’s success at the Tokyo Olympics has been around PR Sreejesh. The shot-stopper was in stunning form and made several crucial saves at pivotal moments during matches. Mandeep Singh acknowledged the importance of Srejeesh with a beaming face.
The forward remarked, “He has been a very influential part of this team. We have given him the nickname ‘The Wall.’ He supports us a lot because he is one of the best goalkeepers in the world. Even if we are winning or losing a match, he keeps pulling off important saves in matches. In 90-95% of times, goals are scored from penalty corners. So, when he saves penalty corners, it motivates us to go higher up the pitch and win our own penalty corner.”
On Hockey India League
There have been calls from several former players to restart the Hockey India League (HIL). The domestic league in India hasn’t taken place since 2017. In the inaugural season, Mandeep Singh had donned the colours of Ranchi Rhinos. He helped the team win the league with consistent performances throughout the season.
The forward picked up the award for “Upcoming Player of the Tournament.” Therefore, the HIL paved the way for further success in Mandeep’s career. When asked about his thoughts on the HIL, Mandeep Singh echoed the same sentiments.
He said, “I think the league should start again. When I first played in the league in 2013, it had helped me learn many things. There was a lot of improvement in hockey because of it. It should start again, but let’s see what happens.”
Carrying the momentum forward
The forward also said that the team will look to continue the good momentum. He will be a crucial member of the Indian men’s national team in Paris 2024 also. As such, Mandeep Singh has already set his sights on the biggest prize.
“The Olympics will take place again in 2024. We will be determined and will do our best to change the colour of our medal. We will try to bring home a gold medal next time,” he said in a confident mood.
In the near future, new blood will also be trying to break into the national team. Mandeep Singh has a piece of advice for young players waiting in the wings.
“My advice for young players will be to set an aim for yourself. When you go to the field, give your best in every hockey session. If you do that, I am sure you will achieve your aim in the coming years,” Mandeep signed off.