Men’s hockey coach Craig Fulton’s plan for team to peak at Paris Olympics began at Table Mountain | Hockey News

India's men's hockey team coach Craig Fulton. (Hockey India)

Before they climb the proverbial mountains in the coming months, starting by taking on Australia in Australia from April 6, India’s hockey team scaled an actual one. In Cape Town, last January.

The journey to the top of Table Mountain wasn’t just supposed to be a scenic hike with a group photo at the summit. It turned out to be a lesson in philosophy and goals were set.

“On the top of Table Mountain, we had a really good talk about what we’re trying to achieve this year. And relating it back to a journey of obviously getting to the summit and then obviously descending and doing everything together,” India coach Craig Fulton tells The Indian Express.

A medal at the Olympics goes beyond mere skills. Fulton knows that, like his predecessors. In the lead-up to the Tokyo Olympics, Graham Reid got each of the men to read about the yesteryear heroes, learn from their journeys, and share it with the rest of the team. Sjoerd Marijne, on the other hand, didn’t have to ask his players to dip into the past – their stories in themselves were dramatic and so, he asked the women to talk about their lives and inspire others around them.

Fulton collaborated with Paddy Upton, the South African mental expert who will be with India at the Paris Olympics. Upton, the mind master, spun the hike in a way that climbing the mountain became a metaphor: The steep climb – resembling the challenges – and the peak – this summer’s Olympics.

Festive offer
Indian Men's Hockey Team captain Harmanpreet Singh with the team's head coach Craig Fulton after a press conference ahead of the Asian Champions Trophy 2023, at Mayor Radhakrishnan Hockey Stadium, in Chennai. (PTI) Indian Men’s Hockey Team captain Harmanpreet Singh with the team’s head coach Craig Fulton after a press conference ahead of the Asian Champions Trophy 2023, at Mayor Radhakrishnan Hockey Stadium, in Chennai. (PTI)

“It’s not just, ‘go climb a mountain, and then take a picture’. It’s really about setting a process in place for where we go through the different competitions in the year, to try and obviously peak at the right time,” Fulton says, the play of words not lost on him.

While the first part of the task was to seek a connection off the field, the more important aspect is to find the right connect between players on the turf as they get ready for the Paris quest.

Insights from Pro League

Indeed, Britain have come a long way since the quarterfinal defeat to India in Tokyo and are one of the genuine dark horses. And Spain under Max Caldas look a lot more solid. But the biggest challenge for India comes from the Big Four – Australia, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany. And to zoom in even further, against those opponents India have consistently struggled to score freely.

In that sense, the FIH Pro League home stretch gave India a great chance to test themselves against some of the best. There was a high-scoring defeat against Australia (4-6), but also a valiant draw (2-2). Both matches against Netherlands, the current world No.1, ended in draws after regulation time (2-2 and 1-1).

“It’s good to match up against the top teams. That’s what you need to do more often. And that’s ultimately what the Pro League is supposed to help us do. Then we try to look for more games. And that’s why we’ve chosen Australia as an opposition (to tour),” Fulton says. “The bottom line is to beat Holland consistently or get two results and beat them is a good sign. It’s what we are training for.”

The lessons Fulton learned about his team from the Pro League are geared around the setpieces. “A lot of the top teams have good set pieces. And if you make mistakes around them, you normally concede,” the South African explains. “So being very consistent in the set pieces – that’s penalty corner defense and then having a consistent conversion rate from penalty corner attack. That’s really important because a lot of teams are putting a lot of numbers in the D, so it’s become very difficult to score field goals.”

Scoring goals but with a twist

It’s a bit of a paradoxical situation for India.

When you have arguably one of the best-ever drag flickers in your team, of course, it makes sense to rely on his prowess. But how much of India’s goal-scoring responsibility can Harmanpreet Singh shoulder?

Since the start of 2023, among the current top five men’s teams in the world, Netherlands score a whopping 64.44% of their goals through open play, followed by Belgium at 59.63%.

It’s a little closer below them as Australia’s field goal percentage stands at 52.63%, with India at fourth on 51.37%, followed by Germany’s 48.84%.

Mandeep Singh, one of India’s most experienced forwards, is known for his ability to pull defenders away from the danger area to create space for his teammates. But he is aware that as a striker, he – and the rest of the forward line – must also contribute more goals. “The biggest thing we worked on in the camp is to create outcomes,” the 32-year-old says. “If we can’t score then we need to at least create a PC. So we are working on things inside the D as well as without-the-ball pressure on the opposition.”

Fulton breaks it down rather simply.

“The problem is sometimes when you look at it as an individual scoring more goals versus collective team defenses. It’s 1v2, 1v3. That’s difficult. If you don’t have combination plays of how to make the goal bigger by having the second post covered, having different options in the D and it’s not just one player scoring the goal from the top of the D because that seldom happens these days.”

The Big Four are also known to play one-touch hockey near the D at a high tempo. Quick passing and moving is key to this, something India did well at the Asian Games in Hangzhou during their title-winning run, with the likes of Abhishek and Gurjant often combining with Mandeep for 1-2s.

“We have worked on this aspect too, especially to improve give-and-go hockey in the attacking third. It’s beneficial because it is tough for a defender to guess where the ball will go from,” Mandeep says.

“We spoke a lot in Hangzhou, even at the dinner table. We spoke a lot about how to play give-and-go. We developed an understanding because of those constant conversations.”

This close to Paris, the answer to these problems lies not in bringing new personnel but in getting better at training. It is why Mandeep reckons Fulton has doubled down on improving the outcomes inside the D during the camp before the Australia tour.
The head coach also points to one specific area where Indian forwards need to get better at.

“A lot of the time Indian players like to face the goal to score goals while a lot of the Europeans, don’t face the goal to take shots. They have their back towards the goal and they’re hitting through the defender. It’s very difficult to defend,” the 49-year-old explains.

“We are trying to obviously improve both sides of this, where you can still be able to get in the D and get your shot away. Or you connect with another striker, not with a shot but with a pass. The closer you get to the goal the less time you have to score. So you’re not necessarily looking for a big backswing, a big hit. It’s all flicking and pushing. And double movements like 1v1 against the goalkeeper. The kind of moves where your back is towards the goal, but you’re still able to twist and turn to try and find the target. This takes time,” he adds.

Up next, an Australia test

In the next three months, everything Fulton has tried with the players in terms of addressing the PC and field goal conversion will be put to test.

The home stretch for the Paris Olympics begins in Perth for the five-match series. Then, the team travels to Antwerp and London towards the end of May and June for the Pro League matches against the likes of Belgium, Germany and Britain. From there, they’ll proceed for a test series against the Netherlands before leaving for the Olympics.

It gives Fulton a chance to play against all the teams that have proved to be stumbling blocks for India in big competitions.

The most immediate challenge comes in the form of Australia, India’s kryptonite. So, coach, what’s the mountain you hope to climb in Australia? “Ourselves, and the ability to beat Australia in Australia,” he replies. “When was the last time India had a series win in Australia?”

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