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Indian team pose for a selfie with their gold medals after beating Japan 5-1 in the Asian Games final at Hangzhou in October last year. Image Credit: ANI

Dubai: In a bid to reclaim the past glory in the Olympics, Indian hockey team have roped in mental conditioning coach Paddy Upton. The decision didn’t surprise many as the South African is not new to Indian sports system. Upton was part of the 2011 Indian cricket team that won the 50-over Cricket World Cup under skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni.

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The eight-time Olympic gold medallists have seen legends like Dyan Chand help India dominate world hockey winning seven consecutive Olympic medals from their debut in 1928 to 1964, barring 1940 and 1944 when the World War II caused the cancellation of the Games.

The last gold India had won was in 1980 and after which the team suffered a slump only to win the bronze in the Tokyo Games in 2020, ending a 40-year medal drought. The rise of cricket after winning the 1983 Prudential World Cup and hockey’s change from grass turf to synthetic turf have all played a part in the sport’s downfall in India.

Impressive work and training ethics

The current world No 5-ranked nation is leaving no stone unturned to achieve their goal of winning their ninth Olympic crown in the Paris Games this year. Upton might be new to hockey, but he is dealing with the players, personalities, leadership, performance and their mental space.

Upton came into the Indian hockey team setup in May-June last year, months after fellow South African Craig Fulton took charge as the men’s team coach. The mental conditioning coach is amazed by the total commitment shown by the players to bring the glory days back to India.

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“I am so incredibly impressed with these players’ work and training ethics. They are professional in their attitude and their approach. It’s amazing to see a squad of 30 people in a really hot training session giving their 100 per cent. They were working at heart-rates in the 180s and 190s, that shows how fit and dedicated they are, which really stood out,” Upton told Gulf News.

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India coach Craig Fulton (left) with Paddy Upton after winning the Asian Games gold in Hangzhou. Image Credit: Source: Paddy Upton

Fulton-Upton combination found immediate success with the Indian team, winning the Asian Champions Trophy in Chennai in August before going on to win the Asian Games gold in China, which effectively sealed a direct qualification spot for the 2024 Paris Olympic Games.

Fulton's success mantra

The Indian team are on a five-Test tour to Australia, which gives them a chance to test their mettle against their Olympics Pool B rivals. The tough Pool B also includes Olympic champions and world No 2 Belgium, Rio Games gold medallists Argentina, New Zealand and Ireland.

Upton said coach Fulton’s success mantra is to start strong and finish strong, which is not easy in a demanding sport like hockey

“Indian players generally tend to rely more on skill and knowledge and engage in smart play. Here you have a bunch of guys who can compete with the best. In a game like hockey that is so physically demanding to finish strong after 60 minutes of play, you have to be super fit. These guys have got the skills and they’ve got the physicality to back it up to be genuine Olympic gold contenders,” added the 55-year-old South African.

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India have lost their three matches so far against Australia in the five-match Test series Down Under. Image Credit: Source: HockeyIndia X

India have lost all their three matches so far in Australia, the latest in a nail-biting finish 2-1 on Wednesday. Jugraj Singh put India ahead in the 41st minute but a brace from Jeremy Haywardh ended India’s hopes of scoring their first win on Australian soil in this series.

In a recent interview to Indian media, coach Fulton, who has played international hockey and has coached Ireland apart from being an assistant coach to Belgium, said the team is still in the development phase and the team management is trying to create some depth in different positions ahead of the Olympics.

Testing India's strength

Upton said that this tour is part of the coach’s plan to test India’s strength against their traditional bogey team Australia.

“From an Indian perspective, Australia are one of the teams that India has traditionally struggled against from a physicality and a mentality perspective. So it’s a great opportunity to go and measure ourselves up and see what still needs to be done in preparation for the Olympics because there’s likelihood that we will meet Australia in a crunch game. We need to beat the top teams in Paris and Australia are definitely one of them,” Upton said.

Upton feels that the changes he has done to the Indian hockey team is something similar to what he and Gary Kirsten have performed to the Indian cricket team ahead of 2011 World Cup triumph.

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Paddy Upton with Hardik Singh. Image Credit: Source: Paddy Upton

“Going back to 2008 when Gary and I joined the Indian cricket team, they were an incredibly talented bunch of players and individuals, but there was an opportunity to bring a bit more structure to training, preparation and game plan without losing the Indian flair,” he added. “Similarly in hockey, Australia and the European teams tend to play a very structured game, while the Asian teams to play an open game. Coach Fulton understands the structure of those European teams and we have tried to bring in that really unique balance of having enough structure to be able to be competitive against those European teams, but not lose the Indian flair.

Shutting out external noise

“There is value in getting a good balance. The coaching staff, captain Harmanpreet Singh and some of the senior players all really get it and they’re doing a great job of marrying the structure and the flair.”

If there is one area of concern, which Upton feels that is stopping the Indian players from realising their full potential, is the external influence. The South African says that the players should be fully involved what is happening on the field.

“There’s a similarity between the Indian cricketers and the hockey players where they tended to be a little bit too influenced and listen to voices and noises from the outside and we want to move those towards fading that into the background. On the field of play, they need to be taking full responsibility for the game and the decisions. From a sportsmen’s perspective, they really want to be reducing any external impact or influence and want them to become more internally referenced, meaning I am the master of my destiny,” he concluded.