Claiming the Turf: Manpreet Singh
Sports mean a lot of things to a lot of people, but for professional athletes, it is not just something that you enjoy, but also something that defines you as a person. This is why great athletes always strive to become the best in their field, so they can essentially become the best version of themselves. When this relentless drive is channelled through the right opportunities, we get the emergence of a star player who not only shines the brightest, but also lights the way for the rest of the team, with their endless enthusiasm and admirable resolve. Our guest this month is a person just like this; a decorated hockey veteran, a Red Bull athlete, and the man who will lead our national team at the upcoming Olympic Games, Indian Hockey Captain, Manpreet Singh. Edited excerpts...
Tell us something about your sports journey; how it started, what inspired you to stick with hockey, and when did you decide to pursue it as a lifelong profession?
I was inspired by the former Indian hockey captain Padma Shri Pargat Singh, who also hails from Mithapur, Punjab. I used to be attracted by the prizes my elder brothers won while playing hockey as well. Around 2002, I started to play hockey regularly. By the time I turned 10, my obsession with the sport had reached such a point, that my mother locked me in my room, just to prevent me from playing hockey. Somehow I escaped the room, and got my coach to talk with my elder brother and calm him down. He talked them into giving me a chance to explore the sport, since I was so keen to play. My family started to support me completely, after I won my first prize of `500 cash, in a tournament. In 2005, I enrolled in one of India’s most sought-after institutions—Surjit Hockey Academy in Jalandhar; following which I made my International debut.
At the ripe age of 30, you are already a 10 year Hockey veteran. How has your understanding of the sport evolved over the course of this time? What has been the most exciting achievement/moment so far?
So many things have changed that if I were to describe them one by one, it would take half of the magazine itself (laughing). At the same time, if I were to speak generally, there have been a lot of changes in terms of the rules, the turf, hockey sticks, shoes and much more. Everything has evolved in a way that has made the game even more fast paced, requiring us to play at a much faster speed as well.
If I were to pick only one, I would say the most exciting achievement/moment for me, as well as the team, was winning the medal at the Asian Games in 2014; which in turn led us to the Rio Olympics, and my own personal achievement of receiving the Arjuna Award.
Being the Captain makes you responsible for the performance of the entire team, in addition to your own. How has your perception of the game changed since taking on the mantle? Is it possible to remain focused on personal growth, while also pushing up everyone else?
Being a Captain is a responsibility, and since it is a team game, I have to constantly work with all my team members towards helping them develop a positive mindset. Especially if there is any error made on or even off the field. For me, pushing my teammates also helps in my personal growth, as it is a team effort, and we constantly motivate each other to be the best.
Hockey is one of the few sports that requires constant running around while also maintaining perfect hand-eye coordination. How does that affect your training? Are leg days as scary for you as they are for regular fitness enthusiasts?
It is definitely scary because I hate long distance running. But, at the same time, lower body exercise is also very important for players, (besides skills training) as it helps us develop our core strength and speed. The most important muscles for us, in hockey, are the calves, quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes, which are the muscles present in the legs. This is why we do special workouts in the gym for our legs, so we can have the strength to stride continuously through matches.
A known side-effect of these spectacle tournaments is that these formats often require athletes to deliver back-to-back explosive performances, which can cause extra wear and tear in the name of entertainment value. As an athlete yourself, how do you reconcile this high-risk high-reward model versus the more long-term training and recovery required for tournaments like the World Cup and the Olympics?
Modern hockey does demands a lot from players. Even if you are at the opposition’s baseline, you have to run all the way back to your goal to help your team mount a defence. This puts a lot of load on our legs, and we get very tired during a match. Our legs feel really heavy, especially after the match is over. To deal with this, we have special workouts for our legs. We do leg press and squats a lot because they strengthen the legs. We also do a lot of exercises for the core, using a medicine ball. We have at least 8-9 exercises for the legs, but it varies per person. Our trainers feel that each player’s body is different, so each of us should have individual exercise sets.
2020 will be your first Olympics as a team captain, instead of just another player. How do these added responsibilities affect your training priorities?
It is an important year for me, as the responsibilities are bigger and the goal is higher. For us, every player is the Captain when they are on the field, as they have their own responsibilities in their own area. At the same time, my working style is a bit different, as I constantly try to motivate my teammates through positive speech, especially the juniors. This is something that I learned from Moritz Fuerste (a trait needed to be a good Captain). My biggest aim is to win an Olympic medal for the country as a captain.
The Olympics is definitely the next big challenge for the entire team. But, once that is done, what’s next for you personally? How does your partnership with Red Bull feature into your sports journey moving forward?
Personally, I will still want to be in the team and keep serving the country as long as I can. However, I would also like to be heavily active in more domestic level events; to help promote Hockey with assistance from Red Bull India, in hopes of finding the next generation of young hockey talent. Moreover, associating with Red Bull is an important step for me and my career. As an athlete, you want things around you that push you and try to make you better - people who want the best for you. I have seen athletes in India and across the globe growing and reaching great heights, thanks to the partnership with and support from brands like Red Bull.