The past year has seen athletes get more vocal about mental health in sports and the urgent need to address it. While most of the sportspeople who have pushed the issue front and centre, like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, belong to individual sport, it is a relevant and pertinent issue in team sport as well.
“Mental health is very important in every field not just sport,” Rupinder, who announced his retirement last month, told Olympics.com.
“In a team sport, the team dynamic is most important. So the sports psychologist used to encourage us to speak up and talk about our issues. If you are not happy with someone, you have to talk it out with the person. Because you let issues just sit and fester. What happens is if you don’t get along well with even one person then it affects the whole team. In the end, you win together and you lose together.
“Your teammates should not suffer because of your individual equation with someone. When you are representing Team India, at that level you can’t let these personal issues get in the way.”
For the Indian hockey team, the biggest takeaway from the Tokyo Games, apart from a medal in hockey after 41 years, was just how good they could be if they remained committed to one another and the team’s cause. The final few minutes of their sojourn, during the bronze medal playoff against Germany summed it up. India held off the European powerhouse in the dying minutes to protect their lead and win 5-4.
Rupinder was one of the team’s mainstays in defence through the Tokyo 2020 campaign. The 6’4 player was also one of the drag-flickers in the team and finished the campaign with four goals – second highest by an Indian after Harmanpreet Singh (6).
“As a drag flicker, there is some extra pressure, especially when your team needs that goal in crucial moments,” he admitted.
“The things is, at the same time, you enjoy it too, because you know the team is looking at you, you are getting a chance to score for the country. You just have to have faith in your training, focus on your skill and execution rather than the result.”
Rupinder made his Team India debut in 2010, has played 223 matches and scored 119 goals. For the past 11 years or so, he has seen the sport being rebuilt brick by brick. He also lived through the constant chopping and changing of coaches. Fortunately though, the team got a long-enough run with their current coach Graham Reid, who was appointed in 2019, to get in shape for Tokyo 2020.
“It is difficult for the players. You are with a coach for six months, and he is trying to implement a system. By the time you get used to it, a new coach would step in. The team was a little unsettled, it affected the performance as well as the mentality. For a team sport, the more time you spend together, the better your co-ordination. These last few years we have had the same coach, that’s the best part.
“But yes, there are a lot of people, coaches and players, behind this bronze medal.”
The medal has brought the focus back on hockey in India. But Rupinder, 30, is happy to move on to the “next chapter” of his life.