Monika is one of the most important playmakers in the Indian Women's Hockey team. Having played more than 150 matches for the Indian side, her responsibilities include keeping the midfield dynamic while also shepherding young, upcoming players in the team.
She was part of the side that got the better of USA in the Olympic qualifiers as Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar last year and booked their place for Tokyo Olympic Games 2020 later this year. Her story is interesting and different from that of many of her teammates.
In this exclusive interview, she reveals how she fell in love with hockey and decided to make it her profession as well as her passion.
Now that you are a veteran of more than 150 matches, do you feel the extra responsibility of being a senior member of the side and having to provide leadership in the team?
Of course, 150 matches are a lot. It’s a big deal to play 150 matches for India. So, you have to act like a senior to the younger members of the team. You have to take them along with you.
Sometimes, you only think about yourself. But now, as we have younger players like Sharmila, Salima Tete, etc., we have to take them along as well. When they feel hesitant or under pressure and need help, we are there for them.
In the Olympic qualifiers last year, your team was under severe pressure in the second game when the USA went 4-0 up. Was it very difficult, at that time, to deal with it?
What happened in that match was, when we conceded the first goal, we got together but couldn’t lift ourselves physically at the time. Our game wasn’t as good as it should have been. They came very hard at us. We expected that and were also prepared to deal with that. But, at first, we didn’t do that. However, after half time, we managed to achieve this goal.
Were you taken by surprise with the aggression shown by the USA in the second game?
In the first game also, we expected that they would play well since the USA is a good team. Last time also, when we played them, we had a draw. We had played well then also but they were good too.
But the way we have improved since the Commonwealth Games in 2018, we had to show it this time. We wanted to show that improvement at home in front of our crowd. So, it was our target that we would give a display of very good hockey and in the first game, we did it. In the second game, what went wrong, we are trying to ascertain that by looking at the videos from that match.
There were a lot of basic mistakes in the first half but after a goal was scored by your team in the second, things became much better. Was the whole game hinging more on the psychological aspect?
You see, we won the first match by 5-1. But it wasn’t as if we thought we could continue in the vein of that match and play comfortably, stay in a defensive mode and not attack. Our gameplan for the second match was the same as for the first match.
We were clear that we would play this game in the same way as we did the first. We wanted to attack also and not just defend all the time.
But as soon as one of the players committed a mistake, the rest also started faltering. This led to four goals being conceded. After that, we felt the pressure and thought ‘it’s a do or die situation for us.’ The aggregate scores were level now.
But then, we thought in the dressing room, at half-time, and were told by the coach as well, that if we don’t do something here, we won’t have any more opportunities in future. We also realized that all the hard work we have done, the hours and days of training that we have gone through, all that would become meaningless if we don’t do anything. So, we realised that we have to play strong and move out of our comfort zone to bring the match back into our grasp.
How did you come to play hockey? What brought you into this game?
It wasn’t like anybody told me to take up hockey. I used to enjoy taking part in sports and even played on the streets with my friends. Just like that, sometimes I would participate in athletics, sometimes in something else, just for fun. I enjoyed that. But one day, I took to hockey.
Hockey seemed like a very interesting game to me. In it, you are constantly learning something new. There are some sports where you don’t learn anything new and it’s boring. But with hockey, it’s been so many years since I started playing, yet, even today, there is scope to know new things and I want to learn more.
So, it’s a very interesting game and by moving forward, I got committed to it. My father is in police and was posted in Chandigarh at the time. He and my entire family supported me a lot and encouraged me to go ahead with the sport while pursuing studies simultaneously.
I then got admitted to an academy through the trials. In these trials, your ability is judged as well as your skills tested. While I was in the 9th standard, I moved to the hostel and there, I learned hockey professionally for about 2-3 years.
I was then selected for the junior national team camp. I played in the Junior Asia Cup of 2009. At that time, we didn’t have too many camps. So, after that, I played in the Shastri Cup in Delhi. Around 6-7 girls from our batch, including me, got directly selected in the senior team from there.
Was it your own decision to go for the trials that got you admitted to the academy?
Yes, it was my own decision. I wanted to go to the hostel for hockey players and see the life of those who were there. I thought it would be very enjoyable but there was no enjoyment, everything was very strict.
Did you tell your family that you were going for the trials or did you go secretly?
No, no, no. My family knows everything. They are very supportive. My father loves sports a lot.
When you started playing at a serious level, were you a midfielder right from the beginning?
In the beginning, I played as a striker. But then I exchanged positions with one of my friends, another member of the Indian team – Reena Khokar. I took the center-half position while she played as the striker.
I enjoyed playing as the center-half and doing things like making passes. Giving good passes was a quality I had and I provided good support to the strikers. Also, I was good in defence and dodging.
All these qualities are required in a midfielder. With strikers, there are some specific skills that they need, same is the case with defenders. But midfielders need to have the qualities of both types. So, I enjoyed playing in that position and became a midfielder for good.