'People who said girls should stay indoors, now want their kids to emulate me,' says captain Rani Rampal
Her name is synonymous with women's hockey in the country today, and she is perhaps the most recognizable Indian to have graced the game in recent times. The Arjuna awardee hails from Shahabad Markanda in Haryana, a town which has produced hockey players by the dozens.
Growing up amidst a plethora of hockey talent acted as the stimulus which spurred her aspiration to take up the game, but the hurdles of tackling gender stereotypes and poverty in a rural environment were challenging. With the support of her coach and her parents, Rani Rampal burst on to the international stage as a 15-year-old sensation and has only grown in stature since.
Sportskeeda caught up with the star striker from Haryana who now dons the role of captain, just before her team embarked on a Spanish sojourn to test their skills in a preparatory tour before the World Cup which begins on July 7 in London.
Battling poverty and social stigmas
Sportskeeda: Rani, what inspired you to take up hockey as a youngster and who assisted you the most?
Rani: I studied in Guru Nanak Pritam Girls School. There was a hockey academy near my school in Shahabad Markanda in Haryana called the Shahbad Hockey Academy. At the time, there were 8 or 9 girls who were part of the Academy who had represented India. They inspired me to take up hockey in my childhood. In all, over the years, at least 60 players from the academy have played for the country thus far.
I had no idea, however, what it meant to play for India and whether that could be considered to be an occupation by itself. I hail from a village where girls do not venture out of their homes often. So, it was difficult for a girl to pursue hockey given the environment.
A lot of our relatives told my father that by acquiescing to my request to pursue hockey, he was making a huge blunder as the move could bring disrepute to the family. The biggest challenge for me was convincing my parents as they were not educated.
It is relatively easy to convince one's parents when they are even slightly educated, but in my case, the task was daunting since they were not. It was difficult handling those issues back then. I promised them that I would never allow my actions to embarrass them in any way. I did not have the confidence to state that I would make them proud, but did emphasize that I would do nothing that would cause them to be ashamed of me.
Sportskeeda: You are the most eminent name in women's hockey in India today and the most recognizable face as well. How do they react now?
Rani: My father never thought of me as a girl right from childhood. He used to treat me as if I were his son, and not a daughter. My neighbours and the others who were once against the idea of me becoming a hockey player, now tell their children to pursue the game and emulate me.
Maybe, it was for the best that they opposed my move (to play hockey) and acted as a stumbling block for me, as that proved to be the spark which inspired me to make my mark in life. My parents feel really proud of me today but I am even more proud of them as they allowed me to take up hockey under trying circumstances. They stood by me through times of financial hardship as well.
I am also grateful to my coach, Sardar Baldev Singh who I respect perhaps more than my parents, as he is the one who taught me the fundamentals of the game. He has supported me financially as well. He was aware of my humble background and gifted me hockey sticks and kits.
Sardar Baldev Singh is also responsible for the growth of at least 60 girls who, under his support and tutelage, rose to be national and international players.
Sportskeeda: As a captain, how do you guide and motivate the youngsters in the team?
Rani: As a captain, my first role is to bind the team into one unit, irrespective of whether the player in question is a junior or a senior. As long as we do not work towards our goal as a team, we will not be able to perform. Youngsters definitely feel nervous when they first enter the team and that happens to everyone.
My responsibility as a captain is to infuse confidence in the youngsters and encourage them to display their talent on the field in a full-fledged manner without being apprehensive of committing errors. I make them understand that even if they make mistakes on the field, we (the seniors) will be present to cover those areas.
Timely appreciation when a player performs well on the field is also very essential. The youngsters exude energy and liveliness which is infectious, and that lifts our spirits as well, and helps us perform better.
Sportskeeda: The Indian girls will have to play the Asian Games immediately after the World Cup. How tough will it be from a fitness perspective?
Rani: Of late, our fitness has improved by a huge measure. Our training schedules are made in a manner so as to enable adequate recovery time. Overload can cause the players to become exhausted which can result in injuries. Our Scientific Advisor, Wayne Lombard ensures that our workload is handled in a very systematic manner. The coaches cooperate completely and are in sync with the same.
We have to send data each morning regarding muscle soreness, etc based on which our workload for the day is determined.
Rani Rampal did not play in the Asian Champions Trophy last month but analyzes India's performance at Donghae from what she saw
Sportskeeda: There was a discernible change in the manner in which the Indian girls started their matches in the Commonwealth Games as compared to the Asian Champions Trophy. At Donghae, India attacked from the beginning, earned PCs early, and scored as well. Was there a shift in strategy?
Rani: There was no shift in strategy as such. Both our coaches like us playing attacking hockey. The mode of play also depends on the players and how much energy they want to bring to the game. Sometimes, the players are very energetic in the beginning, while at other times, they like it saving it for the second half.
The coaches have now transformed the mindset of the players and emphasize that energy levels need to remain the same for the entire duration of the match.
Also, we attacked a lot in the CWG and had more circle penetrations than we did at the Asian Champions Trophy, but at Donghae, the outcome of the penetrations was better. In the final, however, we did not create enough chances and had very few circle penetrations.
The team will now play aggressively as they like taking the attack to the opposition.
Sportskeeda: How important was it to beat England in the CWG group match and what does it mean for the team? Do the girls now have the confidence to beat the top-ranked teams?
Rani: We needed to win the match against England to qualify for the semifinal, but of course it meant a lot more for us to beat the Olympic champions. The win boosted the morale of the players and instilled the belief that they could beat any team in the world. Having said that, it's our performance on the day that matters. If we perform well, we can beat any team.
We need to start competing against the European teams, and the win was a right step in that direction. In fact, we could have beaten Australia (in the CWG semifinal) had it not been for mistakes we committed. We missed a lot of scoring chances. It is only once in four years that we have a chance to stand atop the podium, but in this case, we failed to seize the moment.
The stadium was totally packed (at Gold Coast) in the match against Australia. The Aussies had a home advantage but the girls still went all out for a win and were impressive on the field. We also learned a lot from that match.
Rankings do not matter for us anymore. If we play well, we can beat teams ranked higher than us. If we don't, we will end up losing to lower-ranked teams as well, like we did at Gold Coast (against Wales). Many teams in the world are now nervous about playing against us and I think that is absolutely essential and is a good thing. We need to create fear in the minds of the opposition.