PR Sreejesh, goalkeeper and former captain of the Indian national men's hockey team; Image: Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Growing up PR Sreejesh played all kinds of sports, from volleyball to shot put at GV Raja Sports School in Kerala. Either he didn’t enjoy most sports or he felt he wasn’t good enough. Finally, when he saw some of his classmates playing hockey, he almost immediately fell in love with the sport. Despite challenges, Sreejesh kept a positive mindset and never gave up. Today, he is one of the best goalkeepers. The former captain of the Indian men’s national hockey team has also received the Arjuna Award in 2013 and Padma Shri in 2017 from the Government of India. Forbes India speaks to Sreejesh about the importance of communication in building a team and dealing with the pressure of high expectations. Edited excerpts:
‘Don’t let others’ negativity bog you down’
When I first started playing hockey, I was slightly overweight and didn’t enjoy running. I chose to be a goalkeeper simply because there wasn’t too much running needed there. People would make fun of me because I couldn’t stop goals. They would say things like, ‘It’s better to have a stone instead of Sreejesh, at least that could stop a goal or two’. That kind of bullying hurt me. I started taking it up as a challenge, and that pushed me to get better at my game. Initially I would concede 10 goals, then I started saving two, three, five and eventually all. That was a turning point for me.
‘When your back is against the wall, stay positive’
The initial phase in any athlete’s career is always tough. Being from Kerala, adapting to the language and food changes were big challenges. Even the coach would only speak in Hindi. I started to feel as if everything was against me… and that I had no support system.
Over time, I learnt to look at the positive side. I asked myself, why am I here? That changed my perspective, and I started focusing on training myself to become an international athlete—training with the best coaches and players in India. I realised the potential I have to become a great hockey player and represent my country.Every sportsperson goes through a lot of highs and lows in their careers. But the way you deal with every low, particularly, is important. During the Olympics, when we lost in the semi-finals, everyone was depressed. We had a team meeting and we told ourselves: We have one more chance to win a medal and we need to give our 100 percent. So, it was having that shift in mindset that helped us the most. If we would have continued to cry over the fact that we lost the semi-finals, we might never had won the medal for India.
‘Communication is key’
A captain’s role is more outside the field. What defines you as a leader is how you manage the team, the way you interact with them, stand by them and raise your voice for them. Whether I am the captain or not, I have remained the same with the way I treat my teammates.But the only way to turn 18 different individuals into one cohesive unit is by talking to them, and putting in the effort to understand them. Each team member should feel comfortable to come and share their issues with you.
‘Get rid of the burden of expectations’
Expectations mean pressure. Once you get rid of the burden of expectations from yourself, you always end up playing your best and enjoying yourself. As players, we all make mistakes. But the thing to remember is don’t hang on to those—learn from your mistakes and move on.It might be easy to say this, but it takes a lot of experience to realise and implement this. As a young player, I always wanted to keep a clean sheet and be a perfect goalkeeper. Over time, I realised that it is all about team effort, you can’t do anything single-handedly.
‘Work hard to achieve your goals’
Often people ignore the basics in sports. Any young player who wishes to be successful must focus on getting the basics right. Second, nothing can be achieved overnight. You need to work hard, consistently to reach your goals. I played hockey for 21 years to get that Olympic bronze medal for my country.