It's not easy to feel good about suffering, but if you fight it, you have a better chance to succeed, says Gurpreet Singh Sandhu. Image: REUTERS/Ibraheem Al Omari
‘Hard work takes you places’
I started taking football seriously 15 years ago when I was around 15 and came into a team setup for the junior national squad. I was in Goa with the team and a lot of domestic football was being played close to our living facilities. That's when I got to know that you actually get paid to play football.
I grew up watching all the legendary Indian goalkeepers, especially Subrata Pal, Subhasish Roy Chowdhury, Arindam Bhattacharya, who were all in the senior national team back then. I would observe them closely because I wanted to be who they were and wear the same jersey. What stood out in all of them was hard work. We all had the same opportunities, spent the same amount of time on the pitch—the only difference was how hard we worked. That remained my biggest motivation.
‘Nice guys don’t have to finish last’
Even though goalkeepers compete for a single spot on the team, the camaraderie and the supporting spirit that we have for each other are exemplary. We aren't competitive among ourselves when we train together. When I got the opportunity to meet goalies like Pal, Roy Chowdhury, and Bhattacharya, I was lower in the ranks and was the third- or fourth-choice keeper for the team, but they would always guide me and share information on how to improve. They taught me the importance of discipline, good sleep, and proper nutrition, and would always want me to do well even though I was competing for their spot. That's an important lesson I learnt from them—share knowledge and mentor your juniors, and teach them what you have learnt over the years. Also read: Becoming a champion is everyday work: Gilberto Silva
‘When you are down, you can only go up’
BFC was languishing at the ninth spot in ISL 2023 before we turned around to win 10 games on the trot to make it to the playoffs. What was the thinking when we were down in the dumps? That there was only one way to go from here: Up. We used to discuss among ourselves that we were doing so well in the training, why couldn't we replicate it in the matches? We knew if we were training well, our time would come. I think the turning point came with the recognition of what we want to achieve and not how to achieve it. Before that, we were too focused on how to win matches. Also read: Don't fall on the first hurdle: Sol Campbell
‘A leader should never give up’
Despondency does set it when you are down, but it's important to share it with your teammates. You get to know that you aren't the only one going through this, and that helps. It is also important for key people in the dressing room, like Sunil Chhetri, Sandesh Jhingan or myself for BFC, to keep the spirits up, to tell the team that this isn't the end. If the leaders give up, the team gives up. Leaders must tell the team to give it a try irrespective of the results. We may still go down, but at least we tried. Even when we were at the bottom of the table, we would conduct the training sessions with full effort and intensity. Also read: At the top, you need to prove your worth every day: Robert Pires
‘Fight, and not flight, gives you a better chance to succeed’
You build mental resilience through suffering. You feel good when you come out of a tough spot. When you suffer, that's how you trick your mind. We need to realise failure is okay—it's part of the process, it's not permanent. So is winning. We won 10 games in a row to make it to the playoffs, but then we lost the final. It's not easy to feel good about suffering, but if you fight it, you have a better chance to succeed.
‘Lead by example, not words’
Sunil Chhetri has taught us one key aspect of leadership—to lead by example. He isn't someone who gives us motivational lectures. But he practices what he wants others to follow. He will do the extra pushups himself if he wants to rest of the team to do them as well. I recently watched Michael Jordan's documentary, where he says again and again: "I push other people because I do it myself." And that's the best leadership.