Savita Punia is revelling in the best phase of her playing career.
As a goalkeeper, she's at her peak - considered one of the best in the world at the moment. She's also captaining the India women's hockey team at the upcoming World Cup in Spain and the Netherlands, starting from July 1. What makes this phase really special though, is how the team has been complementing her form. They finished fourth at the Tokyo Olympics and third in the recent FIH Pro League season.
Although Savita's personal form never took a massive dip ever since she made her debut as an 18-year-old in 2009, it feels as if she has taken things up a notch of late. Remember her performance against Australia in the quarterfinals of the Olympics? The shootout heroics against Argentina in the recent Pro League match? These are just two examples but pick any game from India's Pro League campaign and you'll be rewarded with highlights of Savita's jaw-dropping saves.
"It's a matter of fitness and experience. Experience teaches you many things - like how to handle pressure and how to improve decision making. If you work on your health and maintain your fitness then with experience you'll enjoy your hockey more," says Savita when asked about her sublime form.
Savita is also keen to mention the influence of head coach Janneke Schopman. The former Dutch international joined the Indian team as an analytical coach in 2020 working alongside then coach Sjoerd Marijne and later took charge of the team after the Olympics.
"Ever since Janneke Schopman joined the team and started doing sessions with me, I felt a marked improvement in my performances. During the Olympics, I used to do reaction exercises with the coach, which helped me a lot and we continue to follow it before every match."
Modern day hockey is fast, and the pressure is relentless. Unlike football, goalkeepers barely get the time to feel lonely. Here, Savita credits Schopman for throwing light on aspects such as improving focus and reducing stress.
"Not only during the match, but you have to be focused for the whole day. No matter how hard you try to relax, you still end up thinking about the match and your performance. We do mindfulness sessions and players participate with interest. We have seen the benefits and players' focus did improve a lot after doing these sessions," she says.
Mindfulness sessions, involving meditation and breathing exercises are what Savita notes help in improving focus and staying in the moment.
"It started with the arrival of Janneke. She is a big believer in mindfulness sessions. She was such a good player in one of the best Holland teams (Schopman won an Olympic gold medal and the World Cup) but even she used to feel pressure. She started doing these exercises and it helped her to stay in the present moment. It builds your confidence and helps in decision making," Savita tells ESPN.
"You're a human being - so mistakes will stay with you for a while, but a lot depends on your teammates and coaching staff."
"Even in the off season, players message Janneke and ask her about these sessions. Everybody has their own ritual, some of them do breathing exercises in the changing room for two minutes and it helps them," she says.
In a fast game like hockey, staying in the moment is paramount. The team's fitness standards have improved massively in the last few years, but better physical fitness alone doesn't guarantee better results. Mental fitness is crucial in terms of maintaining focus in crunch situations, reducing errors and not conceding late goals.
"Every position in the game has its own set of responsibilities. No doubt in today's game, goalkeeping plays a big role, but I can say that I have the experience to handle pressure. I have been with the team for a long time, and I've played against good teams. With the arrival of Janneke, we've become better in terms of handling pressure."
Yet, errors and mistakes do happen in a match - and if it's the goalkeeper's fault then it tends to linger in everybody's minds. Savita has accepted that she will not always be perfect and once again credits the role of coaches and experience in dealing with on-field mistakes.
"You're a human being - so mistakes will stay with you for a while, but a lot depends on your teammates and coaching staff. Earlier, I used to think about mistakes for a long time. But you also learn that mistakes are part of the game, and nobody can play perfect all the time. If you allow yourself to think that 'Yes, I can make mistakes' then you can get some relaxation."
"For example, during penalty corners I have to cover right up, right down and centre. These are my areas. If I concede a goal in the right down area, then of course I will feel disturbed. But here again, our coaches helped us a lot. Mistakes are part of the game but what's most important is how you shift your focus to the next part of the game. Also, experience helps you handle mistakes and how quickly you overcome them," says Savita, who has played 228 matches for India.
"I enjoy shootouts. Of course, there's pressure but I have confidence in myself."
Over the years, Savita has produced many a masterclass in goalkeeping. She has been on the job for more than a decade, but is there anything that she still finds tough?
"Penalty strokes. Because usually a drag-flicker takes it and they have a lot of power, so you have very less time. I'm glad hockey moved on from strokes to shootout to decide the result (in case of a draw). In a shootout, a goalkeeper has a 50-50 chance. Usually in strokes, the one who takes it has a 90 percent success rate. I enjoy shootouts. Of course, there's pressure but I have confidence in myself. If we are trailing in the match (for a long time) then in my mind I'm thinking if we somehow manage to draw the game, then at least there's a chance for us in the shootout."
This is Savita's hallmark. Confidence in her abilities and a will to bend the results in her team's favour. India have a realistic chance at winning a medal in the World Cup because they have a team to do it, but most importantly, they have a confident Savita in a rich vein of form.
India take on England (July 3), China (July 5) and New Zealand (July 7) in the group stage of the Women's FIH Hockey World Cup.