'Everything depends on technique,' Rupinder Pal Singh deconstructs the art of drag-flicks
How players generate power for drag-flicks? What's the technique to find the desired angle? Does the grip change while trying variations? Rupinder Pal Singh explains all this and more about the art of drag-flicking.
Even over two decades after drag-flicking was introduced in hockey, the technique remains the most thrilling part of the sport. The joy of a well coordinated penalty corner culminating in a lighting drag-flick in the back of the net, going past a horde of defenders always gets you to jump out of your seat.
It's no surprise that the most popular players in modern hockey have all been the masters of the high-voltage goal scoring method which is drag-flicking: from the great Sohail Abbas, Floris Jan Bovelander to India's very own Sandeep Singh. The skill of drag-flicking is as much about team effort as it is about individual brilliance. A flicker is highly dependent on the pusher and stopper for a perfect drag.
Individually, the drag-flicker has to maintain a fine balance between the technique and fitness to execute the move perfectly over and over again. A strong back and core is as important as the swiftness of the approach to the ball, the co-ordination between the ball and hockey stick, the drag and release.
For the latest edition of Firstpost Masterclass, we spoke to India hockey star Rupinder Pal Singh as he deconstructed the skill of drag-flicking which has had such a massive influence on modern hockey. One of the senior-most players of the Indian team, the hockey player from Punjab has played 215 matches for India since making his debut in 2010 and has scored 108 goals. Rupinder is considered as one of the best drag-flickers going around.
Your senior India debut came in 2010 but when did you start playing hockey and why this sport only?
I was eight or nine years old when I played at the Baba Shershah Wali Hockey Academy in Ferozepur established by Hardeep Singh Dhillon, who was a DIG in Punjab Police at that time. Then I started playing in Faridkot and later I got selected for Chandigarh Hockey Academy when I was 11 or 12. My professional career began from there. I stayed there for six years and my schooling also happened there. Then in 2006, I was called up for U-18 junior camp in Bombay (Mumbai) for the first time. I played for the junior team for three years.
Jugraj Singh was appointed as drag-flick coach for the junior team in 2007, till then I had not started taking drag-flicks. He only got me into drag-flicking in 2007. I played with the junior team till 2009 but for the next year, I was not part of that team, I played hockey at the domestic level. In 2010, I got a recall for the national camp for the Azlan Shah tournament. At that time Jose Brasa was the national coach and then I got selected for the national team.
As you said, you only began taking interest in drag-flicking in 2007, so what was it about drag-flicking that got you interested in it?
Actually there was a junior's camp in 2004 in Chandigarh. Clarence Lobo was the coach of the junior team then, Sandeep Singh was also present in the camp. They asked me to try drag-flicking. I did it for a while but my back started aching and I stopped it. I didn’t like it. At the same time or maybe next year, there was a senior camp also in Chandigarh. All the big players were there including Jugraj Singh. It was quite inspiring to watch him taking drag-flicks from distance but I still didn’t take it up. In 2006, when I was called up to junior camp, I was again asked but I kept avoiding. Eventually in 2007 when Jugraj came in as a coach, he pushed me hard and with regular training, the perfection came and I got better at it.
I used to work hard on all other aspects but drag-flicking is not easy at a young age because your whole body is involved in it and none of your muscles are developed at the age of 13 or 14, but you need to work on those muscles otherwise there will be injuries. But at that time, my back was paining sometimes, I had pain in my groin at times, hence I was trying to avoid it. But by 2007 my body had developed a bit and Jugraj was getting us trained in the gym, there was a special training and that helped me a lot.
Rupinder Pal Singh credits former India player Jugraj Singh (R) for getting him into drag-flicking. Image: Twitter/@rupinderbob3
Once in an interview, Sandeep Singh said he used to make 400-500 flicks a day during the initial days of his career. What was it like for you when you began taking the flicks?
I never counted my flicks but during our training in the early days, we would just spend an hour and a half over penalty corners. When you start it’s important that you work on the basics because good drag-flicking is a result of technique. You don’t need big muscles or biceps, everything depends on technique, and the more you work on your basics, the better you get at it.
So what constitutes the basics of drag-flicking?
Footwork is very important. How you approach the ball and the connection of the ball and stick, to get the ball over the shaft and later the release, the ball should be dragged properly. When you release the ball, there should be a proper jerk in your hip. The movement of the body. It involves a lot.
What would you describe as a perfect drag-flick?
There’s a feel you get when the stick meets the ball. Even if I am not looking at the goal post, that feel gives you an idea about the force of the flick and angle. It’s largely about the technique. A perfect drag flick is also about not missing the target ever…and of course if you score then it’s doubly perfect.
Penalty corners include different roles and players - pusher, stopper and flicker. Can you explain the training process for penalty corners?
When I train on the basics I do individual training sessions. Like we have not been playing for the last few months, so when I go back, I will need to work alone on my basics. So that your muscles are ready for drag-flicking because if I start taking drag-flicks straight away then I will have back, hamstring and groin issues. When I have the rhythm then I will train with the pusher and stopper because in the end, it’s about co-ordination of all the elements, at the speed at which the ball is pushed and how it is stopped.
Executing a drag-flick involves a lot of twisting in the pelvic region and core. Can you take us through that process? Does it also impact the angle of the flick?
The angle of your shot is a result of the hand co-ordination between the stick and the ball. It’s about how much angle you want to give and when you want to release the ball. The role of the hip is that as much power you bring in the hip, the power of the jerk will decide the force of the flick. For pelvic and core you need to do extra training, for rotation also. If you work in the gym on your rotation and pelvic then obviously you would be able to get more power into your jerk. Personally, I take my first step from behind the ball, you must have noticed that Sandeep and others take a step from ahead of the ball, but I take from the behind with my left foot and then I move ahead.
What's the role of the feet in executing drag-flicks? Should the front leg be bent at the knee to provide a stable base?
Everyone has his own style of approaching the ball. I come from four-five steps back, others come from two steps behind. This doesn’t matter much, what matters the most is after taking the ball on hockey stick what is your technique, footwork, how you move the ball, how straight you stay and how much you drag the ball. The more you drag the ball, the tougher it gets for the goalkeeper to judge the flick. If I drag the ball for one metre then goalkeeper would have more time to react but if I do it for 1.5 metres then it will be tougher for him to judge. How many steps you take before approaching the ball is not so important.
Pakistan's Sohail Abbas holds the record for scoring 348 goals is considered the 'King of drag-flick'. Image: Twitter/@MazherArshad
How do you transfer body weight, put force behind the ball?
When your hip jerks the force automatically gets transferred into the ball…If I have to hit right down then I will drag the ball according to that, footwork will be accordingly and then my body will get into the position for the angle accordingly because I have trained for it, so I know where I have to move the ball and where I have to give the jerk.
Does the grip change when you are trying a variation, if you have to hit an aerial or grounded flick?
Grip doesn’t change for that, only the angle of the stick would change a little. If I have to make an aerial flick then I will keep the angle of the stick a little upwards but for grounded shots, the shaft will stay straight and the angle would not be upwards.
Dodging is an important part of drag-flicking. A lot of flickers look left and shoot right. How do you do that?
You will need to move the ball accordingly…players give angle while releasing the ball so that it becomes tough to judge, what I do is that if I have to hit the ball towards right down then I drag the ball towards left a little and then while giving jerk I change the angle to right. Similarly, if I am targeting left down then I pull the ball towards the right and then provide the jerk with angle changing towards left.
What variations have you tried and does the grip change while trying them?
My body language stays the same as if I am trying to hit straight because if my body language changes then they (opponent) would know what I am trying to do because they also come after doing a lot of analysis. So I try to pretend I am trying to hit straight, the grip also doesn’t change.
Do you study goalkeepers also, as in which way (left or right) do they usually go?
In our meeting what we generally study is what their (opponent’s) first rusher is doing. Does he make a straight run or is he trying to block and then which side the goalkeeper generally moves and where the goalkeeper keeps his hand. Because some of them prefer keeping it up and use their legs for low shots but some keep it down. So we try to analyse everything…and accordingly, decide our angle. If a goalkeeper prefers the right side then we try keeping our shots to left.
What's the head position like while taking drag-flicks? When exactly should you look up and where should your head be?
What I feel is that you need to watch the ball till the time you don’t execute your flick. Sometimes you end up looking upwards when the ball is on the stick, what happens with this is that you end up getting up early and the ball would miss the target because the angle would become very high. It’s natural because if you look up early, your shaft will rise and your angle would be high. The best is to focus on the ball. In fact, always keep looking at the ball even when you execute the shot and that way your focus would stay on it.
What muscle groups are involved in drag-flicking and what exercises do you do?
Firstly your core, hip rotation, back, groin, hamstring. All muscles are involved in drag-flicking and all of them need to be strong. If one of them is weak then others would be impacted. If your back is weak then you won’t be able to do anything, if your hamstring is weak then there will be more pressure on the back. So from back to knee to your hamstring, all three need to be strong. You need to balance your work and there needs to be proper recovery.
How important is a good height and strong physique for a drag-flicker or can a player with shorter height relative to other players also do well?
Drag-flick can be done by anyone. For me personally, my height gives me an advantage as well as disadvantage. The advantage is that I can cover a lot of area but I am also vulnerable to injuries. I need to bend a lot and work very hard on my muscles. Shorter players have a better balance so they suffer lesser injuries and there are players with shorter heights who are good drag-flickers.
Should we keep the ball while dragging under the center of gravity or ahead of it. Does this matter?
The Important thing is that the ball should neither be very far from you nor very close. It’s about co-ordination and balance. It should remain in front of you.
Is visualisation a part of your preparation and how do you use the technique?
When we have an upcoming match we watch videos of our opponents and then we do our visualisation. Later a day before the match we try to execute what we have visualised, what we have planned. That training would later lead to the results.
It’s only natural for athletes to have some bad time. In a match where you miss a couple of drag-flicks, how do you clam yourself so that you successfully convert the next drag-flick?
This happens a lot of time and then it’s very important to go back to the basics then. Everybody makes a mistake. Sports is like this, even though you train regularly you still end up making mistakes, you can never be perfect. It’s important to keep working on the basics, stay in the present and not think of what had happened. Automatically that will impact you mentally, so stay in the present and try your best to work on your angle and execution.
Rupinder Pal Singh executing a drag-flick in one of the training sessions with the national team. Image: Hockey India
A lot of times, drag-flickers are asked to perform under intense pressure, especially in dying moments. Can you explain about the thought process under such high-pressure situations and how you control the mind and soak in the pressure?
I enjoy the pressure of taking drag-flicks in dying minutes of a match. The most important thing is to stay confident, as in how confident are you of converting the chance. A lot of times even when you are confident, you still end up missing the target. Recently against Australia, we were losing 4-2 and then I made it 4-3 from a penalty corner and then we again got a penalty corner but I missed the target. I was confident but it didn’t happen, I learnt from it. So you need to be confident, not overconfident but you need to believe that you can do it. The Important thing is for how long you have been preparing. If you have thought before the match about what you want to do then there’s a good chance of executing it. You get information from coaches about which angles to choose and then my job is to work on the target and not worry about the result. Luck also plays a major role at times.
Who has been your biggest idol, what is the biggest learning that you have got in the context of drag-flicking in your career?
The main job of a drag-flicker is to create opportunities. My inspiration has always been Jugraj Singh, my style is very similar to his as I trained two years under him. I may not have become drag-flicker had I not trained under him. The more you train the better you get. It’s not that we are perfect, we still make mistakes. It’s the thing about sports, no matter how much you train, it will always be less. You will always make mistakes.
Why do you think the conversion rate of drag-flicking has gone down in modern-day hockey?
The defence has become very brave in modern day hockey. With the first rusher, post man and the second rusher, now it’s like there are three people covering one angle, so it becomes impossible to find the target on left of the goalkeeper. To find that target you need the ball to be pushed at a proper pace and then it has to be stopped perfectly and then if you manage to beat the first rusher, you can score on the left. So now it’s like there are three defenders on the left and the goalkeeper on the right, you just can’t find the gap. What I have been hearing since three-four years is that your conversion rate needs to be around 33 percent, if you have that rate of conversion then it’s very good. So since my comeback from injury, in these last two years, our team’s conversion rate has been very good, about 50 percent. Harman (Harmanpreet Singh), Amit Rohidas are doing very well, so together our combination is very good.
With the conversion rate going down, do you see drag-flick becoming less and less popular with time?
Anything can happen but as you said it’s a very important component of hockey, so it wouldn’t suddenly lose its popularity. As the defence improves, more variations are coming in, attackers are improving their variations. It goes both ways. In the end, drag-flicking comes later, you first need to be a good player on the field. It won’t work if you are a good drag-flicker but not a good player. There is a need to maintain a balance.
Editor's note: Professional sport is as much a scientific pursuit as it is a recreational wonder. What appears routinely mundane is a result of the hours spent honing the craft and deciphering the body mechanics till it becomes a monotonous muscle memory. In Firstpost Masterclass, our latest weekly series, we look at precisely these aspects that make sport a far more intriguing act than we know.