Harendra Singh: Changing The Fortunes Of Indian Men's Hockey Team

From his thoughts on technology, to how hockey develops children into winners and his parenting principles, Team India hockey coach Harendra Singh shares his mantras for success on and off the pitch.

By Sindhu Sivalingam

Harendra Singh: Changing The Fortunes Of Indian Men's Hockey Team

Hailing from Chhapra, Bihar, Harendra Singh's rise in the sport of hockey is a source of inspiration. Not content with guiding the Indian hockey team towards a silver medal in the Champion's Trophy, Singh is clear he wants to imbibe in the team a hunger for winning every game. Excerpts from an interview with the coach who is known as a tough taskmaster…

How did you develop an interest in playing hockey?

When I was growing up, no one in my village played hockey. Then, my uncle, who was in the Sikh regiment of the Indian army, brought me a hockey stick. I took a liking to the sport and began playing hockey with a cotton ball. In 1978, my family moved to Delhi and I was enrolled in a school where the only sport the students played was hockey. But, I decided to become a hockey player after I watched India lose to Pakistan in the 1982 Asian Games.

Tell us how your family supported and encouraged your decision to become a professional hockey player…

We did not have a clock at home, so my mother would get up early and look at the stars to understand what time it was. She would then prepare food for me and wake me up so that I wouldn't miss catching the 4 a.m bus. I would attend practice sessions in the morning, go to school and go for practice again in the evening. Then, I would catch the same bus at 8 p.m. and reach home by around 9:30 p.m. Since I was a sportsman, I was even given my brother's share of food. So, both my mother and brother have made several sacrifices for me.

How does it feel to coach the Indian men's hockey team?

I decided to become a coach after my best friend Dhanraj Pillai, who was also my teammate, suggested that I would be good at it. I feel proud that I am serving my country by coaching the Indian men's hockey team. I enjoy my job, and I think that my family and friends also appreciate my efforts and are proud that I am a part of such a great journey.

What is your philosophy when it comes to hockey?

Discipline and dedication — these are the two qualities that helped me achieve my dreams. Individuals with these qualities will succeed at whatever they set their sights on. In hockey, I always say that players should give their hundred per cent whenever they step on to the pitch. So, after the training or a match, a player must not be filled with regret or say I wish I had done this. The outcome is not in our hands, giving our best always is.

What do you consider as the best moment of your career?

The best moment was being a part of the Indian hockey team as assistant coach at the Sydney Olympics. The icing on the cake was winning the 2016 Junior World Cup on home ground — we did it without losing a single match in the entire tournament!

You favour investing in technology to raise the standard of Indian hockey. Tell us how technology helps…

In India, we used to focus on developing skills but never tried integrating sport with science. That has changed in the past four to five years. By integrating technology with sport, we understand what players should and shouldn't do, and guide them. We are also able to tell them why the opposition is doing better. Collating such information and sharing it has helped the team immensely.

We read in an interview that instead of giving an answer you prefer to ask a question. Tell us more about this approach…

We must adopt this approach right from the time children begin going to school. As parents, most of the time, we impose our thinking on our children instead of giving them the freedom to ask or answer questions. As a coach, I believe that when I ask a question, the players begin to think in a comprehensive and broader way. And, when players begin thinking and coming up with answers, they become more involved in their game. When this becomes a habit, the players try to find answers to the problems they face on the pitch. This approach should also be implemented in the education system. Children should be given question papers and allowed to come up with answers. How closely their answer tallies with the correct answer will help us assess their growth as individuals.

What is the most important quality for a sportsperson?

The most important quality is to always give the best, and the next, is to accept challenges and compete in a healthy manner, irrespective of circumstances.

How does your family support you in your career?

My mother, father, brother and my wife have been more supportive than anyone else in my career. Without their support, I would not have reached this stage. One thing that saddens me is that my father never watched me play. Whenever I asked my father to come to a match, he would respond that he would attend a game the day I played like Inam-ur Rehman and Ashok Kumar (India hockey greats from the 1960s). So, I feel like I have failed there. But, now that I am a coach, my entire family sits together to watch the team. My father and my children are my biggest critics. I feel very happy when they tell me that you should have done things this way or used this word while explaining something. They guide and motivate me, and I love their criticism. When I am away, my family never tell me things that are likely to upset me and make me lose focus.

How can parents encourage their children to take an interest in sport?

The reason why developed countries win so many medals in the Olympics is because they attach a lot of importance to sports. A nation's involvement in sports helps it grow in every sphere. Parents should be supportive of the sports their children choose. They should encourage their children by being present when they play. Doing so will make children feel energised and they will think in a focused manner.

How can sports help children in their personal and professional lives?

Playing a sport helps a child learn how to give to others and compete in life. Sport can also help generate employment. Once we become a superpower in sports, it will also help create jobs as private companies will step in. This, in turn, will also create more career opportunities in every kind of sport. 

How important is sport for leading a healthy life?

Participating in sport can help develop a healthy mind and body. What's more, healthy individuals tend to think positively and have the ability to do whatever they love doing.

What are the three values sport has taught you?

Discipline, dedication and the desire to achieve are the three values that sport has taught me.

What are the life lessons you have learnt from your parents?

My father was in the army and very particular about discipline and doing things on time. For example, if the dinnertime was fixed, then everyone would have dinner at the same time. But, once I started playing, I was given a certain amount of liberty. My mother was a housewife and not very educated, and since sons are always close to mothers, I was very close to her. My father always said I must put in my best effort at whatever I did. I was good in academics, so he wanted me to appear for the civil service examinations. But, when he saw I was good in sport, he told me that if I take it up as a career, I should aim for the Indian flag on my back. And, when that happened, my father felt very proud. 

What are your parenting principles? Are you strict or lenient?

I am a mix of both. As far as, doing things on time is concerned, I am a strict parent. While I give my son and daughter the best that I can afford, I also make them understand that they should appreciate what they have. I want them to learn the value of money and the amount of hard work I put in to earn it. Even though I am not around my children most of the time, I am happy that they have learnt the lessons I taught them, especially my daughter.

You led the Indian team to one of the best-ever performances in the Champions Trophy. 

After the Commonwealth Games, I was shifted from the women’s team to the men’s team. Since I knew all the 33 players in the camp from their early days, our rapport was very good right from the start. We discussed our strategy and came up with a blueprint for the crucial year of 2018. We decided to focus more on winning and being mentally strong. I emphasised that the players must not simply participate in tournaments, but be hungry for wins and earn medals for the country. The Champions Trophy was the first success we achieved as a team.

The general perception is that hockey isn't a sport for the faint-hearted...

Although hockey appears like a sport where the chances of getting injured are higher, it isn't so. Data available suggests that those playing hockey sustain fewer injuries than those playing soccer or basketball, or participating in athletics. Once children develop an interest in hockey, they learn to overcome all the challenges, even stopping a ball coming towards them at 140–150km/hour. So, playing hockey teaches children that, with courage and dedication, one can face and overcome any difficulty or eventuality in life.

Also, unlike other sports that require extensive infrastructure and equipment, hockey can even be played in your living room. For, during the initial stages, children don't need to run around a field but must instead, stand in one place and learn to juggle the ball with the stick. However, we need to generate more interest in our children about playing hockey.

Hockey players are away from home for long periods. How important is it to begin preparing a child for this from an early age?

This is the sad part about hockey. Most of the time, players are either in camp or traveling across the globe, as hockey is played by 156 countries. So, a hockey player needs to be mentally strong. One of the things parents can do is send your children to some place for the weekend. Once they get used to staying away, parents can even enrol children in summer camps and so on. 

How does India compare with the rest of the world when it comes to nurturing sportspersons?

We are doing well in a few disciplines like badminton, cricket and hockey. However, we also need to pay attention to other sports by providing better infrastructure at the school and local community level. Unfortunately, in India, only when players advance to the state or national level, do they get all the facilities. I would request state and central government agencies to provide a good foundation at the grassroots level. This will enable us to attain international standards in every kind of sport. 

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