Michael Nobbs loves it when the Indian hockey team’s camp is held in Bangalore. It has nothing to do with the tropical weather or the 100-acre, well-equipped Sports Authority of India (SAI) campus. It’s the food, more specifically the dosa.
The 59-year-old says this is something he could “die for”: a crispy dosa prepared in ghee, a banana shake and coconut water.
The Australian’s love for dosas has already rubbed off on compatriot Jason Konrath, a former Mr Australia who is now Indian team’s physiologist. Konrath has made several trips to a tiny restaurant near the SAI campus after first visiting it a week ago with Nobbs, assistant coach Clarence Lobo and India vice-captain V R Raghunath.
As Nobbs and Konrath dig into the food, they attract a few curious eyes. An Australian and a dosa? However, odd as that combination would seem, Nobbs and Konrath will tell you they feel right at home—more than any other previous coaches of the Indian team.
The past 12 years, as its fortunes plunged, the men’s national hockey team has seen close to a dozen coaches, including three foreigners (one hired as the technical director).
But the current set-up is unique, and could well be the start of a new chapter. For, with the appointment of South African Gregg Clark as the junior team coach and Australian Matthew Tredrea as the scientific advisor to the women’s team last month, almost all the important decision-making positions in Indian hockey are now held by foreigners.
Clark and Tredrea join the existing team of Nobbs, Konrath, High Performance Director Roelant Oltmans (Holland) and women’s coach Neil Hawgood (Australia). On the administrative side, there is Hockey India CEO Elena Norman, also from Australia. At a time when Olympic sports in India are trying to make a leap to the next level, it’s not unusual to see foreign coaches pitching in. It is, however, rare to see so many experts trying to revive one sport —five Australians, a Dutchman and a South African trying to solve the puzzle that is Indian hockey.
Not only are the faces new, but also the conditions under which they have come. Majority of them have been given long contracts, sparing them the doubts of an uncertain future.
Narinder Batra, the secretary general of Hockey India, who has earned more than a few enemies in his three years at the helm, is clear about his goals and why foreign experts are necessary. Because, he says, none of the Indian coaches has the expertise to take the national team to the next level. The latter have not taken kindly to the comparison, particularly, as they say, they were never given either the money or the long contracts their foreign counterparts enjoy.
Saying he doesn’t want to talk about the past, Batra notes: “In the three years I have spent with Hockey India, I’ve realised we do not have coaches who are well-versed in modern hockey. Why should we be ashamed of learning from people who know it better?”
"I am not here to please anyone," he says. "When I joined, I had given myself 8-10 years to bring about some change and if I do not manage to do that, I will not continue. And to get results, you need to have the right people with the right kind of mentality."
One obvious advantage of having a foreign coach is that he/she is less likely to have a bias against a player from a particular region or background, have favourites in the squad, or be influenced by reputation alone.
Batra’s faith in foreign coaches is heartening because Indian hockey’s experience with them, or rather the other way around, has not been too happy. Affable Spaniard Jose Brasa was shown the door though he took the team to a silver medal at the Delhi Commonwealth Games and bronze at the Asian Games despite all the hurdles. Towards the end, he was almost like a prisoner, not allowed to voice his opinion in the media. Plus, he had no say in the selection. Ric Charlesworth, regarded as the best coach in the world, had such a harrowing time that he quit even before he could begin.
Regardless of this, if foreign coaches are willing to bet on India, it’s because the country is the biggest market for world hockey and the recent success of the Hockey India League established that.
Nobbs, who has spent more time in India than the other coaches, says “to be the best, you’ve got to learn from the best”. He prefers to look at the “Indian way” of functioning through the prism of humour. A big fan of Indian-origin stand-up comedian Russell Peters, the Australian often relates what he sees here to Peters’s observations. “It’s humorous, the things that are not necessarily funny to a normal eye. You don’t achieve anything by being upset and yelling. The system here is very interesting. If you bring all the parts together, it can be a powerful machine,” he says.
Oltmans, who worked in Pakistan as their chief coach in 2003-04, is equally aware of the “system” and how to make it work for him: “You always want things to happen quickly, but I am a realistic person. I will try to put pressure now and then, but I will also look at what is the best way to get things done in India.”
Each of the seven foreign experts brings along something unique. If Norman can act as the mediator between Hockey India, SAI and the foreign coaches, Oltmans has a 14-year-long experience in top-level coaching and can introduce Dutch-style organisation, which is quite robust in Indian hockey. Nobbs is considered a very good man-manager—essential in an Indian team—while Clark’s technical knowledge will benefit the juniors. Konrath and Tredrea have brought their own unique ways to improve the team’s fitness.
Former India coach Harendra Singh, who was an assistant to Brasa at the 2010 CWG and Asiad, believes foreign coaches can also be used to improve their national counterparts. “There is no denying that we are far behind what the international standards demand. So it is imperative to have foreign coaches. But at the same time, we should ensure our coaches learn the tricks of the trade from them so we can be self-reliant,” says Harendra, who is known to understand the nuances of modern hockey better than many Indian coaches.
Nobbs and Oltmans are realistic about this. “Look, we aren’t going to be here forever,” says Nobbs. “Roelant, the others and I will develop a system, put a roadmap in place to develop the coaches and improve the grassroots. It may take up to six to eight years but it could be done faster. The need is to focus on the overall picture and Roelant is the perfect man to do that. I’ve a lot of optimism.”
Chief Coach, men’s team
MICHAEL Nobbs cannot stop smiling. His daughter Jamie, a figure-skater, has been short-listed for Australia’s Winter Olympics squad and he is relishing the prospect of having yet another Olympian in the family. “It’s at times like this that I miss being with my family. But the job here is exciting. The fact that I am here, trying to make a difference, makes the sacrifice worthwhile,” says the 59-year-old.
It hasn’t been easy though. Under Nobbs, India had its worst-ever performance at the Olympics, finishing at the bottom in London last year. But, as the coach says, they had an eventful year otherwise, finishing fourth at the Champions Trophy, runners-up at the Asian Champions Trophy and winning impressively in several one-off matches.
Nobbs, who was part of the Australian team in the 1984 Olympics, is considered to be a soft-spoken but tough man with his mastery lying in ensuring fitness and diet and in his splendid quality to be able to analyse the opposition’s negatives. His contract runs up to the Rio Olympics in 2016, long enough to bring about some changes. Never before has an Indian team coach got a continuous contract for five years.
He believes the London disaster is a thing of the past. “After the Olympics, the selectors and I decided if you’ve got to fix the problem, then you can’t keep repeating mistakes of the past. I’m glad they’ve shown faith in me. It’s a long-term project. There are no miracles in sport. Anybody who has achieved success is because of hard work and we’re doing just that,” he says.
* Roelant Oltmans
High Performance Director
'It took 30 years to fall to this level… We will rise, but not for 6-8 years'
ROELANT Oltmans believes it’s natural that the world is “giving something back” to the country that taught the world hockey. The wily Dutchman was in contention for the post of chief coach of the Indian team two years ago when, to the surprise of many, Hockey India chose to go with Nobbs. They ultimately turned to the 58-year-old for a bigger and more important role—as High Performance Director, Oltmans is responsible for all Indian teams (men’s, women’s, juniors and seniors) and for developing the game at the grassroots.
For the past one month, Oltmans has been travelling across the country, spotting talent at various sub-junior national tournaments. He is impressed. “A lot of people say that we have to start from scratch in India. That’s not true. The basic framework is good and the talent pool is huge. We just have to get everyone on the same page and then move forward.”
As Holland’s coach for 14 years, Oltmans saw the team win the gold medal at the Atlanta Olympics, two World Cups, three Champions Trophies and the Euro Hockey League. He also coached Pakistan in 2003-04. However, he admits, India poses a different challenge. “It took 30 years for us to fall to this level, so we cannot expect any overnight miracles. We have to give ourselves six to eight years at least before we will start winning major trophies. I am sure we will get there,” he says.
'My aim is to have the side play 70 minutes at same pace'
* Jason Konrath
Physiologist, men’s team
AT THE end of a tiring training session, a worried Sardar Singh walks up to Jason Konrath and seeks ways to reduce his extra flab. “It’s not much, mate. Don’t fret over it,” Konrath tells him. Singh may have just a couple of extra centimetres around his waist, but for him and other players in the team, the Australian physiotherapist is the role model. Almost everyone wants a body like his and Konrath, 28, is more than happy to lead by example. “I like to understand what a player is going through when he is training. Depending on that, I chalk out a plan for him and work on his fitness,” he says.
Konrath’s name was suggested to Hockey India by Nobbs. A bodybuilder for the past 10 years, he was the Mr Western Australia for three years and won the Mr Australasia heavyweight title in 2011.
The Indian team’s fitness had reached its peak during predecessor David John’s regime, so the challenge for Konrath is immense. “He did a great job and I’m confident of taking it to the next level. The players are receptive to what I say, which is quite important… My aim is to make this side play 70 minutes of modern hockey at the same pace.”
* Neil Hawgood
Chief Coach, women’s team
'We can't win just every now and then, or play well in only one half'
JUST ‘Hawgood’ is the women’s hockey team? Well, it’s improving, says the jovial Australian. The team has not won a major event since the 2002 Manchester Commonwealth Games, and the 50-year-old Australian is under no illusion. However, since Hawgood took charge last year, from fitness to strategy, the team has undergone some massive changes.
"Working with the Indian women’s team has been fantastic. We have increased their ability to train at higher levels. I want the team to not just win a game every now and then, or play well in one half and fade away in the second," he says.
Hawgood represented Australia in the 1988 Olympics, scoring five goals in seven games. He’s had coaching stints with club sides in London, Queenstown, Western Australia and Scotland. First target would be to ensure the team’s qualification for next year’s World Cup and Rio. Like Nobbs, he will be in charge of the side till the next Olympics. “We are in a rebuilding phase where we are working on certain aspects of the game, with fitness being the key,” he says.
* Elena Norman
CEO, Hockey India
'Things easier for me with a staff on the same wavelength'
IT’S NOT often that you see a woman CEO running an Indian sports federation, especially someone from abroad. Coming from a country where sports federations are run in a highly professional manner, 38-year-old Elena Norman has made the transition to Indian sports administration quite admirably. “The fact that I had worked here for the hockey World Cup and later on during the CWG was helpful. It helped me understand how things work here,” she says.
Norman moved to India in 2007, when she joined a Delhi-based sports management firm, where she handled cricket-related marketing affairs before moving to hockey administration. The move to hockey has been swift and successful. Norman served as International Hockey Federation’s marketing consultant in the 2010 hockey World Cup that was held in New Delhi, and prior to that, was associated with HI as a foreign marketing consultant.
Along with Hockey India secretary general Narinder Batra, she holds the key to making crucial decisions. “It made sense. India is one of the biggest countries in world hockey with a great tradition. I think with a staff that is on the same wavelength, things have become easier for me. Our ultimate aim is to run Hockey India in a highly professional way,” she says.
* Matthew Tredrea
Scientific Advisor, women’s team
Rugby expert to tone up women’s team
COMING from a sport that demands a high level of fitness and physical strength, the 26-year-old’s mandate is to make the women’s team physically and mentally fit ahead of crucial tournaments this year. For long, the Indian women’s team has had a habit of conceding goals at crucial moments.
Before this, Tredrea worked with the Newcastle Knights (Australian professional Rugby League club) for almost two years as the Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach. It will be interesting to see if Hockey India’s approach of bringing in an expert who has been involved in rugby reaps rewards in the area of fitness.
'India's talent pool is maybe the biggest… It's an exciting challenge'
* Gregg Clark
Coach, junior team
Nationality: South African
THIS is the rare case of a coach of a senior team taking up the role of coaching a junior side in another country. But Gregg Clark likes to do things differently. South Africa’s chief coach for close to a decade, Clark took over the job for the Indian junior team last month. “I know it’s not a popular way of doing things; some people would see it as a step down. But the challenge here is exciting. The junior World Cup will be in India this year and it’s a massive opportunity. I also enjoyed my time here during the Hockey India League,” he says.
"India has one of the biggest talent pools, if not the biggest. Perhaps where the foreign coaches, myself included, can help is looking at structured approaches which are more prevalent in modern hockey."
His appointment was largely based on his exploits in the Hockey India League, where he guided a fairly young Ranchi team to the title. Even otherwise, Clark, 42, is South Africa’s most-capped player and was the national team coach for the last two Olympics.
His primary objective, he says, is to ensure that the junior team reaches at least the semifinals of the World Cup later this year in Delhi.