Harendra Singh is not new to the role of a national coach. He has hopped, skipped and jumped in the chair since being assistant to former India coach V Baskaran in 2000. The 2016 Junior World Cup triumph added some recognition to his coaching credentials – the only one in India with FIH degree – and now he helms the senior national team in its quest for a World Cup medal.
The Air India man had just returned home after conducting the first part of the camp ahead of the Champions Trophy next month. The core group of 55 players tuned up with their new coach, after Sjoerd Marijne was asked to swap roles with Harendra, who coached the senior women team at the Asia Cup and the Commonwealth Games.
Two months away from the Champions Trophy, three months from the Asian Games and six months from the World Cup is not an ideal time for any coach to produce podium finishes at three major tournaments. But Harendra has his check-list ready to bring his men back in sight of medals, as he shared some of his plans – especially the off-field regulations – in an interview.
How’s the start been back in charge of the men’s team – this time the seniors?
The responsibility is similar – whether you coach the men’s team or the women’s. It is about the country and the expectations of billions of Indians. You can’t let up at any point. That’s the cut-throat nature of international competition. The start (at the camp) has been good. We have tuned up well to being with and understand where we are, where we want to be and how to plan to get there.
What’s your assessment of this core group in terms of where they stand?
There’s nothing that this team can’t achieve. It has the talent, fitness, skills, resources and infrastructure any international team needs to train and win. Of course, there are areas we need to work on, but the important thing is that the players realise that and want to get on with the ways to improve.
What specifically are those areas?
Attacking is the DNA of Indian hockey. On those lines, the number of circle penetrations we made during the CWG campaign was very good. What we need to look at is how we can convert most of those moves into goals. Some of the young forwards, like Mandeep (Singh) and Gurjant (Singh), I have worked with during the 2016 Junior World Cup. That should help, because I know their game and how to get the best out of it.
To fortify the defence and penalty-corner conversion, we have Chris Ciriello and Jugraj Singh who have been among the very best in the art of drag-flicking. Ciriello especially knows what it takes to win big medals, which helps in winning mind battles as well.
Do you think we lacked balance in terms of experience and youth?
Balance is important. You can’t do without experience and you also need the exuberance of youth. A young player can be extremely talented but he needs guidance on the pitch, which can come only from experienced pros, who are crucial in crunch situations in crunch games. And it’s also true that playing together for a period of time helps. That’s how you improve coordination. Knowing each other’s game is the key to anticipation and organization of play.
Champions Trophy, Asian Games and World Cup are huge assignments. Tell us something about your interaction with the boys about that.
Of course, these are three biggies – with the Asiad and World Cup being the most important. We would want to get Olympic qualification done with by defending our Asiad gold. But a medal at the World Cup will be a game-changer for Indian hockey. I told the boys that it’s once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for any player to script history on home soil; only the blessed get that chance.
You have been known as a coach to introduce strict discipline among the players. What plans you have on that front?
Discipline is important both on and off the field, it’s important whether you are in a training session or match situation. Without discipline perfection can’t be achieved.
How do you plan to introduce such discipline?
The players know their responsibility and the level of expectations. As a coach, my duty - besides coaching - is to ensure that rules and regulations are followed by everyone, including myself. So I prepare a list of certain things that all of us need to adhere to as a group.
To share some of those rules, no mobile phones are allowed on the pitch, at meetings or the dining table. The moment any player breaks that rule, he has to pay Rs 500 fine and the amount is doubled on every subsequent breach.
Similarly, I take due diligence in assigning room partners. For example, partnering an experienced player with a young player or putting two defenders or two forwards or two midfielders together, so that their communication and coordination gets better and reflects in their play.
The lights of every room should be switched off maximum by 10:30 pm. We have an internal mechanism to check that, which I can’t disclose because then the players will come to know. There have been instances when I have caught players awake by way of their last seen on Whatsapp or social media posts after 10:30 pm. (smiles)
However, that doesn’t mean policing. It’s an education, which is for the betterment of players and Indian hockey.
You have teamed up with analytical coach Chris Ciriello and your assistant Jugraj Singh as the coaching group. How’s that shaping up?
The first thing I said among us three was that we are all ‘coaches’. There is no ‘chief’ or ‘assistant’ – just coaches. We are all equally important for improvement of the team. It also helps improving the chemistry of the coaching group.
An interesting example is when Ciriello and I decided to pick our respective shortlist of 22 players for the Champions Trophy; 21 of our choices matched. There have been times when we coincidentally prepared the same drill for a training session. Being on the same wavelength helps a lot.