Rambir Singh Khokhar is one of the winners of the prestigious Dronacharya award in the lifetime category this year. He is just the fourth coach in kabaddi to earn this honour. But, he could have easily been the first.

Khokhar was the coach of the Indian kabaddi team till a month before the 1990 Asian Games when kabaddi was part of the quadrennial event for the first time. However, he didn’t make it to Beijing as the coach or even as an assistant due to conflicts between the Amateur Kabaddi Federation of India and Sports Authority of India where Khokhar was employed at the time.

E Prasad Rao, the current technical director at the International Kabaddi Federation, was the head coach of the Indian team at the 1990 Asian Games that won gold, the only medal for India in that edition. He justly won the Dronacharya award in 2002 for his contributions to the sport, making him the first one in kabaddi to achieve the feat. But Khokhar, who was equally deserving, missed out.

“Even though Prasad Rao was our head coach, the players were very close to Khokhar sir. He had created a special rapport with us during our camps in the years before the Asian Games. All the players could freely express any problem to him. Some of us do so even today,” Raju Bhavsar a member of the 1990 Asian Games team revealed to Scroll.in.

It took Khokhar five more years to return to the national fold, this time as coach of the junior team. He has been a guiding light for many players during his service as a coach at SAI, chiefly at Sonipat, playing a big hand in making it the hotbed of kabaddi talent in India.

The proof of his longevity and the respect he earned in kabaddi circles can be measured by the fact that he was the coach of the Indian kabaddi team for the first-ever Asian Kabaddi Championships back in 1987. Thirty years later, he was once again placed in charge of the national team for the 10th edition of the Asian Kabaddi Championships in Iran. On both occasions, India won gold. There are few coaches who achieve success in two such spells, thirty years apart.

In the meantime, he coached several prominent players like Bhavsar, Ashok Shinde, Jasvir Singh, Ajay Thakur, Manjeet Chhillar, Surender Nada, Ravinder Pahal and even Balwan Singh who was kabaddi’s second Dronacharya awardee in 2005. He, later on, went on to coach India at 2014 Asian Games and 2016 Kabaddi World Cup where India won gold.

When asked about the agonising wait for the Dronacharya award especially after seeing his pupil win it before him, Khokhar stated that it never bothered him much. “Yes, I should have won it before, but things don’t always work out the way you want. I have no complaints. For many years after I started coaching, I didn’t even know what a Dronacharya award was. Even when I was the national coach, I had no idea what it meant,” Khokhar told Scroll.in.

“I was always very dedicated to my job as I loved it. I never used to miss practice sessions for any external reasons. I often stayed on the mat even after my duty was over. I never set a time frame to perform my duties. Although late, I feel I have received the reward of my hard work,” added the veteran who played ten national championships as a player before turning to coaching.

Scouting and grooming talent

Apart from his five-hour duty at SAI, Khokhar invested a lot of time in scouting talents. He used to attend local tournaments around the area and to spot talents. Even when he took the SAI teams to tournaments across India, his one eye was always on finding new young players who could be groomed into national or international-level athletes.

“Lot of young kids especially from poor background have the talent but don’t have resources to develop the talent. I tried to use my recommendations to get the talented ones among these kids to SAI. When you are at a residential academy, a kid is a lot more focused on his game as all his other needs are taken care of,” the Rohtak-residing coach explained.

He also kept an eye on youngsters brought in at SAI for other sports. He converted a few wrestlers into kabaddi players. One such player is famed left-corner Surender Nada, a star in Pro Kabaddi.

“I and other coaches at SAI were always mindful of players who were more suited to other sports than the one they were selected for. Surender (Nada) was one such player. I saw potential in him very early and brought him into kabaddi when he was around 13 years of age. Apart from wrestling, we also got a few kids from handball who went onto become national medalists in kabaddi,” Khokhar revealed.

The coach also played a key role in helping his students gain jobs after they left SAI campus after the age of 20. Using the wide range of network of his pupils, Khokhar had ways to make sure his pupils didn’t stay unemployed.

“Khokhar sir has always been very helpful. He has a great eye for talent and that helped me a lot when I was in Air India as a coach. He used to send a lot of players for trials. And mostly good ones. However, he never forced or pressurised me to select them,” Ashok Shinde, another member of India’s 1990 Asian Games squad who made his national debut under Khokhar told Scroll.in.

Shinde added: “He is a true gentleman. For a young player who joined the national team, it was a blessing to have a coach like him. He treated me like his younger brother and knew exactly how to get the best out of his players. He never asked us to do a hundred things, he knew what skill every player had and helped us develop those skills. I’m delighted that he finally got his due.”

From mud to mat

Khokhar was in the thick of things as kabaddi transitioned from a sport played on mud to one played on mat. Just as the transition was tricky for players, it was a tough one for the coaches as well.

“Fortunately, at SAI, we got the mat very early in 1997. However, there were no shoes for the players at the time. Their feet used to get skinned playing on it. Also, the game is a lot quicker on the mat, so it was difficult to get the players to practice on the mats early on. But since that was the way forward, we slowly got the players comfortable with it,” the coach revealed.

Khokhar retired from SAI in February 2014 just months before Pro Kabaddi was launched. He was quickly snapped up by Patna Pirates who finished in third place in the opening season under him.

He wasn’t part of the next three season before returning as coach of the Haryana Steelers in season five. He helped them qualify for the playoffs in their debut campaign.

Khokhar believes the transition from mud to mat was necessary for the sport to go global and feels Pro Kabaddi has made everyone adopt the change with open arms. “Mat is a more attractive proposition for everyone. The only problem is the injuries that you suffer by playing on it. But with Pro Kabaddi and the kind of support that has come with it, players have learned to live with it by bettering their fitness levels. It’s a positive change for the game,” he opines.

Even though not part of Pro Kabaddi this season, Khokhar is a regular visitor to the SAI center in Sonipat and other private academies that have popped up. Even after winning the Dronacharya award, he isn’t ready to rest and enjoy his retirement.

“I wanted to be a coach since my playing days. I don’t want to stop just because I have retired or because I have received the Dronacharya award. I will keep contributing till my last breath,” Khokhar suggested.

The award has created a buzz in the Khokhar household ahead of the award ceremony. It has been a long-time coming. There’s a buzz on his cell phone as well as good wishes have poured in not just from all parts of the country but also from all over the globe. The Kenyans and Iranians to whom Khokhar imparted his precious knowledge when on special coaching tours, still remember his brief yet significant contribution.

“I was there in those countries for just a few days, but they still remember me. It’s special and not less than any award,” Khokhar said.