From India to USA - the journey of hockey coach Harendra Singh

During his experience so far as the USA men’s head coach, Harendra has been delighted to see the US-based Indians’ enthusiasm for hockey.

Harendra Singh has been stationed at the airport since the first flight that landed in Delhi after evacuatig Indians from Wuhan, the epicentre of coronavirus.

For Harendra Singh, it has been inspiring to find the emotional connect between the people of the Indian community in the USA and hockey.

During his experience so far as the USA men’s head coach, Harendra has been delighted to see the US-based Indians’ enthusiasm for hockey. 

“We won the 1932 Olympics gold under Dhyan Chand. The Indians over there remember that even today. When we won a medal in this Olympics, I think the way India celebrated it, the Indians over there celebrated similarly. That's why they were up in the middle of the night (to watch India’s matches) and then used to Whatsapp me next morning about the match. I think that connection is still there,” Harendra, who is accompanying the USA side as a mentor in the ongoing men’s Junior World Cup here, told Sportstar.

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In a country where women’s hockey is more famous, Harendra, who has been working with an aim to develop the USA men's hockey team by the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics, began his job by banking on their legacy.

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“There were just three teams (1932), but the USA is also a bronze medallist of the Olympics. I went to see that legacy where they played (Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum). I called the maximum number of kids to that place for my first camp. I told them about their history. LA City will host the Olympics for a third time – 1932, 1984 and now 2028. We are preparing a project with that target in mind. We have appointed a lot of coaches, (drawn up) coaching patterns (specially the skills) and worked on improving grassroots hockey and imparting the skills.”

Elaborating on his coaching role in the USA, Harendra said, “It’s a different experience. In our country, hockey or any other sport, Hockey India, Government of India, state associations and institutions look after the players. In the USA, when a player picks any sport, it’s his passion. He plays in schools and colleges and sees if he can become a professional. Men’s hockey is mostly restricted to the west coast.

“It’s a challenge because it’s a big country, if you go from one corner then you sometimes fly for six-and-a-half hours. In India, it’s a privilege to have all the players in a camp for 300 days. There you go to the centre to coach. You have to share your programme with the players and they do their fitness and other regime, day to day practice.

“Men’s hockey is a passion over there and they get early leave from the college. These boys who have come here completed their homework up to December, then we had a one week camp and after that we came. Despite the odds, the players are passionate about the sport. For that I have prepared a big project at the grassroots level by dividing the USA into six pockets. We will start from 8-16, it’s a long-term plan. My contract is up to 2024.”

Speaking more about his role, Harendra said, “I have to appoint the coaches of under-16, under-18 and under-21 and give them the plan to go ahead. Plus, I have to do the planning, including high performance planning. A head coach does the planning after sitting with the board and executes after getting approval. The head coach decides everything, which coaches, physios, masseur, strength and conditioning coach, assistant coach to appoint.”

On the talent pool in the USA, Harendra said, “The talent pool is not as big as that in India. Recently we spotted 160 men’s players from under-16, 18 and 21 age groups. In San Francisco I had a clinic for the youth, in LA, 135 kids came out of which 115-118 were boys. There is a change after an Indian coach went there. The Indian community has got energy to play hockey. The Punjab community is very big there and the South Indian community and people who love hockey, their kids are coming in a big way.

“There is not much difference culturally. Both are great democracies. But you cannot deal with them like you deal with Indian kids. When you are dealing with individuals, you have to deal very precisely and articulately. You cannot be a disciplinarian like you are in India because the numbers are less.

“It’s a player-driven pathway. The coaches give ideas, players drive themselves. I think that’s why they have the maximum number of medals in the Olympics. It’s because of the athlete-driven culture. Even in other sports, the coach gives an idea to the players but does not give an answer. The player will solve the problem and if he cannot do it then he will be given new ideas.”

For Harendra, coaching in the USA was a learning experience. “There are a lot of things to learn. The USA does a lot of things differently about Olympic sports. This experience I have got for the first time. It’s not just hockey, but how you prepare a team outside hockey, how all sports come to one platform and work with one vision, how to prepare the dashboard for the Olympics, the areas to fix before taking a vertical ladder. A lot of things sound philosophical but it’s the requirement of modern sports and maybe that’s why USA is atop the medals tally in every Olympics.

“I always wanted to learn this in the USA. In India we coaches are restricted to our own sports. We have to learn how to increase the limits and thinking process.”

Harendra, a former India coach, listed his targets. “Short-term target was related to the JWC… USA has never played in a senior World Cup and that’s one of the short term targets. Long term target is to qualify for the Paris Olympics because when you qualify for the Olympics, your funding, mileage and sponsorship increases.”

On the current junior team, which suffered some big losses, Harendra said, “It’s not that USA hockey will do wonders in six months, but definitely we can close the gap. As a mentor I tell them how to close the gap. We will try to prepare the team for 2028. We would like to give them a pathway.”

Harendra, who guided the Indian side to title win in the previous edition of the Junior World Cup in Lucknow in 2016, had high hopes from the current home team.

“The team has got a lot of depth. I think the Indian team is capable of playing in the final. I had the privilege that we could play a lot of practice matches and gather experience before the tournament. Unfortunately, there is a lack of match practice and it’s the same for all teams. Our team’s fitness is good and understanding is good. I hope they will regain the 2016 title.

“There is a big difference when you play your own team and international teams. That gap was visible. If France scored two goals on counters (in the first match), it’s not about the skills, it’s about the mindset. That put pressure and then the target changed from winning to reducing the margin. That happens when you have less experience. But this team has coordination. The Indian team did not give up till the last minute. That’s one of the best things. That’s what is required at the World Cup.

“With a quarterfinals format, we should not read too much into the results of pool matches. You just have to qualify for the quarterfinals, the actual tournament starts from the quarterfinals. You win two matches, you are in the final. Graham Reid is a seasoned coach and he will fix the small areas and we will come out with the right combination,” said Harendra with a lot of hope.