Sportstar Archives: Balbir Singh Sr – The coach who loved his team like family

Balbir Singh Sr was always brilliant a tactician and manager who took up the challenge of coaching the Indian hockey team during a tough period.

Balbir Singh Sr always knew how to motivate his wards as he led the Indian team to its maiden World Cup win in 1975.   -  N. Srinivasan

“Many people have asked me why I have taken up this job at this time and that too with a weak team.” Balbir Singh's answer to this is a counter question: “Do you desert your own children just because they are weak?" The chief coach of the Indian hockey team needs no introduction. The very name inspires awe and respect not only among his trainees, but the assistant coaches as well. As Balbir himself put it during a chat with The Sportstar prior to the national team's departure for Dubai: "Even they (pointing towards assistant coach Balbir Singh (jr) and junior team's assistant coach Vinod Kumar) are like my children, not to speak of these boys (gesturing towards skipper Surinder Singh Sodhi and winger Charanjit Kumar)."
India is trying to redeem itself after being badly bruised in the World and Asia cups. Remember 1975 and Kuala Lumpur. Balbir was there as the manager when Ajitpal Singh cuddled the World Cup for the only time by an Indian skipper. Balbir knows that he has an arduous task ahead, that of preparing the team for the Asiad, that of regaining the rightful place for hockey in the country's sports arena.
"Hockey has to be popularised. The hockey player has to gain the same kind of recognition as, say, a Test cricketer. He has to gain in stature. I know why the public is gradually losing interest in the game. It is only because of our setbacks. We have to earn back their confidence, their interest." Balbir said.
From the day he took over as the chief coach, Balbir has been busy on and off the field. His initial job was to instill a sense of togetherness in the team.
"I told the boys that we are Indians, that there should be no feeling of being a Maharashtrian or a Punjabi."

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To bring the players closer the chief coach grouped them in alphabetical order, for sharing the rooms and even while travelling. The idea is to discourage players coming from particular region or belonging to particular religion bunching themselves together. The alphabetical grouping gives ample opportunities for new friendships to develop and also to do away with any kind of 'seniority business.'
Both at Patiala and Delhi, Balbir took his boys to all the places of worship gurudwaras, temples, mosques and churches. "It was not merely to seek the blessings of God to help us win. God helps those who help themselves. He is with us always. I wanted to let the boys feel that we are one, no matter which religion we belong to."
On the field also the players gave everything they had, despite the strain of practising on astro-turf. The chief coach was frank enough in assessing his team.
"Weakness is there, in all departments. They lack the killer instinct. I don't have much time to infuse that instinct the way I would like. But I will do my best. The rest is, well, after all it's a game..."

Team spirit

Question: Balbir, what do you think of this idea of having specialist coaches for different positions?
Answer: It is a team game: everything is interconnected. There is scope for individual coaching in goalkeeping (looking at Desamuthu), but not at other positions. After all, when this new rule on penalty corners come, almost everybody will be like a forward.
I don't expect the half-line or the full back coach to give instructions separately. That's not my idea. We sit together and discuss various points: Not only we coaches but other knowledgeable and experienced old-timers also. I would welcome suggestions from others, too. But on the field so many of us can't be training the boys. It is good to have more people to help me. But not different ideas to be told to the boys.

Then why this idea of specialised coaching...?
It is okay so long as it is the way I have explained, that is, we sit together and discuss and evolve the programme and act accordingly.

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This new rule on penalty-corners, will it be disadvantageous?
I think it is good for the game. Doesn't it look too dangerous with the present handstopping and hitting?

The emphasis will be on more field goals then?
That's what hockey should be, but then, it should not be too difficult to master penalty corner conversion with the new rules (that is, stopping the ball with the stick). With practice you can perfect anything.

Marked improvement

Balbir felt that the players had shown improvement on astro-turf during the short period they were in Delhi before leaving for Dubai. "They will take more time, they have to get adjusted to the speed and bounce. But you surely would have noticed the difference from the first day to the, last match. They have been combining better and better. More training on taking penalty corners and penalty strokes on astro-turf is also needed. But then, after September we will be playing under the new rules for penalty corners." Finishing is the major point Balbir is concerned about. "They move well up to the circle, but at the last moment, that all-important second...yes, we have to improve a lot in finishing."

Have you finalised your line-up?
It all depends from match to match as we build our team, the performance at Dubai, Champions Trophy, other matches.

No, not that. I was referring to the shirting of players from forward line to half-line. For example, Sodhi playing at centre half and left half.
I believe in players being able to function at more than one position. Sodhi was tried at centre half because he was playing well in that position. I didn't know this earlier. But at school he was the centre half of his team. He is able to play equally well at centre forward and inside left positions. And an inside left can naturally be made a good left half. But as I said earlier, it all depends on how well the team plays in tournaments before we finalise the line-up.

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The chief coach brushed aside murmurs about players being taught the basics. "They know how to play hockey. But what about skills? You have to perfect skills by practice only. The players have to perfect their trapping, how they hit the ball into the 'D,' how they direct their shots, how to run with the ball or without the ball and position themselves for receiving a pass. There are so many things. These are to be perfected by constant practice. It is easy to say 'I know how to play hockey.' You have to perfect the basic skills also."
On this count, Balbir Singh noted with satisfaction that his boys were disciplined and willing to learn and work hard. "Look at Carvalho. I knew he was tired after playing so long on astro-turf. But he wouldn't agree. He wanted to go on and on. And Somaiya. He needs a football field to run. He has got so much energy."
Balbir could well produce a small miracle out of such spirit.

(The interview was published in The Sportstar Magazine dated 05/06/1982)

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