The Naval Tata Hockey Academy aims to bring Jharkhand’s grassroots hockey talent, and India’s past glory in the game, on to the global stage

It began with a simple thought. When India’s first steel plant was being set up in Jamshedpur over a century ago, Tata group Founder Jamsetji Tata, in a letter to his son Dorabji, advised him to “reserve large areas for football, hockey and parks….” Over the years, Tata Steel set up the Tata Football Academy, Tata Archery Academy and Tata Athletic Academy. Hockey was the only sport for which nothing substantial materialised.

A serendipitous meeting last year between the Tata Trusts and Dutch hockey legend Floris Jan Bovelander set the stage for the establishment of the Naval Tata Hockey Academy in Jamshedpur, a joint effort on the part of the Trusts and Tata Steel to groom the next international hockey stars from Jharkhand.

Both organisations were keen on promoting the game. Tata Trusts had been running a successful education programme in schools in Khunti district of Jharkhand, whereas Tata Steel had created infrastructure for football in Jamshedpur, and was able to transpose its experience to the game of hockey.

The chance meeting set the ball rolling. Joining hands with the Bovelander Hockey Academy paved the way to achieving the Founder’s vision for hockey development in Jamshedpur and bringing Jharkhand back onto the international hockey map.

The academy, which heralds a huge milestone for hockey in India, has been named after Naval Tata, former president of the Indian Hockey Federation, who was passionate about hockey promotion in India.

HOCKEY IN THEIR BLOOD

Jharkhand was the ideal place to kick off the hockey programme, as its tribal population brings a natural talent to the sport. “Some of the best Indian hockey players are found in Jharkhand,” says Sunil Bhaskaran, vice president, corporate services, Tata Steel. The tribal youth of Jharkhand instinctively take to the game, playing with bamboo sticks and makeshift balls to counter the lack of a proper kit.

In Khunti, Tata Trusts had been running several programmes in rural livelihood development, education, agriculture and water. “We saw the need for holistic development of the tribal children. Sports, as a way to achieve holistic development, is extremely effective,” says Khorshed Talati, regional manager and anchor, Naval Tata Hockey Academy, Tata Trusts.

According to Ms Talati, Jharkhand and Indian hockey have a long history together: “There was a time when Indian hockey was well represented by people from Jharkhand. The captain of the first Indian hockey team to win an Olympic medal, Jaipal Singh Munda, was from this region.”

Over the years, however, the number of hockey players emerging from Jharkhand has diminished sharply. Today, Jharkhand ranks among the states with the lowest per capita income in India. Players from poor families are physically weak and undernourished, resulting in a lack of stamina. This affects their confidence. Faced with stronger teams, they burn out over the course of 60 minutes, and end up conceding goals to the opposing team.

The Naval Tata Hockey Academy endeavours to train and develop Olympic champions and bring back the glory days of Indian hockey by reviving the game at the grassroots level

Another factor is age. While their counterparts in the West get into the game at the age of seven or eight, Jharkhand’s children don’t start until they are in their mid- or late-teens, missing out on years of practice. Since their families cannot afford to buy shoes, they play barefoot on grassy and pebbled ground, often injuring themselves. When they get to play on a synthetic hockey turf where the ball moves much faster, they realise that their skills, honed on local grounds, are inadequate for international surfaces. By then, it is too late to adapt to a high-speed game.

For Jharkhand’s natural talent to shine at the national and international level, the players need early intervention in the form of better nutrition, professional training and education.

THE RIGHT OPPORTUNITY

All these factors are being taken into consideration at the new academy to give these children a level playing field. Although the infrastructure is still a work-in-progress, the engagement with players has begun. The first batch of 26 young boys, aged 14 -16 years, has been handpicked by trained scouts out of more than 4,000 youngsters.

Under Mr Bovelander and his team of former Dutch players (which includes Olympic players), the boys are learning the skills and strategies that catapult European teams to victory. This vital competitive advantage could well be the game changer in their lives and their onfield performance.

While the players learn the nuances of European hockey, it is essential that they are able to mix the best of the European style of hockey with the Indian style of playing. The academy brought in Sandeep Singh, Indian hockey legend and a former captain of the Indian hockey team, to coach the youngsters on Indian play techniques. Mr Singh has expressed his desire to be a part of the academy’s aspirational story even at the grassroots level.

Mr Singh’s presence has brought in an unexpected benefit. Inspired by his persona and body language, the players, shy and inhibited when they entered the academy, have begun to exude more confidence after being coached by him. Ms Talati says, “Often good players feel intimidated when they compete with foreign players, who are tall and well built. Our kids need to learn to be aggressive and play hard.”

A proper nutrition plan ensures that the players’ specialised dietary requirements are met every day. Additionally, a mental trainer works with the players to improve their soft skills and make them psychologically stronger and comfortable in social settings. These inputs include training on social etiquette. “When they first came here, the boys were not confident of speaking. In just a month, they are confident enough to raise their hands and speak in public,” says Ms Talati.

The academy plans to transform the players into well-rounded personalities who can take control of their lives. Since the national team can only absorb a few, it is imperative that these players become strong individuals who are capable of tackling whatever the future might hold.

While training in hockey is the core, the academy does not neglect formal education. Academy students have been enrolled with the National Open School Scheme; special tutors have been appointed to guide them in their school studies and improve their English-speaking skills. The daily routine at the academy allows sufficient time for meals, play sessions on the turf, study and leisure.

The parents of the 26 boys know the significance of having their sons receive quality education combined with global technical expertise on hockey. They acknowledge that this is a great opportunity for their children, a road out of poverty. Having visited Jamshedpur, they have seen the advantages being made available to their children. The boys, most of who grew up in homes without electricity, now live in air-conditioned dormitories and have access to clean water, nutritious food and hot water for bathing. They have been given jerseys, a special uniform and a proper hockey kit.

HOPES FOR THE NATION

The first batch of students will receive specialised coaching for four years. Every two years, the academy will enroll 26 new students till it reaches its full capacity of 104. Once they complete their training, the youngsters will test their mettle in the district-level, state-level, national and international leagues and tournaments.

But the Tata group’s dreams are even bigger. Ms Talati says, “We hope that one day players from the Naval Tata Hockey Academy will represent India at the Olympics and at the World Cup. Beyond that, we are also looking to strengthen hockey at the grassroots level. In doing so, we would not only be bringing back the glory days of Indian hockey, but also reviving it in Jharkhand by giving young children opportunities they never imagined having.”

There are plans for a women’s hockey team in the future, though it may prove to be a different challenge. Says Ms Talati: “In most communities, girls have more household duties and, consequently, less time for play than boys in the family. Hopefully, the success of the students here will inspire parents to encourage their daughters to pursue the game.”

Tata Trusts and Tata Steel are also working together to create regional development centres — district-level support facilities that will allow more aspirants from Jharkhand to explore their passion for the game. The first centre will be set up in Khunti district and will bridge the gap between the grassroots level and the academy.

“Our goal here is to provide the top 100 players from the grassroots level access to high-performance coaching and better nutrition at the district level,” says Ms Talati. “The Sports Department has permitted use of the artificial turf in Khunti district as a training ground. We plan to bring in additional facilities to make this ground more suitable for regular play. Twenty-six of the top hundred players from each centre will then be admitted to the academy.”

The less-than-a-year-old Naval Tata Hockey Academy is nurturing a hockey culture that was barely evident earlier. The initiative by Tata Trusts and Tata Steel has not only transformed the lives of the players but also that of the master trainers. These are former players who have been motivated to take up hockey training and coaching as a career. They have been trained in a specific coaching model and are assigned to train students at the grassroots and at the regional development centre.

A special group consisting of eight high-performance master trainers received further training. Three of them now work as assistant coaches at the academy. For all of them, the association with the academy, and getting assimilated into the Tata culture, has been a rewarding experience.

Ms Talati says, “It is the wonderful collaboration between Tata Steel and Tata Trusts that has succeeded in creating this infrastructure within just a year. Both organisations are completely aligned on their vision for the players and for the academy.”

The Naval Tata Hockey Academy is re-writing the destinies of hockey players in Jharkhand. Hockey is all set to be the nation’s pride again.

— Cynthia Rodrigues