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Unsung Heroes: Bengaluru hockey coach helping underprivileged children dream big

Around 10 players from the Jude Felix Hockey Academy have represented Karnataka in nationals as well as all-India tournaments and played for reputed teams like Canara Bank.

Hockey coach Shanmugham P, (second from right), with Jude Felix (second from left) during a visit to JFHA by Dutch coaches from the Bovelander Hockey Academy. (Express/sourced)

In 2019, a young hockey player who emerged from a hostel for underprivileged children in east Bengaluru made his way to the European Hockey League to play for the Racing Club in France.

The 20-year-old Rajendra M, who grew up in the St Mary’s Orphanage at Cooke Town in Bengaluru, was discovered by a hockey coaching programme for underprivileged children that the Jude Felix Hockey Academy began running at the orphanage grounds in 2008 as part of efforts to nurture hockey talent at the grassroots and provide the lives of underprivileged children a direction through sport.

Rajendra M (centre) played for the Racing Club France in 2019 in the European Hockey League. (Express/sourced)

“We have tried to give them the hope that even if they have come from an underprivileged background like an orphanage they can dream big,” said former India hockey player and coach Shanmugham P, 48, an honorary secretary and trustee of the Jude Felix Hockey Academy.

While former India international Jude Felix, a well-known hockey star and coach, has been the face of the academy, his comrade and fellow hockey lover Shanmugham has been working behind the scenes to transform the academy into a nursery for hockey talent in Bengaluru.

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Since it began in 2008 in the humble mud pit of a ground at the St Mary’s Orphanage in east Bengaluru, Felix, Shanmugham and several volunteers from the hockey fraternity in the Karnataka capital have worked against great odds to keep the academy running and to sustain their own interest in “nurturing life through hockey and other sports” – including two Covid years when activities received a setback.

The aim at the academy is to not just impart training in hockey but to provide life skills like discipline, dedication, teamwork and bonding to children from underprivileged homes—who would otherwise have very limited means for expanding their horizons.

Shanmugham P. (Express/sourced)

The St Mary’s Orphanage which houses children whose parents cannot look after them has been the home of the academy. The orphanage is linked to Maria Niketan School, where the students study till Class 10.

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“The connection was not just about hockey. We said that those who were in the programme had to do something apart from hockey. There is pressure on some kids to start earning and some kids want to continue education. We have supported kids like that,” academy trustee Shanmugham said.

“In 12 years (minus two Covid years), we have taken the sport to about 5,000 players. We have developed sports facilities for the St Mary’s Orphanage and Maria Niketan School. For nearly 2,000 children, we have laid the foundation for a sporting culture,” said Shanmugham.

Around 10 players from the academy have represented Karnataka in nationals as well as all-India tournaments and played for reputed teams like Canara Bank as guest players. “One of the biggest achievements was that a player from the orphanage, Rajendra, went on to play the European Hockey League – in 2018-19. We have always wanted to show children that you can play and be educated as well,” Shanmugham said.

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“There was another boy, Praveen Kumar, who was good in studies. He played for school and district teams but wanted to have a professional education. We helped him complete an engineering course and he now works for a software company,” the former player and hockey coach said.

“We produced good players continuously from 2008 to 2019. The St Mary’s Orphanage keeps children only till they reach Class 10. We went about retaining children who graduate from the school. We started helping them gain employment while they continue to play hockey,” Shanmugham said.

But the Covid period dealt a blow to the prospects of a few players groomed at the academy, he said.

“We feel sad that during the two years of Covid, there were several players who were about to get into state teams or find jobs. We were trying to enter into some tie-ups abroad. They missed out on all these opportunities,” Shanmugham said.

“We have seen sporting miracles happen at the JFHA. When we launched the academy in 2008, we did not have anything. We started programmes with children playing barefoot. We did not even have hockey sticks. Suddenly, an anonymous donor sent 100 hockey sticks to the orphanage. Funding and infrastructure remain big problems. We have no fixed income,” said the hockey coach.

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Shanmugham, who has been a hockey coach for over 20 years and is now an FIH level-3 coach, has moved into the role of running the academy to increase its footprint. “I feel good and satisfied when I do something for these children. The struggles and frustrations are there because nothing happens easily over here—that is our system,” he said.

“Helping children from the lower strata of society who have a brighter future is a worthy cause for me. This perspective has helped me stay in the course for a long time. This has become part and parcel of my life now,” said Shanmugham, who has a full-time day job with a bank.

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“There have been a lot of sacrifices, but there is also satisfaction in doing the work. We are not chasing money or anything like that. I have considered it like a journey,” he said.

Some new initiatives by the international hockey federation (FIH) to support the growth of hockey at the grassroots is offering Shanmugham some hope that running the academy will not mean a constant struggle. “The FIH has shown interest in the JFHA and hopefully something good will come through. They are looking at people working at developing hockey at the grassroots level,” Shanmugham said.

 

First published on: 13-08-2022 at 10:07:14 pm
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