‘Indians playing at full speed scoring lots of goals is just a sight to see’

In this Walk the Talk on NDTV 24x7 with The Indian Express Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta,National hockey coach Michael Nobbs says sticking to the 5-3-2-1 system and improved fitness standards are the key to India’s revival

Written by Shekhar Gupta | Published: February 23, 2012 1:01:01 am

In this Walk the Talk on NDTV 24×7 with The Indian Express Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta,National hockey coach Michael Nobbs says sticking to the 5-3-2-1 system and improved fitness standards are the key to India’s revival

Hello and welcome to Walk The Talk. I am Shekhar Gupta and my guest this week is a man who has one of the toughest jobs in India,in fact in the world,if you talk of the world of sport… Michael Nobbs,the Indian hockey coach… for a full five years. That’s not the kind of time we give our governments in this country. Welcome to Walk the Talk.

Thank you very much.

Good to see you having this big smile on your face.

Look,to go there and coach a bunch of great kids and hopefully get to the Olympic Games and do great things. We are all passionate about hockey,why wouldn’t you smile? It’s great.

You are from a hockey family,a family of hockey nerds in fact.

Yes. My wife is an Olympic medallist. Her sister is an Olympic medallist. Their mother is an Australian hockey player. Their aunty is an Australian hockey player. My brother-in-law Mark Hager is the coach of the New Zealand national hockey team. A cousin is an Olympic baseballer. My daughter plays hockey and my oldest daughter is a figure skater for Australia.

And talk about yourself then…

I have played hockey for Australia at Olympics.

Centre half of the great Australian hockey,one of the greatest,at least in my memory.

You are very kind.

It was a dream team. You,Charlesworth,Craig Davies,Peter Haselhurst… names come to me now… a whole bunch of them…

We had almost 80 games in a row without a loss… until that one fateful day in the Olympic Games…

And you carried the jinx with you somehow…

Yes,the monkey on the back for many years.

Once you got rid of it,the monkey’s been in the zoo

Yes and it was really interesting because everybody in Australia has been supporting us,up until that time when we won the Olympics… every single hockey player has helped the team at that point to win the Olympic games. It’s been brilliant.

And once you broke the jinx as I said you haven’t looked back. In the same complex we have seen your team,now I’ll say your former team,thrash us in the Commonwealth Games…

They did. It hurts. But sometimes you have to have a little bit of pain to get a bit of the gain,but I am hoping to repay that back to them at some point in time.

You played centre half and in the game of hockey,centre half is the most big hearted and the least selfish position…


Good training for a coach.

It is because you got to learn to control the game and to win it,you have got to control the players around.

What does it teach you as a coach?

It’s funny,you know. When I was coaching a club team,this Indian chap called Trevor Vanderputt,he was playing for Calcutta Rangers,came up to me and said ‘would you like to be a good coach?’ I said ‘I am a good coach. I am an Australian player and I am a good coach.’ He said ‘well why are you sitting at the bottom of the table?’ and I said maybe I am not such a good coach and he took me under his wings and he employed me for a number of years. I learnt to be a good coach and for that you just have to spend the time and the sacrifice learning what it takes to be a coach.

But Michael,brave of you to come to India as a coach because not only is Indian hockey in the dumps,it is also controversial.

Everybody around the world says for hockey to be great we need India to be great. As I said in my presentation to the Government of India,it was a quote,that Indians playing at full speed scoring lots of goals is just a sight to see.

Australia in so many ways plays the subcontinental style..

You taught us. We have had so many Indians come to Australia in the late 50s,early 60s. Many of them migrated to Australia and the style we play in Australia now is an Indian style.

Very attacking…

Very attacking. Look it’s got an Australian flavour because we had to learn to counter some of the European style of play. But it is an Indian style,we teach it in our schools.

So how do you play the Indian style which has lots of forwards,short passing and yet counter the European style of play which is long passing,hit and run and packed defence?

The game is now about transition. You are going into three transition phases: from defence to mid field to attack very quickly. So as soon as the defence looks like they are getting the ball,the forwards are already in a position to attack. So we trust our defence and then we get it to the attackers as quickly as we can. We have this saying,we want to score four goals in a game because you’ve got to hit more than three. Because,one: there will be a good goal scored by the opposition; second: we’ll make a mistake and one will go in and the third one will be a bad umpiring decision. So if we score four goals we should win most games and you’ll find if you watched the Champions Trophy,the English and Spanish teams,they all said they are now playing an attacking style of hockey. They are going away from the traditionally European style because Australia,the number one team,trounces all of them by four or five goals.

Hockey has become very fast given artificial turf,the new rules which have reduced whistling a great deal,and a small ground,22 players,a small fast ball and graphite sticks… It’s a very fast game now.

It suits the Indian style of play.

There’s been a myth that rule change,surface change were some kind of a conspiracy against the Indian style of playing.

No. What happened was around 1982,Australia developed the Australian Institute of Sport and brought in a lot of sports physiology,exercise,sport science,nutrition and it then took the players a step above just playing hockey and running around like athletes. They are trained in every way to perform and India didn’t do it.

Hockey’s become faster like tennis,even cricket…cricket’s become much faster… with the helmets…

Look at the players’ physiques now,Matthew Hayden and guys like that are real athletes now. It’s no longer the skinny little kid in front of the wicket. One of the things we found with the Indian players is they are 7-10 kilos lighter than their European counterparts. That’s an area we have to work on,to be physically stronger. We are fast,we are fit now but we still have some way to go,to get as strong physically.

You have also got a biomechanics and a metabolism guy with you…

Yes. David John has been doing an excellent job. It’s hard putting on weight. We can do it at our age but getting the weight on the athletes is not so easy.

But did you find a metabolic issue with the Indian players’ agility?

Yes,we did. When I first came,I said look,we have very poor goalkeepers in this country. They just weren’t up to standard.

We always curse our goalkeepers.

But it turned out,it was just primarily a nutrition problem. Once we changed their diet,their reflexes and muscle mass improved dramatically, and they are doing a terrific job now.

So just explain what is the problem with the goalkeeper’s diet? Why should a goalkeeper have a different diet from a centre-forward?

In very simple terms,when you have excess glucose in your system which is carbohydrate that turns to glucose,basically you lose 40% of your eyesight and hand-eye coordination and reflexes. Insulin gets produced to get rid of the glucose in your systems because glucose in your bloodstream is very dangerous. So by burning fat you produce twice as much energy as you do by burning glucose. By changing the diet slightly we don’t have insulin produced,we don’t have excess glucose,so the hand-eye coordination improved dramatically.

So what’s your diagnosis about the health of Indian hockey in general?

We want to build from the base. With the 40-odd we have got,we can fill two competitive teams. What we want to do is take that to the next level and get one of our teams right up to the top echelons of world hockey again. So,the Government of India,the Sports Authority of India have been brilliant in supporting the programme,not just of this group here,but our junior programme as well,so we are building up the base of athletes…

But are they being patient?

Yes. Terrific. Really really good.

You haven’t given any KRAs,as they say… Gold Medal at London…

No… no I’ve said to them within five years we will be standing on the dais. I said to them that my goal in five years is that I am not the coach but sitting up in the stands having taught and trained a bunch of Indian coaches and they are playing the gold medal match. That’s my ambition,to see India back up there again.

Are you patient?

Absolutely. Very patient,very patient.

How much work is to be done? What are the strengths and why are you so encouraged?

The strength is the passion. Everybody wants India to do well. The Government has given us all the resources we need. Miracles don’t occur every day,we just need the time to do it.

And the talent?

The talent is here. The talent pool is huge in India. Huge. I went to the junior championships in Pune and we have talent oozing out. But they are all chicken-legged scrawny kids. We need to give them the resources to make them real athletes and champions…

You played against the Indian team in 1984…

Yes,everyone loves and hates to play India because they are just so tough. In my day,when you walked off a field,it was a war,not just a pleasant game on a Sunday afternoon. You knew you were in for the fight of your life.

You played against good forwards…Lezlie Fernandes,Zafar Iqbal,Mohammed Shahid…

They were skilful,they used to drive us nuts,they were that clever,they had better individual skills,but we were probably physically tougher.

You had 11 who were at a certain level,Indian team always had one or two weaknesses…

What we have done is build the base of Australian hockey so that we have always had one or two teams that could represent us. Now we have two teams that could finish in the top four in the world comfortably. We are trying to do exactly the same thing here.

Where did Indian hockey lose its way?

The early 80s. Putting unrealistic expectations,thinking that every time an Indian team went on the field they could win and that wasn’t the case. The other nations too,and it was Australia first that developed the Australian Institute of Sport,and started to put a lot of science into the actual sport itself. That in turn made us stronger,faster,and if you add the skills we have learnt…

But tactially,did we get something wrong? Did we start aping the wrong team or the wrong style?

Tactically,yes. We decided we were going to play the same as we were playing on grass and unfortunately on the turf you can’t do that and the rules changed as well. It would have benefited India had they taken advantage of those rules but they didn’t. They kept playing the same way.

Such as?

The playing-on rule we have got now because we have such an attacking style,it doesn’t benefit the Europeans,it certainly benefits any team that attacks.

Absolutely yes,because your attack is not broken then…

Exactly. That was one major rule. The other thing is the offside rule.

Yes,because the Indians tend to turn…

Tend to turn… if we would have worked the offside rule better… the other thing is that the Indians were a bit lazy,they didn’t have the fitness levels that we had in Australia,and so they couldn’t last a game.

So Indians did adapt the European style for some time and it was a mistake…

It was a mistake to do that and results have shown that as well…

Why is it a mistake?

When I was brought up,we learnt 5-3-2-1…

Right…that’s the sub-continental style

and our players are still taught 5-3-2-1…

I still remember it was always said that when India and Pakistan play,it is like cavalry going on an attack…

Absolutely. It’s beautiful. We’ve all learnt that as kids. All of a sudden,then,I’m going to say to our kids we want to teach you a 3-3-1 system or a 3-4-3 system…

Or a withdrawn forward or a sweeper back

If you are playing right half in a traditional Indian-Australian system,you know what’s dangerous and what’s not. So you know where to run,you know what positions exposed you and the rest of it. Suddenly I throw you into a European system,it takes an awful long time to learn,which is not instinctive. That time to learn is very difficult at the international level. If you have to think about how you are playing it can be disastrous. So the system has to be inbuilt.

…and that’s what happened…

That’s exactly what’s happened. We’ve tried it in Australia. We had some coaches teach European-style hockey. It had two effects: they never won,and secondly,the players in the European system never got a chance to play in the higher levels. We lost a lot of talent because they couldn’t go back to 5-3-2-1. It’s just not possible.

I suppose it happened because people got paranoid that you had too many up front and you were conceding too many goals…

And that was the case. It was probably fitness,probably tactics,and a few things like that…

Forwards not willing to come back too…

Forwards never came back. They stayed out there looking for glory.

Are you now persuading them to come back?

You look at our centre forwards like Shivender and Chandi,they are probably the hardest workers in the team. We use an interchange system. No player plays more than between 7 and 9 minutes and based on their fitness,we have a schedule of shifting players in and out of the team. So we have to have 16 players of equal ability.

The other chronic Indian problem always was keeping the ball… dazzling the crowds with stick work…

That’s a fitness problem as well. As soon as you lose your fitness and the legs go,your brain goes and then you lose control of the ball. When our players work on the field they play at their 100% for 7 and 9 minutes and then they go and rest.

So what’s the biggest challenge you face now when you deal with this team? Obviously enormously talented all these boys…

The biggest challenge is trying that they learn the style quickly enough and hold it together and nothing goes wrong for the Qualifiers…

Is there something that you keep telling them and they don’t get it?

Yes. Five yards on either side of the 25-yard line,don’t lose the ball. Don’t make a mistake. Every time you lose the ball in that area the opposition run down and have a shot at the goal or get a penalty corner. It is the one rule,they do an awful lot of running and if you break that rule four or five times in a half,you get tired and concede goals. That’s the one thing that drives me crazy.

Is there anything that these Indian boys are teaching you?

They’re teaching me that curry disagrees with me if I eat too much of it.

So let me ask you the most feared question,but I can’t help it,you see us qualify for the Olympics?

Yes. With a caveat,though,provided nothing goes wrong,bad umpiring or we fall in a hole. We have done everything we possibly can to prepare…

You’ve got the bit of a sardar in you. You keep smiling all the time…

Why wouldn’t you? You love the game. We are crazy people about hockey…

That’s what Indian hockey needs… a tough Aussie with a big heart,a centre half heart… optimism and a smile on his face.

Thank you very much.

Transcribed by L Ramakrishnan

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