Coach Diaries: Tale of former India hockey coaches who left the job, country on bitter note

Mihir Vasavda speaks to four of Paul van Ass’ predecessors about the fears and frustrations of the India job.

Written by Mihir Vasavda | Updated: July 26, 2015 9:16:27 am

Paul van Ass, Hockey India coach, Jose Brasa, Michael Nobbs, Ric Charlseworth, Terry Walsh, Paul van Ass predecessors, Hockey news, Sports news More foreign coaches have come and gone in Indian hockey than Von Trapp nannies minding the brats in Sound of Music.

‘I was treated like a monkey; administrators have no knowledge’

Jose Brasa, Chief coach (2009 to 2010)

Paul van Ass, Hockey India coach, Jose Brasa, Michael Nobbs, Ric Charlseworth, Terry Walsh, Paul van Ass predecessors, Hockey news, Sports news

Days before I was officially appointed as the coach in 2009, I rang up Ric Charlesworth to find out how it was to work in India. He said to me: “Please, please, please don’t go there. Within a month, you will be angry and frustrated.” I noted his point but did not let it influence my decision.

As it would eventually turn out, Ric was spot on. In my short stint in India, I was treated like a monkey. Sports Authority of India (SAI) and Hockey India thought they knew more about the sport than coaches and the players. They still continue to feel they know everything. Together, they pulled the strings and made us dance to their tunes.

Letting Paul van Ass go is a big mistake. He is a wonderful coach and has done really good things in his short stint in India. Hockey India may get a coach who will obey their orders, but if van Ass goes now, it will be difficult for them to find a coach with a strong personality and wisdom.

If anyone, it is the president Narinder Batra who should go. I believe he lacks basic respect for people and is not a good manager. I remember when the players went on strike before the World Cup in 2010, he did not handle the situation well at all. Instead of understanding plight of the players, he punished them for their conduct. Players were fighting for their rights. They had not been paid for two, three years. How could anybody do that! Even today, coaches who dare to raise their voice against the system are sacked without any reason. It’s not just Hockey India. The Sports Authority of India (SAI) too is equally clueless. Prabir Krishna, who was one of the leading SAI officials back then, made life very difficult for me.

They tried to remove me from my job. Since they did not have a good enough reason, they played dirty games. First, they stopped giving me leaves so I could not visit my home in Spain. Then, they did not allow me to attend an International Hockey Federation coaching course, where I was an instructor. The federation had invited me but still the officials did not allow me. Then, they started paying only half my salary.

It was torturous but the only thing that kept me going was the players. They are the real diamonds of Indian hockey and keep it shining. But with so many hurdles for foreign coaches, it becomes very difficult for us to function in an efficient manner. And in India, the administrators are killing the game.

Hockey India chief Narinder Batra retorts:

I was barely a couple of months into the job as HI secretary when Jose Brasa was fired. He had been having issues for a long time and I had to be the messenger. From what I could gather, there was evidence against him which indicated that he used to tell players to buy equipment from a firm in Spain. It did not make sense because there are other better manufacturers.  I wasn’t even involved when he was appointed the coach. Someone had to tell him he was being sacked and being the secretary, it was my duty.

***

‘There is no problem with administrators, it is the players’ attitude that needs to change’

Michael Nobbs, Chief coach (2011-2013)

Paul van Ass, Hockey India coach, Jose Brasa, Michael Nobbs, Ric Charlseworth, Terry Walsh, Paul van Ass predecessors, Hockey news, Sports news

I must admit, while I was the coach of Indian team, I passed out on several occasions, once during a tournament in Holland. My blood pressure had shot up and it took me nearly six months after I quit to recover fully.

It’s the most high-pressure job in international hockey. Because everyone is so invested emotionally in it. And as a foreign coach coming into the set-up, you need to realise that first.

We tend to adopt a very practical approach to everything — be it demanding facilities, dealing with administrators or interacting with players.

But pragmatism needs to be balanced well with humour and emotional attachment if a coach wants to succeed in India.

A lot of fingers have been pointed towards Mr Batra and Hockey India during the Paul van Ass episode. And I am extremely surprised why. I feel Mr Batra is the best man to run Indian hockey.

He understands what needs to be done and how it needs to be done. Sometimes, he does things which are perceived to be arrogant and authoritarian. But it’s more emotional than anything.

When I was there, there were some hurdles, but those issues exist everywhere and you should know how to handle them. Coaches need to realise that they have to achieve a lot more in India in a limited budget. Terry Walsh had no financial hurdles in USA and Paul did not have to worry about it in Holland. But the pressure of delivering results in limited facilities was always going to be tough.

And in focussing only on the coach-versus-administration issue, we miss the overall picture. Most Indian players are extremely skilful and willing to do anything for the team. But there are many who play just to secure their spot in the team. They do not care about the team’s results. I have faced such issues myself.

The players, though priceless, need to change their attitude. Eventually, it’s they who will change the face of Indian hockey. Not administrators or coaches.

Hockey India chief Narinder Batra retorts:

We shared a very cordial relationship. He had to leave because he was unwell. There was nothing else to it. We are still in touch.

***

‘India has been making progress but they keep chopping and changing’

Ric Charlesworth, (Technical Director – 2008)

Paul van Ass, Hockey India coach, Jose Brasa, Michael Nobbs, Ric Charlseworth, Terry Walsh, Paul van Ass predecessors, Hockey news, Sports news

It was a leap into the unknown for both parties back then. I had never been to India as a coach before so had absolutely no idea what to expect. At the same time, my employers had never before brought in a technical director so they too did not know what to expect.

It got worse when (IHF president) KPS Gill and (secretary) K Jyothikumaran were sacked. There was no direction and leadership after that.

Things have improved now. In Narinder Batra, you have a strong leader. But he should let the coach do his job. India have made a lot of progress. Right now, the team is ranked eighth in the world. Four years later, you will be in contention for medals. But the chopping and changing of coaches needs to stop. It’s a disturbing trend that even when the top leadership has changed, the policy of hiring and firing coaches has continued.

Jose Brasa, who came to India after me, did a good job. Michael Nobbs did a good job. Terry Walsh did a very good job and Paul van Ass did not stay long enough to do anything. You need a long tenure as a coach, not just one year or five months. It’s a long process, you need to give the coach at least four years and make him lead the programme.

Even during my time as the coach of the Mumbai team in Hockey India League, the owners interfered in a lot of things. People in power need to show trust in the coach and allow him to run the programme. It has also affected the overall programme. The development plan for juniors is affected. The HIL provides that option, it gives youngsters a chance to interact with top international players. But the programme below that is a worry. Look at India’s performance in the last junior World Cup!

Things are improving in India and there are still opportunities galore. Many foreign coaches see India as the home of the game. So they see it as an exciting opportunity. The players are extremely skilled and it’s great to work with them. You still have Roelant Oltmans. He is a capable person and very knowledgeable. He is the right person to take over. He knows the players and knows what is there.

But for the long-term betterment of the sport in India, this chop-and-change policy needs to change.

# Batra wasn’t in charge when Charlesworth was around.

***

‘Case of ego prevailing over general common sense’

Terry Walsh, (Chief coach, 2013 to 2014)

Paul van Ass, Hockey India coach, Jose Brasa, Michael Nobbs, Ric Charlseworth, Terry Walsh, Paul van Ass predecessors, Hockey news, Sports news

The key to success in any field is to be aware of what’s going on globally. Hockey India and Sports Authority of India, sadly, are not. They are completely out of sync, not just between them and what their objective is, but also to the demands of modern hockey.

After Paul van Ass was appointed as my successor, I thought it was a good decision by the federation because at the moment, he is one of the best guys in the business. To see him leave India just after five months into the job is saddening. I do not know what happened between him and Narinder Batra. However, having experienced the Indian sporting bureaucracy myself, I can take a wild guess. And I know I won’t be a hundred percent wrong in assuming that Paul is a victim here. I am not suggesting that Paul or myself are best suited for the job. There are many others who can do it better than me. But Hockey India needs to give a better account of themselves. They need to take a long, hard look at what they are doing and how they are doing it. And hopefully after that, they’ll realise what’s happening is inappropriate.

During my stay in India, I tried my best in getting a better protocol, streamline the structure that at present is so haphazard. Let me make it clear, I wasn’t asking anything for myself. All I did was to establish a greater say for high performance director Roelant Oltmans. He is the man responsible for the sport side of Hockey India and needs to be empowered. At least that’s what I felt. Unfortunately, Hockey India and Sports Authority of India did not agree with me.

It’s a case of some people’s ego prevailing over general common sense. Even though I wasn’t present there, I saw India play at the Hockey World League in Belgium and felt very disappointed. They’ve lost quite a bit of ground and I can’t blame the players because they’ve been pushed through a series of cultural changes with so many coaches in and out. Brasa brought in European knowledge and tried to club it with the Asian style. Nobbs succeeded him and he spent a lot of time doing nothing. Then, I mixed the Australian and Asian style. Now, Van Ass brought in the European model again. Consequently, Indian hockey is deteriorating with each passing month.  The administrators claim they have the best interest of the sport in mind. But they need to back their actions as well.

Hockey India chief Narinder Batra retorts:

I don’t understand why do we adopt such double standards. If an Indian is caught in financial fraud, we are over-eager to lynch him. Just because he is a foreigner does not mean he is innocent. I found out pretty late that he was involved in financial misappropriation in USA. We asked for an explanation from him which he did not have. How can we have such a person in charge of the team?

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