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Home Football Developing future champions: Inside the high-performance centres of Bhubaneswar

Developing future champions: Inside the high-performance centres of Bhubaneswar

It was mid-November. The winter had just begun. Odisha was in the grip of the 2018 Hockey World Cup euphoria, celebrating the occasion of hosting the biggest sporting extravaganza ever held in the state. 

The talk of the state being a hub of sports of India had already been ringing for a while in national media, then, as if to further fortify its commitment to grassroots development of sports and games in Odisha, the state government announced the signing of a series of MoUs with several corporate houses of the country for the setting up of High-Performance Centres of excellence in the state. 

The MoUs were signed for developing 10 High-Performance Centres for excellence in sports, namely the Reliance Foundation HPC for athletics; the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Foundation in partnership with Dalmia Cement Ltd; the JSW Sports HPCs in swimming and football; another football HPC in association with the All India Football Federation (AIFF) and Odisha Industrial Infrastructure Development Corporation (IDCO)/Odisha Sports Development and Promotion Company (OSDPC); the KJS Ahluwalia Group and Tenvic Sports HPC for weightlifting; the Tata Steel and Tata Trusts HPC for hockey called the Naval Tata Hockey Academy (NTHA); the Abhinav Bindra Target Performance Centre in collaboration with Rungta Mines Ltd and Abhinav Futuristics Pvt Ltd; and a Centre of Excellence for Sports Management in joint alliance between Xavier-EMLYON Business School of France. The latter two being set up to cater to the other HPCs and sportspersons of the state. 

Earlier this year, as part of another MoU between the Odisha government and the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF), the Sport Climbing HPC at Kalinga Stadium Complex has also been launched where students from the local Sainik School and KISS regularly learn the nuances of the sport and further hone their skills. As the sport is part of the 2020 Olympics, its importance has now finally been recognised. 

Speaking about the state’s decision to collaborate with industries and eminent sports personalities for the HPCs, Mr. Vishal Dev, Sports Secretary, Odisha, said, “To give an additional impetus to the development of sports infrastructure and better facilities for sportspersons in Odisha, the state government had signed 10 MoUs last year with leading corporate houses and eminent sports personalities for different sporting disciplines. The Government wanted to establish the best sports facilities for nurturing the next generation of medal winners and sports achievers for the State and the Country. And with that view, the best set of experts from the sports fraternity were roped in as part of these MoUs to operate the HPCs. The corporates were able to put their weight behind our endeavour as part of their CSR spending and commitment to developing sports in the country. This paved the way for good partnerships to be formed for the setup of the HPCs.” 

As a government official put it, “The overall aim of the government is to promote sports. The government, thus, gave the proposal of HPCs and offered the infrastructure – land and other facilities to accomplished sportspersons and corporate houses, who were given the invitation to set up their HPCs here in the state.” 

Shedding further light on the genesis of the HPCs he said, “To begin an HPC, you have to bring a sports federation into the loop. The way it works is you identify the sports and the right stakeholders. Because sports progress is through competitions and competitions are governed by federations. Thus, at some point, you have to bring the federation into the loop. 

“We tried initially with the IAAF. But, no deal could be brokered. Later, we could manage with AIFF, for the setting up of the football HPC. Thereafter, since the government was determined to set up these performance enhancing centres, we were open to bi-party agreements with federations and also tri-party agreements involving sportspersons and private entities and we brought them together under one umbrella to start the HPCs.” 

“Thus, those who were ready to start operations were launched in February 2019. For the others, we are regularly following up with them, so that action is being taken up to expedite the process of setting up of the HPCs. Then, there are also those for whom some specific infrastructure is required, as some of these centres are going to be world-class, and without doubt one of the best in the country,” he said, referring to the upcoming Birla Gagan Narang Odisha HPC for shooting, which is said to become India’s biggest shooting range. 

The Abhinav Bindra Targeting Performance (ABTP) centre was the first one to be launched on February 18, 2019. Though, it is the fifth ABTP centre in the country. It is the first one in eastern India and the most advanced state-of-the-art sports science set up among all the ABTPs. This would help athletes of the other HPCs use sports science to improve their performance. The centre focuses on prehabilitation, rehabilitation, and being able to do diagnostics on athletes and figure out shuttle sports science-related aspects which can improve the athletes’ performance. 

It caters to all the sportsperson of different sports from state sportspersons to international ones. Gathering important data pointers on athletes, creating a profile on that, and based on that giving them suggestions to reduce injury risks, enhance performance, and improve their recovery and so on. That’s the idea behind such a centre. “Sports science holds the key to high performance and it is the best sports science facility in the country as they have the most advanced equipment in the country as of now, that’s why it’s the best,” said Ranjit Parida, Deputy Secretary, Department of Sports & Youth Affairs, Odisha. 

Among the 10 HPCs, the foundation stones were laid for half of them in February 2019. After the ABTP centre, TENVIC is the other centre up and running. Based in KIIT campus, this centre is run under the expert hand of its Iranian coach, Kazem Punjavi. “When I arrived here, this centre didn’t exist. We searched for a venue first. We searched 12 to 13 different campuses inside KIIT and finally settled in Campus 8. Thereafter, we purchased the equipment – the platform, weights, the stands and other ancillary weightlifting material.” 

“Then, we went in search of the lifters, first to Berhampur and also here at Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar. The initial scouting resulted in the selection of 21 lifters from a probable list of 85. From those 21, only 19 people came to the centre. The two of them didn’t have enough documents to prove their age. Thus, the centre began life with these 19 lifters — 12 girls and 7 boys in the age group of 11 to 20.” 

“The government had put the selection age between 13 to 19 years, but there were a couple of talented lifters 20 years of age. I recommended their selection and I have hopes of them doing well in the nationals next year. And, I also insisted on stretching the age bar from 11 to 20 years, so that we had more options for selection.” 

“Then two months ago, we had another selection. We went to the schools in eight districts of Odisha, selecting an additional 21 kids from some 180 candidates, mostly beginners. Some of them had done weightlifting before but had no coach, while the rest were selected after testing their agility, flexibility and strength. So, they start from zero at the grassroots level. We are running sessions for them separately. And, juniors have a different program from their seniors. They have three different sessions per day, focusing on strength condition and preparation for competitions for the ones who have done it before, whereas the grassroots kids, who are not used to lifting weights are given a different program, where they are taught lifting techniques from scratch.” 

Mr Kazem, who previously coached the British national team, stressed that ‘one of his biggest problems here is the flawed techniques with which established weightlifters come here. It’s a challenge to rid them of their previous flaws. They are talented but their progress is held back because of their bad technique.’ For, as he points out, ‘weightlifting is a technical sport and one wrong movement of the body and you lose it.’ 

However, much to his relief, he doesn’t have to face this problem when teaching the new lifters the right techniques as they easily pick it up. And, such is his confidence in his new wards who are armed with the best techniques, he insists that ‘by next year, these newbies would beat their seniors struggling with their flawed technique.’

 The total strength at present is 41 — 21 girls and 19 boys, with two more boys expected to join soon. This ratio of boys and girls suits the centre perfectly, as they have seven platforms, and as the boys and girls train separately, it enables them to split into groups of three where they work in tandem. 

He hopes his lifters would clinch some medals in 2020 Commonwealth Youth Games and Commonwealth Junior Championships. And, in two years’ time, he believes they would be ready for the Asian Championships. 

Highlighting the timeline of the centre, Mr Kazem said that the centre started in February 2019, in March they finalised their present establishment, in April the lifters were selected and in May, the training started. Thus, he needs at least 7 to 8 months’ time, before the results could be visible. “In weightlifting, Odisha has one of the best gyms in the country, where we can train properly. Thus, everyone has the chance to go to the next level,” he concluded. 

Likewise, the Naval Tata Hockey Academy (NTHA), a joint initiative of Tata Steel, Tata Trusts and Government of Odisha was inaugurated in August 2019 to groom the best hockey talent in the state into future national and international players.

Odisha is often hailed as the cradle for hockey. With the arrival of the NTHA, the state government sports hostels in Bhubaneswar, Sundargarh, and Rourkela will now function as Regional Development Centres (RDCs). NTHA experts would work with the RDCs to further enhance their efficiency and excellence. Most importantly, 10-20 grassroots centres will initially be established in Sambalpur and Sundargarh districts – the talent hub for hockey in Odisha. 

Thereafter, the talent scouted from the grassroots centres will be recommended for admission into the sports hostels. Thereby, it is ensured these grassroots centres and the RDCs will trickle the best available talent in the state into the NTHA. 

Meanwhile, the government on its part will maximise the infrastructure in these regions to improve the quality of hockey flowing into the RDCs and NTHA Odisha. The best thing about the NTHA Odisha is the availability of existing world-class infrastructure at Kalinga Stadium, which was set-up as part of the Odisha Men’s Hockey World Cup in 2018 in Bhubaneswar. 

As Mr T.V. Narendran, CEO & MD, Tata Steel had highlighted, the motto of the NTHA is in tune with the motto of the state government, which is “to develop champions of the future.” 

And, this motto is very much on the cards, as the NTHA has roped in Netherlands hockey legend, Floris Jan Bovelander, as the technical partner to implement the programme. The former World and Olympic champion would provide the technical know-how through his Bovelander Hockey Academy, which specialises in youth hockey development and high-performance coaching. “Therefore, as part of this technical collaboration, we have a Dutch coach with us,” said Mr Rajiv Seth, Project Director, NTHA Odisha. 

This is the second NTHA in the country, after the first one in Jamshedpur. While the latter was a male-only academy, the Odisha NTHA is an HPC for female hockey players as of now. 

“We have 25 resident girls, which we have the capacity to increase to 30. They are mostly in the age group of 12-17, predominantly from 12 to 15-year-olds, with very few 16 and 17 years of age.” Though NTHA Odisha started with the girls, the Project Director assured the boys would join in 2020. “We purposely wanted to start with the girls because girls’ talent is mostly untapped in many ways. Then we go to the boys next year, where another 30 of them would join the NTHA for which the talent scouting would begin soon.” 

In reply to the query regarding the selection ratio of the players from the state and outside, Mr Seth made it clear “NTHA being a national academy, will cater to players from outside the state in the ratio of 60:40 – 60 from the state and 40 from outside. But, the focus will be on the state as there’s enormous talent here. But, the selection will be on merit and if Odisha has more talented players, then the ration can be 70:30 or even 80:20 in favour of the state.” 

As Ranjit Parida elaborated, “The vision behind the HPCs was clear. We (Odisha) cannot reach the top in multiple sports disciplines without bringing the best talent to work here with our sportspersons, share our facilities and bring the best of the professional management to them, as we clearly lack the best coaches and the financial muscle to set up all of these centres. All this was done with the intention that in these 8/10 sports disciplines we would reach national standards and five years later maybe international standards.” 

“The sports disciplines were chosen on the basis of the popularity of the sports in the state and also where we have chances of winning medals at the national and international arena. Take the example of swimming, where we are nowhere to be seen in the national arena. But, swimming is important because of the number of medals an individual or group of swimmers can win. Likewise, shooting is a sport where India has done well internationally over the years. Thus, this two-pronged approach of ‘popularity of the sport’ and ‘medal prospect’ was taken into consideration while setting up the HPCs. To feed the swimming HPC here, plans are afoot to build a swimming pool in each of the districts.” 

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