‘Insecure Olympians, outdated coaching methods’: A scathing review of Pakistan hockey

Pakistan were once the best team in the world
<p>Photo: AFP</p>

Photo: AFP

Over the past few weeks, I spoke to many teenagers in the parks and streets of Karachi about their favourite sport. Unsurprisingly, majority of them went for cricket while some expressed interest in football. However, the alarming thing was that none of them named hockey as their favourite sport.

The sample size might be small but it still gives an accurate assessment about the state of hockey in Pakistan.

Despite Pakistan’s rich history in hockey, winning multiple Olympic Gold Medals and World Cup titles, the game has descended in a bottomless pit of mediocrity over the last couple of decades.

Pakistan have failed to qualify for back-to-back Olympic Games, 2016 and 2022, while also missing out on the 2023 World Cup. They also faced the humiliation of missing a World Cup for the first time in their history back in 2014.

What happened to hockey in Pakistan? What can be done to bring the game back on track? What is PHF role in all this mess? Safe to say I had a lot of questions. In the search for answers, I reached out to former Pakistan hockey player and Sports Nutritionist Adnan Zakir.

The 35-year-old made 169 appearances for Pakistan between 2001 and 2006. He won a silver, 2006 Commonwealth Games, and two bronze medals, 2004 Champions Trophy and 2005 Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, during his playing days.

Zakir, who is currently working as Hockey Skills Specialist at the Ipswich School in England, has vast experience of in the field of coaching and strength and conditioning. He has also worked with the Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF), Egyptian Hockey Federation (EHF) and Azerbaijan Hockey Federation (AHF) in the past.

Professionals can’t work in Pakistan

Speaking about the deplorable state of Pakistan hockey, Zakir said that the Pakistan Hockey Federation and former Olympians make it very difficult for professionals to work.

“It is very difficult for professionals to work in Pakistan because they go by the book and follow new technology. However, our insecure ex-Olympians can’t digest the fact that someone else knows more about hockey as compared to them,” he said.

“Most of them try to implement their outdated methods from the 1960s or 1980s. They have no knowledge about nutrients or pre and post meals. In today’s hockey, education is really important but these people try to hide this important factor. They pretend that they know everything but the fact is that they don’t have any idea about how modern hockey works,” he added.

He also lashed out at the former Olympians for sidelining great players like Sohail Abbas, who is the second-highest scorer in international hockey with 348 goals.

“These Olympians won’t even let someone like Sohail Abbas, who has achieved so much in the game, work for Pakistan hockey because then no one will take their name,” he said.

“You need to get rid of these Olympians in order to bring Pakistan hockey back on track. Their age, around 70 to 80 years, is also not suitable when it comes to running hockey because you become physically and mentally weak. You need young blood in the organisation.

“Islahuddin [Siddique] bhai doesn’t know the new rules of hockey. Hanif [Khan] bhai has no idea about modern requirements of the game. Manzoor Jr doesn’t know about new terms and technologies. When you ask them any technical question, they won’t be able to answer.”

He also spoke about why he resigned from his role as Strength and Conditioning Coach at PHF in 2014 after working for little over a year.

“Being a Pakistani, I wanted to return something to my country. However, I faced resistance when I tried to implement my fitness methods. Every day I had an argument with them and the entire coaching staff was against me. Despite the hurdles, I changed the entire system which improved the fitness of players. But I left as I was struggling a lot because of the work environment, which is really important for any professional,” he said.

Some people in PHF can’t even use email

Zakir also believes that political appointments are running Pakistan hockey and will continue to do so if the PHF is not scrapped.

“Pakistan hockey is not going in the right direction because there is no system in place. The entire power is with the president and secretary, who are political appointments. Whenever there are political appointments, it is very difficult to work or produce results,” he said.

“Because of political appointments, I’m sure even their replacements will be incompetent. They will arrogant and bring in their own people in the federation, regardless of the fact that they are qualified or not. The situation at the moment is so bad that there are some people in the PHF who don’t even know how to use an email.

“We need professionals who have knowledge and relevant degrees in sports management to take charge of Pakistan hockey.”

Pakistan is a nightmare for foreign coaches

Zakir was also pessimistic about Pakistan hockey team’s progress under Dutch coach Siegfried Aikman.

It must be noted that Aikman was appointed Pakistan coach till 2026 in December last year. He has previously coached the Japanese team, which stunned the world by winning the Asian Games title in 2018.

“Siggy [Siegfried Aikman] is a good coach but I don’t think he will be able to deliver. The prime example was the recent performance in Asia Cup. We did put up a good fight but couldn’t qualify for the World Cup,” he said.

“Siggy alone can’t achieve anything because there is no domestic or development structure in place.

“Pakistan is the only country in the world where there is a selection committee in place. In modern hockey, it’s the coach’s responsibility to select the players because he is the one in charge of the team. Siggy also has reservations over the players’ selection process. Under such circumstances, there is zero percent chance of Pakistan hockey getting back on its feet.”

He also revealed that one of the best coaches in the world Roelant Oltmans, who served as Pakistan’s head coach twice in the past, was interested in joining the junior team, however PHF decided against appointing him.

“Roelant was interested in coaching Pakistan’s junior team and he also came to Pakistan to discuss that but these ex-Olympians created hurdles for him because they want to stay in charge, without doing any coaching courses, rather than allow a professional to take over,” he said.

Michel van den Heuvel, who is the current head coach of Belgium national side and played a key role in the revival of the European side, was also mistreated by the PHF in 2012.

“The PHF fired Michel and insulted him by saying that he didn’t know anything about the game just because the Dutch hadn’t played in a major event like the Olympics. Now he is the head coach of world champions Belgium,” he said.

Fitness and sports sciences

Zakir, who is an FIH Level 3 coach, also rued the lack of investment on sports sciences and technology in Pakistan hockey.

“In terms of sport science and technology, other countries are far ahead of Pakistan. Sports scientists now work with every team but this is not the case with Pakistan,” he said.

“Our team doesn’t have the services of a regular physiotherapist. We always make appointments at the eleventh hour, which doesn’t help.

“The players are also not aware about proper recovery process which means that there body isn’t able to adopt the format of tournaments and consequently the performance goes down significantly after one match only.”

He also stressed on the importance of mental fitness alongside the physical aspect of the game.

“Nobody wants to work on mental fitness in Pakistan. Everyone talks about physical fitness. Hockey, as well as other sports, work on total fitness which includes physical and mental fitness, intelligence, emotional management and hundreds of other things. The entire world is focusing on this and getting better results,” he said.

He also said that long-term planning needs to be done if Pakistan wants to compete with the best teams in the world in the future.

“Pakistan team is far away from competitive hockey because international teams don’t want to play us. During our recent European tour, Pakistan’s opponents fielded their B-teams because they wouldn’t have gained anything by playing with Pakistan,” he said.

“Even if we make the right appointments and get rid of the current federation, it will take us five to ten years to come back into reckoning,” he added.

Financial irregularities

Zakir also accused PHF of financial irregularities while citing lack of a fair and independent audit.

Allegations of financial embezzlement against PHF have been rife in the past as well but concrete steps have not been taken, despite government ordering an audit on multiple occasions in the past, to hold officials accountable.

“The PHF is responsible for this mess. They don’t carry out a proper audit of their accounts while also making fake receipts. I have been part of that system and I know how they operate. They do dealings in cash and there is no check and balance about income and expenditures. There is irregularities in their accounts, which is precisely the reason why the government have stopped giving them funds,” he said.

He also blamed PHF for poor management of its finances while comparing them with other hockey federations in the world.

“Their [PHF] reputation is so bad that sponsors don’t want to come on board. There is also no marketing department to generate more revenue streams,” he said. “Other federations in the world generate their own income rather than solely relying on government funding. For example, England also get funding from government but that’s limited. However, they organise tournament and carry out other activities to generate income as well.”

“Small academies, such as Tauqeer Dar and Rana Zaheer in Lahore along with Haider Hussain in Karachi, get more sponsors than the PHF for their events,” he said. “On the other hand, the one of two tournaments organised by PHF is just done just to tick boxes. Players are not provided proper food or a decent place to live during these events.”

The Max

Speaking about Pakistan’s first-ever franchise-based hockey league, The Max, Zakir said that it would be a short-term solutions for the players’ financial troubles.

“To be very honest, there would be no benefit of this tournament. This is short term solution which will last only a few days. Players will get money which will ease their financial situation for a month or two but what’s next?” he said.

“Even if you find good talent from this event, there is no system in place for the further development of those players. Hockey is a team game and development is really important. There no academies or high performance centres to look after the players,” he added.

Initially, five city-based teams, Karachi, Lahore, Quetta, Peshawar and Islamabad, will take part in the three-week event. The inaugural edition will be held at the National Hockey Stadium in Lahore.

The schedule of the first season has not been revealed, yet, although it is likely that it will be held towards the end of 2022.

Single hockey system and departments

Zakir was also unimpressed with the lack of a single hockey system in Pakistan as it hinders the development of players.

“There is also absence of single hockey system in Pakistan. A player grows up playing a particular style of hockey in rural areas but that style changes when he goes to urban areas. Moreover, he is forced to adopt English style when he joins the Pakistan team. This confuses a players and they can’t deliver what’s being asked of them,” he said.

He also believes that players should be well-educated rather than relying on departments for income.

“In Europe and other countries, there is no departmental structure. Hockey is a part-time game for the players while there profession and education is related to a different field. You will find doctors and engineers in their teams but it is only in Pakistan where this system was made to ensure that if you play hockey you will get a job as well. But when their career is over, they become a burden on the department,” he said.

“So, somewhere down the line this [shutting down departments] had to happen. We should have focused on ensuring that players also complete education alongside playing hockey so that they can earn a living even after their playing days are over,” he said.

Election delay

The Pakistan Sports Board (PSB) denotified PHF’s Khalid Sajjad Khokhar-led set-up over election delay on July 7.

“The tenure of the office-bearers has expired on 14-5-22 and no election notice/schedule has been issued by the PHF despite lapse of more than two which is in violation of National Sports Policy 2005,” the PSB said in a notification.

President Khokhar, Secretary Asif Bajwa and Treasurer Muhammad Ikhlaq no longer hold the PHF office, according to the notification.

Despite an ad-hoc being put in place by the PSB, Zakir believes that the PHF officials will use their political connections and stay order from court to remain in charge. He added that even if they leave, a “positive change” can’t be expected.

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Pakistan hockey

Adnan Zakir

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