Man with a plan: Nurturing young hockey dreams

K Arumugam left his government job to provide hockey training to underprivileged children of ages 11-15, a mission he continues to pursue against all odds

K Arumugam's students after winning a game of hockey. (Photo credit: OTHL)

As Arumugam walks in, children rush to him to take his blessings. This isn’t because it’s a special day; it’s their spontaneous response to his presence. Arumugam knows every child by name and gives them a pep talk before practice.

He is not just dabbling in hockey as a hobby. He has worked with several media outlets as a sports journalist. His knowledge of hockey is so immense, that he authored a book titled Profiles of Indian Hockey Olympians.

Origin of OTHL

The idea of One Thousand Hockey Legs (OTHL) took root when the Indian national hockey team failed to qualify for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Except for a handful of hockey fans, most people weren’t bothered about it. But Arumugam couldn’t stay idle. He thought of the simplest solution, which was to introduce hockey in schools.

“In Delhi, there are around 2,000 higher secondary schools and only five or six schools of these had a hockey team. In government schools, I see a lot of kids of migrant labourers. They don’t have an opportunity to channelise their energies properly. And during holidays, they just roam around getting into bad company. That’s how the bad elements develop in urban areas”, said Arumugam.

He focused on urban children from migrant families but starting a hockey team or any other group sports in government schools was a challenge. He had to pass many hurdles to begin with. Firstly, most of the schools don’t have a proper ground. Secondly, hockey being a team sport, every player needs equipment, and in addition to that, the goalkeeping kit is expensive. 

With a grant of less than Rs 10,000 a year, most of the schools were unwilling to start the session. With a passion for hockey and determination to develop a growing interest in hockey, Arumugam founded OTHL in 2008.  During the first three years, he introduced OTHL in other cities like Chennai, Kolkata and Puducherry. However, it didn’t prosper as there weren’t enough volunteers to do the hard work.

“By the end of 2009, OTHL Delhi chapter was introduced. Each year, I took six schools. By the fourth year, we had 24 schools, and in each of them, l have a sub junior team, junior team and senior team. Within four years, I developed 75 teams in total. But it was an exacting task to build the team because each of them should have two goalkeepers, defenders, forwards, and I had to make sure that all the teams get equal opportunity to play. Initially, around 500 students were introduced to hockey and the students picked up the sport really well”, added Arumugam.

Daily schedules are sent to the students through WhatsApp messages and Arumugam travels to all the schools during their coaching. OTHL focuses on the overall development of children apart from the coaching. 

Kishore Arya, who trained under OTHL, made it into India’s Sub Junior Asia Cup team. In 2016, the team defeated Bangladesh in the finals and won the cup. In the sub-junior national championship held in Haryana two years back, 12 out of 18 players of the Delhi team were from OTHL. 

K Arumugam receiving the Rashtriya Khel Protsahan Puraluskar from President Pranab Mukherjee (Photo credit: Facebook)

Step by step, the players are getting benefits out of their efforts. One of the players got a job in Punjab National Bank and another one got a job in the Comptroller Auditor General office. Arumugam was awarded Hockey India President’s Outstanding Achievement Award in 2015 and 2016. He was also awarded Rashtriya Khel Protsahan Puraskar by the President.

“With these small achievements, people are also noticing our organisation, our players are getting opportunities to play, and they are marking their presence. It is a satisfying experience”, expresses Arumugam. 

Students who play well get admission to colleges through sports quota. Around 45 students from OTHL got into college hockey teams and are playing university matches.

Another interesting fact which makes OTHL unique is that they provide an opportunity to older players, who are finding it difficult to land jobs. Most of the coaches are former players of OTHL.

Funding and well-wishers 

For the first 12 years, OTHL was running solely on Arumugam’s personal funds under his family trust. From funding, equipment, travel allowance, jerseys to booking stadia, the cost of everything is being managed by Arumugam. He trains the kids without any coaching fees and provides scholarships for students who top their class. 

For him, more than funding, the consistent effort of volunteers and support from people matters the most. He believes that funds to buy the equipment and other kits will work out if people support the cause. Last year, he started a crowdfunding system where he tried to bring in 100 of his friends and well-wishers to contribute Rs 5,000 a year and around 60 people contributed.

In 2021, the financial service company Bajaj expressed interest in developing women’s hockey, and they have provided the organisation with some help in acquiring equipment. Arumugam is working on getting more support.

To harness the complete potential of a player, they have to play on synthetic grounds. Playing on the grass grounds in school will not improve the skills beyond a certain level. Delhi State Government, Government of India, New Delhi Municipal Committee has turf grounds but the state government stadium wasn’t accessible due to certain reasons. The Government of India’s stadium was accessible and OTHL used to practice for two to four hours free of cost. 

The turf has to be watered every two hours and the stadium had some water issues. So, Arumugam rented out Shivaji Stadium for 32 days for Rs 1.88 lakh. Based on the schedule chalked by him, each school team comes and practices.

Nurturing female talents

“For long, I couldn’t start a girls hockey team as there was no acceptance from the school’s side and even if I work out the finances, we have to spend three times more to develop a women’s hockey team compared to men’s team”, said Arumugam.

Schools have various conditions before starting a girls’ team. They need a lady coach to train them on their campus and the training time should be during working hours. According to him, in Delhi, D stands for distance. The stadiums which provide synthetic turf like National Stadium and Shivaji Stadium are 20-30 km away from these schools. 

Getting the girls to come to the stadium, train and go back within the working hours of schools was difficult. Finally, after the second wave of the pandemic, Arumugam started hockey coaching in three schools, and now, five schools are coaching under OTHL.

According to his survey, out of the 18 girls, 12 of them use public toilets where they live. “I found tremendous enthusiasm among girls. I even feel they grab the opportunity better than the boys. But their physical fitness is very poor, so I have to supplement them with nutrition. This is not just a programme for sports. I had to include nutritional aspects as far as girls are concerned. Right now, I try to provide them with a glass of milk before and after practice along with a fruit or gram. Though some parents do visit them during practice hours, more involvement of parents has to be increased and nutritional aspects also have to be included”, said Arumugam. 

Proud parents watching their children play hockey (Photo credit: Judith Mariya Antony)

“I want to become a hockey player and I like hockey because it is our national game. Playing tournaments makes me happy. Even if we score one goal, it is a big deal for us. We celebrate those small victories”, says Naneen* residing in Dwarka. Tani*, from Shahpurjat, aspires to become like her favourite player Neha Goyal.

Surender Kumar from Patel Nagar has been coming daily to Shivaji Stadium to watch his daughter’s coaching. When hockey coaching was introduced in his daughter’s school and when her teacher asked her to join, he didn’t have to think twice. “Arumugam sir is doing something, which we can never provide, he is doing all this without taking any fees from our side and no one will ever do that. I’ll support my kid with all I can”, said Kumar.

“During Covid-19, children were sitting at home without doing anything. Arumugam sir took them here and started the training. I hope that our kids will get a chance to play national or even international matches”, said another parent from Patel Nagar.

For the students coming from Dwarka and other faraway places, he has provided metro cards to help them commute. He has also provided other essential requirements for girls. 

Sonali*’s father washes cars and her mother works as a cleaner in a Delhi court. She joined hockey because she wanted to make it big, and wants to make a good living for her parents and make them happy. 

“Arumugam sir has supported us thoroughly. He provides us with everything. Whatever we want – sticks, shoes, kit, everything. So, I want to become a hockey player to make sir and my family happy and proud”, said Simran, a resident of Patel Nagar. 

For Ishita, her favourite technique in hockey is the slap shot. A slap shot, also called a slap pass, is used for passing the ball over a middle distance to a teammate, or for shooting on goal. A slap shot is stronger and faster for hitting the ball, which makes it a difficult shot to perfect But Ishita thinks she can master it through practice. 

In February 2022, Jayanti Cup was organised at Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium, Delhi and Shahpurjat girls won the match against Dwarka girls. A special three-day goalkeeping session was organised during their training session in Shivaji Stadium by former international player Suman Bala.

“For us, it is a great thing, what our kids are doing. We are coming out of the house because of our kids. I didn’t know which bus went where. After my daughter started coaching, I am going out and seeing places. And I am grateful that my daughter is coming and playing in the stadium. What more can I ask for? The school has also been supporting children greatly”, said Sangeeta Devi, mother of one of the OTHL students.

“OTHL has planted the seeds and we have witnessed their seeded growth. But it depends on the individual efforts of the player to see how well they perform. OTHL will always support them in their need. Two out of 10 players from our organisation have been making it big”, concludes Arumugam.

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