Around football circles in India, Thangboi Singto is an eminent presence. The 47-year old from Manipur is currently the Technical Director & Assistant Coach with Indian Super League (ISL) club Hyderabad FC. Having started his coaching career with I-League club Shillong Lajong as Assistant Coach in 2009 before taking over as Head Coach four years later, Singto has also had a stint as Assistant Coach and Technical Director with Kerala Blasters FC, where he worked alongside English Premier League legends David James and Rene Meulensteen. A pro license holder from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), Singto, who is proficient in several languages, has also had brief stints with North East United and Odisha FC in the ISL, giving him deep insight and perspective into the challenges of coaching in a professional set-up.

Last month, 33 coaches from schools, colleges, and football institutes in Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh had the unique opportunity to tap into Singto’s rich experiences of working at the top level of the professional game in India over a three-day online workshop, curated by Reliance Foundation Youth Sports (RFYS) in collaboration with the Association of Indian Football Coaches (AIFC).

Singto was joined at these sessions by former Indian footballer Gumpe Rime, who had a stellar playing career with reputed clubs such as Hindustan Aeronautics Limited S.C., Salgaocar, Vasco, and Shillong Lajong. Rime has also served as coach of the Indian national team and is the Goalkeeping coach at Reliance Foundation Young Champs (RFYC) academy in Navi Mumbai.

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Coaches operating at the grassroots level in these two states, where football enjoys a fanatical following, found the interactions with Singto and Rime extremely rewarding. As both men draw their roots from the North East and have made a mark on the national football map, they were able to form an instant connect with the coaches, who have long admired their achievements. The affinity established between Singto & Rime and the coaches allowed the sessions to be free-flowing and interactive, with coaches not hesitant to raise even the most basic questions. For several young participants with aspirations to become full-fledged football coaches in the future, the opportunity to not just interact with established and credible figures from their chosen profession but also have the assurance that they will monitor their progress in the months and years ahead was of immense value.  

During the workshop, coaches were provided insight on a range of subjects that form an integral part of their role, from on how to create an impression through appropriate behaviour & effective communication to imparting life skills to their wards such as discipline, respect & personal control; the intricacies of player scouting; planning training sessions with clear objectives & discipline while creating a positive environment. The challenges of protecting children under their watch from physical, emotional, psychological, sexual, and financial exploitation were also elaborated upon.

“The whole programme was very beneficial in all concepts,” said Ayeto Ayemi, coach of the Nizam Football Club Dimapur and the General Secretary of the Nagaland Football Coaches Association. “Most importantly, this programme gave us acknowledgement that in this remote part of the country, football coaches exist. It is the most important thing that happened to us here.”

“There are many things I wish to implement from these workshops,” he added.

“We have to get technologically updated and embrace all that technology has to offer us. Also, it is very important to have this connection amongst us coaches.”

“Life skills, which helps everyone to take firm decisions, solve problems, think critically and creatively, communicate effectively and also, help in building healthy relationships with others was my most important learning here,” says Diethozotuo, Coach, Life Sports Football Club in Chizami, Nagaland. “These skills provide readily available tools to deal with and challenges of daily life, managing emotions, making firm decisions and helps to develop children’s personalities besides their talent. It can help make them mentally and physically strong and realise their true potential.”

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With football activities on the ground continuing to be stalled in most parts of the country, these online workshops were designed to enable coaches operating at the grassroots level to continue to upskill. Starting in January with sessions for coaches from different regions of the country, the initiative has gained large scale acceptance from the coaching community. In May, 32 coaches from across Jammu & Kashmir participated in a three-day workshop, the first of its kind to be held in the region. At the conclusions of the sessions in Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh, both Singto & Rime were of the view that enhancing their knowledge base will go a long way towards enabling these coaches to improve the playing standard of the wards under their watch.

“From the first day itself we saw participants actively coming on board to share ideas,” says Rime. “They were very inquisitive and the questions that were raised during the course of discussion were all related to the cause of football development.”

“What matters is the quality and level of interaction, and I believe it will have a very long lasting impact on the coaches mindset and their approach to football coaching,” he added. “I am convinced this will immensely benefit the young kids in their respective areas. Since me and coach Thangboi belong to the same region, we all know each other very well, and will definitely keep a tab on the progress each one of them is making.”

“This, I believe, is the best medium for coaches to continue to learn and upgrade themselves in this pandemic situation,” added Singto. “The aim is to develop better coaches for better player development. The idea of these Interactions was knowledge sharing, meeting new coaches, delivering in real & practical situations, clearing doubts and understanding latest footballing trends. I am confident this will help grassroots coaches to prepare themselves in a more systematic and modern way and that will benefit the kids they train.”

Both Arunachal Pradesh & Nagaland have a robust football culture, with structures in place to provide opportunities for kids from an early age to engage with the sport. In Arunachal, for instance, competitions are held for clubs registered with the state association from age group to senior levels. In Nagaland too, each district has several clubs participating in competitions. In fact, before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, the first and so far only season of the RFYS competition, conducted in the state in 2019-20, was received with great enthusiasm. The tournament was conducted over 36 days, with a total of 145 matches being played in this period. School and college teams competed ferociously over 26 days in Dimapur and 9 days in Kohima to earn the right to qualify for the one-day City Finals.  

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105 teams across different age-groups, from sub-juniors to senior level, from 71 institutes played in the tournament, one of the longest of its kind ever held in the state.  Besides the players, the entire eco-system of coaches, referees and supporting officials got a first-hand experience of participating in an event matching international standards.

“The RFYS competition was really different from others, especially with matches being held on a strict schedule and every activity being done systematically,” remembers Shiyito Achumi, President, Dimapur District Football Referee Association. “The positive impact on young players was there to see since there are no junior and sub junior competitions held here for both boys and girls. It will act as encouragement to the upcoming players.”

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“If you consider the tournament from the point of view of referees for example, you can see the benefits,” adds William Koso, Nodal Officer Sports Development, Department of Youth Resources and Sports, Government of Nagaland. “It has tested their capacities and their refereeing quality. It will surely attract more individuals to becoming referees in the future and I think if a referee assessor is invited too to assess their performance in future events, we will be able to give further impetus to develop referees in the state.”

Due to the continuing challenges presented by the pandemic, it remains unclear when footballing activities can resume with full vigour on the ground. However, initiatives such as these online workshops in Nagaland & Arunachal Pradesh, conducted in line with RFYS’ objective to continue to have a positive impact on the eco-system through skill enhancement of Physical Education teachers, infrastructure upgrades and community engagement programmes, has ensured coaches continue remain deeply engaged with the sport and develop skills that are crucial to the development of young players.

“These kind of workshops to share knowledge with state coaches who are actively working for the development of football in their respective establishments, that too from top level educators of the country, are very motivational for them as well as for State Associations like ours, which is at still working hard to reach top level,” said Kipa Ajay, Honorary Secretary, Arunachal Pradesh Football Association. “We are looking forward for more such platforms in near future, where not only our coaches but players and referees will get chance as well to learn from educators and experts for the all-round development of the game.

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