Jagpreet Singh first played for Team Ontario U14 when he was 10-years old and despite his team losing every game that year at nationals, he was hooked. Now, the 20-year-old from Mississauga, Ontario is a part of the Canada’s NextGEN program and is eligible to be selected for the upcoming Junior National Team for the Junior Pan American Championships.
Singh, who has been a part of Canada’s NextGEN program for several years, said there’s been ups and downs in the structure and training environment in Ontario where he grew up. With the national team program being centralized in BC, there has long-been a west coast centric feeling. He said the new mentorship program, initiated last month, is a positive step forward in connecting the national programs across the country.
“The whole atmosphere is great. Guys giving you feedback and supporting you, it’s really motivating,” Singh said. “And I’m grouped with other [NextGEN] guys from BC and Quebec. I’ve even been on tour with some of those guys so I’m comfortable with them. We’re online for 30-40 minutes, it’s not too long and it’s motivating for me.”
The NextGEN coaching staff has matched 41 junior-aged athletes with leaders from the men’s national team. The groups engage in weekly video calls, in which the young players can ask questions and hear stories from the older, more experienced athletes. The NextGEN mentorship program is the brainchild of Vancouver-based Indy Sehmbi, Canadian junior national team coach.
“I was reflecting on my experience as a men’s field hockey player growing up in Canada, and I realized that I had a close connection with players on the senior men’s national team,” Sehmbi said. “And as I asked around, I learned almost every current men’s national team player has been impacted by former national team players as well.”
The program really found its legs as a substitute for on-field training over the past month. As the country continues to deal with differing levels of “Return to Play,” no one really knows when sports will return to normal. According to Singh, the at-home time had him reflecting on his ambitions in the sport.
“Honestly, during quarantine, I was questioning about whether or not to stay in the program. But after talking to [my mentor] Scott Tupper and hearing his stories about the Olympics, World Cups, Commonwealth Games…motivated me to stay and keep working.”
Considering that Field Hockey is not as ever-present in the Canadian media like some mainstream sports, the only way to see the top players in the country is either at your club or the occasional live-streamed international match. With the introduction of the mentorship program, Sehmbi aims to connect the young athletes to community role models from the senior national team.
“Because our sport is small in Canada and we don’t have wide-spread media coverage, most interactions are face-to-face.” He said. “And we do our best to use this accessibility as a strength.”
During his research and reflection, Sehmbi understood that not every club and region has regular access to that connection with the sport’s elite.
“Take Quebec for example or Brampton,” Sehmbi said. “Brampton probably hasn’t seen a men’s national team player in over ten years. We have all these role models in the community, we want them to connect with the next generation of national team players.”
Zack Coombs is a 19-year goalkeeper in the Canadian NextGEN system. He lives in Chelsea, Quebec, where there is a small but dedicated field hockey community that features eight NextGEN athletes. Since the quarantine began back in March, Coombs has been trying to get creative with his training and development and has stayed engaged with the NextGEN programming. He said that the newly introduced mentorship program is a refreshing and motivating addition to the environment.
“It’s been a really rewarding experience for us. We’re starting out our careers and it’s been really nice to hear the advice and knowledge that the [senior athletes] have,” Coombs said. “We’ve talked about strategy and how to apply them in a game. We’ve watched some video together. All these small things can eventually add up to a bigger overall picture.”
Men’s National Team player, Matt Sarmento, is one of the mentors involved in the program. He said that his role is to be there for the NextGEN players, to help answer questions and to facilitate workshops and sessions.
“I have five kids I’ve been working with during the last few weeks. I think for me, if I can even provide 10 per cent more clarity on something or say something that really encourages one of them, that’s worth it for me. Who knows; I could be teammates with a few of them in the future.”
Sarmento’s path to the national team did not feature years of junior level field hockey, in fact, he played primarily ice-hockey until he made the shift when he was 20. He then made a meteoric rise to the men’s national team. According to Sarmento, his unique story shows that there are different paths to making it to the top.
“I didn’t have that upbringing around the sport that many others did,” he said. “But once I did make the team in 2013, I was surrounded by role models and veterans that had been to World Cups and Olympics. So, I do think it’s good for the young guys to be able to bounce ideas off someone who has been through it all before and has that experience.” Sarmento noted that the mentorship program also allows a unique opportunity for self-reflection for the mentors as well.
The sporting community worldwide has been barricaded from using fields and other facilities for months. Birthed out of this social and sporting isolation, the program started over a month ago, and according to Sehmbi, so far, the reception from all participants has been terrific.
“The kids are like sponges. They want to learn, and they are particularly interested in the older athletes’ stories.” Sehmbi said. “The idea behind this program is that it’s ongoing. Even when we do return to the field, these guys will now have this connection to the older athletes that they can lean on forever.”
Despite the uncertainty surrounding the global pandemic and what it means for hockey competitions, the NextGEN program has set a clear target and drive towards the Junior Pan American Championships, slated to be held in April in Chile. If successful, the team will advance to the Junior World Cup projected for the end of 2021 in India.