Kenyan Star of The Week – Jos Openda

While most coaches are losing hair plotting on how to have at least one trophy in the cabinet at the end of the season, to Jos Openda, that has never been a concern. To him, Kenya Hockey Union league title is assured even before the first ball of the season bullies off. In fact, his biggest concern is how to finish the season in style, to win the league without conceding a goal. 

While most coaches are losing hair plotting on how to have at least one trophy in the cabinet at the end of the season, to Jos Openda, that has never been a concern. To him, Kenya Hockey Union league title is assured even before the first ball of the season bullies off. In fact, his biggest concern is how to finish the season in style, to win the league without conceding a goal. 

Openda, a man who never played hockey beyond the confines of Kisumu with KibosSimba(Kisumu Sikh Union), now Butali Sugar, returned to the sport he silently walked away from as a form of protest due to poor treatment of players by the club management then to become one of Kenya’s success stories. 

With seven African Club championship gold medals hanging on his chest,  17 league title with Telkom Orange and now targeting to win both without conceding a goal, Jos Openda is our KenyaStar of the week. 

KS: Thank you for having us Coach, tell us about your early days in sports.

I played hockey when I was in school, that is Kisumu Boys’ High School. At that time we were doing Nationals and we were defending champions nine times in a row. Yes there was a year Kisumu Boys’ held the title for the ninth time in a row, that was the time I was part of the team and I played two Nationals and we won both, one was in Nairobi the other was in Thika. Those were my playing days in hockey, I managed to play for some clubs in Kisumu, a team called Kibos Simba. I  played for Nyanza team and I remember there used to be a tournament called Tata Cup Interprovincial it used to be a very interesting tournament it used to be the highlight of National tournaments and then along the way I switched to basketball. 

KS: Which position in the field did you used to play in hockey?

I used to play mostly as a half but sometimes i could rotate. I played alongside Michael Omondi and Peter Katsa. We used to play at times at the central midfield and at times I’d be pushed to the right or left half.

KS: Your dad was a football administrator, your brother played football so why hockey for you?

Well, that’s what  guys found actually amazing… many people wondered why hockey. Why I never played football much was because in football there is so much contact and basically I believe in playing a game where there is not much contact….that’s why even when you watch the girls that I’m coaching the way they play, I tell them to avoid  physical contact because it does not really help much. So maybe that’s why I decided not to play football. Basketball also was another one which i started as a joke, it just started as a joke and I can’t believe I played for the national team also in basketball.

KS: Did you feature for the hockey national team too?

No…I didn’t feature for the hockey national team but I had a call-up for the junior team way back, in 1979….. you were not born by then (laughs). In 1979 there is a team that went to Barcelona and I was in the call-up for that team but it was unfortunate that I could not stay in Nairobi for long because there was nobody to stay with so I had to go back to Kisumu.

KS: Where did you play your basketball?

I started off basketball in Kisumu also and that’s when I became a household name. In fact people knew me more on basketball then than hockey…very few people knew that I played hockey. 

KS: You leaving hockey for basketball was not a choice. What exactly made you move to Basketball?

Actually what made me stop playing hockey was that I had a small rift with the people who were managing hockey that time, in Kisumu. 

We never used to get equal treatment and I didn’t like the way my fellow team mates were being treated. I was one of the best players so basically I would get first class treatment but the others who were like spurring partners were really not getting the same treatment. We realized that the allowances were kind of halved when we go out and that didn’t go well with me. I always feel that players should be treated equally, across the board. In fact, if you look at my team, Orange, those are some of the things that I work toward. I don’t see that any player is better than the other. However good you are. Talents are different but you know, when play as a team, you have to be treated equally and that’s why we’ve been able to achieve everything that we’ve got.

KS: So when you look back to that time, do you regret that you made the switch?

Nobody knew. Nobody knew that it was a protest.  They looked for me but I just told them, you know what…. in fact, we moved quite a number of players but some decided to go back.

When I meet people like Paul Omanyi, at times we laugh. He tells me that I decided that I didn’t want to see the world. That he saw the world. I would have been an Olympian, but it wasn’t meant to be. So I can’t say that I have any regrets, I am happy the way I am. Am happy with what I do now. 

KS: When did you start coaching hockey?

I started coaching hockey when I joined Posta…that time I was playing basketball too. It so happened that  we were training at the university grounds and I saw a few people who looked familiar, I had seen them on the corridors of Posta offices and I asked them if that was a Posta team and they reckoned it was… I asked if they had a coach and they said they don’t have, so I took over. I coached them for one and a half years and I remember that time it was the Kenya Ladies Hockey Association that was running ladies’ hockey and there were very few teams. Tobias Oduor was the man behind these things and I remember we used to play against Inter-Capital and we used to be beaten seriously: I remember in our first game we were beaten 17-0 then we started reducing the scores and by the time I was leaving back to basketball, at least we could hold Inter-Capital, they could not beat us so many goals… maybe just seven. We were reducing the number of goals then I had to stop and concentrate on basketball. We had a big assignment in basketball, we were playing the African Club Championship and we were going to Egypt so the office felt that I was needed more in basketball than in hockey because hockey by then was not popular.

KS: So here you are today and one of the best coaches in Africa. You’ve won several titles with Orange. Would just take us through that journey?

I say it’s been a sweet journey with Orange since i came back as a coach after I had stopped playing. In fact, I really protested the first time they contacted me to go back as a coach. I told them that it’s been many years when I was involved in hockey. It was way back in 1989 and I was coming back in 2002. That about 20 years plus. And I asked them, “why me?”

But Betty Masinde is the one who insisted that she wanted me back to coach the team. Maybe she realized something in me which I didn’t know. Initially, I was a bit adamant.  I didn’t want to take up the job but then I said, “why not?” Let me take up the challenge and I did. You can’t believe the first time when I stepped into the pitch to train them. They were already top gear, winning most of the games. I had to act like I knew what was happening but truth is I was a bit in the dark. I started growing with them gradually, learning a few things from them and other players who came in to help with coaching.

We lost in the final in my first continental assignment. We were the defending champions but we lost to Nigeria. The following year,we lost again to Nigeria, in the final. We had beaten them in the preliminaries and losing in the finals really disturbed me. When I got to know the trick, how to do certain things, how to prepare the team and how to have the team ready for all games– I learnt to know that you can beat a team in the preliminaries but when you meet the same opponent in the finals you can still be able to win and here we are now, celebrating along.

When I joined, Orange were the league champs. They had won the club champs once or twice but after that it became very elusive thing. Now when I got into the team, those are some of the things that we sat down and strategize on. I always believe in winning. There is no short cut in winning and when you want to win, you just have to plan. Winning is sweet and I told them that we will win the club champs as long us we’ll still be walking.

We want to get to the Guinness Book of records as the only women’s club to have won a record sixth Africa club championship in a row. We’ve won the club champs, five times in a row, something which has never been achieved by any other club in Africa in the ladies category and we are going for a sixth one this year. I’ve done seven clubs champs in total with the team; they won two before I came. 

I can’t remember when we didn’t win the league. They were winning the league before I came in and we’ve retained the same status and we don’t want anything to change. Not anytime soon.

KS: What are some of these tricks which make you tick?

I can say that you have to totally understand the players’ mood. You kind of create a rapport with them in a way that you don’t use a lot of dictatorship on them. You’ve got to listen to them once in a while but not all the time. I can say 60% of the time you got to be hard but once you give them room that you can also listen to them, it becomes easy. That’s the biggest thing. The other thing is just having the winning mentality. I’ve never believed in losing. In fact the lose that I had when I was just starting with the team provoked me. I had to go for a coaching course and seminars. KHU (Kenya Hockey Union) exposed me by taking me to a lot of seminars where I learnt a lot about hockey and from there I just implemented what I learnt.

I believe that having players who are ready to work and play for the team is also another thing that contributed to that success. You’ve noticed that the senior payers moved on when there was transition in the team. I lost about 15 players but it was a gradual lose and by the time I was getting to 20, the team had already transited. The players are seeing today have only been here for seven years of playing together.  They are the same players I went with to Ghana and we were last. When we came back, a major shift happened in the team but I told the young ones that their time will come. I exposed them in the tournaments where they played poorly but now they even want to win club champs without conceding a goal.

Our tactics are very simple. As a team we train pretty hard and then before game, we talk as a team. We call it ‘fungua  roho[open your heart]’. We sit down and players give us what they think and we analyze and advice on the best way to go about it. A player can sometimes think that what she knows is right. You have to listen to her and tell her why that cannot work in this particular game, why it will work in another game. Once you follow instruction life is very easy. But most importantly, once you give an idea, you don’t have to close them in that idea – that it’s cast on stone. Once in a while, thy have to go out of the box, do something extra ordinary. Allow them to express themselves. That way you’ll be able to se talent coming out. That’s what we do and that what makes Orange tick. Key thing is, I’ll listen to the players. In fact people wonder how I cope with these girls. Its simple, we have four female coaches and the Team Manger is also a lady. I’m the only male in the team. 

KS: What is your obsession with winning the title without conceding a goal? This is a target you first set in 2014. It has eluded you though at times with only two goal margin. Do you believe that this is the year to do it and what is the obsession?

It’s something that we set way back and it’s quite unfortunate that my friend coach Meshack  Senge (Strathmore) is the one who has messed it up most of the time. I remember last year, when we were on the verge of getting it, he pulled a two-all draw with us. Those were the only goals we conceded in the entire league tournament. When we got to the club champ, a team from Nigeria managed to score two goals against us. The only goals we conceded in that tournament. 

Looking at the analysis of the league and club champs, I realized that there are only two teams that have managed to score against us and asked myself a question that if only one team can manage to get a goal from us (in the league), then its possible that we can get the league without conceding a goal. We are really working very hard to stop all the team and it’s something that we’ll be able to achieve. This is one thing that I am obsessed with and I am quite sure that God will give it to us.

KS: Earlier in the year you said that you’ll be retiring from active coaching. This is not the first time you’ve said so and the information going round is that you may rescind that decision. Could be true that achieving this obsession, winning the league and club champ without conceding a goal is what is still holding you back? 

No. one thing that I want to make very clear is that I am not leaving this ladies team. We’ve been together for a very long time. I am with them. What is happening is that the lady coaches whom have been with all along are getting ready for bigger assignments. Last year they sat on the bench for league games and they did very well. They managed to win the league. This year again, with the target still set, am still with them, watching them from the terraces, I don’t sit on the bench if you’ve seen that but we are always together with them and see how we can help the team grow and from there, if all goes well they’ll be hands on. But I’m not leaving. I’ll still be with them.

KS: A time is coming that you’ll have to leave for one reason or another. When you leave hockey as Telkom Orange coach, what next for Openda?

That is already in plan. If you’ve noticed of late I’m not in Nairobi most of the time. I come in when the team has a session then after that I rush to Kisumu. I got into poultry farming. I don’t believe in spending and having a good life in Nairobi then when I die, you want to go bury me in my shags (village) which I don’t know anything about. Also I want to see if I can get a team in Kisumu and start something with them. I’ve already identified some Girls’ school -Nyawara Girls. I want to see if it would be possible for us to work together and see if I can take them to the national school games. Those are some of the things I’ll be doing but I’ll not leave. I will always be with them (Orange) till death do us part.

KS: This may be a tough one for you. There was a time, around 2014 when the spirit of your team was broken down when you lost one of your players. Ho was that time for you as the coach and the players? 

Betty Tioni. Losing her was my saddest moment with the team. She was in the team that played in Uganda in Club championship that year and less than six months we were back in Zimbabwe. As much as the team was emotionally affected by her death, something amazing is that when we went back to Zimbabwe for club champs, (that was going to be the third time in a row that we were chasing the title), the girls played for Tioni. They gave it their all for her and when we came back, we took the trophy to her grave and placed it there and told her: “This is for you.”

KS: Your dominance especially in the local league is quite amazing. What are other teams not getting right and do you think lack of competition is a challenge to the women’s hockey? 

I cannot talk for other teams. I can only talk for Telkom Orange. Our sponsors are doing everything for us and we have no other choice but to win. So I don’t know what other teams are doing. I don’t even know where they train. All I know is that Orange treats us well and that why we are here. We are like a semi professional club. 

KS: But does it bother you that you don’t have much competition locally and even at the continental stage, save for South Africa who are slightly ahead of us?

The competition is there. If you watch how we play against local teams, they come out. They want to bring us down. No team walks into the pitch with the  mind that they are going to loss. They actually make us sweat. It doesn’t come easy. The difference is, how do they prepare for us? Same to club champs. We are working extra hard. If you watched the way we played here during the club champs, it speaks volume. If you remember the final against Ghana Revenue Authority we beat them 2-0. That was a tight game. 

KS: Every match is a tough one for coaches but who is one team or coach that gives you sleepless night whenever you are going to meet?

I can’t say they give me sleepless nights because when you have a sleepless night it can be very dangerous but there are teams that are coming up, trying very much to dislodge us.  In the league am talking of the likes or Amira, Chase Bank and Strathmore University which has very good facilities but they don’t give us sleepless nights. Sliders used to be there but I don’t know what happened to them. I think they need to get their acts right. Vikings too used to be there but they slumped a bit. They have a few issues but I know they’ll come back. Basically, all teams are okey. All they need to do is to work hard because for you to beat Orange you must work extra hard.

KS: What structures do you have I place to take players up the ranks?

What is happening is that we have coaches in charge of different roles. For example we have Josephine Ataro who is in charge of scouting. Being a teacher, she identifies talents for us during school games.  

Besides that, we used to have a program for the junior team. We had about 16 players and the good thing is that most of the players have joined colleges where they play for their respective colleges and when they come of age they’ll rejoin Orange. We want to revive that program, subject to sponsorship we get from Orange. Hockey is a very expensive sport. 

KS: I’m going to ask you a difficult question. Who is the best talent you’ve ever worked with since you joined Orange?

The best talent I’ve worked with is Betsy Omalla. She’s currently based in the UK but she always come back and have sessions with us.

KS: on the same note: Is there any player in the league or out of your team that you’d like to work have in your team.

I look at a player like Yvonne Karanja of Strathmore. I like her play. A speedy player. She plays like our forwards. Forward oriented. She’s one player that I won’t mind coming over but also, I don’t want to kill other clubs. ThenI’ll talk about Pauline Naise whom I believe that her talent is still not being nurtured the way it’s supposed to be. I believe that she’s playing more of social than competitive hockey. That if she moves to Orange, she’ll be able to get a taste of these club champs more frequently and then her maturity in the game could really come up. 

KS: Have you made a move on any of these players?

Pauline, yes I did. There was a time she stopped playing hockey and I sent emissaries for her and when she came back, I was shocked she joined Amira. Maybe her friends are there, she feels comfortable but I told her the best place to be is Orange. Let’s wait and see how it goes. Yvonne of course is still in college so we cannot even discuss more about her.

KS: What are some of the challenges you face as a coach especially one who works with female players?

There was a time this pitch we are training on was at its worse. That is the biggest challenge we’ve ever faced as a team until they did some repair on it but it’s not the kind of pitch a team that has won club champs should be training on. We need a better pitch than this. 

Another big challenge we have is the availability on the pitch itself. We share the place with so many clubs and it’s become a very big challenge. There are times you have to cut short your training because other teams also want to train. Like now, the national team is supposed to start their preps for AFCON. When they come, it will be a bit hard for us to do our training on this pitch. The fact that there is only one hockey pitch in in Kenya is the biggest challenge.

Other challenges are on players. Initially we used to train from 10 A.M but when most of them, who by then were in colleges, started working, we pushed it to night. Most of them are not on work release so I have to wait for them to clear work duties.Most of them work in banks, and some are teachers so they have to finish their work then rush for training.

KS:Do you have plans as a club, to have your own pitch?

If only my team manager was here, she would have answered that question. There are somethings that I really don’t deal with directly. My job is to make sure that players are training and they are fit.

KS: What’s your take on corporate involvement in hockey as a sport. I know you have Orange but most of the teams do not have sponsors. What’s your take?

We need sponsors to come on board, not only for clubs but also for national team. For us to get back to where we used to be, especially the men’s team, we need to go out and play against the top clubs. This is only possible with big sponsorship. Ladies can do it because of Orange. If Orange is used well, it’s very easy for Kenya to conquer Africa but for men, they need to get back and the biggest thing is sponsorship. 

There was a time I handled the national team for an assignment in South Africa. We were in a pathetic situation. We didn’t have proper accommodation. Personally, I was not happy. There is nothing as bad as when you are coaching a team and you are not happy. We had a nice pitch to train on but after training we needed to rest.

If we can get sponsorship on board, Kenya can go far just the same way like Rugby. We are nowhere in Africa but now we just go, threaten people but no consistency. We need to win something instead of these bronze and silver that we keep on getting. We need to start going for Gold then get off the block and see where we are. If we can get sponsors on board and take the team out of Africa and play the best teams in the world, we’ll be good to go. 

KS: Would you encourage young people to join hockey and what are the advantages of playing hockey?

Long time in this country, it was a MUST you had to carry a hockey stick when you were joining High School. I don’t know what happened along the way. 

But what we’ve done as Nairobi Hockey Association which I’m also part of (vice chairman), is that we started a development side for young players. These are the people who are going to take us where we need to be if they are treated well. We are in partnership with some friends from Netherlands who are giving donations in terms of sticks, kits etc. Since hockey is a very expensive sport and we cannot tell the kid to go buy a hockey stick, all we need the kids to do is walk to City Park every Saturdays from 8 .am and play hockey. When schools close they do it from Monday to Friday. Teenagers need to be involved in a lot of sport. Once you keep your mind busy you’ll avoid a lot of things. 

KS: If you were not here today, as a coach, what would Openda be doing?

Jos Openda has a lot of things to do. Do you know that when I started coaching hockey I stopped doing fitness with my age mates? We used to meet and play for about two hours and after that….  I’ll still be involved in sports in some way or the other. 

KS: Lastly, you’ve talked about your experience in South Africa with the national team. What is your take on the kind of treatment players have received from KHU over the years when they step up to the national team? We are talking about allowances here.

That has been there. In fact I remember before we went for the world league, player had said that they will not travel without allowance. Some even turned down the call up. It’s their right. Let them be given their allowances. There are some things which need to be put into perspective before you call a team. Like you see these girls training here, if Orange tells me that they are not going to pay them, I’ll not call them for training. It would be a waste of time. 

Why do you call players to the national team then you don’t pay them? Give unto Ceasar what’s Ceacar’s and then tell, now that I’ve done this to you, I need results. And they will give you results. For example, we have a game in Mombasa this weekend, already we know where we are going to stay, what we are going to be paid in form of allowances. They will definitely travel to Mombasa, they will travel in the most comfortable way possible and they’ll sleep in a five star hotel. Will they not give you results? They have no choice. That’s the same way the national team should be. They should be put in a way that they don’t have a choice but to give the results.  But here we want to treat them like some third rate citizens and expect results from them. It’s so sad.

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