Portugal’s pro league ‘Singhs’ the praises of former Pakmen star
By DAVID WINER
It is easy to spot Navreet Singh on the volleyball court.
Wearing a patka, an under-turban identifying his Sikh religion, Singh is easily recognizable whether involved in the play, or not.
Singh is only one of a million adherents of the religion in North America, which means it’s a rarity to see Sikhs, making headlines in the sporting arena, especially on the volleyball court.
Yet Singh has never minded standing out as an island of one.
While a minority might attempt to blend in with the masses, Singh embraces the spotlight. He is proud of his religious upbringing and at ease on the court, often standing out as an impenetrable one-man blockade, placing his 6-foot-6 frame exactly where the enemy spiker is about to deliver his blow.
While appearing different has created some uncomfortable moments over the past decade with insensitive spectators, officials and players, Singh’s experiences have been vastly positive, both from a growing popularity among Sikhs and with those who admire his religious zeal.
Singh’s prominence, however, stretches well beyond his appearance. Since taking up the sport at David Leeder Middle School under the tutelage of teacher and coach Kelly Smith, Singh has been a natural.
After all-star appearances at Mississauga Secondary School and with the Pakmen Volleyball Club, which was founded by Smith to initially give David Leeder students another outlet, Singh has grown immensely in talent and stature, as a middle blocker receiving numerous accolades at Ryerson University (Metropolitan U), McMaster and with the IndoCan Volleyball Club where his Sikh fandom has been noteworthy.
“I’ve known Navreet since he was 11 and joined the Grade 6 school team I was coaching,” reminisced Smith, who still heads up the reputed Pakmen club. “What stood out then, and still does today, is that he is such an authentic person — always true to himself regardless of any pressure to act otherwise. I’ve always admired him for that.”
“My religion is important to me because it’s my identity,” explained Singh. “It is my faith and what I hold near and dear to me. All my life I’ve worn a turban on my head and I view it as my crown. I know it comes with great responsibility as I’m not only representing myself but my culture and religion, but I enjoy that responsibility. Religion is important to me because I feel it pushes me towards always being a more moral and ethical person. Of course I am not without sin and make mistakes every day, but for me, keeping faith in my religion’s deep values allows me to be much happier and successful.”
This past season, Singh left his behind scholastic life and became a neophyte in the professional ranks with Sporting Clube das Caldas in the Portuguese Men’s Volleyball First Division.
While Singh began his career slowly for the struggling 2-11 team, it wasn’t long before the 23-year-old native of Mississauga began to shine resulting in his being named the league’s best blocker after leading the league in blocks (80) and total blocks per set (0.96).
It was an affirmation to Singh that he belongs in the pro game.
“It’s an interesting feeling because for so long becoming a professional athlete has been a dream of mine,” explained Singh. “I look back to where it all started and everything that has occurred in my playing career and life leading up to now and realize that it’s all been a testament to how I ended up in this position. All the wins and losses, the failures and triumphs, all the dark times when I doubted myself and questioned if I could progress any further. I didn’t know it then but I know now, all of it was necessary to get to where I am now. So being able to finally call myself a professional volleyball player and being able to rise above all the obstacles that were set out on the path to get here is definitely a surreal feeling.”
Jessy Satti, Singh’s beach volleyball coach at Pakmen had a clear understanding of where Navreet’s talents would lead him.
“Navreet is one of the most competitive athletes that I’ve ever worked with,” said Satti. “I had no doubt that he would not only excel at the club and university levels but also at the professional level. Nav has always been an amazing ambassador for Pakmen; he coached with us over the years while in university, and he’s been a great role model to kids in the community.”
Travelling across the world to compete, Singh had more than the professional life to adapt to. He also had to assimilate with seven homegrown teammates, three Brazilians and a Colombian. It was up to Singh to discover on the fly a way of understanding his teammates who were accustomed to communicating in their native tongues of Portuguese and Spanish.
“It was definitely a challenge at first getting accustomed to living in a foreign country and not knowing the language at all,” admitted Singh. “I had a few teammates who spoke English well so they were a big help, always translating for me and making sure I understood what was being said.
“But when I was out and about by myself in day-to-day life, going to the grocery store, the bank, the mall, it was quite interesting trying to manoeuvre around and get used to that aspect.”
Speaking of grocery stores, Singh also had to find his way as a practicing vegetarian who required all the energy intake his lengthy torso required.
“Yeah, I have been a vegetarian almost all my life. My diet consists of a lot of fruits, vegetables, chickpeas, lentils, potatoes and other rich organic foods. I also like to spend a lot of time on my body taking care of it in terms of recovery, which helps me perform better.”
Swearing off alcohol also could have had an effect on his dealings with teammates, but Singh said that was never a challenge.
“No, it’s never been a problem for me and never affected any interactions for me,” said Singh. “I’ve always been able to have a good time without the need of any drugs or alcohol. Of course in any social setting there’ll be peer pressure, but I explain my reasons and I’m always understood. So my teammates and I still went out, partied and had a good time regardless.
“As the season progressed,” continued Singh, “I started to comprehend the language a little and learn some more so that made things a bit easier as well.”
Singh eventually learned to make the best of his trying situation and form relationships with teammates through various means of communication.
“For me another compelling aspect was how I was able to still create a bond and connection with certain teammates and individuals within the club who didn’t speak any English at all. One of my teammates was a Colombian (outside hitter Jharold Caicedo) around my age who spoke Spanish and no English so we were extremely limited on being able to communicate with each other. However, we were able to relate to each other through things like music, dance, sports, funny videos…and we grew close. I started to help him with his English and he would help me learn some Spanish and we would try to communicate with each other as much as we could. And, if it failed, we would just resort to google translate to get our message across. That was something that was so captivating to me that even though we didn’t know each others’ languages we found ways to communicate and build a bond.”
Starting out in the precarious life of a professional athlete, building relationships is key to keeping your head above water when things are not going well on the court.
“The amazing thing about the life of a professional is that you can centre all your attention around volleyball and not have to worry about grades and turning papers in anymore as you did in university,” said Singh. This allows you to dedicate yourself truly to the craft and see bigger improvements in yourself with the more work you put in.
“However, now it’s a business. The pro life can be very cut throat. At the end of the day these clubs value their bottom line and upholding their image, so if you’re struggling, or not performing on the court, you’ll hear about it for sure and even risk getting cut and sent home. So in that realm, it’s quite different and can add a lot of pressure to an athlete. But you just have to thrive in that sort of environment and make sure you stay mentally strong when those bumps in the road come.”
Former Pakmen and Ryerson teammate Saad Shaikh, helped explain how Singh, a one-time member of Canada’s junior national team, thrives regardless of the competition.
While they were teammates at Ryerson, Shaikh pointed out, “It’s his ability to know all the tendencies of the opponent. He watches too much film, he’ll know everything about the opponents’ playing style, and that helps us a lot in big games.”
Still, the rewards from his attention to details and hard work against Portugal’s best, was very humbling.
“Being awarded the best blocker in all of Portugal in its highest, most competitive first division is a huge honour,” said Singh. “These types of accolades stick with you for the rest of your life, so in accomplishing this I’m so grateful. It makes all the hard work and sacrifice I put into my craft worth it.
“I always believed in myself and my abilities to be the best on the court, but yeah, I am a bit surprised about my adaptation to the competition at this level because at first I was really struggling. At the start of the season I was not doing as well as I would have liked and I was really having trouble asserting myself and having an impact on the game. That’s when confidence also starts to drop and doubt starts to creep in about yourself, but I just put my head down and kept grinding away until things started to turn around for me. The second half of the season I found my rhythm and that’s when I was able to start performing at my best.”
With his one-year contract now behind him, Singh can use those recent accomplishments to help jumpstart the rest of his professional career.
“As of now, I don’t know what I will be doing for next season — it’s still very early,” explained Singh. “It was only a one-year contract with this team so I am free to venture off and explore other options. I will take some time to speak with my agent and family then make a decision for what’s next.”
Whether next season encompasses a return to Portugal, or to another foreign land, Singh is appreciative of the people, experiences and sights he experienced in this western central town of 52,000 residents just an hour’s north of Lisbon and a hop, skip and jump from the Atlantic Ocean’s Foz do Arelho beach.
“The reception I received in Portugal as a visible minority was met with no problems at all. Almost all the people I met were very nice, caring and loving individuals. I was a bit shocked to be completely honest. I expected in leaving the Greater Toronto Area, where it’s so diverse, and traveling to Europe, there would be some challenges in facing discrimination and racism. That’s because I’ve had to (face challenges) almost everywhere I’ve gone outside of Toronto. However, I was incredibly wrong. I quickly realized Portugal has a beautiful culture, filled with humble hearted people.”
And despite all the long hours associated with playing professionally and practising regularly throughout the week, what Singh saw of Portugal is something he will always cherish.
“During the season there wasn’t much time to explore and sight see to the fullest,” explained Singh. “We would practice twice a day both morning and night, Monday through Friday, as well as having a workout session after the morning practice. Then on Saturdays we would have our games leaving Sunday as the one and only day we had off. So it made it a bit challenging to explore and sight see. The nice thing was that the league has teams located throughout the country. So, through travel to away games, I was able to see all parts of the country. We had games up north in the Porto area, games in Lisbon and even had a game in the Portuguese Islands of Terceira, Azores which was beautiful to travel to by plane.”
Singh can’t wait for his great adventure to continue next season regardless of where in the world it takes him.