His first fitness session with Indian hockey players was a culture shock for Australian exercise physiologist David John. Having worked with hockey players, cricketers and other sportspersons during a lengthy and successful career as a physical trainer and exercise physiologist Down Under, David was stunned to see the poor fitness levels of the players, some of whom have played hockey at the international level for nearly a decade.
The bigger concern for him, however, was the basic flaws in their posture, running and walking that contribute to overall poor fitness levels and often lead to breakdowns and injuries when they are put through rigorous training.
"I realised that I will have to change their total outlook towards fitness," David told Hindustan Times during the camp held in Bangalore last month.
"By just watching the players run, David pointed out that there are many players, who had wrong running techniques because of which they are prone to injuries. He even pointed out that a couple of players had a difference in the length of their legs because of which they are prone to groin injuries. Astonishingly when we measured the length of their legs there was actually a difference of about one centimetre and thus players were advised to wear an extra innersole," said former international Sukhbir Singh Grewal, who was the camp coordinator.
The Australian also noted a casual approach towards fitness not only among the players but also the administrators.
Sample this: Having realised that the players need weight-training to develop muscle strength, the exercise physiologist scheduled a training session at the weightlifting hall. The message was passed on to officials at the Sports Authority of India (SAI), Southern Centre, well in advance requesting a weightlifting coach to assist him. But when David and the team reached the weightlifting hall, they found it locked. To his consternation, he was told that the person who had the key for the hall failed to turn up and therefore the session had to cancelled.
David was lucky, in that he got the facilities a day later. His predecessor David Terez and coach Jose Brasa were not so fortunate — the GPS system that they had sought at the time of taking over, came towards the end of their two-year tenure.
Even after getting the equipment, GPS and Heart Rate Monitor, no formal training was provided to the coaches or support staff. It was only through individual reading and the trial and error method that the support staff during the Azlan Shah camp started using these technological gadgets. A formal training would not only have prevented inconvenience but would have also ensured optimal use of the equipment.
Another predecessor of David, Spanish trainer Jesus Garcia Pallares, quit within three months of taking the assignment, citing lack of professionalism and failure to get basic equipment.
"For years our game has suffered because of poor fitness levels. This is all due to a casual, almost lackadaisical approach towards fitness and training. Moreover there is no culture for fitness among the players and that is why we are unable to match with the powerhouses of the sport," said 1968 Olympic bronze medallist Col Balbir Singh, who is also the chairman of the selection committee.
"If you compare the penetration of hockey in India to European nations and Australia, you'll see that it's far more popular here. Still other nations are ahead of us, and it is all because of fitness," he added.
In the post-tournament report of the Azlan Shah Cup, Singh, who was the team manager, wrote a scathing report emphasising the poor fitness levels of the team. According to his report, the team was only good enough to play 35 minutes of hockey (a full match is 70 minutes).
Some of the touring team members raised objections on the Balbir report and said that they were not ready to accept that they were half fit during the Azlan Shah Cup.
"What I observed, I wrote in my report. The fitness levels during the Azlan Shah Cup were abysmal and even now there's hardly much of a change. Even during the recent trials for the Asian Champions Trophy, it was quite visible and evident that the overall fitness standard of the team is not up to the international standards," Balbir added.
"The fitness level of the campers might be good for domestic circuit. But if we compare it with international standards than we stand nowhere," Grewal added.
The fitness problem did not end with the Azlan Shah Cup, in fact it has only deteriorated further.
The report of the VO2 Max test (fitness test) the players underwent last month during the camp in Bangalore clearly indicates an average dip of 10-12% in the results as compared to the test taken during the camp in April prior to the Azlan Shah Cup.
Earlier, the best VO2 Max result recorded was 65.43 points, in the Bangalore Camp the same player again performed the best, but this time his tally was 59.0. The lowest score at the time of the earlier camp was 52.0 and the same player's finding were the lowest in the Bangalore camp as well, this time a woeful 47.2.
The two tests clearly show a dip of 5 to 10 points in the results of every camper. (HT has got a copy of both the tests).
As per the latest fitness test results, taken last month during the camp in Bangalore, the specific speed endurance of the campers is poor and the overall speed is also not good. Many players also face a problem with regards to flexibility. The hip flexibility of most of the players is poor.
"David has a customised plan for each player. The main thrust of this plan is on injury prevention.
Right now his main area of interest is power training. The most important thing is to improve the explosive training and core training for increasing their strength and lend better stability," said a coach attached with the national team.
The players also agree that their attitude towards fitness is nothing to write home about. "Very few players are serious about fitness during the off-season, and when they come to national camps and are exposed to the rigors of training they generally succumb to injuries," said a senior player, who has been a regular feature of the national squad for some time now.
"At times, even during national camps, the fitness regimen was not adequate, and often everybody is handed a similar programme, not taking into consideration one's physical requirement. But we are pleased that David is working on an individual basis and chalking out a plan keeping in mind ones capacity of bearing the load," he added.
"David also wants us to gain some body weight, which could help the players with their explosive speed. Right now most of the players have a very mediocre explosive speed," said another player.
Poor fitness levels are also one of the reasons why the bench strength hasn't been used optimally. The coach can only go for a full rotation system if everybody in the team is equally fit. Former coach Jose Brasa introduced the rotation policy.
During his time, out of the three forwards in the field, two forwards were rotated after every five minutes. Midfielders were rotated after every seven minutes.
"Looking at the style of power hockey which is all the rage at present, utilising the entire bench will help the team perform better," said a coach.
After missing out on the Beijing Olympics, India's hopes of qualifying for the London Games are still hanging in the balance. Will the current players 'fit' the bill? Only time will tell.