‘Red’ alert for team as Reid means business
To qualify for the Olympics, India’s hockey coach stresses on the need to play the last quarter with as much speed and agility as the first.Updated: Oct 30, 2019, 10:39 IST
As India hockey forward Mandeep Singh slumps into a chair after a “red training session”, enervated and breathless after spending 150 minutes on the turf, he has just enough strength to mumble, “The session was very long.”
With the Olympic qualifiers—on November 1 and 2—around the corner, there was a sense of urgency—and frenetic activity —in every session that India’s chief coach, Graham Reid, was organising at the Sports Authority of India complex in Bengaluru.
Ever since the Australian took charge of the India team, he has focused on fitness and stamina, formulating two loaded training sessions of 150 (red) and 90 (green) minutes, respectively. The longer and more strenuous session included a goal of running 8km in total by each player, part of it as running exercises, partly as distance covered during on-turf game drills.
To monitor the sessions, held on alternate days, global positioning system (GPS) pods are fitted into the players’ sports bras and bibs. On one red training day recently, the players took a quick breather at the end of the session before gathering around Robin Arkell, the team’s strength and conditioning coach from South Africa, who was feverishly compiling data on his laptop.
“They want to know whether they have achieved the target set for them,” said Arkell. “That’s why you see them crowding around me after each session.”
The physical demands of modern hockey has meant that coaches and biomechanical experts have had to rely more and more on technology to tell them exactly what’s happening with a player’s body. The GPS vest is a handy tool serving their purpose; it monitors a range of parameters, including the total distance covered, intensity of running, sprint distance, acceleration and deceleration, among others.
The data at Arkell’s disposal is extensive but he filters it out and shares only what he feels is relevant for the players to know.
“It’s obviously a challenge getting it (the data) across to the players, information that is necessary for them to know,” he said. “They don’t need to know everything so I give them the basic metrics, like total distance covered. Each session essentially has a target of what we want to hit.”
Since hockey is a game of short sprints, that’s the one aspect that is monitored most extensively.
“I give them the number of sprints they (have to) perform and high-speed running distances (they have to cover). These are some of the most important parameters. They are conveyed to them before each session,” said Arkell.
Knowing Reid’s predilection for live data, Arkell knows he has to be clinical in his assessments before passing on the details of each player to the chief coach. Reid, Arkell and analytical coach Chris Ciriello—the renowned former Australian drag-flicker—put their heads together before each session to work out each player’s load.
“During training, we can easily assess the workload, where the player is placed technically and physically, etc. It (the data) is good for a player to evaluate himself and decide… ‘I am not working hard enough, look at how the others are doing,’” said Reid.
But even while crucial data is shared, a lot of it is held back for the “benefit of the players”. “Yes, we do not pass on all the information to the players. The team management is aware of the pitfalls of sharing too much. It can be confusing, counterproductive,” said Arkell. “We don’t bombard them with data that will force them to push themselves beyond a limit.”
Conceding goals in the last quarter has been India’s problem and much of the high-intensity training and sprints are aimed at correcting the inconsistencies ever since India transitioned from grass to astroturf. Now, the expectation is to run the last quarter of the hour-long match as hard as the first.
Each quarter is captured by video analysts and the positions of players mapped on the field, which are relayed to the team management during meetings. All this has helped improve the fitness levels since Arkell joined the setup two-and-a-half years ago. Turning the ball around with acrobatic body feints, making blistering runs down the flanks, shooting from acute angles, the changes are visible in the Manpreet Singh-led team.
India defender Surender Kumar says, the GPS data is “very advantageous”. “We get to know who is running how much and at what speed. And, how much more speed is required. Players get to know how much energy they are putting in, how much they’re running. There’s a lot of information about speed, endurance and quickness.”
Procedures followed in practice are now regularly replicated in tournaments. Gradually, players are pushed a “little bit beyond” what they can handle, Reid said, so that playing the next tournament becomes easier.
Depleting energy reserves of Indian players as the tournament progresses is another core concern.
“If a tournament goes on for 10-12 days and you play 5-8 games, things can get hugely demanding,” said Arkell. “After analysing past and current performances, I can say that all the values (distances, sprints etc) we have covered recently have been a lot higher than what we used to.”
The players too seem to have come around the new training methods. “By practicing hard here, we can make tournaments easier. We (now) want to give our 100% in the last five minutes,” said Manpreet.
But high-intensity training and injuries go hand-in-hand. A prime example being SV Sunil, the seasoned forward who was all set for the 2018 World Cup in Bhubaneswar before a knee injury at the national camp.
“You need to do it in a safe manner; you need to progress (slowly but steadily) to get there so that there are no injuries,” said Arkell. During India’s recent tour to Europe for a joint training session, the teams shared GPS data to see how each team fared. “(Now) the guys are driven, they want to be fit and strong, fast and powerful. So for me, my job is made easier because they are so receptive to improvement. This is going to help them execute the game plan a lot better,” said Arkell.
“If you run less than your target, the GPS will expose you,” Manpreet said, laughing. “So, if someone doesn’t run the specific distance, we’ll know he’s a kaamchor.”