How the India women’s hockey team got fitter, faster and stronger

  • A carefully tailored programme that continued through lockdown and a top-notch recovery process helped in the jump from last in Rio to fourth in Tokyo
India's Sharmila Devi in action against Great Britain at Tokyo 2020(Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images) PREMIUM
India's Sharmila Devi in action against Great Britain at Tokyo 2020(Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)
Updated on Sep 08, 2021 10:19 PM IST
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By Rudraneil Sengupta, Sandip Sikdar, New Delhi

In February, Vandana Katariya, the India women’s hockey team’s most experienced attacking player, fractured her ankle and tore a ligament. For the gritty, lithe forward, who had spent the better part of a year locked down at the hockey team’s base in Bengaluru doing nothing but training — and thinking of little else but the Tokyo Olympics — this was a terrible blow.

“But Wayne Lombard (the team’s scientific advisor), told me not to worry, that he would take care of the recovery,” Katariya said.

Lombard, a big, muscular South African who has worked with elite athletes for a decade and with the hockey team since 2017, knew that Katariya had one thing going for her: she was the fittest athlete in the squad. “Her baseline fitness…just phenomenal,” Lombard said.

“Your ankle is injured, but everything else is working just fine,” he told Katariya. “We can keep training hard, within reason, and working on rehab…there is no difference between rehab and performance.”

The recovery process

Over the following few weeks, Katariya went through the kind of recovery process that’s the norm for elite athletes in countries with advanced sporting infrastructures, but has only begun in recent years in Indian hockey. Because ankles quickly lose their range of motion when kept inactive, she donned an ankle brace boot as soon as possible and made to walk.

To ensure that the muscles on that leg did not lose strength, Lombard introduced a practice called Blood Flow Restriction or BFR. Bands wrapped around the leg cuts off blood flow to specific muscles periodically while a person does isometric, low-weight exercises. It’s believed to stimulate muscles in a way that tricks the brain into enhancing both strength gain and recovery while using minimal weight. Japanese power lifter Yoshiaki Sato, who invented the method, had his first big success with it in 1973, while trying to recover from an ankle fracture too (though the technique only came into more widespread usage, backed by research, in 2016).

Once Katariya was at a stage where she could walk without the brace, Lombard started her on an exercise regime that did not put too much stress on the ankle — in the pool, on bikes — and on an anti-gravity treadmill.

“They are so cool for rehab purposes,” Lombard said, speaking on a Zoom call from Bengaluru this month, just before he left for South Africa for a rare break. “Because it gets the athlete running really early and you can decide how much bodyweight the player can take at that time. Say you weigh 100kg, but I can set it at 50% bodyweight, so when you are running or walking on the treadmill, you are only supporting that much bodyweight. It feels like moonwalking!”

The anti-gravity treadmill is essentially a treadmill enclosed in an airtight chamber that comes up to the athlete’s waist. The air pressure in the chamber is increased to the desired level so that the athlete is in a more buoyant environment. Not only does the treadmill allow athletes to start running without having to bear their full bodyweight, it also helps maintain cardiovascular conditioning with significantly reduced stress on the joints.

Only when Katariya had progressed to running 40 minutes at around 90% bodyweight without pain that Lombard put her back on the field. “I returned fitter than before,” Katariya said.

“That’s the great paradox of injuries: the timing is never good for injuries but the timing is sometimes very good for injuries,” Lombard said with a smile. “If that makes any sense…”

Through the Tokyo Olympics, it did.

Team transformed

So there she was, Katariya, at Tokyo 2020, in what turned out to be the most exhilarating campaign the Indian women’s hockey team has ever been a part of. A campaign with a cinematic arc — early setbacks, a roaring revival, an extraordinary victory over a higher-ranked opponent and finally, missing out on a medal after going down to the Rio 2016 champions in a down-to-the-wire, high-scoring game.

Katariya finished with four goals — the most at the Olympics for India along with Gurjit Kaur — including a hattrick in a must-win game of fluctuating fortunes against South Africa, her athleticism allowing her to outmuscle her markers, or sprint tirelessly into the defence’s blind spots for opportunistic strikes.

Here was a team transformed — a team that had lost all its matches at Rio 2016, standing toe to toe with the medallists from that edition. One of the ways they did it was by becoming world-class athletes.

“The fitness results have been amazing,” said Sjoerd Marijne, who coached the team from 2018 till the end of the Olympic campaign. “They have become faster, stronger, their agility is much better, their movements, it’s everything.”

Speaking over the phone from Amsterdam, where he said he was adjusting to the cold and rain after the heat of India, Marijne said that the process of change started “with the first session.”

“It happened by taking small steps over four and a half years.”

It’s a process that began with the fundamentals—both Marijne and Lombard agreed that when they took over, the team was physically at a “low level”—and proceeded to take the team to a stage where they were regularly scoring as high on the yo-yo test as the men’s team, numbers that would put them in the same category as any top team in the world.

Team's routine during Tokyo 2020.
Team's routine during Tokyo 2020.

In between, it involved carefully tailored and calibrated work, everything from working on absolute speed, to explosive power training such as jumps, Olympic lifts such as cleans and snatches, heavy weight training, parachutes and car tyres, boxing and kick-boxing, ice baths and BFR, taking all added sugar out of the diet and a major overhaul of nutrition, GPS vests and bands equipped with accelerometers, lactate tests, pickle juice, caffeine gels and a self-made app to keep training through the lockdown.

All of this made a decisive difference to their confidence, said forward Navneet Kaur; they could last a full match—and eventually a full tournament—without fatigue catching up with them. “We finish the way we start, at the same speed,” said Navneet.

This is the confidence and the stamina that gave the team its finest moment at the Oi Hockey stadium in Tokyo, the gritty 1-0 win over three-time Olympic champions Australia, where the team held on to their slender lead for close to 40 minutes while being constantly under siege.

“Earlier we used to get afraid when we had to play against big teams like Holland, Australia or Argentina,” said Katariya. “It’s not like that anymore. We can fight against any team in the world because our fitness is not less than anyone else’s.”

Being ready

To reinforce the belief that the women were ready for the Olympics, Lombard staged a show and tell a month before the squad left for Tokyo. He made the team go through what’s called a lactate clearance test, which is a marker that shows how quickly an athlete has recovered from a given workload. To put it simply, lactate is the by-product of glucose utilisation by muscle cells—the higher the intensity of exercise, the more lactate gets produced. The more conditioned an athlete is, the faster her or his body will metabolise lactates, and even use it as fuel.

“I only did this because I suspected that I would get a certain result, that they would do very well,” Lombard said. “Because of course they have doubts—have I done enough? Am I fit enough?—especially because by that time we started tapering off the work and players worried that they were feeling too fresh, not sore enough!”

Happy with the excellent results they got on the lactate tests, the players were also presented with data Lombard accumulated on the teams they would face in the pool stages.

“Again, to reinforce that they were ready, that they had ticked those boxes,” Lombard said, “we looked at each position and looked at the distances they would be expected to cover, the speeds.”

Pandemic training

While the lack of a hockey season in 2020 due to the pandemic was a massive blow, Lombard also saw it as an opportunity to work on things that he would not usually get an opportunity to do in a normal season for fear of injuring the player.

During the initial lockdown phase, when the team was stuck inside their Bengaluru centre but not allowed to train, Lombard created an app using Google Glide. On the app, players could access bespoke programmes, including video explainers, as well as forms they had to fill every day for feedback.

“They would have to go off campus to do a session and I would kind of walk past to see what they are doing and not be ‘coaching’ to try and stick to the rules,” Lombard said with a laugh.

That was the base. The moment the restrictions were lifted, the team went into overdrive with intense speed and agility sessions, working with heavy chains, truck tyres, resistance bands, and doing speed drills strapped to parachutes to create a powerful drag.

Distances, Speeds at Tokyo
Distances, Speeds at Tokyo

“This training is very important from an injury prevention perspective too. If I can teach them how to sprint well, how to change direction well, decelerate with good mechanics…that just minimises the risk of injury,” Lombard said. “The idea was to get them so robust that no matter what the coaches or the opposition throws at them, they are able to adapt and cope with it physically.”

If the 3-4 loss to Britain in the bronze medal match— India’s eighth game in 13 days—where they ran themselves ragged and battled for every ball, captured the very essence of the team’s physical capabilities, it was the win over Australia that felt like vindication.

As the clock counted down the final 10 seconds and India thwarted yet another Australia attack, you could hear the shrieks of joy from the dugout. At the hooter, the joy spilled onto the turf as the women as well as the coaching staff celebrated with abandon.

“I haven’t been part of something that emotional,” Lombard said. “I’m not one to show emotions but it was really hard to hide them there. Luckily, I had my sunglasses on. Everyone sees one game, one goal, but it’s the culmination of five years of work that paid off just at the right time. It was just a sense of relief.”

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Thursday, October 21, 2021