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From Rio Disappointment to Tokyo Fairytale: The Story of Indian Women Hockey Team’s Stellar Transformation

Those long hours of training, the strict diet, the daily fitness regime, the data collection, the data crushing, and the data analysis. The output of all this is called the result. Fans don’t see the making of an athlete, the hard work, the sweat, and blood put into it. But like film critics they dismiss every effort by watching 60 minutes of play on the field. And if that result is not to their liking the most they’ll do is to click the button of their television remote and get back to work.

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Thankfully, Indian women’s hockey have made many sit up and take notice of the performance. The fans were thrilled with the way the Indian women’s team held the fort against a champion-side like Australia in the quarter-final of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. What you saw in 60 minutes was being scripted since 2017. What you saw on the field was being planned for the last year in the players’ rooms inside the Sports Authority of India complex in Bangalore by a star-studded lineup of coach Sjoerd Marijne, analytical coach Janneke Schopman, scientific advisor Wayne Lombard and team psychologist Priyanka. Matches are not won on the hockey field, they are just played on it. It is the training sessions that can turn the also-rans into potential medallists. Today’s hockey demands a quicker and fitter side, which in turn helps enhance their understanding and implementation of structure and tactics.

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Marijne’s stint with Indian hockey

Back in 2017, Dutchman Sjoerd Marijne was appointed coach of the Indian women’s hockey team. An unheard name in the hockey circles, just a player who represented clubs like Den Bosch in the Hoofdklasse. When Reoland Oltmans, another Dutchman, was sacked as men’s coach, Marijne was on a Europe tour with women. While on a tour to Europe (Netherlands), Marinje received a call on his phone informing him that he was being handed over the charge of the men’s side. The men’s team was averse to the revolutionary approach of the newly-inducted Dutchman. Many didn’t even know how to pronounce his name let alone his training and fitness methods. Harender Singh was taking care of the women’s team. After men’s debacle at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games and women’s bronze-winning performance in the same tournament, Hockey India relented to the pressure from the boys. In another unpredicted move, Marijne was sent back to the women’s team and Harender appointed men’s coach. What was seen as a promotion for Harendra and punishment for Marijne, turned out to be a blessing for the women. Marijne did not bother. He got back to work.

The fitness journey begins

The girls had no problems with Marinje’s approach. As goalkeeper Savita Punia put it, “After our lackadaisical performance in the 2016 Rio Olympics, we were eager to not only qualify for Tokyo but also do anything, at any cost to make our presence felt in world hockey.” From the Dutchman’s eyes, when he took over the side, the girls lacked self-confidence. “Most common problem the girls face is (lack of) self-confidence. Some of the girls feel a lot of pressure before the match. A few feel pressure from the family,” Marijne had said. This was where newly-appointed scientific advisor Wayne Lombard walked in. Appointed in August 2017, Wayne straightaway got into knowing the physic of the women players.

The girls were skeptical upon Wayne’s arrival. He found out that the girls experienced that they trained a lot but didn’t feel like they were getting better. Their perception of Indian women’s hockey was that physically they are really poor and that’s where they struggled a lot. They struggled to keep up with a lot of Western teams from a physical perspective. So when a Yo-Yo test was conducted, Wayne said, the scores were around about 17-17.5. From an international perspective that’s quite low, the international hockey players should be scoring 18 as a dead minimum. “When you are averaging 17, it means maybe 20 percent of the athletes are running an 18, and then the rest 17 or lower. We actually ran our best Yo-Yo just before the England tour where we had team average of about 19.5. So the improvements were huge,” the scientific advisor had said back then.

Training sessions

High-speed running is a threshold that you set for something so it’s called anything about four and a half meters per second, which is around about 15 km an hour. And every time they reached that, that’s one high-speed effort, and then how many meters they cover above that threshold. “When we first started, depending on who do we play against, we play round about 9-10-12 percent and mostly our midfielders and forwards will always get about 15 to 20 percent. And defenders will be quite low because they don’t as much fast running as strikers do. The most important thing to me is they are able to repeat these efforts over and over again,” Wayne had revealed. According to Wayne, it took about three years for the entire process, training six days a week, up to 10 sessions in a week, we planned it in a way that the team peaked for the two Olympic qualification matches against the USA in November 2019. But for the entire process and exercises data was very important and it also meant that the players themselves had to provide a lot of data. And the girls were ready, as Savita said, “to do anything, at any cost”.

Tech-savvy girls

Monika competed at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games as a part of the team, said Saturday mornings sessions were the toughest. “It is always a red session. Red sessions are mostly higher-intensity training sessions where we focus on match intensity with the idea of superseding match intensity with small-sided variations,” she had said in a release issued by Hockey India. “Each session is either focused on speed or endurance or direction focused. We have about two-three such sessions a week. Those are the days when our fitness levels are really tested. Our awareness about each session, how it helps, what it’s for etc is much better now than before. Earlier, we would just blindly focus on what coaches said. “The focus now is to keep improving on our strengths and work on the weak points. Our aim is to peak at the right time. Every player’s workload is taken into consideration and improvement is mapped accordingly.”

Each player was asked to keep a chart and upload it to Google docs where Wayne Lombard would monitor crucial aspects such as sleep, recovery, etc. The players religiously maintained a chart that had details of what they do the entire day. They had to mention details of activity pursued for recoveries such as number of minutes spent for massage or ice bath or pool session etc. They were also to record the number of hours they slept. “I feel by doing these activities on our own, the coaching staff also inculcated a lot more awareness about how we must take care of our bodies and remain injury-free,” Monica added.

Wayne would always say ‘Eat for performance’!

According to him, changing eating habit is most difficult, especially in a place like India. With such a diverse background, where players from North-East have a different diet than those from South India. There is also this concept of vegetarian and the non-vegetarian diet. As athletes, you need to have a high protein intake. “We also had a whole lot of different tests. From body composition testing to blood testing, to assessing their energy output to the energy input they need,” he had told a sports website Considering all this, individual eating plans were put together to ensure the players were getting enough nutrients.

Indian food, Wayne felt, looks very tasty! He added, “But I think it depends on how it is prepared. So, it doesn’t matter if it’s butter chicken or whatever, it’s how it is prepared that becomes important. And what you have with it. A large part of the Indian diet generally is carb-based. So, a lot of Rotis or rice, those sorts of things. That’s what we try to encourage the girls to avoid having a lot of. Because when you are having a lot of carbs, that increases body weight. It’s just not what we need for athletic performance.” The players were educated on the need for a good diet. More protein, lots of vegetables, salads were encouraged and were told to avoid having both rice and roti.

The effort paid off. Before leaving for Tokyo Savita said, “We managed two tours to Germany and Argentina. They found out that they were at par with those formidable sides in every aspect. If the Germans had 17 circle entries, we had 15. If we entered the circle 17 times against the Argentines, they entered 15 times. We match them in speed, endurance, and agility.” It’s the hard work in the last five years that has got them this far in the tournament. And it wouldn’t be a surprise if they manage to enter the final, they’ve sacrificed a lot to get here. Victory or defeat, the girls are among the top four teams in the world. From 12th in Rio to top four in five years has been a long, long journey.

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