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

Rudraneil Sengupta, Sandip Sikdar
Contd from prev issue
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.
“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.” Hindustan Times