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

Rudraneil Sengupta, Sandip Sikdar
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.
To be contd