Fitness is finally becoming a non-negotiable factor in Indian Hockey. By dropping Sardar Singh and Ramandeep Singh for the Commonwealth Games, a clear message was sent out.

“Ramandeep Singh and Sardar Singh are slowing down now,” said a selector on the condition of anonymity. “We have to give someone full rest just like SK Uthappa. We had decided the team when we had announced the Azlan Shah Cup. There is major competition for every position now within the team. Plus with so many tournaments lined up, we can’t afford player burnout as well. Fitness is a priority.”

Fitness, therefore, is the new mantra.

The national cricket team’s tryst with the Yo-Yo test grabbed a lot of headlines in the past few months. But, it’s not just the cricketers who are looking to be at their optimal best on the field. Hockey too has decided that, to compete with the best in the world, skill alone cannot do the trick.

“The entire world talks about India and Pakistan’s skill. The whole world knows we have the skills which we have inherited. But only one element is not going to help us win the tournaments,” said Harendra Singh, coach of India’s women’s hockey team. “For that, you also need mental agility, quick decision-making and fitness. Fitness involves speed and strength. Hockey is one of the fastest games today. If you want to complete with the global teams, then you have to have these elements in your team,”

From Yo-Yo tests to Global Positioning Systems, the hockey set-up is moving towards forming an all-round approach towards achieving success.

In 2018, both the men’s and women’s team is going to participate in three major tournaments - the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and the World Cup. Hence, being fit and match ready is the need of the hour. “Mental strength is important to compete in six tournaments. To perform in all those tournaments is the target,” said men’s coach Sjoerd Marijne.

How, then, are the Indian teams going about becoming fit?

Change in fitness approach

With European teams dominating the rankings in both men’s and women’s division, Hockey India knew they had to improve their fitness standards if they wanted to break into the top three. Robin Arkell and Wayne Lombard came on-board as scientific advisors for the men’s and women’s team respectively.

“When Hockey India contacted me, it was quite a big decision to make. One of the things I looked at was the current state of fitness within the team. What I heard was that it wasn’t in greatest state as it should be for international level. I looked at the results of the last Olympics and I knew why a lot of people were saying that. I knew it was going to be a challenge,” Lombard, who started working with the women’s team last year, told The Field.

Lombard immediately ran a few drills to check the fitness level of the women. The results were disappointing to say the least he says. “The fitness levels, the speed levels were nowhere close to where it should be. So we made immediate changes. We tried to make them understand these things such as strength and conditioning, recovery and nutrition,” said Lombard.

Technology plays its part

The use of Global Positioning System Technology (GPS) made life easier for both coaches and scientific advisors to make sure that the players do not overdo the fitness regime and also suffer an injury.

“When a tournament starts, we want the players to be fresh. If we train too much they aren’t fresh. That is why we use the GPS for this. Another thing is to talk to the players all the time and ask them about their issues. If players haven’t recovered from the previous session then it makes no sense to train them if they aren’t ready,” said Marijne.

The men’s team undergoes a training session of an hour and a half twice a day. “We got certain sessions where we push harder than other sessions. It is all based around when the competition is. We have different fitness schedules for every position. We also look at individual fitness as well,” Arkell, who works with the senior men’s team, told The Field.

“For GPS metrics, we covered anywhere from 4000 to 7000 metres in a match with defenders covering higher distances then midfielders and strikers. The midfielders and strikers play at a higher work rate than defenders, performing more sprint counts and sprints per min than defenders. So they will spend about 15% of their total distance at a high speed, which is anything above 4.5m/sec. When we are playing to the best of our ability our match physical outputs are well within the likes of other international teams,” said Lombard.

The women’s team went a step further and began training with the NeuroTracker as well. The NeuroTracker helps to improve a player’s neural networks that govern situational awareness, attention, executive function and cognitive stamina.

“The NeuroTracker is giving us a lot of inputs of each and every player. It also gives you the fatigue factor and the peripheral vision of a player. It is also helping us with the decision-making and how to pre-scan before taking any decision. All these things are helping the team. We are leaving no stone unturned. Later on we shouldn’t say this should be done and that should be done,” said Harendra.

The famed Yo-Yo Test

“In modern day hockey, speed is very important to perform at the highest level,” said Arkell. Running fast is the key and what better way to check a player’s speed than by the famous Yo-Yo test.

To make in into the India cricket squad, you need to get a minimum of 16.1 in your Yo-Yo test. However, in hockey, 16.1 will make sure that you never make the team.

“When I first arrived the yo-yo average was around 17 now we are at 18.7 which is well in line with international standards. We have also improved our repeat sprint scores by about 14% over the last few months, with further improvements seen in sprint times over 10m, 30m and 40m,” said Lombard. “The average of 18.7 is good. Two girls have clocked 21 and three girls have scored 20 so that shows that the girls have understood the importance of fitness along with speed,” said Harendra.

While the men’s yo-yo scores were not officially available, according to a source, the average score is between 22 to 23.5. According to a report last year, midfielder Sumit had the highest score at 22.3, which is truly an elite score.

Players are also lifting weights as close to their body weight or more, which makes them more agile and quick.

Eyeing European standards

However, despite the results, the job is still incomplete. To compete with Europe’s elite and the likes of Argentina, Australia and New Zealand, a lot of work has to be done.

“Our aim is a long term goal and is to prepare the players for the World Cup. We want to make sure that the players are fit and make sure they are at peak condition for the Commonwealth Games and other tournaments. We are on the right track. By the time we reach major competitions we will be ready to compete with the European nations,” said Arkell.

All it requires is hard work and dedication.

“Fitness and strengths is one of the strong points of the Europeans. But if they have such positives, so do we. We have the skill. If we know how to mix the skill along with strength and speed that will be the icing on the cake. That is what we are trying to achieve,” said Harendra.

By the looks of things, Indian hockey means business this year. While they have now established themselves as the best in Asia, success at the highest level has remained elusive and this fitness mantra could just be the missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle.