Fitness has become, possibly, the biggest component of success in international hockey. While the Indian men’s team has excelled in this field and the team has become among the fittest in the world, the women’s side is also not far behind.
Many players in the hockey setup have talked about how much fitter they have become and how much this has affected their performance. In an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda, the man behind the Indian women’s hockey team’s improved fitness – Scientific Advisor Wayne Lombard – explains the methods he has used to produce desirable results.
The South African talks at length about the challenges he faced, the changes he brought in, and the techniques and processes he has used to make the Indian side reach the high benchmark of fitness needed in modern-day hockey.
Q. When you joined the Indian women’s hockey team, what were the biggest challenges you saw in front of yourself?
As any foreigner coming in, there is obviously the cultural challenge. In India, it is mainly about females not realizing that they should be allowed to express themselves. So, I think with the girls, changing that mindset, feeling that they must go out there and really push themselves, and be allowed to express themselves, was one of the biggest challenges.
They didn’t have the biggest gym and training ethos that we expected in an international team. So, to change that mindset and get them to understand that international hockey has changed a lot and has become very physical as well as very fast. If we don’t up our game on the physical side of things, we are going to struggle to keep up in international hockey.
So, changing the mindset and getting them to understand that the physical side is just as important as the technical side was really important. I think they had a bit of a mindset block before I came in, probably because of what’s happened in the past.
But understanding that if we do things properly, the training would be hard but you will reap the benefits was important. Trying to change that mindset and getting them to understand the importance of the physical aspect of hockey was the biggest challenge.
Q. You said that when you first arrived, you had to encourage them to express themselves. Can you elaborate on what that actually entailed?
So, when I first arrived, a lot of the time, the girls were really withdrawn within themselves and they found it very difficult to express their own opinions. Or, they didn’t feel that they were allowed to express their opinions. So, it was important for us to give them ownership and give them the idea that this is their program and they need to be able to run it and they need to be able to buy into it.
As soon as they felt that they were involved in the process, it became about them. They started to express themselves more. They started asking right questions and they started finding their own answers to those questions.
That’s important for us because I can provide answers every day for them. But, in the end, it’s more important that they grow as individuals, not only as athletes, and start understanding why are we doing things. If they start asking questions, they start understanding these things a little bit better.
In that way, they can grow as holistic individuals rather than just athletes who perform on the pitch. Because then, they start to really understand and think about what we are doing rather than just going through the motions and thinking that we are training to get better. If they really understand it, they buy into it more and reap the benefits more because if you buy into a process, you really put the effort in and you reap the benefits a bit more.
Q. Maintaining fitness has many dimensions – training, workouts, diet, etc. Which one do you think is the most important?
I think, anywhere you go, eating is always the most difficult habit to change because everyone has got their own habits. Especially, in a place like India, where you have got very diverse backgrounds, with people from North-East having a different diet than people from South India, and so on. Also, differences regarding vegetarian and the non-vegetarian diet are here.
With athletes who are training hard, you obviously need to have a high protein intake. So, trying to work around those aspects is important. But we also have a whole lot of different tests. From body composition testing to blood testing, to assessing their energy output to the energy input they need.
We take all this into consideration and then we decide those eating plans with the help of our dietician. Putting individual eating plans together to make sure they are getting enough nutrients is key.
Eat for performance! I think that is the most important thing. Everyone forgets that we are eating to perform better, to recover better, to adapt to our training better. We are not doing it for aesthetics. Yes, it’s nice to see some teams with a lot of muscles but that’s not what we are after. We are after playing better on the pitch, recovering between games faster, that’s most important for us.
Aesthetics come as we go along. But for performance, there is no benefit in looking good and performing poorly. So, we really want to make sure that the nutrition they are getting is helping their recovery, affecting their adaptation positively, and ensuring that they are healthy as individuals.
Q. You say that having big, bulky muscles is not that important. So, are stamina and speed the most important requirements?
Yes, surely. Obviously, hockey is a very high-intensity sport and you have to cover a lot of distance in a short space of time. Also, the misperception is that if you’ve got big strong muscles, you are strong. But muscles don’t necessarily have to be big to be strong. That’s the key to what we want to do. We want to be as light as possible but as strong as possible, at the same time.
So, the program we have designed is meant to getting them really, really strong. They might not be bulky individuals but they are so strong that they would be able to reproduce these high-intensity efforts and become fitter. Also, due to the amount of conditioning and running training we do, it’s always very difficult to put on a lot of muscle mass.
That’s why their dietary requirements become important. You need to get enough protein so that you can build up those muscles and also get through the strength training. But the ultimate aim is to be really strong but also as light as to be able to move as fast as possible.
Q. The Indian men’s team is now regarded as among the fittest teams in the world. Would you say the same thing about the women’s team?
Yeah, definitely. It’s always difficult to say where we are in comparison to other teams. Because the only data we can see is the on-pitch data. But I am quite positive because I am lucky enough to have some data from the other teams that I have worked with.
Physically, I know we can compete with any team out there. The important thing is that we ought to be able to transfer that physical capacity on to the pitch and perform the technical skills at the highest speed required. So, the transfer from what we do off the pitch to on the pitch becomes really important.
As far as I have to give an answer as to where we stand in comparison to other teams, I think we can match any other top team physically. It’s just on that day, whether it works or not.
Q. Has the head coach of the team Sjoerd Marijne given you any goals regarding the level of fitness he wants the team to have?
Yes. So, when we first arrived, there were a whole lot of fitness tests that I did and presented them to the coach. I told him: ‘This is where we are at, and this is where we should be, at this point, this point, and this point.’
A large amount of this process is recognizing where I think we should be. Where the coach comes in, it is to tell us that ‘I want to play this type of hockey.’ So, whether it is full press more often or we want to be able to counter-attack, or whatever.
I need to design my conditioning not only around trying to improve on that benchmark that I set for physical capacity but also for players to cope with the mindset that the coach puts into them during matches.
Every position obviously has a slightly different physical demand. So, be it defenders, or midfielders, or strikers, all play a little bit different. As a result, the conditioning plans need to be put around what position they play and also the game plan that the coach has.
Q. What is the proportion of gym training to on-field exercises?
So, it would depend on the schedule. Right now, it’s a very high proportion for strength and conditioning because we don’t have any tournaments coming up. This is what we call a real physical block for us. We want to get a big base. The bigger our base, the easier it is for us to maintain it and work on other aspects.
So, it depends on the season. In hockey, we don’t have off-seasons but we consider this period an off-season because we don’t have matches till January. Right now, the split is three gym sessions, three conditioning sessions, three or four hockey sessions.
It’s quite a big split towards the physical side of things. Then, when we come back in January, we are going to a very high hockey focus where I will work on different aspects of fitness. Currently, we are getting very big stamina or aerobic base. When we come back in January, we will look at slightly different stuff – more spa, power, speed, that kind of stuff, heading into the New Zealand tour.
And from there, every block will be a little bit different. Each block leads into the next one and that doesn’t mean we completely forget about endurance stuff because you still get that endurance stuff from hockey and other sides of the games, but then, my focus becomes a little bit different in each block.
Q. What do you think of Indian food in terms of its healthiness?
It’s very tasty! Look, I think it depends on how it is prepared. So, it doesn’t matter if its 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 dietician has put into place a great plan where we are giving the players a bit of education behind why we want this to be done. So then, they realise, ‘OK, we need to eat more protein, lots of vegetables, salads, and a few carbs'. Generally, we don’t want them to have both rice and roti.
The Indian diet is very tasty and we get all the gravy type of stuff. The rotis and rice, everything becomes so nice because you want to mix in the gravy and have it. In the western diet, we don’t have that much gravy, it’s very much dry food.
What we try and do in the mess now is, at least have two or three days where it is continental-based food. So, they get used to that and the girls are good, they have all been changing now. They realize the benefits of what they are having – dry chicken or dry this or whatever. They also know the problem with having too many carbs and not enough protein.
Q. What was the response of the girls when you joined them? Were they happy to train more and get fitter?
Yes and no. I think when anyone new comes into the system, it’s like, ‘Oh, what’s this person all about?’ I know in the past, they have had experiences where they trained a lot and didn’t feel like they were getting better. So, my approach is very, very different.
Because I am really science-based, we go and train a lot. To be international athletes, you have to train a lot. But for me, the recovery side of things is just as important, if not more important than training. It’s really important that we do our planning around not only how much we are going to train but also how we are going to do the recovery.
For example, in this camp, we are doing a lot of training, but, because I want a lot of adaptations, I don’t specify exactly what recovery they need to do. The girls know their own recovery plan that they can go implement per session.
For me, my main goal is to change the physiology in this block. I want them to adapt. If we are doing too much recovery, we stop those adaptations from occurring. For example, in January, as we get close to matches, recovery becomes most important. So, we introduce ice baths, more massages, and so on and so forth.
So, their bodies can recover close to matches and by the time we get to them, they can play. What they were experiencing in the past is that they were playing fatigued and they were unable to express their physical abilities on the pitch. I think there is always this thought, ‘Are we going to go through the same, are we just going to train and not get better, are we going to feel tired all the time?’
But as they get to understand my philosophy of training, they will realise that it is also athlete-centred. I need to get them to buy into the process. Once they trust the process and see that they are getting better, possibly with less training and more structured stuff, then, they are gonna think, ‘This is actually working.’
And once I get them to buy into it, they start trusting the process and they trust me more and as we go along, everything starts flowing a little bit better. But, it’s a process, it doesn’t happen overnight.