With sports scientist Scott Conway on board, Hockey India is doing things the right way
Indian Hockey – the moment you think of it, talk of it, we breathe an exasperated breath. So much potential and yet so little in terms of results. The game has metamorphosed in the sub-continent over the years and in the country is in such a state that leaves much to the imagination. It’s like a teenager who refuses to grow up and take responsibility. Only one thing is for sure – we are no longer the kings of the game – a reality check we had some decades back.
But giving up on Hockey, the alleged ‘national sports’ for India is a strictly ‘no-no’ business. The rich history of the country in the sport makes it looks like a relationship where we are just never even going to give up owing to what we had in the past.
Okay enough with the lyrical. Let’s be honest here. Indian Hockey has been a cause of much despair rather than joy in the recent past.
After looking sharp in 2016 which included the famous win in the Junior World Cup, the tale in 2017 has been another desolate one. And the recent disassociation from the Hockey Pro League won’t make any Hockey fan giddy with joy. Whilst many would not be happy with what is transpiring in the world of Indian hockey, the board and the team are taking steps to shape a bright future for the sport.
And just the day, before, one of my favourite writers, the vaunted Sharda Ugra, might have best described the state of hockey, although the word was for sports in general in the nation. Just like her, I too feel hockey at the moment “resides in a halfway house, between amateur dreaming and an ecosystem of professionalism”.
But I feel good when I see efforts being made and that was exactly what drove me to the SAI complex in Bangalore with Roelant Oltmans is building more than a team. Behind the scenes, the man from the Netherlands is seemingly building an ecosystem that, in the long run, will bear fruit.
Sports and science have never really gone hand in hand in India. And in the sports of Hockey, we were one of last 'big nations' to incorporate it into the game. But all that has been changing in the last decade or so. But that is now changing with Roelant Oltmans looking for things to be better both on and off the field.
That’s where Scott Conway comes in. The Australian native who hails from Melbourne is the new man behind the scenes looking at transforming Indian hockey as we know it. Brought in as the Scientific Adviser for the team, the man who holds a degree in Sports Science degree has previously worked with Malaysia and joined Oltsman's troops in March earlier this year.
His job as he specifically calls it is "to look after anything physical.” With Oltsman now building a new identity for the team that pertains to dominating the game through possession rather than the age-old Indian game play where we used to hit teams on the counter attack, he needs to have players that fit the purpose. And with Conway, onboard, he hopes to shape the team and the boys to thrive in the long haul.
“I look at everything that relates to the physical abilities of the players. That includes looking to it that the boys are fast. To look at improving their agility as well as their ability to be at the top throughout the game,” states Conway. “But that alone isn’t going to get it done. At the international level, I have to see that they are also strong enough to withstand the demands of modern-day hockey.”
Data about your players these days is as important as that of the game or tactics. And Conway looks to go into every detail, giving Oltmans all the details he needs to know. “My scope of work is quite wide. I have look at things from power production to rehabilitation and all the nutrition based things – the supplements they take and the plans they have for the meals.
And every thing is cut to the demands of individual players advice to work on where they need to put more work. For some it might be about gaining a bit of strength, for others it is about shedding a few kilos – Conway has his job cut out.
The modern day game doesn’t stop when the team gets off the field – it’s a round the clock business. The word ‘ team’, in fact, is not restricted to only the men with the stick. While they are the ones who are to perform at the big stage, the ‘Team’ is what makes them ready for the battle.
“I have to keep monitoring the players and look at where he is at,” quips the man from Melbourne. “Whether we want to pull someone back before he risks over exaggeration and making himself prone to an injury or tell someone that he really isn’t giving his 100% – there is no place to hide with all the data we have in the game these days. But the big thing is what we do with it. We have to be smarter in all departments and that includes managing injuries better.”
And everything is put in place for the players well in advance. “Every day, every week what we do in the camps and what we are going to do ahead of the tournaments. There is a plan as to how to get the best out of everything,” states Conway.
A motivated bunch
Whilst the game and the results have so far been a rough mixture of brilliance against the likes the Pakistan and despondent against Malaysia in both the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup as well as the Hockey World League semis, the determination to get better on the part of the players in unwavering. They know that much needs to be done and every day on the field as well as off it, they make sure to give their best.
“What makes my job easier is that the Indian players are always highly motivated and have a real desire to win,” Conway says. “And that something you have to give to Oltmans. The players know the results so have been nowhere near acceptable. They really want to work hard to better themselves and better the team. There is this good energy, a good vibe within the players. This is something I enjoy here.
“Everyone is really up to go that extra yard. Most of the time if I am honest, I don't always have to tell them that they need to do that extra stretching or the extra mile or even the extra rehab work. They have always been so willing.
“They are one of the most professional bunch I have worked with.”
Long and short term programs
As we have already ventured to know, the programs for the next week as well as the next month and even beyond that is taken care of with much scrutiny. But what is actually happening behind the scenes when we are not there? Conway explains further.
“Since I have come in, we have worked extensively in aerobic capacity of the players. Hockey is at the pinnacle as to how much a team can benefit from better conditioning than the others. So we have been focusing to see that our boys have the ability to run the whole game and be able to compete even in the last five minutes of the game.
“The boys in my views can compete with the best in the world and till the World League final we want to maintain that aerobic fitness.
“We are tapping into speed and sprints and the ability to repeat sprints. That what we are going to work while maintaining the aerobic capacity.”
Everyone has designed plans as to where they need to improve. And that is explained well when we have a look at regimens of players like Sumit, Harjeet Singh and all the other boys from the Junior World Cup-winning side who are focussing on building their core body strength in addition to working on the aerobic capacity.
Not the strictest
Discipline for Conway in his own field is a must and the with data now available the onus is on him to cultivate an environment where the players can truly thrive. However, when it comes to the boys the man from Down Under believes more in education rather than discipline.
“I don’t like the word ‘restrictions’. We don't put them under any impositions or restrictions as such. What we have rather tried to inculcate in them is the vision and education about a proper clean diet and how it helps them perform on the pitch,” tells our new man in the Oltmans staffroom. “If we put something like restricting and trying to force our way into things – at a point of time, they might just rebel. They are quite aware of having a nice clean diet and they go about it as diligently as anyone can.”
“During the Azlan Shah Cup the dinner plates were laid out and I kept a close look what they had on their plates and I can say that there was nothing there I could have any objections to.
“They looked at the buffet and they knew what to take and not to take. They know that food for them is the fuel and you a good quality fuel to get the best out of them.”
The plate looks certainly sumptuous in terms of talents coming out of the junior pool in India and the way the team has played in certain games has certainly been refreshing (a hard fought first half against Australia in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup comes to mind). But looking alone won’t matter anymore – not on the hockey field in the least. We know it might be a long road but for India 37 years of patience has to be certainly worth its salt.
It has been 37 years since India won the gold medal in hockey at the Olympic Games and that run will reach a gargantuan 40 by the time India reaches the even in Tokyo 2020. And still, the country holds the record of winning the most number of Golds in the event – eight – and three clear of their nearest rivals, the Netherlands.
India’s run in other tournaments international tournaments haven’t been ground to speak of either – the country has never won the Champions Trophy and until last year had never even reached the finals of the tournament.
The World Cup has been another sordid tale as well. Amongst the last nations to integrate technology into the game, the “once giants” of the game had become nothing but an also ran in the sport. The lowest point perhaps came in the Beijing Olympics in 2008 when India failed to qualify for the Games altogether.
The work behind the scenes certainly looks impressive but that has to come with a capacity to perform when needed the most – something the Men in Blue have failed to do so far. Whilst there is no doubt that these stars behind the scenes are indispensable essential engines that energise and time and again rejuvenates the stars on the pitch. While it is wholly true that it is eventually the individual athletes and their appetite for success that will drive not only Indian hockey but also Indian sports forward.
However, with people like Conway doing their due diligence, we can only hope Indian hockey goes forward by leaps and bounds rather than dragging themselves up inch by inch.