Making 'Em Stronger, Fitter and Faster

"Sports science in India is on the right track. Not only are we hiring technical staff who are into sports science abroad but our people are also going abroad, getting trained and coming back here to practise," says Dr. Ajit Mapari, the FC Pune City doctor.

Mohamed Sissoko of FC Pune City trains at a gym under the guidance of the team doctor, Ajit Mapari. “The ISL has a really packed schedule, so each player needs to meet certain criteria in order to be deemed fit,” says the doctor.   -  S. R. Raghunathan

The beautiful game has undergone a plethora of changes over the years, not just tactically but also physically. Players today are fitter than ever before and are covering more than 10 kilometres in every match. But what has led to these players attaining close to optimum fitness levels? The answer is sports science.

Technological advancement has enabled doctors to assess the state of the human body before, during and after exercise. With the help of such data, sports scientists are working towards achieving the best results possible.

Sportstar caught up with FC Pune City’s doctor Dr. Ajit Mapari and physiotherapists Alvaro Ramos Astolfi and Santiago Rodrigues Calleja to get a better understanding of what goes on behind the scenes when it comes to the sports science department of a football club.

As is the case with many issues related to sports in India, we are behind the rest of the world when it comes to sports science. However, Dr. Mapari believes it is not so bad, at least when it comes to football.


“Sports science in India is on the right track. Not only are we hiring technical staff who are into sports science abroad but our people are also going abroad, getting trained and coming back here to practise,” he said. “With football, things have changed after the ISL came into the picture. But for other sports, we need a lot of back-end work that needs to go into developing an athlete or a team.”

A medical team at a club ideally consists of a team doctor, physiotherapists and massage therapists. Apart from them, there is a fitness and conditioning coach. These are the people responsible for making sure the coach has a fit squad to choose from.

So how do they go about making the squad fit?

“When it comes to an individual’s fitness, it starts from pre-season. Pre-season is all about getting all the players together, but when it comes to sports science and medicine, we start looking at their intensity and volume,” said Dr. Mapari.

“The things we do during the season are not done during pre-season. Pre-season is crucial in managing the players’ work-rest ratio, their intensity on a daily basis, and deciding what are the off days and why those are required. This is coupled with a lot of exercises that are included to prevent certain injuries.” Most of the players are fighting fit right after pre-season, but when it comes to a three-month-long tournament like the Indian Super League, it takes a heavy toll on their bodies.

“The ISL has a really packed schedule, so each player needs to meet certain criteria in order to be deemed fit,” said the FC Pune City team doctor.

“No two players are alike. We need to consider each one’s previous injuries and secondary prevention and put him through some functional movement tests. But practically, we cannot put everyone through all fitness tests before a match. It is only on our clinical judgment that we go ahead and understand their fitness levels.

“But just talking about being match-fit, the player should be free from any injuries and aches/pains and something that might probably be at the risk of an injury,” he said.

The two Spanish physiotherapists, Alvaro Ramos Astolfi and Santiago Rodrigues Calleja, are also part of Dr. Mapari’s medical team. They are of the opinion that the Indian players are as fit as their foreign counterparts, if not better.

“Alvaro and I were working at Atletico Madrid, so if we were to compare the players there with the players at FC Pune City, I’d say both teams work the same way during pre-season but of course, the body of a Spanish player is different to the body of an Indian player,” said Santiago.


“The condition of the Indian players when they arrive for pre-season is better than that of the foreign players. This is because the season ends later in India than some of the other leagues,” said Alvaro.

The All India Football Federation’s Chief Medical Officer had pointed out that the Indian national team covers one kilometre less than the average international team in the duration of 90 minutes. But according to Santiago, this has less to do with fitness.

“The very good players run less because they are better with the ball! If you are good with the ball, the person who does not have the ball has to run a lot more,” he said. Dr. Mapari believes that sports science is a multi-factorial approach when you add the nutrition and diet part to the training regimes. But while he thinks this is the way forward in developing an athlete or a team, he is not impressed with the standards in our country.

“We, here in India, don’t want the hard work which needs to be put in, in order to get the results. As Santiago and Alvaro pointed out, the Indian players are in really good shape during pre-season and are frankly, on a par with the foreign players,” Dr. Mapari said.

“These things have to be done throughout the year. You cannot do it for just one season and forget about it. We don’t have any standard protocols in place here. When the ISL is over, the players go and join their I-League teams or play local tournaments under someone else’s supervision where they may have to follow different guidelines. If sports science principles are followed throughout the year, we will see very good results.”

The medical chief has been at the club since its inception and he has seen the progress at all levels unfold right in front of him.

“When it comes to sports science, leaving the first season aside because everything was new, we had a fantastic support staff in Season 2, when David Platt brought with him some of the Premier League’s best physical trainers,” he said.

“I have been associated with FC Pune City from the first season of the ISL and I think the players have improved with each season. Firstly, because of the exposure they are getting by playing with some really good foreign players.

“The players keep getting inputs from all these guys right from pre-season and the intelligent ones start implementing them in their game. So once they are familiar with the do’s and don’ts, they can carry on following the regime even after the end of the ISL to stay in the best of shape.” A very important part of the multi-factorial sports science approach is the diet, but that too differs when it comes to training and match-days.

“Because it is a mix of so many players together, we cannot have a uniform diet for everyone. Spices are something that we have asked not to be added because you don’t want upset stomachs during the season. We include a lot of pastas and grilled chicken/fish along with raw salads and olive oil,” Dr. Mapari said. “On match days, the supplementation slightly differs because the training workout and match-day workout is completely different. We give the players concentrated gels and vital salts to last 90 minutes or more.

“The time between the two meals is very important. They have to have something before they go for the match. So everything is meticulously planned to expect the best output from the players,” he added.

While the diet includes everything the players need to have to be at their peak of fitness, there are some items that Dr. Mapari does not approve of. “I have banned the players from eating sweets! They have cravings but it does not help their bodies.” The doctor wants potential sportspersons to be exposed to sports science techniques as early as possible.

“We have something called Long Term Athletic Development (LTAD) in sports science. For an athlete to start peaking when he is 17 or 18 years old, the process should have started when he or she was seven, eight or nine,” Dr. Mapari said. “Over here, when the athletes are on the verge of turning professional, they start asking about dietary practices and the like. Kids playing at inter-school level should be taught what to eat and when to eat.”

“In football academies, sports science techniques are put to use when the players are five to seven years old! This helps them get ready faster for the professional version of the game,” said Alvaro.

Dr. Mapari wants these techniques to become habitual as the person grows up.

“The basic things like going to sleep on time before a game are followed by professional football players and they don’t need to be told because they have been taught this from a young age.

“Recovery must also be given utmost importance as it helps shape the next training session, and that is also lacking here,” said Dr. Mapari.

Sports science has become a vital part in modern football because of which players have become stronger, fitter and faster. This in turn has resulted in the game being more exhilarating at some levels and we can be sure that as sports science improves, the players and the game will get better and better.

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