Making it a level playing field

Indian junior men’s coach Harendra Singh (right) with players Tushar Khandekar, Sandeep Singh and skipper Rajpal Singh. “A large part of Europe and Australia’s superiority comes from being more technologically aware,” says Harendra.-Indian junior men’s coach Harendra Singh (right) with players Tushar Khandekar, Sandeep Singh and skipper Rajpal Singh. “A large part of Europe and Australia’s superiority comes from being more technologically aware,” says Harendra.

Technology has been all-pervasive in hockey. And according to experts, in terms of using technology, both on and off the field, modern hockey is second only to NBA. By Uthra Ganesan.

In 2010, during one of the training camps at the Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium, several members of the Indian men’s hockey team were asked to strap a black band with a sensor around their chests and run short sprints of 5-10 metres by coach Jose Brasa. The camp was in preparation for the upcoming Commonwealth Games, and the band had heart rate monitors.

The reactions ranged from the incredulous to the outright funny. None of the players had seen the stuff before and had no idea how it worked. It took almost an hour, after trial and error, for the software connected to the sensors to get the readings right and work normally. It had taken Brasa more than a year to get the equipment cleared by the government. It also proved how far behind Indian hockey was, in terms of the use of technology compared to the rest of the world.

Modern hockey has come a long way since Dhyan Chand wielded a curved, wooden stick to score goals. Back then, strategy meant spending hours watching other teams play to understand their techniques. Coaching mainly consisted of a motivational speech — a la Shah Rukh Khan in Chak De! India — and a basic knowledge of each of the opposition players.

Now, teams have professionals working exclusively on breaking down data from match videos, physiologists who determine how and how much a particular player must exert himself and a host of other staff working in co-ordination. The trainer is now called a scientific advisor!

Off-field technology

“A lot of changes in terms of the use of technology in Indian hockey have come after the arrival of foreign coaches. Let us accept that they do have better research and development, and advanced scientific methodology than us. Earlier, players were assessed based on their body language. Kaun kaise dodge marta hai; kaun kis shot ko zyada prefer karta hai (how a player dodges; what kind of a shot a player prefers) — and such things. Now there is a scientific process behind team decisions,” says Jagbir Singh, who has seen changes, both as a player and coach.

Technology at its most advanced has been visible in the ongoing Hockey World League semi-finals in Antwerp. The Indian women’s team beat Poland 3-1, but Poland got the first goal, which was disallowed after the on-field umpire referred it to the TV umpire. Replays — breaking down the incident in terms of the action and speed — from five different angles showed that the ball had scraped a Polish player’s knee before entering the goal.

“There is no scope for a team to now accuse umpires of bias, or make doubtful decisions an excuse for poor performance. Technology has brought in transparency and also a level playing field for teams,” says Jagbir.

The junior men’s team coach, Harendra Singh, one of the most technology-savvy people in the Indian set-up, goes so far as to insist that in terms of using technology, both on and off the field, modern hockey is second only to NBA. “Technology is omnipresent today — in team preparation, assessing individual player’s strengths and weaknesses, execution and defence of penalty corners, everything.

“Let me give you an example. Earlier, if a team had to mark a player like, say, Sardar Singh, the coach would simply tell his defender to stay alert and intercept. Now, he can actually measure Sardar’s speed with the ball and the various speeds of the ball when he passes it with a slap shot or a straight hit and he can tell his defender where to stand for accurate interception! These things have become possible only with technology like the speed guns and related software,” Harendra says.

Systems such as Hawk-Eye — commonly used in cricket — for goal-line decisions, TV umpires, multi-cam broadcasts and instant analysis of team performances by breaking them into numbers and percentages have all contributed to making hockey far more beautiful to watch, informative to the layman and easier to understand.

Performance enhancers

Across the world, teams have been quick to use every means to improve their play. Harendra, who belongs to a rare breed of Indian coaches who travel across the world to keep themselves updated, believes Indians have suffered for stubbornly refusing to embrace modernity.

“People say synthetic turf killed Indian skills, and it was a conspiracy. I think it did the opposite; it protected the skilful players. Turf has been used to decry everything European, including technology. A large part of their superiority comes from being more technologically aware,” he says.

Spaniard Brasa was the first coach who brought GPS to Indian hockey, but there was more that he never got — a radar to measure the speed and direction, photoelectric cells, encoders and pace monitors, which together helps a coach to figure out the stamina and muscle endurance of individual players. Australia and Germany already had them not only with their national teams, but also at their sports institutes for the up and coming players. What Brasa got was video cameras and match-analysis software — all basic stuff that Australia was using way back in 2004.

“More than 15 years ago, Australia and Europe had actually done a complete study of every Indian player, down to his facial expressions. Teams knew what Dhanraj’s (Pillay) expression would be when he was going to take a shot at goal, and when he was going to pass it ahead. They knew by the twitch of Taeke Taekema’s eyes where he might hit the ball. ‘Modern’ is a subjective term. We are still far behind the world,” Harendra states categorically.

In the movie, Chak De! India, in a match against India, things appear to be going on well for Australia until the Indian forwards go dangerously close to scoring. Minutes later, one of the Australian support staff in the stands sends a printout of India’s detailed game plan to the coach on the sidelines. The movie was released in 2007, and while everything else was fiction, that one scene explained the real-life difference in the sports structures of the two countries.

“Providing individual equipment to players like an iPad or iPhone so that they can all be on the same wave-length in terms of access to information and data is one of the most welcoming things done by Hockey India. Now everyone, at least at the national level, can constantly assess his performance and the coaches can also monitor every player at any time,” Jagbir says.

But there is a lot more to do. The Australians are still far ahead when it comes to technology. The Australian Institute of Sports has scientific, sport-specific programmes tailored to not only improve performance but also enhance the efficiency level of the support staff. In Holland and Germany, long camps are not the rule but exception. Instead, players are given a training and diet plan and coaches track progress online with suggestions.

Hockey as a sport has changed rules so often that it is mind-boggling even for those who follow it closely. There are times when even the coaches are caught unawares by the implementation of certain rules — as it happened when the FIH changed the game to four quarters and teams like New Zealand only heard of it from the media! But there is no doubt that technology has made the sport more attractive to the common viewer. It can only help popularise the game.