Tokyo 2020

Indian Aspirations of Olympic Medallion : Tokyo 2020 (Part 2 of 2)

The basis of Selection & Training

The author is no expert selector or trainer in any sport. However, by virtue of being a sportsperson, a doctor and a scientist in Life Sciences, a few general and science-based problems/solutions are being emphasized which can make a substantial difference in the performance and medal prospects.

Selection. A wide publicity is must in the visual media to increase local participation with some selection tips at the screening levels (in villages, panchayats, schools, colleges). This will facilitate selection of athletes from wider sections, both rural & urban, educated & uneducated, trained & untrained. Selection should also include a wide groups of ages to choose from (12-14yr, 15-17yr & 18-20yr for all sports except Gymnastic for which 9-11yr, 12-14yr & 15-17yr are better). The recent plank of “khelo India” does include the under-17 yrs athletes from school levels all over India but leaves out those who don’t go to school or the drop-outs. It is a good initiative by the govt but how it translates in to practice, remains to be seen. All the same, it surely widens the horizon for selection & training of meritorious sportspersons. Among the near equal performing trained & untrained, lower & higher ages individuals, the untrained and lower age candidates have the edge to perform much higher after training compared to the other group.

Pick-up Type-I (ST) of muscles constitution athletes for endurance and type-II (FT) for sprints. Scientific training can convert some of the type-I (ST) & type-II (FT) muscle phenotypes in to each other through aerobic / anaerobic sets of trainings respectively. In general comparatively lower aged athletes of 5’7” Ht, 56.2 Kg Wt and 19.42 BMI have statistically shown better performance. However, this is a very generalized statement. Functions of Height must be further subdivided into leg length, arm length & trunk length. In fact not only height and lengths but some other anthropometric parameters as given in table-5 (esp those in red being most crucial) are extremely useful as selection criteria for enhanced performance. Every extra-inch of longer leg lengths will add-up to the Step-length in the in track events and every degree of knee-hip extension will add-up to extra-height gained in jumps. Similarly every inch of additional or longer arm-lengths in throw sports in javelin/ shot-put provides the extra-distance to the object acceleration and an extra-centrifugal force to the rotating discus/ hammer), all adds-up to the angular/linear speed at the moment of release (m.ω2.r); is directly proportional to the arm lengths. Hence, anthropometric importance in selection are of immense value to greater performance. Greater arm length & Palm (& foot) area serve as better oar/row of the swimmer. Among the anthropometric parameters, weight-lifting is the sole sport in which lesser height/arm/trunk lengths are important negative factors.

The centrifugal force

Moderate body frames may allow runners to generate lesser lactate, dissipate body heat more effectively thus giving an advantage to maintain the incredible work output required in the marathoners and other endurance sports.

Performance at state & national levels must form the basis for selection of the Olympic probables. A previous Olympics medal winner, may be included in the list of probables without screening but they must undergo selections trials at the national games / special trials to ensure their performance levels are intact. Selection of probable for Physical sports may be “challenged” by any individual demonstrating higher performance at any stage till final selection before the event. Such individual performance will become even better with fine-tuning of the skills in the remaining months of the training.

The athletics Trainings for Track & Fields

Training. Unlike domestic sports where training often involves ab-initio athletes, training for Olympics is far too complex, to augment the athlete’s performance to one’s optimum or to the highest. It is a joint task of various groups. The nutritionists ensure optimum nutrients & calories, at times different for different sports, details of which are already available with SAI. The highly trained coaches draw schedules to augment one’s Physical and technical skill capabilities to optimum, right from warm-up to the actual events taking scientific route. Responsibility also lay with him to educate the athletes to prevent any injury during training. The scientists ensure that the training needs meet the physical/physiological criteria of one’s aerobic / anaerobic functions thru’ VO2max or other biochemical markers. The sports psychologists take the athletes to a specific frame of mind to overcome any doubt on to oneself (also called killer instinct in loose terms). Last but not the least, India having vast knowledge of Yoga, can assist the athletes in all aspects of promotive, preventive and curative techniques. Last but not the least, entire sports administration ensures that effective and structured trainings continue without any hurdles and are so scheduled that the performance of the athletes peak during the actual events, not before or after.

In running/walking sports, distance covered in a unit time is the product of Step (Stridal) Length (SL) x Step (Stridal) Frequency (SF). SL depends on one’s Physique (leg length & strides) and the SF is the function of the muscles & training. Trainers recommend Strides must be optimised with every forward step touching ground at >90 deg but less than 120 deg, in line with the body axis but Olympic 100m finalists invariably show their strides increased to around around 110-120 deg.

Strides more than this will lead to “Heel hitting” and slow the SF hence, the time. Every inch of SL add-up to the distance covered. SF on the other hand, is the outcome of number of steps taken in unit time which is the function of the muscle strength & speed. The speed of muscle training responds more to higher Repetitive Movements (RM) than higher loads on the muscles. This is the reason why putting increasingly higher loads on the trails of a sprint runner does not necessarily increase one’s speed. Competitive abilities in running, walking, swimming and the other so-called "physical sports" essentially comes owing to the raw muscle strength and speed / endurance (depending on the sports whether it is the speed type or the endurance).

Here comes the Training and Preparations. It all depends upon which championship one is preparing for. In the Indian national games, one of our own athlete will win with whatever time he has. However, in international championship, it gets tough with even fraction of a second counting for podium finish. It gets tougher from national championship to Commonwealth Games (CWG) and finally to the world championship or the Olympics as can be seen in this table-7 (below). It is however, evident that there is very little difference between world & Olympics records. In World & Olympics records, the athlete has to put everything at stake and such performances can only be termed as extreme, the competitive best of the human performance. In order to achieve such best, a very different psyche’ has to be developed both among the coaches and the athletes…focussed to break even the previous event records to ensure a win.

Some Training Tips for Sprints

Training approach to the scientifically selected “Track & Field” sprinters have to be fully structured. First find out one’s SL & SF properly during a video & foot-mark assisted sprint. Measure the SL, the angle of foot-holds on to the ground and finally the SF. At this juncture, another variable called “Flight Time” comes which is the period when both legs are off-ground, a function of the SF propelling power optimally found among elite sprinters. Let us consider each of these one by one:-

Step Length (SL) is a function of the leg length (not one’s height alone) and the extent of thigh-hip movements. Hip extension permits the legs move fore and aft during a stride. Here an unrestricted dorsiflexion of the foot become important in permitting the leg extend backward without loosing the foot-power to propel one forward. The stride forward must be only to an extent that permits the ankles perform ball-of-foot movement that does not lead to heel hitting the ground and also pushing back one’s Centre of Gravity (CoG) and thus resulting in decelerating or falling back. Strides moving back through hip extention will increase the SL but beyond certain limits, the power of stridal push forward will deplete and so will the flight time. A very fine balance is maintained among the three by the highly successful sprinters and it has to be practiced during training. The trainer must also keep in mind that the stridal length may not be identical for both legs. One should start the spring with a few initial sub-optimal SL (to prevent groin muscle strains/injuries) and then accelerates to optimal, one’s maximal. It is natural that SF is inversely proportional with the SL. The highly successful sprinters maintain a reserve in their SF to break-away from the others in the terminal phase of the sprint for a podium finish.

Step Frequency (SF) is a function of the muscles of hip, thigh, calf and a bit of the joints involved. These muscles must be predominantly Fast-Twitch (FT) type as elaborated earlier for a greater SF. However, there are vast influence of different groups of the muscles of hip, knee, ankle and foot in the different stages of the spring incl start, toe-off, flight time, ground touch, Ball-of-foot action to mid stride and again toe-off. Whereas the hip muscles directly influence the SF, the calf & foot muscles dictate the force of flight hence the flight time esp the horizontal component. The groin / hip muscles are esp prone to strain/tear injuries in longer SLs esp in the initial parts of the sprints. As already emphasised that some amount conditioning ST muscles to FT can be undertaken during the training, it must be a gradually increasing range of movements through repetitive process. The trainer & coaches must aim to achieve higher SF by the followings:-

  • Strengthening the group of muscles for both speed & force.
  • Transforming / reconditioning the ST muscles to FT

A gradually increasing Flight Time / Ground contact time ratio is a healthy indicator of the progressive training outcome of faster sprints. Stride Flight achieved from higher dorsi-flexed foot yields greater Stride Length with just minimal vertical rise.

Throw & jumps sports where a ‘one-time action’ of a group of muscles win the medals, power & speed training of such muscles are of immense value. In throw-sports, preponderance of the arm, shoulder, trunk & waist muscles are coordinated so as to have maximum effects. It is important to release the javelin/discus/shot-put/hammer skilfully at a time when the combined linear/angular speed of body-arm is maximum. We often see an athlete running 40-50 kmph but slowing down to 20 kmph at the time of javelin release. Similarly, body-rotation and the extent of arm-length are directly proportional to the distance a shot-put/discus/hammer will travel when released at optimum angles. In shot-put & javelin throws, the whiplash action of the hip-trunk-shoulder as a unit also comes in play. The bottom-line in the above statements are the advantages of the body-limb lengths as well as muscle strength & speed.

Some training tips in Weight-Lifting

Having background of Weight-lifting the author knows as to how this sport that looks like a one-time action, actually involves almost all muscles of the body. The ‘Clean’ action involves extension of knees, hip, ankles, flexion of elbows, extension & abduction of the shoulder joint and finally extension of the trunk. ‘Jerk’ involves all movements of a static jump, extension & abduction of the shoulder, extension of elbows keeping the spine straight. Thus calf, thigh, hip, arms, shoulder and spinal muscles are involved and all these need training for both strength & speed involved in initial “clean or snatch” followed by power lifting from squat position.

Increasing the power of the muscles have to be through a structured weight training with the Squat, dead-lift, bench-press, shoulder-press and ‘pull-up above waist’ with gradually increasing weights….being the most crucial. For the strength training, coaches will surely formulate the best sequence of exercises and its RMs with due attention to the diet and neuromuscular impulse training too. Increasing the Speed muscles are structured training of conversion of some of the ST muscles in to FT.

The Indian weight-lifting team’s performance in its current form as shown in table-4 above, is nowhere close to even qualifying for the Olympics, leave alone the medal hopes. The training skills of coaches are not updated the age-old methods have given no space to the technological approaches.

Getting underneath the weight-bar after “clean or snatch” is an art in its skill training. It may be useful to practice the “clean” & “snatch” actions to the max weight initially without actually getting underneath the weight bar without fear of getting wrist/elbow/shoulder/spine/back injuries so often encountered while getting under the bar. It must be understood here that Weightlifting is the most vulnerable non-contact sports inflicting injuries to the extent that the sportsperson may be out of the game for life. Hence, to ward off the chances of injuries, the heavy weight training could be done with safety and free of fear for injuries. This could easily done on a specially designed on the weight suspending vertical bars having multiple notches at every 1 cm or so allowing only one-way upward movement that gets locked immediately the weight bar starts coming down after the complete ‘snatch or clean’ action. Such facility will allow a weight lifter to a fearless, gradually increasing the weight through these actions. The height lifted so, is noted. These heights must exceed the minimum weight-bar height under which the lifter can get in, from where one will be able to get-up with those given weights. This training must be continued till the “clean or snatch” actions of the lifters lifts the desired weight to the required height to a stable squat position and be able to rise-up to lift the weights. Of course, the coach mush ensure that the ‘snatch or clean’ action combines all actions optimally…ie fully extending the knees, hips and the ankles while the upper torso muscles pull the weight-bar to the maimum possible height. A similar platform of vertical bars can be made to practice getting-up from the squat position after the end of the “clean or snatch” actions with the gradually increasing weights. These vertical bars could also be useful for the “Jerk” action after the ‘clean’ to increase his lifting power without injury concerns.

Training for 'snatch & clean' act

The above actions must also be practiced without vertical bars in order to balance one-self while trying to get under the weight bar, trying to get-up with the weights from the squat position or balancing after the important ‘jerk’ action. This does not rule out the fact that the art & skills of the lifter getting underneath the bar during clean or snatch are equally important. Training must also address a correct technique in the various stages of the weight-lifting. Despite all these the strength training do take times in months if not years. Accordingly, the performance output also takes time and there is no quick-fix measure in Olympic medallion prospects..

Injury Concerns in Sports

The injury concerns in the sports are basically of two types namely those owing to incorrect methods and those attempting on higher performance either in the training stages or during the competitions. The former injuries are almost 100% preventible if coaches are qualified and strict. The most important measures for preventing injuries during training are:-

  • Adequate warm-up schedules before starting,
  • Adopting a correct method and technique.
  • A structured progression in performance parameters and
  • Keeping a strict eye on the careless during training.

On the other hand, the injuries during champinoships are commonly encountered in pursuit of higher performance. Such injuries are encountered in almost all events but the contact games and weight-lifting are especially vulnerable as shown in the table opposite. Contact games have typical injuries of contact areas and due to the impacts of fall, boxing is infamous for various types of direct punch-injuries over body and the concussion of the brain,weight-lifting has chances of back, shoulder, arms, thigh and knee injuries.

Training Progression. During the training, one’s progress must be observed scientifically. There are various objective parameters available for it, be it the evaluation of VO2max, maximal cardiac output, speed/power output, the lactate threshold. Isometric / Isotonic Dynamometer and goniometer should be used in measuring the force & movement of the limbs / trunk / arms. In the track & field events the ‘Step Length & Frequencies’ become extremely important. Here ground-marking and videography becomes very relevant and helpful. In weight-lifting, videography from front and sides become very useful in correcting the technique. There are numerous such examples in which various scientific methods are used in the training progression. A periodic auditing by the coach of the performance enhancement are routine. It is equally important to prevent injuries during training which mostly take place due to inadequate warm-up, improper technique and excessive loads.

Some other aspects of training

World Class Athletes are very special. They belong to an elite class yet they possess some qualities which are very personal and any successful coach must know it. Only after the coaches are acquainted with it, they will be able to get the best out of an athlete. Athletes being a human being, among many of the socio-psychological happenings around, they do tend to get affected. In addition, their biorhythms among other psychosocial factors on which they may not have a direct control, also tend to affect their performance. Successful coaches and team-psychologists are mostly conversant with all these and they also possess skills to largely get the athletes out of such blues. They also enthuse the athletes during the championships when the countrymen pray for them to succeed. As such representing the country in those events boosts the morale of the athletes when they put all their skills at stake to fulfil the national aspirations.

Below ‘par’ of own Performance. There are numerous instances when an athletes have failed to bring-out their own best or performed far below own best in the greatest of the championships. Some examples of Indian athletes are before us, at the 2016 Rio-Olympics many of our prominent athletes were unable to repeat their own performances as mentioned here and surely it will repeat in future too. This is most unfortunate for those athletes, their team-mates and the nation. Although it could never be deliberate by the athletes, yet it is they who must do everything possible to give his/her best on that day. The coaches and the supporting staff are expected to help them bring out the better than own bests on the D-Days….with plenty of enthusiasm, high morale and the quest to make the country proud. The reason could be anything…having nagging injuries, anxiety &nerves, discouraging words from team /management / coach, psychological upset and so on. Thus if someone at the Olympics / World Championship fails to perform own best, it must be considered a collective failure on part of entire team.

Performing below own best

Any person having nagging injuries must not be selected in the first place. It is the responsibility of the athletes and their coaches to avoid any injury before the tournament. If an injury has taken place which is sure to affect the performance, the athlete must be prevented from participation lest his condition will worsen. However, if the injury has taken place during the initial rounds of the tournament, the coach, team doctor and the team psychologist must unite to deal with it. A Stress of Competition before an event is natural that prepares a person for the competition. However, anxiety and nerves are an exaggerated response to the natural Stress of competition due to excessive adrenalin secretion. Heart-rate (HR) Galvanic Skin Resistance (GSR) or Skin Conductance (SC) measurements are the best indicators of such occurrences. Whereas a natural Stress is beneficial, the anxiety & nerves are counterproductive to one’s performance. The Yerkes Dodson’s Curve represents an optimum level of beneficial Stress/ arousal beyond which the performance decreases. As the level of task complexity increases, the curve shifts to the left, meaning lesser stress level are recommended for optimal performance of the more complex tasks. All athletes must be explained these basics of the Stress & arousal levels and be made to handle it on their own, by telling themselves to calm-down.

Yerkes-Dodson Curve of Stress levels vs performance

This curve clearly shows that the anxiety/panic/nerves bring the performance level much lower than one’s own best and are thus counter-productive. This must be resolved by team effort.

The anxiety before the competition could be overcome by regular encouraging words by the coach or the team psychologist by enthusing the athletes, by meditation or through Bio-Feedback methods. All top class athletes and coaches must be aware of it. Team management and coaches must be very careful while interacting with such athletes. Psychologically upsetting of the athletes are highly counter-productive. This is why, in the final days of high level tournaments, the athletes are often insulated from the unfavorable environment, the family & the society, the social media etc.

Yoga in Sports Training is very important to have physical & mental conditioning to excel in any sports. Yoga-asanas assist in the body flexibilities (required in most sports) and muscle relaxations as well as in quickening of neuro-muscular action timings. Deep breathing exercises gradually increase the vital capacities of the lungs. As a result more Oxygen molecules are available for the blood to be grabbed in lungs and make it available to the sprinting muscles. It also augments oxygenation. Meditation is of immense value in increasing the concentration, focus on to the goal and overcoming any negative thought therein. Yoga too is already introduced in varying forms at the training centres though there are scope for better approach.

The Threat of Covid19 Pandemic

The world is under the grip of Wuhan Virus causing the worst ever pandemic. Those who suffered from the infection, have been trying to gain the losses their physical functions which is extremely challenging. Even those athletes who were unable to train optimally under the lockdown and other constraints of training, are finding it difficult to regain full physical functions.

Corona virus when get in to the body cells and tissues, become parasites on them for oxygen. Hence, any intense physical sport with very high oxygen demand, be that sprint or endurance, make the sportsmen vulnerable to both loss of functions as well as risk of Hypoxia and to lives. People have collapsed or had heart attacks during intense physical activities during these times. Hence, all attempts should be made to doubly testing all such athletes for Covid19 before they participate in the sports of intense physical exertions. It is for their own good.

There is also a concern of contacting the infection esp in the ‘contact sports’ from opponents who are either asymptomatic infected who tested ‘false negative’. There could be many such cases even after vaccination. If someone gets infected, he or she may infect many others in own team before being detected. This will put the entire team at risk of illness as well as poor level of performance.

Concluding Remarks

Indian aspirations of medals at the Olympics or World events have been alluding us since inception of such events. Except for an odd sports events, our selection & training methodologies have been inadequate. Various studies have brought out the problem areas and of late, govt has been trying to address most such issues too. Sports institutions of excellence have been open. The investments in sports have been hiked steeply. It can only be hoped that such steep hikes are for the right reasons and reaching the right cause. The most important is sports federations & SAIs updating knowledge in sports science & technologies, engaging the qualified coaches…those who have actually tasted the podium finish in world/Olympics championship or someone who has taken the trainees to the podium finish. Only such coaches can be expected to fulfill our ambitions of Olympic medallions.

This article has also tried to look specially into the scientific basis of selection and training and brought out the intricacies involved in various sports. There are differing physical & skill levels required in different sports and the physical aspects of the athletes have been highlighted in this article. There are two different body constitution (phenotypes) suitable for differing sprint and endurance sports for which training methodologies differ.

This article dwells at some length the specific training methods in Track & Field events as well as the weight-lifting where medal aspirations have been alluding India. It must be remembered that competing for World or Olympics events calls for total dedication on the part of the entire machineries incl the athletes, the coaches as well as the supporting staffs. It is for the supervisory staff to assess the level of the preparations for Tokyo 2020 or any other future championships. However, the present performance level of our athletes at various national & international meets incl world athletics 2019 are not very encouraging, they fall far short of Olympic medal aspirations.

Read More Articles ›

View Other Issues ›