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Robot, dummy and makeshift range: How Indian athletes are working from home

In the absence of a human sparring partner, Bhavani Devi uses her fencing kit bag and meshed stainless steel mask as a dummy for target exercises. Bhavani Devi

Sports venues are padlocked. Training centres and gyms shuttered. Athletes now find themselves on a new, unfamiliar turf. Home.

India's athletes are now back with their families after averaging 40 weeks of travel a year. They can finally kick back and dig into home-cooked meals, catch up on extra hours of sleep, binge-watch their favourite TV shows, and run through their wishful to-do lists. It can be a warm, fuzzy feeling for the first couple of weeks, the relief of cutting free from the fetters of competition. There's still, though, an Olympics to get to, even if on a 400-plus day countdown, and training can't afford to wind down to an indolent, absolute zero.

An elite athlete's schedule, diet, training and fitness programs are carefully calibrated to a clockwork to touch optimum performance. Even the slightest change can upset the rhythm. Locked in their homes without access to usual training sessions, the most obvious casualty for athletes is routine and by extension, motivation. So, amid the other disruptions of the lockdown, all stakeholders in the process -- athletes, their coaches, their agents and managers and the sports management firms that they have signed up with -- are making adjustments to routines, schedules, even improvising training equipment.

The focus now, Viren Rasquinha, CEO, Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ), says, is keeping in regular touch with athletes and ensuring their sessions are supervised.

"Indian athletes, by nature, are not habituated to training by themselves without a coach. It's really tough to motivate yourself to train indoors the whole time.

"Especially, when there is no competition ahead of you. There's no need to go too hard but at the same time they have to keep ticking over. Dropping to zero-level fitness is the most dangerous part. For every one week that an athlete does not train, it takes a month to recover that fitness."

Weight and watch

As a result of sitting idle due to the lockdown, athletes are now required to watch their weight closely. The last time Sai Praneeth had a weight jump was around the time of his wedding in December last year. Roughly by three kilograms. Since then, Praneeth has played five tournaments, including the PBL, and made the Olympic qualification cutoff.

"I'm always checking (weight)," he says. "So far it's unchanged. Even when I've been injured in the past, like the shoulder strain I had, I'd go to the academy and do my running or just practise my shots, standing.

"Now, I wake up two hours later than I would earlier, follow the online training sessions on alternate days apart from the workouts Gopi sir sends every morning. But besides that, it's just about being at home, eating, resting and eating some more."

"For every one week that an athlete does not train, it takes a month to recover that fitness" Viren Rasquinha

To keep the binge-eating urge under check, India's top-ranked table tennis player G Sathiyan has now switched to a fruit-centric snack diet.

"During my regular schedule, I would play for three to four hours and have more fluids. I didn't have hunger pangs really. Now, with more screen time and workouts at home, I tend to feel hungry all the time."

Particularly for weight-based sports, like wrestling, boxing and weightlifting, the effects of a reduced training schedule can be telling.

"Training loads have gone up to 30-40% off from what the athletes were following in camps," Rasquinha says. "But for many, their eating habits are still at 100%. If this happens for a month, there's a real possibility of putting on 2-3 kg at the minimum. It's a concern especially in lower weight categories, where these athletes could be effectively adding 7-8% of their regular body weight. Our focus is largely on those who are yet to qualify, making sure their diets are monitored and they're motivated enough to not put on weight."

Burpees and robots

An athlete's core job of staying fit is under siege. In a stay-at-home scenario, both the space and resources can be limiting. Nikhil Latey, head of sports science, OGQ, breaks down the workout routine athletes can follow into the bare basic three components -- warm-ups and cool-downs twice a day, 20 minutes of cardio twice a day and 30-45 minutes of strength training twice a day. None involving endless reps on the weight bench or being stuck on a squat rack.

"For athletes who don't have gym equipment at home, skipping, staircase climbing, jumping jacks and burpees, should take care of the cardio routine," says Latey, who is also part of SAI's expert panel, interacting with athletes across sport through webinars.

"For strength training, they could do push-ups, pull-ups, crunches, squats. Once the lockdown is over, fitness may be down to 45-50% but at least athletes who maintain their fitness routine can arrest a sharp fall and return to regular training, strong, flexible and injury-free. If coaches resume training after this break at 50%, then such athletes can touch match fitness within six to eight weeks."

Specifically in a sport like badminton, Latey adds, the habit of constantly lunging on one side makes the playing side stronger while the opposite side remains weak.

"The focus has to be on single leg strengthening, balance, shoulder and back strength. Alternate days of workouts for upper body and lower body and cardio every day could help."

"Honestly, the table tennis part of training has been badly hit." G Sathiyan

There's also a shift in the conversations taking place.

"Since competitions and travel are off the table for at least the next couple of months, we might instead fund gym equipment for athletes who require them," says GoSports CEO Deepthi Bopaiah. "We're speaking to gyms trying to explore the possibility of renting equipment rather than buying them."

Over the past year, GoSports got some of their top athletes Theraguns, a percussive massage device that helps with workout recovery by relieving muscle tension and soreness. Essentially, physio that fits in the travel bag. "Now, we are planning on getting them for the rest of our athletes too."

For some like Sathiyan, who owns a whole variety of equipment, including stepladders, a BOSU ball and Game Ready, a cold compression therapy unit with circumferential wraps, for athlete recovery, the focus is on splitting up time for the facilities at his disposal.

For others, like sabre fencer CA Bhavani Devi and doubles badminton player Satwiksairaj Rankireddy, it's about complementing sparse equipment by playing a second sport.

"I just have a pair of dumbbells which I'd bought for a rehab session two years ago," says Bhavani, who was training in the Italian city of Liverno, on the west coast of Tuscany. "I was planning on ordering a stationary bike online for myself but then the lockdown happened."

Her training routine comprises of bodyweight exercises, like lunges, squats, push-ups and planks for VO2 max and muscular fitness, apart from badminton games on the roof of her Chennai home with siblings, which she says does a 'thorough job' of tiring her out.

Satwik, meanwhile, plays cricket through the evenings these days with his neighbourhood friends in Amalapuram, 500 km from Hyderabad, and takes his nickname of 'Pollard' as slavish praise for his big-hitting and all-round abilities.

"Once the lockdown is over, fitness may be down to 45-50% but at least athletes who maintain their fitness routine can arrest a sharp fall and return to regular training, strong, flexible and injury-free" Nikhil Latey

Under the current circumstances, the more sabotaged half across sport is the technical part of training. Sathiyan uses the Butterfly amicus prime robot, set up on the far end of the table in his Chennai home, for working on his strokes and footwork. The robot has a three-wheel head design that can toss 120 balls per minute at the receiver loaded with topspin/backspin/combination of left+right spin or no spin and comes with an android tablet for control of settings.

Yet, it's nothing like having a human sparring partner.

"Of course I'm lucky to have a table and robot at home but the most you can use a robot for is 45 minutes to an hour for a session," says Sathiyan. "In a regular training session with a partner, I can go on for four hours. Honestly, the table tennis part of training has been badly hit."

Bhavani, though, has given her training an inventive spin on the roof of her home. In the absence of a human sparring partner, she uses two red bricks on each side to hold up two slabs of concrete on which her fencing kit bag is hoisted. Her meshed stainless steel playing mask is positioned on top of the bag to complete the look of a dummy, and she uses the ad hoc setup for her target exercise.

Similarly, the monotonous drill of dry firing for days together had pistol shooter Abhishek Verma, who has won an Olympic quota place for Tokyo, cobbling up a makeshift 10m range in the outdoor space of his Chandigarh home.

"In regular training I normally fire 300 shots every day over two sessions," he says. "But over the past few weeks all I could manage was dry firing. It's monotonous and you can't do it all day."

After he set up the temporary range, he has been firing 25-50 shots every day. Since it's an indoor discipline by nature, firing outdoors changes the whole dynamics and the wind factor messes up the accuracy. "I'm doing it anyway so I can maintain my rhythm and muscle memory. It was getting difficult to get by without firing a single pellet any longer."

Following the lockdown, JSW Sports plans to either get their athletes over to their high-performance training facility in Bellary or provide them with the necessary equipment, CEO Mustafa Ghouse reveals.

"Particularly in contact sports like wrestling and boxing where sparring is the most essential component of training, it's a lot tougher right now. We're trying to keep our athletes positive and fresh and aware that it's not just us who have the short end of the stick. It's global, it's affecting all athletes everywhere equally."

Mind and all that matters

The most immediate and visible effect of a forced, surprise break on athletes has been disturbed sleep cycles. Bhavani admits she could barely catch a wink the week after the Olympics was postponed. With tournaments suspended or cancelled en-masse, the crater-sized chunk of free time that opened up on calendars had athletes going from taut, stressed and on a training-competition overkill to suddenly being left with nothing to chase.

"After training usually you're so tired that as soon as your head hits the pillow you fall asleep," says Sathiyan. "But when your body is rested, sleep doesn't come easy. It was a huge problem at the start of this phase. I was either sleeping too much or too little. Now, I make sure I sleep and wake up at the same time every day. It's the best way to make sure that I have a disciplined routine."

To trigger motivation levels, breaking down larger goals into smaller focus areas and recording or keeping score of activities could help, says Divya Jain, sports psychologist at Fortis, New Delhi, who works closely with elite athletes.

"If athletes use this time purely as a break, they could feel lethargic and demotivated. Even if they're training at home, they should change into their training gear rather than doing their workouts in pyjamas," she says.

"Also, a dedicated space at home should be set aside for training and it can be made fun and challenging by video recording and seeking feedback or keeping score of what they're doing. When they do these things, the mind picks up on the cue. It's a way of telling yourself that you're working towards something purposeful."

Additionally, some of them have found a welcome pursuit in picking up a new hobby. While Sathiyan has rekindled his love for reading, Abhishek is taking German-language and guitar lessons on YouTube. Bhavani and Sai Praneeth, meanwhile, are making their kitchen debuts.

"I never really chipped in with household chores all these years," Bhavani says. "But now I'm helping my mother with the cooking and cleaning at home. It's quite a different feeling."

Conversely, the excess time also allows room for the odd urge athletes have been fighting and shutting away through disciplined regular training, to sneak up on them. Increased screen time and social-media use, headline that list. From checking his Instagram and Twitter feeds only on Sundays for half an hour, it's now turned into a daily activity for Abhishek. One that he turns to almost at any point of the day when he is bored.

"I know it's a poor habit, I tell myself to stay away but sometimes there's just nothing else to do," he says.

"If athletes use this time purely as a break, they could feel lethargic and demotivated. Even if they're training at home, they should change into their training gear rather than working out in pyjamas." Divya Jain

Divya suggests an antidote to the mindless scrolling through newsfeeds in athletes by switching to video calling friends and relatives instead of texting. "Most of these athletes are role models in their own right, so they should use this time to build their own brand and post positive, uplifting content on social media, rather than sitting around at home feeling despondent," she says.

A majority of athlete support organisations have been conducting Zoom sessions with a focus on well-being, nutrition and anxiety.

"We have them every alternate day of the week and the idea is to keep it interactive," says Deepthi, "It shouldn't feel like a classroom session. To allow athletes the comfort to express themselves, we're also trying to diversify the number of languages we hold the sessions in. The first batch was in English, we had another one in Hindi and the next one will possibly be in Tamil. Everyone is free to ask what's on their mind, to channelise their anxieties and we have a nice thing going. We also see senior athletes mentoring and answering queries from junior athletes. It helps toward building meaningful relationships."

Among the questions and concerns that pop up often are those associated with the struggle of reconciling the idea of home as currently the fulcrum of their sport and training. For most athletes, who've stayed away for weeks, months and years, it can be particularly discomfiting.

For others like Satwik, it's almost a rewind to school-bunking sprees. Right from when he was a kid, he'd kill to stay at home. He would leave for school but wouldn't go all the way. Once his parents would leave for work, he'd race back home, let himself in and watch TV the whole day. This phase, for Satwik, almost feels like an extension of those days.

"It works both ways," says Divya. "People are a lot more into each other's space but it's also turning them more empathetic, altruistic, connected and offers family members of athletes a better understanding of their lives and a first-hand view of their discipline, training and dedication."

It's true for Bhavani's lot. It's the first time in eight years that she's home for whole days and weeks. It's also the first time her siblings have seen her train. "They're shocked," she says. "We watch fencing matches together on YouTube and I explain the rules to them. They can't believe this is who I really am."