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Friday, February 26, 2021

In vogue: Distance learning arises as a short-term solution amidst pandemic

Although remote coaching might be the mantra right now, athletes realise that it cannot be a long-term solution. The travel restrictions will compound their problems too.

Written by Mihir Vasavda | New Delhi |
Updated: June 16, 2020 3:26:35 pm
Athletes continue to train through online coaching and virtual simulators. (Express Illustration)

Vinesh Phogat’s training follows a rather different pattern these days. The wrestler is at her village in Kharkhoda, Haryana; her coach, Woller Akos, in Budapest, Hungary. But Phogat and Akos have found an alternative way to keep the coaching schedule on track: a mobile phone app.

At the beginning of every week, Akos feeds a plan into the athlete monitoring app, including the number of weight-training sets, wrestling technique, repetitions, rest period, and so on. After each session, Phogat and her team of physios and sports science experts key in all the vital stats. In an instant, Akos accesses these numbers and gives feedback. Phogat and Akos have been using this app since the time they joined hands, which was around five weeks before the 2018 Asian Games. It has, however, never come in handier than now.

“I don’t know when I will be able to visit India or she can come here. It is a difficult situation but I try to monitor as much as I can remotely from here. This app, which is used by Olympic Gold Quest, has been helpful,” Akos tells The Indian Express.

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For an athlete preparing for the postponed Tokyo Olympics, these are restless and desperate times. Most of them have not been able to train for more than 80 days, the ones who have resumed practice are doing so with severe restrictions, many are away from their coaches and all of them have been told they cannot travel outside India for training for the rest of the year.

“So you will have to be innovative in nature,” says Beijing Olympics gold medallist Abhinav Bindra. “A lot of athletes have been reliant on coaches from overseas and there will be scenarios where those coaches will not be able to travel to India for a fair amount of time. So, you have to start embracing science and technology.”

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Angad Vir Bajwa, a joint world record holder in skeet shooting, has done exactly that. Bajwa has a simulator fitted in a room at his private range in Dera Bassi, near Chandigarh. The simulator replicates the effect of being on a shooting station, with images of a range projected on the wall and clay targets flying around, and Bajwa has been trying to perfect his mount, or in simple terms, the positioning of the shotgun.

“It (simulation) cannot replace actual practice but it is a valuable tool,” Bajwa says. “A coach cannot hand-hold you all the time. My coach, Tore Brovold, is in Oslo and it won’t be possible to train with him for some more time. I am in constant touch with him but eventually, I have to put some effort myself,” Bajwa says, adding that Brovold helped him with the simulator.

Bajwa is among those who are constantly on the road, either for training or competition. He has made peace with the fact that travelling will not be possible this year and has made the sprawling range at Dera Bassi his base for the time being.

From Georgia, eye on Sonepat

Bajrang Punia is training by himself even though his coach, Shako Bentinidis, is in Georgia. (Source: File Photo)

Others, with space constraints, are improvising. Wrestler Bajrang Punia, who lives in an apartment very close to the Sports Authority of India’s Sonepat campus, has made his own little akhara in the community hall of the complex.
The strict 14-day quarantine rule for those entering a SAI facility means Punia is content to train by himself even though his coach, Shako Bentinidis, is in Georgia. Recently, he got a wrestling mat from his village and has laid it in the basement. Along with it, he procured fitness equipment from Jalandhar to prepare a makeshift gym. Bentinidis, meanwhile, monitors his sessions from Georgia.

It is not just about the distance. Javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra and his German trainer Klaus Bartonietz live inside the same campus at the National Institute of Sport in Patiala. However, because of the Sports Authority of India’s guidelines, which do not allow coaches above 65 to go outdoors, Bartonietz has not been able to monitor Chopra’s sessions. So, they have been relying on WhatsApp video calls to communicate for the time being.

Remote coaching might be the mantra right now, but athletes realise this cannot be a long-term solution. “You do not get complacent when the coach is around,” Phogat laughs. “But if a coach is present, he can spot the tiniest of things. At our level, the mistakes might not be glaring and you need a trained eye to spot if something is wrong. It is tough to have the same level of training when the coach is far away.”

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The travel restrictions, it is feared, will compound their problems. Phogat and Punia usually travel to Europe for better quality sparring. It is the same with boxers, who were among the most-travelled lot last year and even in 2020, until the pandemic struck.

It is believed that in these two sports, India’s bench strength is so strong that finding quality partners within the country will not be a major hurdle, as well as finding the right infrastructure, with some even considering to train in the sanitised environment at the Inspire Institute of Sport in Vijayanagar.

For a few, however, options are few. Shooters, for instance, need to travel abroad not just for training, but also for testing and buying ammunition because India-made stuff is considered far below the world standard. Shooter Sheeraz Sheikh, who routinely travels to Italy for training, says the only option he will be left with is to drastically cut down on practice if the situation remains the same. “We are allowed to import 15,000 cartridges per year. When we go for one week of training in Italy, we use around 4,000-5,000 cartridges. It will be impossible to last the whole year on this,” Sheikh says. “The only solution, unless things change, will be to train less. So, instead of shooting around 500-700 shots per day, we may have to cut down to 100-125 shots to last this period.”

Akos puts it more succinctly. “We are planning for every day and every week, and monitor everything from here using technology. But in a contact sport, how do I teach her a technique online, with zero contact?”

Despite the ideas and innovations, that’s precisely the problem for Phogat: practising a contact sport, without any physical contact.

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