Sardar Singh's post-retirement life: After beating Virat Kohli in Yo-Yo test, ex-hockey skipper sets sights on global leagues
Sardar was never considered the fastest in the Indian team, but he made up for it with his vision and game sense. The former playmaker believes that a good hockey player must find a balance between fitness and game awareness.
Chandigarh: Sardar Singh holds the 20kg Olympic rod horizontally with his clenched left fist and points to the popping flex of Brachioradialis in his forearm. "Paaji, I like this muscle. I like it when it is visible while I hold the hockey stick," he says, doing a mock dribble with the rod.
It's been over two months since Sardar called time on his international career. The bad break-up saw him go into an unusual tell-all, but now that the dust over the forced retirement has finally settled, the former India captain is slowly stoking his passion for fitness again.
Sardar is taking it easy for now, which means he trains four times a week instead of six, slowly building up for the multiple offers he has from leagues across the world.
Former India coaches Roelant Oltmans and Terry Walsh, currently serving as Malaysia's chief coach and Technical Director respectively, are learned to have shown a keen interest in roping the former playmaker in one of the Malaysian clubs. Sardar also has offers from Belgium, Germany, and The Netherlands, and the former India captain is certain to turn out for at least one of the European clubs next year.
"I think I can go on for two more years, at least. I had an offer from Muscat, but the level of hockey there didn't excite me. I will take final calls after the World Cup, but I am in talks with a club in Malaysia, and then I will play in Europe. These leagues serve as a motivation for me to train," he says.
While the modalities of the deals are being worked out, those in the know of things claim that the European clubs are ready to shell out 60,000-80,000 euros for the 32-year-old. Sardar has had stints with Belgian club KHC Leuven in 2011 and Dutch side HC Bloemendaal in 2013, and the Europeans want him in a player-mentor role to groom their next line of midfielders.
"After I retired, I didn't have much motivation to train. However, fitness is my passion and I like to look good and healthy. Having done this for 15 years of my life, it is impossible to completely finish my love for fitness. I am slowly getting back in rhythm with light-weight-high-rep workouts, and will gradually ease into heavy weights, " he says.
It's hard not to believe him, for, despite less strenuous workouts, Sardar is in shape, with a body fat percentage between 12-13 percent.
Sardar's workout session — a mix of High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) and weights — is instructive as it is revealing, for he turns out to be a walking textbook of gym training. "I don't need a personal trainer, paaji. What for?" he jokes, before jumping off the treadmill for some triceps extension. The treadmill has steamed from 5.2 to 20.8, but Sardar is only warming up.
He proceeds to perform three sets of weighted lunges, alternating them with his forearm work. Three sets of bench press and some shoulder drills follow. This circuit training, Sardar says, are "light exercises" that keeps him in good mental space. The workout that satiates him the most is the punishing core regime, and almost on cue, Sardar holds some skin on his flat abdomen and goes, "I need to get rid of this." He grabs a 25kg plate, hoists it overhead, and starts walking the length of the gym. The overhead extension stretches the upper abs, and the weight tests the stability and core strength.
Sardar then settles for some leg curls, but stops midway with a sheepish grin. "You know paaji, in Germany, they say all these machine workouts are for elderly people. There, the focus is more on heavy compound movements, such as deadlift, barbell squats, unassisted bench presses. That is some workout!"
Given hockey's dynamic nature and the amount of mobility it entails, lower body strength becomes critical. Hamstrings, quadriceps, groin, calves, knees, ankles, lower back, and gluteus maximus are key focus areas in the anatomy of a hockey player, which translates into the need for power-packed workout for the posterior body.
Ramji Srinivasan, a former trainer with the Indian cricket team, feels Sardar's fitness is a model for all athletes in the country. "He is a supreme athlete in a sport that demands supreme fitness. Think of the work a hockey player puts in on the turf, and to maintain that intensity for 60 minutes is very demanding. Sardar has done it for over a decade, which is quite something. He has not set an example, he is the example.
"Hockey involves a mix of stamina, endurance, speed, power, mobility, agility, balance, and strength. To get the ball across the turf, you need explosive power, and that power comes from a solid base. Sardar's legs are incredibly strong. Then, the game requires a lot of twisting movement, which brings oblique muscles in play. So basically, your entire body needs to be in perfect condition," Srinivasan, who currently trains Tamil Nadu's Ranji cricket team, says.
Over the years, the standards of fitness in the national hockey team have systematically gone up, and after decades of being outpaced and outmuscled, Indians are finally proving a match for the Europeans. Sardar credits the change to foreign coaches and trainers. Srinivasan though believes that it's time we "Indianise" some fitness concepts to foster inclusiveness: "We must realise that there are a lot of cultural and dietary differences between us and the Europeans. Why can't we have our customised fitness modules rather than blindly copying them?"
"When I played for India," says Sardar, "we used to train six days a week. Our schedules were prepared to the minutest detail. Our sleeping patterns, diet, workouts, rest hours were recorded, and we were conditioned to drink a minimum of eight litres of water every day. The result is that we are as fit as any hockey side in the world. Hockey has become very scientific these days, and our training regime indicates that. Now, we do heavy weights in the off-season. As a tournament approaches, we switch to light weights as heavy training reduces mobility and affects speed."
Interestingly, Sardar was never considered the fastest in the Indian team, but he made up for it with his vision and game sense. The former playmaker believes that a good hockey player must find a balance between fitness and game awareness.
"Frankly, I never topped any speed test, be it 30-metre sprint or any other test, but I was not unfit. That's the reason I never had an injury in my international career. I think our Indian boys are among the fittest in the world, but they need to learn to close out games.
"Having said that, fitness is more important than skills these days, because if you can't last 60 minutes, you won't be able to show your skills. Strong muscles also reduce the risk of injuries," he says.
Shortly before this year's Asian Games, Sardar registered the best Yo-Yo test score of his career. The news created quite a stir, as he had comfortably beaten Virat Kohli's tally with a reading of 21.4.
Kohli is known to have recorded Yo-Yo scores of 19 against the BCCI threshold of 16.1. Sardar doesn't make much of the 'achievement' and is slightly taken aback by the BCCI marker.
"Bas? (That's all?) I don't think my Yo-Yo score is a big deal as different sports require different fitness parameters. Sports like hockey and tennis require very high levels of fitness. Every muscle of your body ought to be trained, from wrists to legs to core. Modern game is fast, so you need stamina, endurance, and strength," he says.
Srinivasan agrees. Cricket, he says, is a sport that doesn't demand a minimum fitness criterion for a beginner. "It's quite different in sports like hockey, boxing, rowing, etc where you have to be physically fit to even attempt the sport. That's why I don't think much should be made of Sardar beating Kohli's Yo-Yo test score; it's actually pretty normal. Hockey is a tough sport, and if you are not fit, you will be exposed."
Back in his Chandigarh gym, Sardar, sheathed in sweat but far from panting, continues to pound himself. He is understandably proud of his steel-core, and slips in a minor detail with a mischevious wink. "We have been doing Yo-Yo tests for 10-12 years now, and our boys regularly clock in the range of 22-23 against the minimum requirement of 20. I can still do five-minute planks."
His biggest takeaway from the game though is not his ripped body or an athletic frame. He opens his palm and quietly points to a smattering of blisters. "This is what I have earned, paaji. No spa treatment can take it away. They will stay with me forever."
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