If the tip of a fencing blade travels at the speed of sound, Bhavani Devi’s thoughts process at the speed of light. The dizzying pace at which a point is played out means the first Indian fencing Olympian has to make what seem like a million calculations in a millisecond: scrutinise the opponent’s position, read the movements and plot her own strategy.

If she waits for the moment when the weapons are brandished, it’s too late. So, Bhavani sizes up her opponent while she lunges, by a mere glance. “We can take the hint from the position of the opponent’s weapon whether they are keeping it low, to the right, or to the left so in that way we can predict where they are trying to finish their attack or where they are ready to make the defence or the parry,” Bhavani says.

The movements are so economical, yet so fast, that even the cameras, which capture thousands of frames in a second, can’t always capture all the subtleties. And it’s not just in her sport. In the fortnight starting July 24, when the first medal of the Tokyo Olympics will be awarded, points will be won and matches will be decided based on what happens in those split seconds in between the actual actions.

Here’s a hint: it isn’t only about the swooshing swords, wielding sticks, or swinging paddles. The story, quite often, lies in the darting eyes.

A little more than a decade ago, neuroscientists at the MIT conducted research, linking high speed of thought to our perception of the world. Three or four times in a second, they noted that our eyes wander in different directions, giving the mind less than one-tenth of a second to process and make sense of what we see. Quick processing speed, it was argued, was vital in developing intelligence.

Apply those findings in a match scenario, and it’s more or less what hockey player Harmanpreet Singh faces during a penalty-corner situation. Harmanpreet is currently among the finest drag-flickers in world hockey – in fact, former India and Netherlands coach Paul van Ass regards the 25-year-old Indian as one of the most powerful flickers of this generation, as quoted at hockey.nl. His drag-flickers, however, are as much about the brain as they are about brawn.

Before he lets the ball fly – and in the microseconds between the push, the trap and the flick – Harmanpreet has immeasurable mental tasks to perform. “One of the first things I see is the position of the goalkeeper, which way is he moving? Then, I have to see the number of rushers charging towards me before trying to spot where the postman is standing,” Harmanpreet says.

The ‘rushers’ are the defenders tasked with closing down the angles of a drag-flicker by sprinting towards him the moment the ball is pushed into play. Usually, it is just one player doing this but sometimes, teams deploy a ‘double battery’ – two defenders, joined at the hips, rush together, making it even harder for the flicker to find space. The ‘postman’ is a player who guards the post, usually the one that is to the other side of where the goalkeeper is positioned.

While he is noticing the movements of the defenders, Harmanpreet simultaneously has to gauge the speed of the push and the positioning of his left foot. “If the ball is coming fast, then I like to place my foot one step forward than where it’ll be trapped, rather than parallel. That way, I can decrease the space between the goal and top of the ‘D’, from where we take the flick.”

And as he makes all these mental notes, Harmanpreet figures out the angle of his flick, makes the minutest of tweaks to his hip position and decides whether to go for power or placement. “It’s around one second between the pass and the trap, when we make these observations and decisions. One second, too, might be a little generous,” Harmanpreet says.

All a blur

But at least Harmanpreet has a second or half. Table tennis star Sathiyan Gnanasekaran doesn’t even have that much luxury. Still, he is constantly looking for clues – mostly during serves and the first two or three shots of the rally, which are usually slow before the ball becomes a blur and instincts take over.

It could be anything – the toss, bat positions, foot positions –that can give him a head start into a rally. “If they are receiving on the backhand, they will probably keep their right leg a little more inside the table. People receiving on the forehand, they will have their leg a little bit behind,” Sathiyan says. “Similarly, if you see the toss going a little bit away from the body, it’s a sign it could be a long serve since it gives them some space. And if you are ready for the long service, you can hit a really hard return and get an upper hand in the rally immediately.”

The toughest part is to anticipate and negotiate the spin. “It is the most complicated thing. I don’t think there’s any sport in which the ball spins so much on such a small area,” Sathiyan says. “If you don’t read the spin in the split-second, you will miss the shot.”

So, even in the middle of a lightning-quick rally, Sathiyan constantly keeps an eye on the position of his opponent’s racket – if he is going underneath the ball and the bat is flatter, it is backspin; there’s topspin when you are above and closer to the ball and if the paddle is moving laterally towards or away from the body, it’ll be sidespin.

“At the top level, people try to be as deceptive as possible; say, they will keep the bat underneath the ball but while hitting they’ll swiftly bring it up to confuse you,” Sathiyan says. “These are certain patterns so you can anticipate. But you can’t assume.”

The anticipation, he says, comes from years of practice and repetition, something that every athlete swears by. With regular practice, they attest, their brain performs a task with fewer signals and less time.

Harmanpreet, for instance, is able to absorb a hundred different things while taking a penalty corner because he practices 30 to 40 drag-flicks every week. “We also practice corners after an intense training session, when we are tired and fatigued. That is one way to create match situations – that’s how we train our mind to look at all the things during a match even when we are completely drained,” Harmanpreet says.

Even Vinesh Phogat, one of India’s biggest medal hopes, has been training her mind to multi-task while not compromising on strength during a physically exhausting wrestling bout. Phogat is constantly looking for signals – her one eye on the rival’s hands, to fend off any potential attack; the other is set on the legs, to find an opening; and at the same time, she is also ensuring that her anti-clockwise motion on the mat isn’t sacrificed.

Even Bhavani, a beneficiary of the Rahul Dravid Athlete Mentorship Programme, believes practicing the same actions and same movements every day ensures they are able to execute it during a bout without really having to give it a lot of thought. “We just do normal training and more repetition of the parry’s, techniques, and strategies. Just training with a lot of the same actions and same movements which helps to react automatically when the same situation happens in a bout,” she says.

They might slip into autopilot mode when the action begins. But in Tokyo, it’s this speed of thought that will separate the mere good from the great.

Mihir VasavdaThe author is an assistant editor at The Indian Express. He tweets at … read more

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