If the tip of a fencing blade moves at the speed of sound, Bhavani Devi’s thoughts unfold at the speed of light. The dizzying pace at which a point is played forces India’s first Olympic fencing athlete to do what seems like a million calculations in a millisecond: scrutinize the opponent’s position, read the moves and chart his own strategy.
If she waits until the guns are raised, it’s too late. Thus, Bhavani assesses her opponent while she throws herself, with a simple glance. “We can take a clue of the position of the opponent’s weapon, whether he is keeping it low, to the right or to the left, that way we can predict where they are trying to end their attack or where they are ready.” to make the defense or the parade, âsays Bhavani.
The movements are so economical, yet so fast, that even cameras, which capture thousands of images in a second, cannot always capture all the intricacies. And it’s not just in his sport. In the fortnight starting July 24, when the first Tokyo Olympics medal is awarded, points will be earned and matches will be decided based on what happens in those fractions of seconds between actual actions.
Here’s a clue: It’s not just about whistling swords, wielding sticks or swaying paddles. The story, quite often, is found in the stinging eyes.
Just over a decade ago, neuroscientists at MIT conducted research, linking the speed of thought to our perception of the world. Three or four times per second, they noticed that our eyes wandered in different directions, giving the mind less than a tenth of a second to process and make sense of what we are seeing. Fast processing speed, it was argued, was vital for developing intelligence.
Apply these results in a match scenario, and that’s more or less what hockey player Harmanpreet Singh faces in a penalty shoot-out situation. Harmanpreet is currently one of the best drag flickers in world hockey. In fact, former India and Netherlands coach Paul van Ass considers the 25-year-old Indian to be one of the strongest flashers of this generation, according to hockey.nl. His drag flickers, however, are as much about the brain as they are about the muscles.
Before letting the bullet fly – and in the microseconds between push, trap, and hit – Harmanpreet has immeasurable mental tasks to accomplish. âOne of the first things I see is the position of the goalkeeper, in what direction is he moving? Then I have to see the number of rushers charging towards me before I try to spot where the postman is standing, âsays Harmanpreet.
Rushers are the defenders tasked with closing the angles of a drag flicker by sprinting towards him as the ball is being pushed into play. Usually a single player does this, but sometimes teams deploy a “double battery” – two defenders, joined at the hips, rush together, making it even more difficult for the Glitter to find space. The âpostmanâ is a player guarding the post, usually the one on the other side of where the goalkeeper is.
As he notices the defenders’ movements, Harmanpreet must simultaneously measure the speed of the push and the positioning of his left foot. âIf the ball is coming in fast then I like to place my foot one step forward from where it will be trapped, rather than parallel. This way I can reduce the space between the goal and the top of the ‘D’, from where we take the shot.
And while he’s taking all those mental notes, Harmanpreet determines the angle of his shot, makes the smallest adjustments to his hip position, and decides whether to go for power or placement. âThere is about a second between the pass and the trap, when we make these observations and decisions. A second can also be a little generous, âsays Harmanpreet.
Quite a blur
But at least Harmanpreet has a second or half. Table tennis star Sathiyan Gnanasekaran doesn’t even have a lot of luxury. Still, he’s constantly on the hunt for clues – mostly during serves and the first two or three shots of the rally, which are usually slow before the ball gets blurry and instinct takes over.
It can be anything – the pitch, the bat positions, the foot positions – that can give her a leg up in a rally. âIf they receive on the backhand, they’ll probably keep their right leg a little more inside the table. People who receive a forehand, they will have their leg back a bit, âSathiyan explains. âLikewise, if you see the throw pull away a bit from the body, it’s a sign that it could be a long serve as it gives them a bit of space. And if you’re up for the long serve, you can hit a really hard comeback and immediately gain the upper hand in the rally. “
The hard part is anticipating and negotiating the spin. âIt’s the most complicated thing. I don’t think there is a sport in which the ball spins so much over such a small area, âsays Sathiyan. “If you don’t read the spin in a split second, you’ll miss it.”
So even in the middle of a lightning-fast rally, Sathiyan constantly keeps an eye on his opponent’s racket position – if he goes under the ball and the bat is flatter, that’s the backspin. ; there is a topspin effect when you are above and closer to the ball and if the racket is moving sideways towards or away from the body it will be a side effect.
âAt the highest level, people try to be as deceptive as possible; say, they’ll keep the bat under the ball, but when they hit, they’ll quickly pull it up to confuse you, âSathiyan says. âThese are certain models, so you can anticipate. But you can’t assume.
Anticipation, he says, comes from years of practice and rehearsal, which any athlete swears by. With regular practice, they attest, their brain performs a task with fewer signals and less time.
Harmanpreet, for example, is able to absorb a hundred different things by taking a penalty corner because he practices 30-40 drag flicks each week. âWe also practice the turns after an intense training session, when we are tired and fatigued. It’s a way of creating match situations – that’s how we train our minds to watch everything during a match, even when we’re completely exhausted, âsays Harmanpreet.
Even Vinesh Phogat, one of India’s greatest medal hopefuls, trained his mind to multitask without compromising his strength in a physically grueling wrestling bout. Phogat is constantly on the lookout for signals – his one eye on his rival’s hands, to ward off any potential attack; the other is placed on the feet, to find an opening; and at the same time, she also makes sure that her counterclockwise movement on the mat is not sacrificed.
Even Bhavani, a beneficiary of the Rahul Dravid Athlete Mentoring Program, believes practicing the same actions and movements every day ensures that they are able to perform them during a fight without really having to think much about it. âWe just do normal training and more repetition of parries, techniques and strategies. You just need to train with the same actions and movements, which helps to react automatically when the same situation arises in a fight, âshe says.
They can go into autopilot mode when the action begins. But in Tokyo, it is this speed of thought that will separate the simple good from the great.