As the final seconds ticked away in India’s Asian Games contest in Incheon (Korea) against the Philippines and an Indian loss was all but ensured, Indian swingman Pratham Singh suffered a nasty fall, hurting both his head and his back. As Pratham writhed in pain on court, a hush fell in the arena, and his teammates momentarily ignored the result to focus on their hurting teammate. Pratham was stretchered off court, and for the next few hours, the Indian basketball team, coaches, as well as fans held their breath and hoped for some good news from the medical team.
Over four and half thousand kilometers away from Incheon, India’s Strength & Conditioning Coach Tommy Heffelfinger followed the game in New Delhi with bated breath, too. Since his appointment by the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) three months ago, Heffelfinger has worked closely with Pratham Singh and several others of India’s top players – both at the Senior and under-18 level in both genders – to ensure that serious injuries are reduced as much as possible.
“When injuries go down, the performances go up,” he stated, something that may sound obvious but is always easier said than done. For an individual like Pratham – a top-six rotation player for India’s Senior Men’s national basketball team – his fitness is directly related to his team’s performance.
Later that day, some good news trickled out of the Indian camp in Incheon back to Delhi: Pratham went through some tests on his back and leg, revealing no serious injuries. He was rested for the next day against Iran, but for the big picture, Heffelfinger let out a sigh of relief.
Hailing from Ann Arbor in Michigan, USA, sports took Heffelfinger across the pond to England for a decade, where he worked with national players from the British basketball team, football players of the English Premier League club West Ham United, and rugby players, too. Choosing to be nearer to his wife – who is from Nepal – Heffelfinger jumped at the opportunity of joining the BFI’s Strength & Conditioning team, taking over a position left vacant since the previous Coach – Zak Penwell – finished his tenure. Familiar with India and South Asia in the past, Heffelfinger skipped over the culture shock that most foreign coaches suffer in their initial stages of their visit.
“I felt like I was pretty much ready for anything when I got here,” he said when I met him in New Delhi in mid-September.
What his previous visits wouldn’t have prepared him for would’ve been the basketball. As his predecessor Penwell discovered during his two years in India, the exercise, diet, and fitness regimes of Indian basketball players were uniquely specific and, in some ways, separate from the athletes they would’ve trained before.
“In India, first of all the dietary restrictions are a big deal,” Heffelfinger said, “And this is something to which we are constantly adjusting on camp. Beyond that, when it comes to dealing with player workouts, I’ve learnt how difficult it is for our national team players to stick to their regimes outside of practice – all of these players have other day jobs outside of basketball. It is difficult for them to find dedicated time to follow up with their fitness schedules outside of camp.”
“The positive,” he added, “Is that kids in India tend to have better base mobility and movement. They still do not have better control of their body weight, and we have to work on making sure that they reach certain standards before they start working with heavier weights.”
Heffelfinger’s responsibilities encompass the entire plethora of Indian national teams, including the Seniors, the U18s, the U16s, and the U14s for both boys and girls. Over the past three months, he has only had a chance to work with the Seniors and the U18s, the latter of whom he took part in a camp most recently and will be heading out again to the SAI Center in Aurangabad to help the U18 girls’ prepare for the upcoming FIBA Asia U18 Championship for Women in Jordan in a few weeks.
When his responsibilities eventually trickle down to the U16s and U14s, Heffelfinger will be handed the keys to coaching kids at the most transformative of ages.
“When kids get to a certain age, it is considered their peak-height velocity, after which we can begin more focus on strength training,” said Heffelfinger, “That is a maturation point, usually around 15-16 for most kids, where we can introduce heavy weights more. Before that age, most of the training is usually technique based.”
But once the young players begin to focus on lifting weights and sculpting their bodies for optimum basketball shape, Heffelfinger warns that there is a strict need to be aware of the right parts of the body to work on.
“It’s true, a lot of people don’t know which part of the body they must work on, and the same is true for basketball,” he said, “For example, in basketball, you need to have strong quads, and work on the hamstrings. Focusing on the lifting weights for the right parts of the body will improve performance and reduce risk of injury.”
“Players need to start addressing the balance of their bodies. Posterior imbalance can be the cause of a lot of injuries.”
Heffelfinger’s work over the past three months has already begun to show some early signs of improvement among the elite Indian athletes. He worked with the Senior Men’s team at camp in Greater Noida prior to the FIBA Asia Cup in Wuhan (China) a few months ago, a tournament now immortalized in Indian hoops history for showcasing some of India’s best-ever performances, including a memorable victory over Asian giants China. While the team’s Head Coach Scott Flemming deserved much of the credit for tactically preparing India – particularly on the defensive end – to punch above their weight, the work of Indian physiotherapists and strength trainers such as Heffelfinger in the background shouldn’t be ignored either; it was no doubt that the new Team India looked fitter than ever before and can now respond to many more of Coach Flemming’s gruelling demands.
In training camps, Heffelfinger has also noted improvement on more specific aspects of fitness. For example, he mentioned that the junior girls have improved their short-distance (20 meters) sprint times drastically over the past few months. “The improvement was off the roof,” he said, “I couldn’t even have hoped for them to improve their times so soon. They are all adding strength to their lower body.”
While the early returns have been positive, there are still several challenges that Heffelfinger hopes that India can overcome in the near future. The first priority, he said, is to find a place to lay out all the strength and conditioning related equipment and set up what he hopes will eventually become the ‘BFI Player Development Center’.
“We have all the equipment with us already,” he said, “But we still haven’t been able to use most of it, since we’re still waiting to find a place to set it up.”
Another concern for Heffelfinger has been the diet, and he has noted that the senior teams often return overweight or out of shape form breaks in national camps. With many players also being vegetarian, Heffelfinger has had to get creative with his dietary advice.
“First and foremost, they need to just stay away from oily food,” he said, “Currently, they also seem to have a very limited intake of food, which is shocking.”
Heffelfinger’s long-term goals for India start by prioritizing athlete health. He wishes to reduce basketball injuries by two-thirds and over-training injuries by one-half, too. He also has hopes to collect medical data of Indian players to create reports of players’ injury history. At this point, there is no such existing medical database in Indian basketball.
Further on, he plans to spend time with other strength coaches in India and train them to help create a pyramid system where each coach can then pass on health and fitness tips to many more around the country.
“I feel that there has been a distinct improvement in the national teams over the past few months,” said Heffelfinger, “It was extremely rewarding to see when the improvement leads to improved results.”
Some injuries – like Pratham Singh’s fall at Incheon – are unavoidable. Some are caused by unforeseen circumstances, an over-aggressive opponent, or simply bad luck. There is no perfect science to staying fit and no athlete – no matter how well trained – is going to be indestructible. But concentrated efforts from Heffelfinger and India’s health, fitness, and physiotherapy teams can seriously turn the odds around to avoiding injury.
And, as Heffelfinger states, the obvious fact is also the most important one. Healthier teams are more successful teams. For Indian basketball in the midst of a rapid push forward, any competitive edge for further success should be embraced.