As the league stage comes to an end, Jaipur Pink Panthers and Tamil Thalaivas pack their bags at the Pro Kabaddi League. The teams, who finished fifth and sixth in their respective zones after playing 22 matches each, have just completed their longest and most challenging tournament so far. Their coaches, Balwan Singh and K Baskaran, stand with them -- as they always have -- and watch them from a distance.
Singh and Baskaran go back a long way. Both were a part of the coaching staff that led Jaipur to a win in the inaugural season of the PKL. Both were also coaches for the Indian national team during the Kabaddi World Cup last year, a tournament where they won again. However, in the PKL season that followed, both their teams faltered and failed to progress to the knockouts. "That's the difference between a national team and a league team. The dynamics are different here and there," says Baskaran.
Baskaran has been coaching various teams since he received his coaching degree from the National Institute of Sports in 2004. In 2009, he coached the national junior probables team before heading the Malaysian and Thailand teams in the years that followed. He moved back to India as an assistant coach with the national team in 2014. "My experience has been wide and pretty different. For the Indian national team, my key area of focus has revolved around honing strategies rather than the basics as the players here already know how to play the game," he says.
"In PKL, you have to focus on both strategising as well as the basics as new players are involved," Baskaran says. Unlike the national team which consists of the country's top 8-12 players, the PKL has 18-25 players in each team which include seniors, moderately experienced, new as well as international players. "It is challenging, indeed," says Singh, a Dronacharya awardee and a coach for the national and state-level teams since 1996. "The players are from different parts of the country, speak in different languages, have their own eating habits and have perhaps never even played together before. Our job is to bring them on the same page."
While the problem is more or less the same in a national team, with every player having their own food and language preference, it becomes slightly easier for coaches as they are already experienced and accustomed to playing together with each other in previous events. The PKL, on the other hand, has teams formed through auctions where players form completely new teams.
Baskaran agrees. "There are so many different kinds of players in the league. We need to make sure they know and understand each other. That is very important because most of them haven't ever faced each other before." In the beginning, during team practices, Thalaivas' captain Ajay Thakur didn't know the names of most of his teammates.
It was only after Baskaran's personal sessions with the team that he became acquainted with them. "I made sure I spent time with everyone, personally as well as a team, so that they would understand who needs what. A week into my sessions, Ajay came to me to thank me, saying that this was needed for the team to get to know each other."
The three and a half months long league was a first for kabaddi players -- usually used to playing month-long tournaments at most -- and they had to adapt. "Fitness played a crucial role here," says Singh. "There were several injuries this time, including ones involving senior players. Some overexerted themselves too. This led to an imbalance in the team. Our team was very strong on paper, but the constant issues with fitness became the main reason for us to go out."
Along with fitness, Baskaran feels that his team also failed to get into the right rhythm at a crucial time. "We had several new players who were very talented but got nervous during important times. As time passed, they got better, but we fell about 2-3 matches short in the end."
However, the coaches feel that they have a lot of positives to take away from the season. "They'll go back as better players and come back the next season as players to watch out for," they say. To emphasise the importance of a coach in a team sport like kabaddi, Singh equates it with the role of a teacher, "See, each competition is like a different exam - a monthly one, a half-yearly one or even a final one, the weightage may vary, but the students will always need a teacher to guide them through. That's where the coach comes to play."
"We are there for them throughout the tournament, both as individuals and as a team. Our role is to keep the team close-knit, to keep them together. We strategise, help them practice, create and become the players they want to be. And when they are low, our job is to motivate them enough to keep them going," Baskaran adds.
Singh strongly stresses on his belief that motivation is of utmost importance for any player, no matter how senior or junior they are. He gives an example of the time India were trailing 13-19 against Iran in the Kabaddi World Cup final last year. "We told them to give their best, to do this for the nation and themselves. For the players, whatever we say matters a lot. So we need to be clear as to what to say to whom. Not everyone feels a kick when you say the same thing to everyone. You have to speak according to a player's personality and reach out to them to get their best. We ultimately won then, but to keep their morale high throughout was a big task."
So do they agree that coaches are a team's backbone? "If there were no coaches, there would be no teams and without them, there would have been no future," smiles Baskaran.