Dav Whatmore had seen nothing like it before.
Burly, ripped men lunging, ducking, diving, tackling and piling on top of each other in a monstrous heap of muscle mass. All of this with zero equipment. Not even a ball tossed in the middle to fight for control. Just bare arms and limbs, brute strength and sore bodies that won't quit.
The Tamil Thalaivas, who were brewed into the Pro Kabaddi League mix last year, had turned up at the Centre for Sports Science in Chennai (where the former Australia cricketer runs a coaching program) in August, scouring for answers after a crushing season. They had just six wins from 22 matches and a bottom-placed finish in their zone in their debut.
Led by new coach Edacheri Bhaskaran, who is coming off the Mumbai franchise whom he coached to the title in the second season of the PKL, the team camped at the CSS in Sri Ramachandra Medical College for 60 days, focusing on scientific training, biomechanics (the study of forces exerted on and from the body), strength and conditioning, and exercise physiology.
In today's era, no athlete wants to be a Pheidippides. Legend has it that the Greek runner, who inspired the birth of the Olympics, had collapsed to his death after running 25 miles to deliver the message of victory of the Athenian army over the Persians in the coastal plains of Marathon.
Across sport, the athlete of today wants to train hard, yes, but more crucially train smart and train right.
"The first time I saw these guys (Tamil Thaliavas) train, which was also the first time I saw kabaddi up-close, I thought, 'This is savage,'" Whatmore tells ESPN. "You've got to be fit like crazy to get out alive. They kick you pretty hard."
What hurt the Thalaivas most last year was constant injuries, so the thrust this season was on minimizing their scope. It meant every activity the players engaged in was mapped and monitored, even sleep, to know how much energy had been expended, how and when fatigue set in, and using that information to chalk out training schedules without pushing the players' bodies on the line.
Having a tired player on court, Bhaskaran says, is a lot like having an injured one. Without eight hours of sleep, players' attention span and alertness levels begin to flag and the nervous system grows taut. So the more an athlete delays sleep and bulks up on training, and the lower the level of energy, the more the likelihood of picking up an injury.
One of the primary reasons ISL club Chennaiyin FC brought the trophy home last season was having very few injuries in the side. A preseason visit to the CCS helped with that.
Tamil Thalaivas captain Ajay Thakur, who led an inexperienced side last season and used the running hand touch effectively to log 222 points in 22 matches, was particularly chuffed at the chance to delve into the science of the sport. "In all my years as a professional athlete, I'd never seen such advanced research and training facilities being used in kabaddi," says Thakur. "The best part is there are a wide number of options, be it the grassy grounds, the sauna or the pool, so training doesn't bore you. If you don't want to hit the gym, you can go for a run or a swim and it's all under one roof. It has changed the way we train and the way we look at training."
Once the kabaddi boys got to the CCS, the first step was to get the players to undergo a Vo2 max -- a metric used to determine an athlete's level of cardiovascular fitness. This physiological data, which looks at the maximum volume of oxygen used during an intense exercise measured in millilitres used in one minute per kilogramme of the body weight, establishes the aerobic endurance and deduces each athlete's performance capacity.
So you know straight out who is fast, who's strong, who's weak and push them in the right direction as much as possible. "It helped us understand how much training load each player is capable of bearing," says coach Bhasakaran. "We need speed, strength and endurance but if there's excess muscle power it could turn the body stiff, so striking that balance is very important. You have to be agile and strong without slowing your body down."
The other area of focus was biokinetics, or the science of movement, and the use of exercise in both performance and rehabilitation. A large part of the sport is about explosive power, sudden change of direction, ducking and jumping out of the way. For foreign trainers at the centre, much like Whatmore, this was a new sport, alien in many parts of the world and not the kind that often seeks out sports science for answers.
Not just the Thalaivas, teams like the Haryana Steelers and Puneri Paltan too have gone Newton, punching in a few weeks of preseason training at the JSW-run Inspire Institute of Sport (IIS) in Vijayanagar, Karnataka. A sprawling 42-acre facility home to five Olympic disciplines (wrestling, boxing, judo, track & field and swimming), the IIS stitches together sports science with state-of-the-art amenities.
IIS CEO Rushdee Warley, former high performance director of the South African swimming team with two decades of experience in the industry, confesses he caught a few live kabaddi matches on TV back in New Zealand two years ago as preparation for relocation to India in his current role. "I thought to myself, 'I need to know what this is before I get to India,'" Rushdee says. "So when I watched both teams do training sessions at our facility, I was at least familiar with the sport."
Rest is often the most undervalued aspect of training and sports science helps reverse that idea through carbo load and interval training, Rushdee adds. "The thought process in sport is so centred around working hard that you often forget that giving the body a chance to recover and regenerate is just as important as training itself. Since we deal mainly with five specific Olympic disciplines, to have the kabaddi teams come over was also a learning experience for us."
For Whatmore, kabaddi has slid in the tongue. Now, he finds it hard to mention the sport without attempting a short, low-toned version of the cant himself.
"You know when these kabaddi players trained at the CSS, I often caught myself watching them closely," he says. "It has been a real eye-opener for me. Similarly, they would be curious about the bowling machine I'd use and would stand behind me while I did throw-downs just trying to understand how we worked. That's quite the beauty of sport, isn't it? We marvel at each other's uniqueness. Of course I couldn't risk any sessions with them. Boy, those guys are huge!"