Vikash Kandola sounds relaxed. Speaking to ESPN ahead of the much delayed start of season 8 of the Pro Kabaddi League, there seems to be no nervousness or anxiety. He speaks with the easy nonchalance he displays when setting out on a raid. Not that we've seen much of that lately.
It's been a while since Vikash, along with 190 other professional kabaddi players, stepped onto a PKL mat. Two years now, in fact. Even in a sport that has always struggled with maintaining a balance between game-time and the off-season, this has been extreme.
"For the last couple of years, we've had no tournaments, and we've not really been able to practice..." This is where you may expect an average person to launch into a tirade, or whine about their hard luck. You see, after exploding to life in PKL 2018 (when he scored 172 raid points at 7.81 points per game), he upped his game in the 2019 season, scoring 190 raid points at a brilliant 9.5 ppg. He had been the single biggest factor behind Haryana Steelers making the playoffs in season 7.
For a young athlete to have to stop just as he was peaking would have been devastating. Vikash, though, shrugs it off with practiced ease. He may not have been able to play, but he was sure his time to shine would come sooner or later. And so he worked on the one thing he could, his body.
"My fitness, I focused on it," he says. "In the lockdown, I couldn't do game practice on the mat so I worked on my fitness at home. I did that by working in the farm, running outside. It was a challenge, of course..." he trails off. But you can almost imagine what he wants to say: 'Meh. This is what we do'. Once the lockdown lifted, he says, he started playing and practicing with "the boys" back home. Then it almost felt like any other off-season, when he would practice on the mud-floored courts back home. "It increases our speed when we come back to the mat," he laughs.That went on till the PKL came calling again.
Two months ago, the Steelers' gathered together at the Inspire Institute of Sports in Vijayanagara, Karnataka. The state-of-the-art facility is run by the team's parent company JSW Sports and the thinking behind starting camp earlier than usual was clear -- an unusual season (and off-season) demands special attention.
While Vikash and his teammates along with legendary-ex-player-turned-canny-coach Rakesh Kumar focused on getting themselves back into their natural rhythm ("2 - 2 ½ hours practice in the morning, 2 ½ - 3 hours practice in the evening," says Vikash with a smile), the JSW support system kicked into high gear.
They hired Krushmi Chheda, a specialist sports nutritionist. "I have worked with a large number of kabaddi players from the Future Kabaddi Heroes Programme for the past 5 years," she says. "The biggest challenge for them is to break away from their traditional eating pattern they have been following for years." Considering the two years spent away from the club, most of it locked down at home, it was important they got a diet plan fixed immediately. Chheda did this by "periodising their nutrition plan and gradually working on changes..." She'd always found it easy to convince kabaddi players to stick to a specific diet plan once the benefits of the same were understood by them, and so was the case this time around too.
While the coaches and the nutritionist worked on honing the body, the Steelers' brought in Ankita Jain, a sports psychologist, to work on the mind. Divyanshu Singh, the CEO of the team, says the reason was two pronged - the long break they have had to endure and the proven fact that bio-bubble fatigue exists.
Jain started off with awareness sessions for the team. "Traditionally, the perception of 'men don't cry' and 'handle your problems on your own' may have been a deterrent to introducing sports psychology services in India.... (but) open dialogue helped set the right tone and we saw athletes opening up," she says.
She set about convincing players that the more they open up, the stronger they become. "We are making continuous efforts in normalising 'talking to a psychologist' and can see movement in the right direction." This is her first time working with kabaddi players, but Jain is acutely aware of the effect such a long break has had on professional athletes across the board. "Questions were raised about lost time, coming back, ability to perform at previous levels, etc.," she says. "Athletes commented on (the) pressure to win having increased as this was the only opportunity to 'prove' themselves, after a long period of no competitions."
There is a huge amount of baggage. "Many players have reported personal loss, financial struggles, health concerns and increased stress over the two-year-long period," she says. Add to that the pressures of "assuring a berth in next season, proving themselves to their family and coaches, staying injury free..." "If these prior worries weren't enough, now we have recently added the fear of the third wave, the Omicron variant, also," she says. "So, many feel that doing well in the season is critical for financial stability, just in case the worst happens."
These are serious concerns. Once you understand the enormity of all this, the need for a psychologist is self-apparent. At IIS, Jain focused on using "exercises to manage athlete stress, stay focused and have fun during this season - including team building group sessions, self-psychological assessments, breathing exercises and self-talk. For individual guidance and clinical care, we worked on the mental health aspect of athletes."
While she will not be in the bubble, she will remain contracted with the Steelers for the duration of the season and will conduct regular sessions.
For now, though, none of the pressure seems to tell on Vikash. Over the past week, he simply focused on "not getting injured" as they entered the quarantine inside the bio-bubble. Made captain this year - one of the youngest in the league to lead a team - he laughs off suggestions of added strain. He remains confident in his skill, that of his teammates and coach, and the amount of practice they have all put in. He knows it's time to put aside all worries, and do what he does best.
Come Thursday evening, nothing else will matter. Just the one thing that he has always muttered under his breath since the time he can remember. "Kabaddi, kabaddi, kabaddi...."