SLAM! WHAM! BAM! Kabaddi can seem quite the violent sport. Tackles come in low and high, bodies are slammed to the floor with shuddering thuds, limbs stretch out at unnatural angles seeking bonus lines and the safety of the halfway mark, one man often faces the full fury of several -- at times -- bigger, opponents.
Sandesh Rangnekar is the strength and conditioning coach for the PKL's Dabang Delhi KC - who have been on top of the points table for a majority of this season - and it's his job to ensure that the bodies of his men can withstand the immense punishment they undergo in those 40 minutes under the shining lights, night in, night out.
Rangnekar has been working with elite athletes for seven years now and has spent time with sports as diverse as tennis and wrestling. He says the most fundamental aspect of his job is to appreciate "the dynamics of the sport". Kabaddi is a "collision sport", he says, suggesting the game has more in common with rugby than, say, boxing or even wrestling. Naturally, then, training is shaped accordingly. "The sport demands for the highest reactive agility as far as a sporting environment is concerned," he says.
Training is customized not just to position (defenders vs raiders vs all-rounders) but individuals too. "There are different body structures. Some people are muscle driven, some people are tendon driven, and this is physically visible," he says. He explains this by comparing two of this season's most prolific raiders -- Delhi's own Naveen Kumar and the Bengal Warriors' Maninder Singh.
"Naveen, he's a natural speedster. He's very springy, he has got tendons like a kangaroo. You don't want to kill that in the weight room by bulking him up too much," he says. Whereas Maninder, a much bigger man, "would do really good with increased weight training."
"When you are doing anything for performance enhancement, you are walking a fine line -- train him too hard, and an athlete's performance can go haywire," he says.
Keeping this in mind, the first thing a trainer must do, Rangnekar says, is "connect." Initially, this can prove a little difficult.
"Kabaddi is a sport rooted in tradition," he says. When asking for certain exercises to be done differently, or not to be done at all, the reasoning behind it needs to be explained in a way the athlete understands it. "In India, we try to be a little too science-y" and that tendency often works to alienate the athletes.
You can hear this when you talk to the athletes themselves. Delhi skipper Joginder Narwal says that he'd much rather be on the mat, playing, than in the gym. Naveen, who's in his second pro-season, grins sheepishly when he tells us that he doesn't really like doing the exercises. U Mumba's captain, Fazel Atrachali, booms, "I don't like gyms. I'd rather go running in the mountains."
In Rangnekar's first stint in the PKL, with Jaipur Pink Panthers in Season 2, "there used to be very little in terms of training at the point of time", he says, acknowledging that it was down to a basic lack of awareness. A few years on, he has found the athletes and coaches a little more amenable.
It helps that he listens to each individual on the team, understands what their needs are, and makes it a point to explain, individually, how each exercise can help enhance performance. This season, he used a device known as NordBord to test the eccentric strength of each athlete's hamstring, right vs left. "We explained it to them, how one side is weaker and what they need to do about that, and they were happy," he says. "Yes, we have to push science into the sport, but we have to do it slowly and organically. If we do something too fast, too soon, it doesn't work."
He says it's important to understand the primary objective of the job. "If you look at the fitness industry, everybody is trying to bring something new to the plate, but the truth is we're only repackaging stuff. The squat is always going to be a squat, the deadlift is always going to be the deadlift. Why people value you as a coach is because you know how to plan the loads, when to do them and what you're trying to achieve out of it," he says.
Understanding this aspect is vital because the PKL also comes with a unique challenge: a lack of off-season.
The league itself is three months long but the athletes -- who work with different companies and institutions -- play for their employers for the remainder of the year. And training during that period is not always done in the most professional of environments.
"When they come for the PKL, it's like a half-cooked meal, they are underprepared," he says. "We only have six-seven weeks to prepare them for the entire season. And in that time, we cannot make up for what has happened across the previous seven-odd months. If you try to cram a whole lot of programmes into this short preseason, it looks like you're trying to justify your position."
In such a scenario, though injuries are inevitable, he says, "you can't blame the athlete. If you are getting hit 24x7 for 12 months, then something is bound to give." He explains that while collision injuries are unavoidable, it's his job to make sure muscular injuries are avoided during the season.
The goal, after all, is to make sure they are available to play every game.
In this pursuit, Rangnekar sees himself as a man who conditions both body and mind. He doesn't like it when sport is compared to war and hates expressions like 'go out there and kill your opponent'. The Delhi staff make it a point to avoid these clichés. "When we talk to the players, we try to motivate them, yes, but we also try to keep it positive and keep them calm," he says.
Rangnekar as well as the remaining core of the club support staff -- physiotherapist and masseur -- make it a point to be constantly cheerful in training, regardless of performance or results on the mat. The idea is to make sure the players "know there are people here who are not just concerned about only winning but about them as people." For peak performance, he believes, mind and body both need to be at 100%.
He sees himself as one of the men in the background, a 'make-up artist' who helps bring out the best in each athlete. "After all, if the players perform, I win," he says.
This season, Sandesh Rangnekar has been doing quite a lot of winning.