Coaching Haryana Steelers has helped me grow as an individual: Rakesh Kumar
Former India captain and the now coach of Haryana Steelers talks to The Bridge about the impact coaching has had on him and the ongoing PKL season.
The Haryana Steelers were among the four new teams added to the Pro Kabaddi League in 2017. They made it to the playoffs in the debut campaign before finishing with the wooden spoon in the very next season.
That unfortunate campaign in 2018 meant that the Steelers management decided to sack their then head coach Rambir Singh Khokhar and rope in the former Indian captain Rakesh Kumar as their coach ahead of season 7.
Taking over the reins in 2019, Kumar guided the Haryana Steelers to the playoffs and has since continued to be at the helm of affairs in his home team.
Speaking to The Bridge in an exclusive interaction, Rakesh Kumar, states that coaching a team has helped him mature as an individual and has given him a new perspective to look at things.
"My journey from a player to analyst and then to a head coach happened very quickly. I worked as an analyst for a year after retiring as a player and then donned the coaching hat for Haryana Steelers in the very next year. Coaching is very different from playing the sport. To be honest, being a coach has helped me develop as an individual. It has shown me a side of mine, which I did not know existed," Kumar says over a telephonic conversation.
The 38-year-old explains that there also lies a difference in the motivation factor for a coach compared to a player.
"As a player, I was always focused on giving my best on the mat and taking my team to a victory. That was my sole motivation. But, as a coach it is different. Yes, winning is still important to me but as a coach the main motivation for me is to bring the team together as one family."
Rakesh Kumar maintains that adjusting to the role of a coach was not easy for him. Much like when he was a player, he had to constantly work on improving himself.
"When I was appointed as the head coach for Haryana Steelers, my coaching experience was zero. I did not know anything about it as I had spent my entire life just playing. It took me some time to adjust to the role. The responsibilities as a coach are immense. I spoke to quite a few senior coaches on how they go about things to get a better understanding of my role. I am still not perfect and am currently finding ways to improve as a coach," he reveals.
Going into his second season as coach, Kumar seemed to have a straightforward strategy at the auction – building a stable all-round team, instead of splurging on the big names.
"Every coach goes into the auction with a set of plans and names of players they want to be in. The nature of the auction is such that you will not get all the players you want. I was lucky enough to bring into the team a few experienced names along with some talented youngsters. I do believe, I was pretty much successful in what I had set out to achieve in the auction," he said.
The Haryana Steelers' squad for PKL 2021 is a perfect balance of youth and experience. The team has some of the most talented and upcoming players of India like Meetu Sharma and also someone like Surender Nada – a player with whom Rakesh himself has played for long years.
So, how challenging is it to coach players at two different ends of a spectrum?
"My funda is pretty simple. I focus more on the youngsters. You do not need to go and tell someone like Surender Nada or Rohit Gulia what to do. They know their game and have been playing for years. For someone like Meetu or Jaideep, it is about giving them the required confidence and helping them in keeping their emotions under control. As a young player, you are impulsive – even I was (laughs). My job here is to just remind them not to get carried away with emotions if they put in a great raid or make a stunning tackle."
The Haryana Steelers were the last team to announce their captain in PKL 2021. They named their star raider Vikas Kandola as a leader just 5 days ahead of their opening match. Were they unsure of who will lead the side?
"No, there was no confusion in my mind that Vikas will lead the side. But, I had not revealed this to anyone apart from the team management. No one in the team, not even Vikas knew he would be the captain," Rakesh said.
"I have captained teams before. I know the kind of pressure that comes with it. A lot of people will call you and instead of congratulating they would say all kinds of unnecessary things like, 'oh, you are the captain – there would be a lot of pressure.' I did not want Vikas to go through this. I wanted him to focus on his training. Yes, he has been our star performer in the past three seasons, but he is still just 21," he clarified.
Rakesh Kumar himself was the costliest player in the first-ever PKL auction in 2014. The veteran feels that the sport has evolved a lot since then and that the PKL has taken Kabaddi to a different level.
"I was paid INR. 12.8 lakh in the first season and I was the costliest buy. This year the most expensive player has bagged a paycheck of INR. 1.65 crore – now this is a big jump. What PKL has done for Kabaddi in India and across the world is just commendable."
He further takes the example of his home state Haryana to explain the impact PKL has had on Kabaddi.
"In today's time, there is rarely any village in Haryana which does not have a kabaddi team. Right from the very first village, you enter in the state to the last one each village proudly boasts of its kabaddi team, thanks to the PKL. To think it has been just eight seasons since PKL was started is crazy. A lot of talented players are emerging in every edition of the league and if the league could sustain itself, we will certainly have something absolutely incredible a few years down the line," he says.