October 23rd, 2022 - the Tamil Thalaivas' young brigade walked off the mat with their heads down and a lingering sense of disbelief writ large over their faces, with only one win to show from six Pro Kabaddi 2022 matches.
Just a few hours after a 24-41 pounding from the UP Yoddhas, the Thalaivas announced via a post on their social media channels that coach J Udayakumar was stepping down due to 'personal reasons'.
A double whammy of sorts - first the team barely put up enough of a fight, and suddenly, they were bereft of a coach. The announcement came with an additional line at the end though, which read - "The new coach of the Tamil Thalaivas will be announced shortly. Stay tuned!"
Now, small things in life make a big difference. In just the above statement, the exclaimation mark at the end meant that better things were in store for the Thalaivas.
Sure, reading into the exclaimation mark could well be deemed inessential, but it still suggested that all was not lost, and the atmosphere within the Thalaivas camp was one brimming with hope.
Soon enough, in parallel with all the Diwali celebrations, came a cracker of an official statement from the Thalaivas.
Enter Ashan Kumar, the Indian national team's coach and a man whose CV is decorated with unrivalled achievements. For those uninitiated, apart from his role at the helm of Indian kabaddi, Ashan comes with the experience of having coached Iran and South Korea at the international level and Puneri Paltan in previous editions of Pro Kabaddi.
The Thalaivas knew exactly what they were signing up for with the appointment of Kumar as their new head coach, and it was only a matter of time before the Pro Kabaddi aficionados were to see if he could indeed add life to the team's faltering PKL 9 campaign.
Kumar's biggest challenge was to get the team out of troubled waters and back into winning ways, but it wasn't quite straightforward. Facing off against the Jaipur Pink Panthers and Dabang Delhi KC, both teams firmly in the top half of the Pro Kabaddi 2022 points table was bound to be nothing short of a herculean task.
A 38-27 win against Jaipur followed by a 49-39 thrashing of Delhi, though, seemed to suggest otherwise. For those who had followed Pro Kabaddi 2022 closely up until the Thalaivas' win against Delhi, this was probably something that wasn't fathomed even in the wildest of their dreams.
Two matches into Ashan Kumar's coaching tenure, the ebullience in the Thalaivas' came to the forefront, the smiles were back on their faces and they had now put up statement performances that was impossible to associate with their team six matches into Pro Kabaddi 2022.
Mind you, it was still the same team led by right corner Sagar, with Narender essaying his role as strike raider. Sahil Gulia was still a big presence in the left corner, and young Abhishek continued to unapologetically try and dash out raiders from the right cover position with left cover Mohit for company.
Himanshu and Ajinkya Pawar worked in unison to complement their 18-year-old superstar teammate Narender - so what was the difference, if the starting 7 of the Thalaivas remained the same?
Simply put, Kumar's coaching philosophy was ushering in a new dawn. Love and respect are two massive components that define Kumar's coaching style, and for a Thalaivas unit filled with youngsters waiting to be molded into future superstars, this was the perfect modus operandi.
In an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda, Tamil Thalaivas' Ashan Kumar explained his outlook to coaching, the challenges of coaching youngsters and more.
"When we (Ashan Kumar and assistant coach Anup Singh) joined the team, they had lost many games and the biggest challenge was to get their confidence back up, otherwise they were not going to perform on the mat."
"I believe in respecting feelings of the players, because if you don't, they won't perform well. I don't shout at my players, I try and give them as much love as I can and understand them. That said, when the situation demands me to be angry with them, I make sure they know of it and understand why I am shouting at them."
Despite boasting years of experience in coaching, taking on the challenge of guiding a young team lacking confidence was never going to be a walk in the park. Kumar's worked with the who's who of Indian kabaddi, but the Thalaivas team is the exact opposite - talented youngsters waiting to earn a name for themselves through Pro Kabaddi.
Generally, most teams often sign 2-3 star players from the PKL auction who form the engine room of the squad, with some youngsters having to fill in the gaps. However, the Thalaivas put all their eggs in one basket and splurged on Pawan Sehrawat's services for ₹2.26 Crore, only for the PKL star to be taken off the mat following a serious injury 10 minutes into their Pro Kabaddi 2022 season opener.
Quizzed on working with such a large bunch of junior players yet to learn the ropes without any senior players to guide them on the mat, Kumar shed some light on yet another hallmark of his coaching method - equality.
"In my opinion, a good coach will never consider a player senior or junior. Yes, a senior player will understand strategies better. Junior players will grasp it quicker but will take time to implement it, but mainly, it is a coach's job to respect players and guide them."
Ashan Kumar also explained how his first instinct was to be emotionally and mentally available for the Thalaivas players in an approach to make them feel comfortable with his presence.
"For any coach joining a new team, he needs to understand the players and they too need to listen to what the coach's plans are. My first plan was to motivate them, improve their psychological situation and relieve all the pressure they are feeling. I feel in doing that, the team's morale has improved and I am very sure they will do a lot better in the upcoming matches."
You need to give players endless support and love - Ashan Kumar on what makes a good Pro Kabaddi coach
As part of Pro Kabaddi's rich folklore, there have been coaches who've jumped up from their seats and waved their arms about, a trait that is often seen in tense moments during a match.
Kumar, though, is cut out of a different cloth. In the game against Jaipur, he had one leg crossed over the other, only clapping vigorously to celebrate every point the Thalaivas scored.
Against Delhi, the cross leg was missing, but not once did he have a look of displeasure on his face even though the match was tight at times. Notably, at the end of both matches, one thing was common.
Kumar was quick to get out of his chair and was sure to give each player a warm hug and a ruffle of the hair in appreciation of their performance on the mat. Across both matches, he needed to make only two substitutions, that too both late into the match against Delhi to hand his benched players an opportunity.
In his unique way, Kumar showed the Thalaivas' youngsters that he's more than just their coach with these small gestures - and that was an approach recriprocated by excellent performances on the mat.
"See, how we are with these youngsters is everyone's own thinking but we are coaches because of the players. My first principle is to make sure there is no pressure on them and help express themselves freely on the mat. No talent will ever be on display if they are under pressure, it is important to maintain the coach-player camaraderie. You need to give players love and endless support which will only make them feel happier."
"In this Tamil Thalaivas team we have a lot of youngsters and whichever way you mould them and teach them, they will listen and grasp learnings quickly. It is important to teach them technique and co-ordination. Our focus is on understanding how these youngsters think, their body patterns and then give them certain roles."
Kumar was also effusive in praise for Thalaivas captain Sagar, who the former feels has done a terrific job in only his first season at the helm of affairs.
"Some players lose out on their performance because of pressure but Sagar is not one of them. He is doing his job very well, he is leading from the front and executing plans with certainty."
Anup Singh, who was associated with Ashan Kumar as assistant coach of Puneri Paltan in PKL 6, also shared his thoughts on how the duo have approached the task of changing Thalaivas' fortunes in Pro Kabaddi 2022.
"The team morale was down when we came at first but we worked on making sure they were relieved of all the pressure from past matches' results. Our main goal was to make sure each player plays for the team's gain and bringing the best out of each individual. Mainly we give each player confidence to learn from mistakes."
One might argue that it's too early to judge Ashan Kumar's success just two matches into his tenure, but two convincing wins are enough evidence to prove that he's making more than just a big difference.
Up until his arrival, the Thalaivas struggled to stitch together individual performances to register wins, but Kumar's philosophy of fuelling players' performances with love and respect, intertwined with loads of belief, could just be what the team needed to get out of a rut.