Strength is a key word when it comes to successful teams. There's strength of character, strength in depth, physical strength and even bench strength - all terms bandied about when it comes to pointing out the reasons behind a team's successes.
The Gujarat Fortunegiants, who have topped Zone A in impressive fashion in Season 5 of the Pro Kabaddi League, too share some of the above strengths. Notably, they have good bench strength with contributions coming in from a number of players over the season. However, their bench strength extends to beyond just the players.
Gujarat's coach, Manpreet Singh is former winner himself as a player with the Patna Pirates, and has repeatedly claimed he has one of the best support staff in the league.
Olivia Witek is one of those key cogs, and serves as the team's physiotherapist. You would likely have caught a glimpse of her during the matches as she is a perennial presence on the sidelines.
It was a year ago that Olivia first touched down in India as the physio of the Polish national kabaddi team. At the World Cup where India triumphed was also where Olivia decided to be a part of the upcoming Pro Kabaddi season.
We caught up with Olivia ahead of the playoffs to talk about her tryst with sport, kabaddi and the Gujarat Fortunegiants.
Kabaddi is by far a recent entry as she explains her associations with other sports previously when we enquire.
"Yes, before this, I have been in American football, judo, motocross and wrestling. Also in MMA. I worked with the American Football team in my country. I would say 90% of my job has been in American football", says Witek.
Having been involved with such a wide variety of sports earlier, it naturally occurs to ask her if she finds kabaddi relatable to any of them. She says that while there are some similarities, it is more comparable to a particular Olympic sport in some regards.
"It's a little bit different. For example it is a team sport, not an individual sport. It has some similarities to judo and wrestling. But the rules and the way they practice and some of the skills displayed, I feel its very similar to wrestling", Witek adds.
Rigours of a long season
A physio's job can be very demanding, all the more so if you are involved in a competition where a team plays anywhere between once and six times a week. When asked what the most common injuries are she faces in kabaddi, she reveals that its a long list, but centred around a few key joints.
"It depends on the position they play, but mostly we have a problem with ankle sprains. We have a problem with the shoulders. A lot of ligament injuries because this season is very long. We have only 18 players that's why we need to work all the time with them, but yes mainly we have ligament issues and then we have a problem with all the joints like knees and ankles. We have problem with ligaments all the time."
It is new territory for Pro Kabaddi and the players this season with the tournament stretching for over three months, the longest ever in it's history, thanks to the expansion teams. Witek reveals how it brings along it's own set of challenges and the kind of preparation they did to equip the team to deal with it.
"We had a one month camp before the season. We did a lot of preparation for this season, but we cannot predict what will happen after one month or two months. But we did do a lot of injury prevention programs. We also did a program for the players to help them with common problems that they were likely to have. They did have a special program during the very, very intensive camp and they also have the different activities and diet. We also have a lot of supplements for them so they have everything", Witek said.
Food for thought
It's not just the physical and muscular aspect of the prep that Witek has been involved in. She also prescribes the diets that the players have to follow. Indian food and food habits are very different from those in other parts of the world where she has been and worked, and she talks about the main focus areas she has when it comes to implementing a regimen.
"I think in sport whether it is in Africa, Europe or Asia it is important to know what is fresh in that particular country or region because for them it's very, very important. It's not about whether the food is spicy or not spicy, but they must eat enough protein, fat and carbohydrates. So I was looking at the foods available to them.
"It's not just about the sugar or that they like sweets or milk, but more like, let's sort of do it in a healthy way. Like yes, you can have it, but maybe not everyday because everything must be different", Witek adds in an almost apolegetic manner as she had to get the players to change some habits that had been well ingrained in them.
She also spoke about how she likes to use seasonal availability and city-specific changes that have to be incorporated.
"So sometimes it's the season for mango, sometimes for orange. Then there are some cities that don't have meat. So all the time we have to talk to the chefs in the hotel and we keep changing things all the time accordingly."
Teaming up with the Fortunegiants
Her side have enjoyed a fantastic run thus far in their debut season and Witek reveals when and how she decided to join up with this team.
"I was in Ahmedabad last year during the world cup with the Poland team. I decided that time that I would be in Gujarat with a team. I thought that it was a nice place and a nice city and I thought that it would be nice to work with the team from this city."
The decision has proved to be a very wise one as with a youth-heavy group and a passionate young coach, the team has emerged as one of the favourites for the title. Witek says that the support from ownership has been very instrumental for her and the rest of the team.
"We have a very, very good owner. All the time we have some form of support from him. So work is very, very easy because we don't have many problems and we have managed to become one of the best teams so our job becomes easy."
"Our owner has let me decide on the diet and supplements. I had the idea of having coconut water for the players and during the whole season every player has had coconut water without fail everyday so that's the kind of support that I have got", Witek goes on to explain about something that she introduced into the players' diet for the season.
"Whatever ideas I have had they have been very supportive. He has given us a lot of freedom. So all of these things have been very, very good because I know that maybe in not all the teams its like this. Most important is the support as they try to be with us for every game."
Witek's introduction to kabaddi was, of course, with her national side. Despite many European nations partaking in last year's Kabaddi World Cup, she believes that despite the game's popularity it will take some help from the Indian fraternity and more structural establishments that will build the game back home.
"In Europe, yes. We do have teams in Denmark, England, Poland, but every thing depends on India, whether they help us because it's India's sport. Our teams will be ready, but we must also have some sort of support. We must have a junior level because as of now yes we have some players playing kabaddi. We must start to have some clubs or schools where you know young boys and young girls can go play kabaddi", she says as she explains her hope for the sport.
As we wind up, we ask her if there's a particular skill in kabaddi that she particularly enjoys a lot. Her answer isn't really surprising considering her side's strength in that department.
"I love and enjoy watching each and every tackle", Witek reveals with great enthusiasm.
"Maybe because in American football also there is a tackle and a lot of my players in this team are very good defenders. There are some differences, but yes a tackle is a tackle", Witek says chuckling.
That defence holding firm through their remaining games could very well help the Fortunegiants cap what has been a remarkable debut campaign already with the championship trophy in their grasp.
(The Gujarat Fortunegiants play the Bengal Warriors in the first Qualifier in Mumbai on Tuesday)