By Steve Sears
Kabaddi is a sport that has been played in India for centuries, but here in the United States, it’s somewhat unknown.
For the uninformed, this article will serve as a primer. There is no equipment – ball, helmets, or pads – needed to play. Just two teams in uniform. Kabaddi is a two-version (one based on weight limit, one not) game played between two teams on half of a soccer field playing surface. Players from each team one at a time cross onto the other team’s side, tagging as many opponents as they can without being grabbed or tackled.
There is currently a push to make the weight-limit version of Kabaddi an Olympic sport.
Juliet Payseur is the Team Manager of and sometimes player for the United States Women’s National Team, which calls Denville home. The team is incorporated out of New York City, but most of the team’s players live in the Denville area and practices are held there as well.
“It’s a really fun sport,” Payseur says, preparing to explain the basics. “It’s full of action, there’s no slow part in it at all. It’s played with four defenders and one offensive player at one time (five total on the field). For example, let’s say it’s Mexico versus the USA. Mexico will send one player to our side of the field, and she’ll have a 30 second timer, and within that 30 seconds, four defenders from the USA will have a chance to tackle the Mexican player and prevent her from getting back to her side, and if they succeed the USA will get a point, and if the Mexican player gets out from a tackle or just tags ( a member of the United States Team) or gets back to her side, Mexico gets the point.” Payseur also mentions that the offensive players are often quick, having had track or soccer playing backgrounds, while defensive players have judo, rugby, or wrestling backgrounds. “Usually we’ll play 15 – 20 minutes, have a 5 – 10-minute break, and then play another 15 – 20 minutes. It’s a high paced game; there’s no slowing down or anything. “
For Payseur, her interest came in an interesting way. “The really fun part about this is that it’s not that popular (in this country), so essentially really all of us have been adult females with all different levels of background sports-wise and work-wise, and there’s a place for everybody. So, if you don’t have experience playing – because nobody grew up playing it unless you’re from India or have that cultural background, so most people have never played it before – it’s fun to teach other adult women and get them involved in something. You have to be 18 to play, but most of our players are in their mid-20s to mid-30s, so we’re all learning something new, working out together. It’s a comradery thing and we get a chance to travel – usually the country hosting the games pays for the travel and accommodations – so we’ll get to travel together and either for the weekend or a week or two, so obviously we’ve built strong friendships.” Payseur also adds that the best part is the United States teams will see the same faces on the same teams in the different countries, and friendships are formed. “We went to the United Kingdom and met up with people from Denmark, we went to Mexico and we’re really close with them and one of the girls there runs an orphanage that we do a lot of charity work for, so there’s always friendships to be formed.”
Although the United States Women’s Kabaddi team is a professional team, they are very accommodating even though they have careers that it doesn’t feel like a chore when getting together for practice. “If we have a tournament coming up, we’ll meet up three times a week to either run or work out and then practice some techniques together. We’re always prepared and we don’t let girls play that don’t have enough experience, so if we’re playing against a really good team like New Zealand, we’ll only put our experienced players in. But we’ll let everybody travel with us so they can see first-hand what to expect and get the warm-ups in when we’re practicing before the public tournament. So, everybody gets a chance to play and experience it, but we’re not throwing anybody to the wolves.”
For Payseur personally, Kabaddi is an escape from everyday life. “It’s sometimes your one chance to have fun working out, even if you’re not that good and want to work out. For me personally it’s a really good way to get energy out, to release frustrations, and it’s also really good for goal building.” She then pauses and states proudly, “This is really significant. When I started playing, before I was Manager, the USA had not won any competitions. We were invited to the World Cup and we weren’t one of the better teams. New Zealand, they send a lot of their professionals, all rugby players to play in the Olympics, they’re the girls who form their Kabaddi team. They work out together, play well together, they professionally play rugby together and have a lot of professional experience, and they always won second place, and India has always won first place in any competition.” In 2017, however, the USA Women’s team traveled to Canada, defeated England, and then as underdogs defeated New Zealand for second place in the World Cup. The championship match versus India was won by the favored team, but Payseur and friends now had a feather in their caps. “We’re very happy with that.”
Payseur feels that women’s sports in any country is underrated, which is unfair because they train just as hard as men. “They’re (men) getting paid full-time salaries for this and while we’re compensated for travel and a small stipend, its nothing compared to the men who get to this without working and they get to work out all day and train all day. We (women) go to work all day, get home 5 or 6 at night, feed our families, and then run out to meet each other for a couple of hours to get practice in before the sun goes down. So, there’s not a lot of appreciation or money for women’s sports in general, and that goes for Kabaddi in general as well. It’s really been isolated into the Indian cultures. It is nice to be recognized, but the word needs to spread outside the cultures and the advertising needs to go outside the cultures where they’ve only been advertised.”
The United States Women’s National team will be competing for two weeks in the 2019 World Cup in Malaysia in April. The goal for the trip is to work together really well as a team and, most of all, help each other work towards a goal of cohesiveness within the team and having a good, safe tourney experience.
If there was one thing she could bring back to the United States about Kabaddi, Payseur wishes all women the world over could see how empowering it is to work so hard at something with other strong women. “We’re all insanely supportive of each other. You’ll see on videos of the World Cup, before and after the games, we’re hugging other teams because we haven’t seen them in a year, congratulating each other on the personal accomplishments.”
Want to give Kabaddi a try? Newcomers are welcome to come to practices and familiarize themselves with the sport. “Get to know us,” says Payseur, “get to know other people, and we have different levels of joining. If on days where contact practices are held and you want to sit out, you can. If you attend practice seeking a workout, you can get it here. You can even show up and offer advice and support from the sidelines.” For more information, visit www.facebook.com/USAWomenskabaddi. If you are interested in joining, contact Payseur at (973) 590-9842 or firstname.lastname@example.org.