The action may have been happening on the hard court, as the Ateneo Lady Eagles scored yet another point in the 2015 UAAP championships, but eyes were trained on the celebratory dance moves happening on the sidelines. He was Ateneo Women’s Volleyball Head Coach Anusornn ‘Tai’ Bundit, and his footwork only served to increase the cheers from the 20,000-strong crowd. He had every reason to be jaunty: under his leadership, the Ateneo Lady Eagles took their school from from being the only one in UAAP history never to have won a volleyball title to claiming back to back championships in 2014 and 2015.
This was a far cry from the state of affairs he found when he was first approached to consult over a year ago by good friend and team manager, Tony Boy Liao. Speaking in Tagalog with ABS-CBN, Liao said, “When I talked with him for this program, I told him that I had a team of kids, because his specialty has always been kids. They had skills, but they had to be strengthened, and taught to be faster. I told him to give them the training he gave in Thailand, and he said they might not be able to handle it. I told him they would be able to handle it as long as he made them do it.”
A former air force colonel, Bundit was head coach of Thailand’s under-16 women’s volleyball team, and an old hand at international-level competition and training, having racked up 20 years’ coaching experience and serving as a national player in his youth. What met him when he first came to consult and, later on, coach, for the Lady Eagles was a team that was somewhat lacking.
This wasn’t to say that the Lady Eagles hadn’t been making headway in their quest for a championship, as they had accomplished the significant feats of reaching the finals in Seasons 74 and 75, powered by the talents of the nigh-mythical ‘Fab Five’ (Fille Cainglet, Jem Ferrer, Dzi Gervacio, Gretchen Ho, and Aillysse Nacachi). With the Fab Five at the fore, volleyball reached unparalleled levels of popularity in the country. But this was before Bundit’s time and, joining the team going into Season 76, he knew he had his work cut out for him – the ‘Five’ had all graduated the previous season, and head coach Roger Gorayeb had resigned to head up the NCAA San Sebastian squad. Furthermore, Bundit would be training his team to go up against three-time consecutive champion De La Salle University’s (DLSU’s) Lady Spikers.
The first thing on Bundit’s list was to instill the proper mindset in his new team. “If you want to win, you cannot win. If you believe, (then) you can win,” he has frequently been quoted as saying. It is precisely this philosophy that has, in the eyes of his players and others, made all the difference. While was no shortage of drills and trainings to elevate the Lady Eagles to the national team standards Bundit demanded from them, it was his pushing for a positive mental attitude that brought out their best.
“I don’t want to put pressure on my players,” Bundit told Sports5, citing the important role happiness had in allowing his players to concentrate on the game at hand. “I want to put smiling, I want to put happy, I want to put unity in my team for the competition.”
True enough, the results spoke for themselves, as the Lady Eagles began racking up victories, with Bundit’s somewhat unorthodox methods cited as the game changer. While his intense training methods soon became the talk of the town, it was Bundit’s always calling for “happy” from his players, and instilling “heart-strong” as their mantra that would make him a legend. Tough as he was on them in practice, Bundit never let his team forget that he was their biggest fan.
“The feeling is lighter,” said UAAP Season 77 Best Libero Denden Lazaro, when asked about Bundit’s approach to motivation through happiness. “Yes, my body may have suffered a beating this season, but he makes the negative positive. The repetitive routines, the long hours in training, it all paid off even if we find it boring and time-consuming.”
“If you guys could just see us during practice, you’d know how hard our practices were. Sometimes we’d lose patience because it’s really hard and tiring but at the end of the day you’d see the result,” said two-time UAAP Season 76 Finals MVP Alyssa Valdez. “[When he says] happy we play with a light mood. Unity, he’s reminding us to stand by our teammates no matter what because we’re a team. And heart-strong, that’s really what matters because every time you attempt to hit the ball you see to it that you give it your all it gives us that killer’s instinct.”
With his sideline happy dances and mandatory meditation sessions between sets, Bundit and the Lady Eagles would make it all the way through to the Season 76 Finals, were they would go head to head with incumbent champions DLSU, who were looking for a four-peat at the end of a two-season long winning streak. With crowds to rival those of their schools’ famed basketball match-ups, the Lady Archers would come to redefine perceptions and eradicate expectations as they blasted through the opposition, claiming their first-ever title in what would prove to be a massive upset for DLSU.
And good thing, too, as Bundit was in the country long past his originally contracted five-month stay and was, in fact, missing his 25th high school reunion to be there – a fact unknown to his team at the time. But the sacrifice was one well worth it, and Bundit was all smiles as his team tried to hoist him on their shoulders. Together, Bundit and the Lady Eagles had accomplished the seemingly impossible and, in the following year’s Season 77 Finals, they would do away with any remaining doubt as they dominated their games all the way to a second consecutive title.
When asked what the secret to his method following the second UAAP title, Bundit was characteristically humble, saying “Training, training, training,” but made sure to give credit to the power of positive thinking, saying, “If you’re happy, you can play every sport.”