The journey of an athlete parent- from Fiery Mother to Fairy Mother

“I love your mother. She is my favourite mother on the circuit.”

This is what Balan sir, one of my favourite coaches always told me as a junior. When I would ask him the reason for it he would say, “She is the fiercest of them all. No excuses, no nonsense kind of person. You win because she is around. You should be grateful to her.” I agreed with him then, but as I grew older and my mother grew with me she lost the fierceness slowly and steadily. I saw this change in her as I got my first knee injury at 17. When my mother saw me in those crutches helpless and hopeless something inside her switched. She became softer on my losses. When I would call her from my tournaments from all over the world the only question she asked me was, “Is your body ok?”. 

Balan sir would ask her this when he noticed this change in her too, ” Why have you become so soft on her? Where is my favourite mother?” My mother would just smile and let it go. As an active athlete at that time I never sat down with my mother to speak about how she felt after my surgery. To tell you the truth nobody asked my parents this question. The onus, the attention, the limelight, the struggle was all me and mine.

My parents were supposed to just deal with it, because they were parents. They were presumed to be stronger mentally, wiser and more able to deal with it. I lived like that too as an athlete, oblivious to the mental struggle and fatigue of my parents. 

As an athlete I have seen parents of my team mates very closely. I have seen a mother beat a reporter black and blue because he was unkind to her daughter. I have seen a parent run from one part of the stadium to the other while his daughter played on the court. I have seen my fellow team mate getting kicked by a parent because he was sitting too close to him and this particular parent had the habit of doing shadows of the shot his daughter was playing on the court. He was incapable of controlling his movements while he saw his daughter play. I have seen a parent punish her kid by making her do 2000 skipping rope jumps before her final, tiring her to the extent that she would lose the final due to being over tired. I have seen parents fight, abuse, scold, slap, spit on their children, other parents, other athletes, and officials. 

And yet I don’t think anybody had ever asked them, ” Are you feeling ok? Would you like to talk about it?”

To be a parent is tough, period! To be a parent of an athlete is just tougher especially in India. When your kid chooses to be an athlete he or she is one amongst 1000s. My parents had no precedence on how to raise an athlete. Nobody in my mother’s family or my father’s had been an athlete through the generations of their families. Nobody was raising an athlete amongst our relatives or my parent’s immediate friends. An athlete’s life especially the formative years are the toughest. Every day is about losing and winning, but more importantly dealing with the emotions that come with it. The pressure to perform, the envy and the jealousy, the question on sports or academics, marriage, jobs, future, finance, safety are immense. A parent of an athlete unlike any other profession has to deal with this much earlier at the age of 9 and 10. How is a parent supposed to deal with these magnitude of emotions and questions with no precedence? My mother dealt with it by mellowing down from being a parent who would listen to no excuse at all, to being a parent who was fine with accommodating an excuse. 

I am a parent today to a 1 and half year old. I know how tough it is now. Every small fall of his makes me squirm and leaves me feeling guilty of how I could have avoided his fall. I can understand now a little more better of what my mother would have gone through to see me on the hospital bed uncertain about my playing career, not once but twice.

Recently, I had a young badminton player and her parent come to me asking for help. They told me that the girl was already working with a psychologist and was on medication for anxiety and was having behavioural problems. The mother told me about how competitive it is amongst the parents, the coaches, the athletes themselves. How social media exposure was making it very difficult for her to understand her daughter and widening the gap between them. She told me that the daughter had help now and it was helping her. All she wanted me to do was to share my experiences with her and help her daughter feel a little less anxious about her own future. I did my best, but at the end I asked the mother, “How are you dealing with this? Are you ok?” 

Her eyes welled up, but she would not let that tear drop while the daughter was watching. 

In sports, we need to build communities and support systems for parents of an athlete. We need us parents to be open and secure enough to ask for help. It is extremely difficult for an athlete to make it big in India, it is as difficult a journey for a parent to help them get there.

I love my mother, fiery or fairy. But I miss my fiery mother, and regret the fact that somehow I might have been responsible for it. 

The ONLY woman in the room

Have you been the ‘only one’ in the room?

I have. It is an exciting place to be.

It invokes multiple emotions. There is pride, anxiety, and also loneliness. The quintessential emotional cocktail.

I was the only athlete in the room since the age of 9 – in the Canara Bank quarters at Mumbai, in my school in Mumbai and Pune, in my college and finally within my family and friends. I was also the only athlete in the BPCL’s Pune I & C department when I quit the sport and started working full time. When I moved to the US and got accepted in the Master’s in Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Dallas, I was the only Indian in the class. Now as I work as Program Head at a sports foundation I am again the only woman in the entire team. While the theme of being the only athlete in the room and then the only Indian in the room is interesting to explore, I think it is more important for me to do a deep dive on being the only woman in the room. I think that theme is just more urgent and too important to be ignored given the damaging repercussions it may have if ignored.

For the last couple of months I have been researching the current status of representation of women in the Indian sports ecosystem. Growing up as an athlete I hardly saw women around me. When it came to my coaches, my support staff, the state, district and national associations I never saw any women. When I did, it was an exception. As an athlete I never questioned or cared about it, because it didn’t really affect my performance. I realise now though how selfish I was. My vision of the problem was myopic. The truth of the matter is that having more women in the Indian sports ecosystem translates to having more women athletes participating at the grassroots level, which in turn means increased probability of women athletes winning medals for India.

First, let’s start with some statistics on this. An analysis of Sports Authority of India’s (SAI) grassroot level schemes reveals that only 30% girls and women participate(an average participation taken from 2015-2021), as compared to men. Similarly, the SAI governing body only has 11% women and 17% senior women coaches in their ecosystem. When it comes to support staff for athletes (masseurs, fitness trainers, physiotherapists, etc.) the numbers remain low. The same trend is seen in the administrative departments of the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports at only 14% women, Indian Olympic Association at only 5% women) and the majority of our federations have around 2-8% women on their governing bodies.

We need more women in the decision making bodies across the board. What is important here to understand is that only women know what women face. Let’s imagine a scenario where all our sports governing councils had 50% representation of women as a mandate. How would the elite sports ecosystem in India look like?

SAI did it’s first ever course on the different stages of menstruation and its effect on performance for female athletes and coaches in their Bangalore centre recently. For starters the menstruation course would have not taken so long to come to the mainstream. The number of sexual assault cases on women athletes would be much lower. Our training centres would have had day care facilities, which would allow more women coaches, support staff and athletes to actively participate and deliver high-quality output because they no longer need to worry about their little ones. Women athletes would get paid maternity leave which would help sustain their careers after pregnancy. All playgrounds in India would have clean and functioning female toilets available for use. All rural and regional training centres would provide safe public transport to nearby villages to and from the centres to help make the girls and parents feel safe about sending their daughters for practice. Women would know exactly what courses to take to upgrade their skills in coaching, and it would not be an exception to see a female coach heading a men’s team. Every sport would have a women association of its own. The dream list could go on and on.

When so much good can happen with more women in sports in India, why are we still facing the issue of less participation?

This is what my fellow women professionals working on field told me. The #womensupportingwomen most of the times remains just that – a hashtag. It is important for every woman on field to actually bring that value in practice. We need to be honest to each other and support each other every time we have the opportunity. Women need to be made more aware and show more drive from within to excel and to make a tangible change in this ecosystem. If women want to be respected as coaches, they need to be made aware and given the opportunity to finish various sport specific certifications which could in turn would make athletes and associations take them more seriously as coaches. The patriarchal nature of our society puts undue and unfair expectations on women, first as young girls and then as women and mothers. Our associations right from the district to the national level need to make a more conscious and real effort to get more women into their system. The current women in the sports theme seemed to be used more as virtue-signalling, while no real power is given to them. This needs to change.

The realisation I have come to today is this – if we want to make a real change we need to really start with understanding the problem fully. The last official piece of research done on gender and sports in India was in 2010 by the National Commission of Women. It has been a decade since and most of its recommendations have just remained on paper. We need to do an in-depth research which is backed by data and is relevant to today’s times, come up with objective recommendations based on the research and convert those recommendations into real solutions. If you are a government official, a corporate leader, an academician, a sports enthusiast, a man or a woman genuinely interested in seeing a change in the sports system, this research is a must . A research study of this magnitude and significance requires resources – time, money and human efforts.

As a young girl, or a woman till recently, I enjoyed the notion of being the ‘only one’ in the room. But I realise now that being the only one in the room is not just a place of pride but also a place of responsibility. Ten years from now if there are not as many women as men in a room taking important decisions about sports in our country in every association, every department and every organisation I would have failed. I realise I can’t do this alone, and I need a tribe of both men and women to help me achieve this change. The International Olympic Association today has 53% women employees in their administration . They reached there after working on the problem for almost a decade. This gives me hope and the courage to dream. We need to get this done, it is time!

P.S. I am the Program Head at the Simply Sports Foundation for their women initiatives. If reading this makes you curious and interested in joining forces with us to see a more gender equal sports ecosystem in India, write to me at aditi.m@simplysport.in. As I said, lets get this done 🙂

You do win the silver, you don’t lose the gold!

After the OTT release of the movie ‘Saina’, my family and I have been flooded with calls and messages from friends and family all over the world.

Surprised?

Why should we be flooded with calls, when the movie really is about Saina and not me? The trigger is a scene that appears at around 24 mins into the movie. A match between Saina and me is shown as a turning point for her as a junior player. It is the sub-juniors national finals, where I get the better of her and win in straight sets. The scene depicts that Saina’s mother slaps her after her loss, which eventually results in her never losing a match again as a junior in India. 

When a friend narrated the scene to me, memories of my 15-year-self came back flooding. I remember that match vividly – for 2 reasons.

First – I had played this particular tournament from the qualifying rounds and eventually won it.

Second – Saina had beaten me just a week before in another tournament and was expected to repeat that in the finals of sub-junior Nationals.

While both of us were under pressure, in that particular match I held my nerves better than she did. I became the sub-junior national champion for that year.

As the film suggests, what follows is that she never lost in India as a junior after that. While I got a chance to play her a lot of times, I could never beat her again. For a very long time in my career, I remained in a ‘not so coveted’ position of being the No. 2 junior player and then No.2 senior singles player in the country.

Why couldn’t I beat her after that tournament?

It was a combination of everything – the knee injury that pushed me out of the game for a year after that match, the lack of professional help, my lack of belief and the fact that by the time I came back from injury Saina had become a better athlete – both physically and mentally.

As an athlete I have been fortunate enough to have experienced all three stages of an athlete’s career. I have been the No. 1 in the country, then the No. 2 for a significant part of my career and then Top 8 in the last two years of my career. Having the opportunity to play at all the stages has been extremely interesting. I have thought a lot about which stage was the toughest. I know now that it was the second stage – which was being the second-best athlete in the country.

We live in a society that believes in the mantra, ‘Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar‘. If you choose sports as a career, you are told that winning at all costs is all that matters. The media, the audience, your peers, your parents and coaches and most importantly you yourself look at being the second best hardly as an achievement and in fact more as a failure. When I was ranked No 2 in the country, any tournament I won where Saina did not play was considered incomplete. I remember when I played my first Grand Prix final in Germany(in which Saina didn’t play), I beat the top ten players in the world on my way to the finals but it was hardly celebrated back home. A lot of my teammates told me if Saina would have played the tournament she would have won it easily. This may have been true or may not. What everyone, including myself, seemed to have forgotten was that I had still played a Grand Prix final and I was still the only woman after Saina to have been able to do that as of that time.

The problem, I figured, was that anything I did was compared to an extra-ordinary athlete. It was impossible to be good enough until I managed to beat her. The merit of my success was defined by the level of her success. An athlete who is No. 2 always compares their effort to the No. 1 and never to the No.3 or No.4.

Therein lies the problem.

While the world would always perceive the No.2 as more of not being No 1, it was important for me to celebrate being on that podium and the journey I had made to get there. While I do that today, I never did it when I was the athlete with a silver medal around my neck. I realise that I should have enjoyed the journey a lot more while I was in it.

An episode titled, ‘The Silver Lining’ of the fantastic podcast ‘The Happiness Lab with Laurie Santos’, discusses the human biases of focusing on positive references, harsh comparison with others and focusing on the destination rather than the journey. The discussion is with Michelle Kwan – the Olympic silver medalist ice skater. The episode discusses the possibility that like the silver medalists in sports, we make the same mistakes in life too, which eventually sets us up for sadness rather than celebration.

How did Michelle Kwan break out of the gloom of missing the Gold medal?  

It was by setting up a negative reference – she compared her winning the silver medal with that of winning the bronze medal, next she stopped comparing her performance with others and rather compared it with her own older self and lastly, she focused on enjoying the journey to that medal more than the colour of it. 

To all my fellow second best athletes who are chasing the No. 1 spot today, please know that while Michelle’s path is really difficult to pursue, it is nevertheless worth trying. My journey of being the second-best athlete for a long time in my career wasn’t pleasant. But I tell you today that had I not embarked on it, life would have been very different for me. I am truly grateful to the lessons I learnt from being in that position. It has left me hungry and focused throughout my post athletic career and has kept me neutral to both success and failure. Like me, do not wait to celebrate your journey in retrospect, but enjoy it in the present – while you are living it. Always remember that the journey is everything, destination doesn’t compare at all. Don’t believe the lies!

Coming back to the movie ‘Saina’, here is another thing I learnt – in the full arc of a player’s life, every athlete you play in every round of every tournament, plays an important part in your own success. As an athlete I never knew that the match I played against Saina in the sub junior national finals would become a life-changing event for her as a young athlete. Just like that I am sure there have been various opponents in my own sporting journey that have played a critical role in shaping my career as an athlete. 

We all need to play our part to the best of our abilities to write the history of our sport. The society we live in will focus only on the winners, which may be fair in sport but is not in life. What the world doesn’t realise, but us players should, is that there are no winners unless there are losers. Losers push the winners out of their comfort zones, force them to dig deep and find their best selves and keep them on their toes. My fellow second-best athletes, you may not know what I know now – the second-place finish is cruel but if you make peace with it you will see, like I did, it is not such a bad place to be! 

I hope you all convert that silver medal into the gold medal soon, but if you don’t, remember that you WON the silver and did not LOSE the gold. Remember that always.

Aditi Mutatkar - Alchetron, The Free Social Encyclopedia
Not a bad place to be!

Reflections on physical education

Today physical education functions as an afterthought when it comes to what we deem as important in a child’s education in school. Though the subject has been made compulsory in schools by all the boards in India and you might see a P.T period in a child’s time-table, it really doesn’t guarantee that every child in every school in India gets a chance to play a  minimum of 120 minutes every week.

Before I go ahead it is important here to define the word, ‘play’ as I see it. When I say a child should get 120 minutes of play, by play we mean, ‘ a well-planned, well-structured and an adult supervised P.T. period which is based on a grade-specific curriculum and is considered a learning opportunity for a child to embody important skills and values’. In the current scenario a PT period or physical education as a subject is not really looked at as a learning opportunity by schools.

A P.T period’s goal as I have observed is limited to a few things- to make children fit and not fat, to tire children out enough so that their energy can be curtailed for the more important periods, to make sports teams for schools from a bunch of selected students, to prepare for the independence and republic day functions, and to instill a sense of discipline in students. 

By limiting physical education as a subject that caters to a few things mentioned above is a major missed opportunity of our education system. If look deeper into why has physical education become an after-thought it could be traced to the narrative that has been built around the importance of mind over body and dualist theories that separate mind from the body. Our bodies are considered as an entity that is prone to give in to desires and commit sins, thus a body needs to be controlled, maintained, trained by the mind to function in a certain way. Thus the onus of education is unevenly tilted towards developing the mind and not our body. The popular notion in the western cultures, of why a child should play in school is because an ill or a weak body would not be able to perform intellectual labours to the fullest. Thus, physical education is never considered an end in itself, but as a vehicle for the development of the mind.

When I make a case for physical education I have to reject the dualist theories, that separate the mind from the body. I do believe that an intellectual activity can only occur through bodily experience. A P.T. period is an opportunity to become aware of our embodiment through physical activities and games, and rebalances a school curriculum’s emphasis on the development of mind. A unified theory also emphasizes the fact that human beings actively interact with their environment to make sense of the world and not just through passive contemplative perception of the world. To say it quite simply, P.E. gives an opportunity to the child to learn, to think and to do and relearn all at the same time through the body first which then sparks intellectual reasoning. 

Just like any other subject, P.E. curriculum also is built on a few concepts that are critical to us while building a curriculum framework. These concepts are also unique to P.E. and point out at why P.E. is critical to a child’s growth. Let me briefly reflect on some I have discovered till now. 

Concept of Body- 

The physiological and biological development and the connection of the body with the mind is well-researched and documented. The way a sports scientist looks at bodies and a physical education teacher looks at bodies cannot be the same. A scientist looks at bodies as something that needs to optimized, maintained, managed and conditioned, though a P.E teacher needs to adopt a much more holistic view of bodies. A school is a space of different kinds of bodies. Bodies of different genders, caste, size, colour, abuse, built, strengths and weaknesses. A child’s body is an important way in which he builds his own self-image and self respect. A child from an early stage learns about the world through his bodily senses. A child’s body cannot be thought of in the limitations of its ‘use’ but rather as his ‘being’. It is something that a child cant do without because as living being his body is not just a mere object but something he lives and inhabits, and most importantly is a reason for his very own subjective and unique experience. 

When a fat boy and a thin boy play football, their bodies do determine the way the team will perceive their roles on the ground. Simultaneously, both the boys will develop their own perception of what their bodies can do and not. Both their experiences while the act of playing football will be very different, though extremely important to their own learning about self and their team mates. They will know about their limitations, their aesthetic and technical abilities around hitting and receiving a ball, and also about their emotions while playing. Most importantly a description of their subjective experience is not just a collection of their inner thought process, but it will also reflect on their engagement with the outer world that exists independently of their own existence. None of this learning is possible without their bodies being present on the ground along with their minds.

Concept of Gender and Gender stereotypes-

Bodies and gender are very closely connected. Children explore their own bodies and that of others to determine their own values, biases and thoughts around gender and mostly without any adult supervision in school. The idea of what a girl can do on a sports field and a boy can do on a sports field is predetermined through social constructs and not physical capabilities. While girls in our program have showed massive improvement than boys in physical tests, this doesn’t really change the fact that girls who are good in sport are generally feared to develop masculine attitudes and bodies, which is both feared and looked down upon by parents and teachers. Sports is for boys/men and girls are better cheer leaders, this is sadly an adult notion passed on to both genders. A well-structured P.T. period can help both genders understand and explore their gender and stereotypes while also breaking them. We have witnessed some amazing stories of children changing the way they thought about sport and how gender shouldn’t really affect their performance on field.

In a school I worked in there is a girl who wears a boy’s uniform and asks teachers to address her as a boy. She also hangs around with boys and doesn’t like her name because it is that of a girl’s. She is jut 9-year-old, with her hair cut short and her body language is just like that of her brother’s. While in the classroom, lunch breaks and art periods her being a girl did not really affect her, but a sports period did make her think. In any games and races she played, she wanted to be a part of the boys teams and do exactly what the boys were doing. She realized she was the slowest and the weakest amongst the boys and in any team game boys treated her very differently. After a few P.T. periods of feeling neglected by her boy class mates, she tried to compete with the girls. She immediately realized a change in her performance and the treatment she received from her girl team mates. For quite some time now she has been struggling with trying to place herself and a P.T period has started that journey of self-discovery of her own gender for her. 

Concept of rules:

When a child plays she is an unique position to feel free to explore, discover, express thoughts or ideas, to invent and to create. The act of playing is fundamental to physical education. As adults we try to recapture the spontaneity and freedom through game playing. For example most of us are eager to find free time in our daily routine to play an organized game like cricket, tennis or football to energise ourselves. Though if you think about it is this a paradox? We leave a relatively structured place of work and enter a rigorously structured sphere of games that is full of rules and regulations which we don’t really enjoy in real lives. Why then do we still feel free and enjoy when we play?

The moderate amount of finitude in the form of games and sports gives us those opportunities where we come to know the possibility of our bodily limitations. Rules force our body to confront and embody our limitations, and actually thus enhancing our embodied freedom. If there is nothing restricting us there is no scope to explore freedom, creativity or a sense of discovery. Structured games  are the obvious means to engage in experiences that focus our consciousness and our bodies to pursue a set of possibilities, it also gives us space to explore freedom, freedom that is impossible in reality, explore in safety and learn from experience without the consequences of real life. 

Physical education is in a unique position to teach children the importance of rules in games and thus also in life. If there no rules there will be chaos, and it will seriously affect the way we can perform, function and grow. Rules empower you and donot restrict you is a lesson that a P.T. period can teach.

Concept of Moral values:

Sports develops character is one of the most used arguments to make a case for teaching sports in schools.  We hope that if children participate in sports, the moral values they learn will positively get transferred to real life. Though, I don’t fully agree with this thought. Sports developing character is not really a necessary condition.  While we have examples of sportsperson who are morally sound humans, we also have enough examples of  sportsperson being amoral. A Federer or Nadal could be an example of the first statement, a Lance Armstrong can be an example of the preceding statement. 

Saying this sports has tremendous potential to develop character though only in the right setting and the right environment. Sports will teach you things like following rules, play fairly, be gracious winners, accept losing and respect their opponent. Though the possibility of all this happening is very much dependent on the atmosphere he lives and learns in and the P.T. teacher’s own moral values. Just like any skill, moral values like honesty and fairness needs to be made a routine practice and needs to be made habitual. 

Most of the time when a child cheats on the playground and is strong enough, he tries to bully his way through the game. When this happens children complaint about him cheating sometimes, are too scared to report it, or they don’t realise it. In such a scenario what the P.T. teacher choses to do about the situation is what is the most important step towards will the boy cheating learn his mistake or not. Generally a PT teacher will ignore the cheating or punish the boy and make him stand out and humiliate him. The correct course according to me would be that the teacher is extremely aware of what happened in the session, and instead of humiliating or pointing it out he holds a discussion with the children on what exactly happened in the game. How did they feel when he cheated and the team won? How did he feel while he was cheating? How does cheating and winning feel? 

When a P.T. teacher would be able to use these situations constructively to help children learn and reflect from moral and amoral behavior not once but a 100 times there is then may be some potential to expect sports to build character. 

So yes, sports builds character in the right environment, in the right spirit, and finally when like any other skills children are trained in actually practicing moral values till they become habitual.

Concept of Inclusion:

Sports participation provides a focus for social activity, an opportunity to make friends, develop networks and reduce social isolation, it seems well placed to support the development of social capital. A series of connected dimensions of social inclusion can be used from the literature that offer a useful framework for considering sport’s potential contribution to social inclusion.

First, the functional dimension of social inclusion relates to the enhancement of knowledge, skills and understanding. Sport, it is claimed, provides opportunities for the development of valued capabilities and competencies. Discussion in this area has focused primarily on the social character of most and the hypothesis that the need for individuals to work collaboratively will encourage the development of skills like trust empathy personal responsibility and cooperation.

Second, social inclusion can be defined in relational terms, such as a sense of social acceptance. Sport might play a role, here, by offering young people a sense of belonging, to a team, a club or community. Large numbers of people give a great deal of time to participate in sport, whether as a player, an organizer or a spectator. Players sometimes claim that sport can act as a point of shared interest bringing families together and encouraging people to interact in the broader community and beyond, often with people of different social backgrounds.

Third, there is a spatial dimension, as social inclusion relates to proximity and the closing of social and economic distances. Certainly, there are frequent claims that sport brings individuals from a variety of social and economic backgrounds together in a shared interest in activities that are seen to be inherently valuable. For example, there is a popular view that sport’s non-verbal format can help overcome linguistic and cultural barriers more easily than other areas of social life. And the valued and socially prestigious character of sport could mean that people who might not otherwise meet come together for the sake of a shared passion.

Finally, social inclusion assumes a change in the locus of power. Sport contributes to social inclusion, in this respect, to the extent that it increases individuals’ sense of control over their lives by extending social networks, increased community cohesion and civic pride. The establishment of social networks is a key feature of socially inclusive practices. This is especially important, it could be argued, within the context of sport for at-risk youth, for whom social and organized settings can be sources of anxiety or disaffection. 

Physical education in India vastly remains the most underrated subjects in schools. Given the innumerable things it can help children discover and learn I wonder why is it so? May be because the sole intention of a school education is to find a high paying job and P.E. is incapable of providing one. Though should schools aim just for employing our youth or also on developing a generation that respects their bodies and that of others, that includes diversity and celebrates it, that respects and treats a person on actions and not their gender, that values the role of rules, and can differentiate between moral and amoral?

Goals- On and Off the field

The penalty kick that you see in this video was hit by one of the girls belonging to the Art of Play program. It was the semi-finals of the School Games Federation of India cup; the goal was crucial for the team to win and the girl delivered under tremendous pressure. Her team eventually went on to win the cup and became the first girls’ teams in decades to win the SGFI cup recently for any Government School in Faridabad.

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All smiles after the win 🙂

As an athlete and a professional working towards changing the dynamics of sports at the grass-root level, I very well knew that I can’t just move on saying – “What a goal!”. I have to dig deeper, try and understand what this goal really means in the bigger scheme of things.

As adults, we are always setting goals for ourselves. Sometimes we achieve them and other times we fail. We have the luxury of time to strategize and plan towards our goals. We set short term and long-term goals and can prioritize them. Our goals are generally selfish catering to OUR growth and development, and most importantly to OUR happiness.

The meaning of such a goal in a team sport like football is completely different. The girl in this video is securing (and accomplishing) a goal for her team, is different than the goals we adults set. A goal on a football field is something that has to be accomplished in a matter of seconds. The strategizing and planning for it happens in those couple of seconds. Even if you have practiced hitting penalty kicks a thousand times, results are not assured. At that moment, the girl has to depend on her skills, her luck, her precision, her stable mind and also bet against the goal-keeper.

When she eventually secures that goal, a plethora of wisdom gets unlocked. She learns that scoring (and accomplishing) the goal was not really an individual act, in fact, quite the opposite. The hard work, the strategy, the discipline and more importantly the faith shown in her by her team, presented her the with the opportunity to hit this penalty kick and help not just her, but her team win. Granted that hours of practice she put in helped but without her team, she realizes, she is nothing.

Amongst other things she also learns that just like she became her team’s hero, the goalkeeper of the other team didn’t. She accomplished her goal and that meant someone else didn’t. So, when she shakes hands with the goal-keeper, she empathizes with her. She realizes that she too must have worked equally hard, but today wasn’t her day. Tomorrow it could be her on the other side. And that is why she subscribes to humility and not arrogance.

The girl comes from the hinterlands of India, a village in Faridabad. So, for her, this goal changes her self-perception as well as the way others perceive her. The boys in her class who are watching her play suddenly realize that she can hit a penalty kick with the same precision as they can. The boys realise that it was the girls who reached the finals, while they couldn’t. It suddenly opens their school’s eyes towards the possibilities that exist for these girls beyond the classroom. More importantly, it empowers the team as a whole.

For the girl herself, she defies boundaries of her own body and her assessment of it. After that grueling hour of play, when she wants to give up, though she pushes her body to focus and concentrate and hit that amazing penalty kick. She feels liberated because at that moment it breaks the shackles that the society has locked her in. Be it confined to the kitchen, focusing on studies, wearing certain kind of clothes, being less athletic than boys, so on and so forth.

The problem really, I fear, is that even when a goal in sport could contribute so much towards a child’s learning, after a day of celebration the whole thing might be forgotten. In my experience as a student and now as a professional working in this field, I know that parents equate school with only studies and not sports. Schools are institutions that exist to develop the mind and not the body. So when a child comes home from school, 9 out of 10 times the question from parents is, “What did you study today?”. I have rarely seen or heard parents ask, “What did you play today?”

I truly believe that the parents and the school share a two-way relationship. As the school demands certain things from the parents, it also has to react to their demands and needs. A small example could be the parent teacher’s meeting held regularly in schools. The parents are always keen to meet the class-teachers or the subject teachers to understand how well their kid is doing. A physical education teacher, on the contrary, has little role to play, because neither the parents want to know how well a child is developing physically, nor is the school interested in tracking that dimension of learning.

The goal, as set by parents and the education system for their children from an entity called school is a well-educated mind, never a well-educated body. This I now understand is the fundamental problem. As adults, we have done injustice to children when we deny them their right to work as hard on understanding and developing their body. What we forget is that who we are and what we can become is not achieved by the mind alone but by a combination of a well-educated mind and a well-educated body.

After spending a little over a year working at the grassroots, I have learnt that while it is important to create as many opportunities for children to hit as many penalty kicks as possible, my goal should also be to start a conversation with the adults on – “What is the importance of a well-educated body?”. Fortunately, or unfortunately, they are the ones setting the goals for their children.

The TRUE POWER of sports in India

On the second day of Art of Play’s inter-school football event in Ambala we had programmed the girls matches, the boys/girls’ semi-finals and finals. It had rained the earlier night and was drizzling the morning of the matches as well. All the markings we had done for our two football fields on the first day had vanished. Google, on my phone forecasted rain till 11 in the morning. It seemed like a gloomy day, to me- it felt like we were headed for a disaster in our very first tournament.

We started to mark up the football field in the drizzle, hoping that the clouds will clear, and the sun will show up eventually. The matches were scheduled at 10 am, we were working on the field since 7 in the morning. At 9 am we started receiving calls from almost every school team, asking us if the event was happening at all, given the rains. Our coaches assured the teachers that, there was not much rain at the venue and even if it rained the event will still happen.

Till around 10 am there were not many on the field expect for the Art of Play’s team. My heart was sinking, all the hard work and planning was threatened to go waste.  At 10 minutes past 10, the sun appeared through the clouds, so did the first team of the day, a team from a village 30 kms from Ambala, Shehazadpur. It was their girls team, all of them in their salwar kameez uniform.

The moment they saw us the girls came running to the football field. They were all so tiny, so thin I wondered if they could really play football all day long. One girl out of the group stood out, Varsha, if not for her athletic built for her haircut. “Such swag!”, I said aloud to a team mate.

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The Shehazadpur girls team. They were getting ready to play in their uniform, until we told them to change. It should be pretty easy to spot Varsha in this photo 🙂

We told the teacher that the girls needed to change into their jerseys, the matches would start in another half an hour. There was a slight hesitation amongst the girls. What happened? I asked, “Didn’t you get your jerseys?”. One of the girls in the group suddenly asked their teacher, “Sir, so should we wear those SHORTS. Are we allowed to play in SHORTS?”. My head twirled a little bit.

“Whattttt!!!!” Why do they need permission for this? Who is he to allow or disallow them? My reality is still not theirs, such different Indias we live in.  It’s 2018. Fascinating!

“Phir kya (Then what)? The teacher said, “Go change.” The girl who asked the question smiled from ear to ear. The pure joy on her face for getting to do something that was so trivial for me, left a lump in my throat. This was no time to get emotional I told myself. I had a whole day of the event to deliver.

The girls changed and ran to the field with a football in their hand. In their jerseys they looked free, ready to conquer the world. They started their warm up, with one of our coaches on field. The coach came and told me to focus my attention on one girl, Varsha. “Just watch her play”, he said. She will blow your mind.” I nodded.

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So happy, so free!

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Varsha warming up with her teammate. Do not miss the wrist band, it wasn’t part of the jersey 😉

In 10 mins the match started, my eyes were fixed on Varsha. After the initial kicking of the ball between the two teams, Varsha finally managed to get the ball at her feet. Off she went almost like the wind! She found her gaps as if there was no one on the field expect for her. It was magical, almost too good to be true. Her body, her movement, her control of the ball, her body balance at such a young age, was stuff of champions. I may not have played football, but an athlete can spot an athlete.

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Like a Pro!!!

The matches progressed further. By the semi-finals, Varsha had already scored 4 goals- the only girl to have done so. She scored her fifth goal in the semi-final and a reporter who was sitting next to me said in Hindi, “Kamal ka hai woh ladka! Kya technique, kya balance, kya control? Wah! Par madam ladkon ko kyun khela rahe hon ladkiyon ke saath. Mixed teams kyun?” (What a guy! What technique, what balance, what control? But, Madam why are you making the boys play in the girls team?”)

I smiled at him and said, “Ladki hain sir! Ladki hain. Jisne goal mara abhi who ladki hain.”  (She’s a girl sir. She’s a girl. The one who hit the goal is a girl.”)  I said ladki (girl) three times in that sentence. It wasn’t planned but, that’s how I said it. I think every girl reading this blog will understand, why so!

By the end of the final, Varsha, had scored her 6th goal of the tournament and led her team to victory. She played from all positions- defence, attack, mid-field while striking those goals. She received the ‘best player award’ and two random people also gave her a 500 rupee note each, as blessings. Later in the day she described this to be “the best day of my life”.

The real prize for me though, was when the official government football coach of Ambala district noted her contact details in his diary. “I will try and talk about her to the district selectors I know. With proper training she can do some great things for the Ambala football team.”

 

By the end of day two, the Art of Play team was so exhausted that we sat on the ground of Rajiv Gandhi stadium, for almost an hour. Not talking to each other, mostly in silence. Lying down under the twilight, my mind and body numb with exhaustion, the only thing I could think about was- Varsha, celebrating her last goal and me telling that reporter, “Ladki hain sir! Ladki hain. Jisne goal abhi mara who ladki hain.” (She’s a girl sir. She’s a girl. The one who hit the goal is a girl.”)

After a month in a new job, in a new city, in a new role it suddenly dawned on me wherever I was, whatever I was doing it felt right. So right!

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The winning team – Shehazadpur. Varsha won the best player award. The were just so happy 🙂

The Practicality of Death

While the world mourned Sridevi’s death I was reminded about the fragility of life. The greatest, the loveliest, the most courageous people in the world die. It is the law of nature. You live. You die. Up until Sridevi’s news this is the way I looked at death. Practically, void of much emotion.

While I was coming back from the Mumbai airport to my house my Uber driver played Sridevi’s hit songs on repeat. The only thought that went through my head, as I heard Sridevi’s song in the background was- How and what will my 88 year old grandfather have to say about Sridevi’s life and death? My grandfather, Dattatrey Mutatkar was lying in the ICU in a stable condition, in Aurangabad on Sunday. I was scheduled to be in Aurangabad Monday afternoon to be by his side listening to the million things he wanted to tell me. My father had told me, he is fighting hard and there was all hope that he would recover soon.

Hope is a good thing, until destiny gets it chance. In life, you learn it the hard way that though hope is a good thing, destiny will always trump. My grandfather, did not talk to me about Sridevi’s amazing sarees in Chandni, or how wonderful she was in Mr. India. At 7pm on Sunday he stopped breathing, fighting as hard as he could in the hope of meeting his granddaughter, though he lost his fight to destiny. I took the last bus accompanied with my dad at 11pm on Sunday night. My dad put up a brave front, I did not see tears or long silences. He was on the phone for the longest time talking to family and friends accepting condolences. I decided to emote less. Hold my tears in and be there for my father. I realized his loss was greater than mine.

When we reached the building where my grandfather was kept. The first person we saw waiting for us was my grandmother. Her eyes moist, ready to lose all inhibitions in the arms of her eldest son. The moment my dad saw her and held her in his arms, there was no eye in the vicinity void of tears. My grandmother was with Ajoba for over 60 years, never leaving his side in sickness or health. Seeing my grandad, wrapped up in a bedsheet lifeless, silent, was one of the most devastating experiences of my life. My grandfather was an expert in two things, reading and talking. He hardly listened, ever. His curiosity about the world and his zest for life, was worth emulating. This man who talked non-stop and never listened lay there in front of me not saying a word.

This experience has left me a lot less practical about death. This was my first time of witnessing a death of a loved one. Understanding death is a tough thing to do. I have a million unaswered questions about it. How should one face death, when they see it coming? Should you fight it with courage and strength? Is it ok if you can’t muster up the courage to fight for life? How long should you mourn for a loved one? Should it be four days, four hours, four years or forever? Is it really better to die at 88 instead of 40? Is the pain more or less? Does the pain of losing a loved one ever go? Should it?

The list could go on and on.

The journey of Ajoba becoming just a dead body was pretty quick. A group of people from the morgue and the hospital were there to help us with all the ceremonies and processes post death. In a lot of conversations they had with each other or our family, Ajoba was addressed as a mere ‘dead body or body’. My heart broke every time I heard the words- ‘dead body’. I wanted to shout and tell them to stop, but I couldn’t garner the energy to correct them. Life is unfair, now I know so is death. One minute you are a living, breathing person playing multiple roles, touching so many lives. A life that you have built for over 88 years, in just a matter of minutes culminates into a ‘dead body’.  You become an idea, a memory, a legacy that no one can touch or feel.

Ajoba’s legacy to me is his love for reading, his curiosity to know more, his quality of talking to people young and old- known and unknown, his ability to love unconditionally and his passion for life.

There is nothing practical about death. The transformation of a living person, into a ‘dead body’ could be a journey of a minute in the real world. But there is nothing practical about it. I have a feeling it should never be. The ability and the freedom to mourn, to emote, to feel and to never forget, makes dealing with death just a little more manageable.

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Baba, Aji and Ajoba a few months back

30th! with Woody

I cried.

After a long and hard to understand Statistics class I came home feeling tired, confused and found myself questioning the need of the subject’s existence. When I reached home my husband, stopped me at the door and blind-folded me. When I came inside and removed the blind-folds, on the dining table sat a rugged iron suitcase. “You got me a sewing machine?” I asked him. He rolled his eyes and told me to open it. I did, and thats when I cried.

Inside the iron suitcase was a German made Olympia SM3, often called the BMW of typewriters for its feel and performance. The machine had scratches and showed signs of being used before. Chinmay told me it was, this machine was made in the 1950s and had been refurnished just for me. It was exactly like I wanted it. Typewriters have their own private stories. People who must have written on this typewriter seemed to have me their memories. Oh! The love letters they must have wrote , the poems, the job applications. My imagination runs wild thinking about the past.

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The mysterious iron suitcase!

My romance for type-writers started a long time ago. A rich friend of a friend had invited me over for a meal to her house, that’s when I saw my first typewriter and fell in love with it. I do not remember the rich friend , neither do I remember the parents. All I clearly remember is that beautiful typewriter which they had used as a show piece in their house. Since then I have read, researched and watched documentaries about the typewriter. I know for a fact that the best writers in the world write their amazing novels on a typewriter, and not a computer. I have asked myself why that is? This is what I have come up with.

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🙂

Typewriters don’t judge. They do exactly what they are told like, if you want to spell something wrong a typewriter does not put a blue/red line under it to correct you. It improves your spellings, you need to know how to spell it right. Writing is an act of solitude. It is about getting yourself out of the world you live in and entering the world that resides inside of you, without distractions. When I write on my computer there are too many distractions. There are calls, Skype calls, mail notifications, Facebook notifications, news notifications, it just never stops.

Writing on a typewriter ensures you no distractions. The only sound you hear is the sound of your alphabet keys smashing and the final ‘ding’. The sound of your writing is music to your ears. The sole purpose of your typewriter is to write, which translates into your sole purpose when you are working on  it. Writing is a personal and a lonely act and a typewriter ensures it remains so!

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First attempt with all my mistakes!

The story of my crazy husband acquiring this vintage type writer is a stuff of legends. He exchanged mails all around the world. He even wrote to a man who is a personal typewriter provider for Tom Hanks and got an instant reply. The whole  story is one crazy adventure!

Money can buy you a vintage typewriter, but a crazy husband is priceless. As I reach the 30th year of my life, my hope is that I can add many such priceless moments and people, and write about them on and with, Woody.  Yes! Thats what I named him, because Woody Allen is an inspiration and the Olympia typewriter is the only brand he has ever used for all his writing.

Welcome to your new home Woody!

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Woody!

 

 

How I wish to redefine nationalism through sports

I was born in October 1987 in Gwalior, India. By the virtue of my birth year I am considered to be a millennial. Growing up in India in the early 1990’s was fascinating. Dr. Manmohan Singh, a great economist and former prime-minister of India, had just made some landmark economic policy changes in the country. In 1991, India had liberalized its economy and entered the world of free global trade. This move of the government made us a part of the globalization movement. The world became smaller, immigration was easier, economy grew and the world around also became friendlier.

(Image Credit: Google Images, http://indiabefore91.in/1991-economic-reforms) In 1991, the then Finance Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh shaking hands with former Prime Minister of India, P.V. Narasimha Rao.

 

To read this article please go to- https://www.thequint.com/opinion/2017/07/05/lessons-from-cuba-sports-revolution

 

Saina VS Sindhu

The Premier Badminton League this year is a showcase of India’s Badminton talent. The league is a testament that the present and the future fraternity of World Badminton will be looking towards India with awe and fear. I am grateful for the opportunity that the league offered me, of watching Saina Nehwal and P.V. Sindhu battle it out first time after Sindhu’s silver medal win in the Olympics. For me personally it was one of the most special matches I witnessed since I picked up the racket at the age of nine.

When the match started, I mute the commentary and sat alone in my room. I wanted to experience this match alone. There was a string of emotions, thoughts, images going through my mind and I wanted to be left alone with them. My mind predicted given the recent form Sindhu has been in, she would win. In my heart though I wanted Saina to win. I am a lifelong supporter of the underdog. In January 2006 when Saina was pitted against Aparna Popat in the Senior National finals I was rooting for Aparna for the same reason. Saina had beaten Aparna just a few months back in the Asian Satellite and Saina was 12 years younger to her. In the morning of that match while I went to train I saw Aparna training. After she finished training I saw her sitting in a corner of the stadium by herself for a very long time. That evening she was going to play the last competitive match of her career. Something about that sight of seeing her sit in that corner told me the final was going to be her best Badminton. It was! Aparna beat Saina that day in straight sets winning her 8th straight national title. There are some matches that go above and beyond the realms of a Badminton court.

The Saina- Sindhu match was one of those matches for me. In the recent past social media and newspapers have tried to predict Saina’s future after her recent injury. They have tried to analyse her progress, or sometimes the lack of it. Some have compared her to Sindhu and already declared that the baton has been passed. As a player and someone who has experienced some of the greatest Indian athletes first hand I would like to say one thing, “No one other than the player can decide when are they ready to pass on the baton.” The predictions made by people around them are futile. I have had the privilege of experiencing Saina as a team mate and as an opponent. She is one of the fiercest and most determined individuals on the court. She has maintained the same level of determination for the last 16 years, which is beyond commendable. Injuries take time to heal and patience is the key. Saina still has time and her determination and focus will bring her back to prime form. I can say one thing for sure that she still has some great Badminton in her and I won’t be surprised when she wins another Super Series.

Sindhu on the other hand is India’s current darling. She deserves all the attention and the glamour that comes with her stupendous success. She is humble, poised and determined to be better than the last time. She is young, hungry and sky is the limit for her. Sindhu has seen Saina train with P.Gopichand since her childhood. Just like any other 9-year-old girl she too must have got a lot of inspiration from watching Saina dominate the world of Badminton. From that 9- year- old aspiring to be Saina, she has done a marvellous job to dominate the world of Badminton, and create her own legacy and identity. I wonder what went through her mind before and after the match. As strategy, she was attacking Saina on the forehand side of the court and making her run diagonally.  As the match progressed, it was clear to me that after the first six points of the match Sindhu just looked a little faster, a little sharper and a little less tired. At the top level of any sport this tiny margins are the only thing that determine the winner on a given day. The match had some amazing rallies and seemed to finish a little too quickly. My heart had to lose to my mind this time, though this is not what I take from this match.

I want to tell all the fans including myself to look at this match as a celebration. Here are two of India’s most successful women athletes, who have achieved some of the greatest things in Indian sport. The world will tell you to compare between them, to choose between them, and to decide whose achievement is bigger. In my humble opinion don’t make a choice and don’t judge them after this match or beyond. The only thing we should do as a country is celebrate them both. Saina as the one who made us believe that we could reach the top of the Badminton world and; Sindhu who comforts us by making us believe that we will be there for a very long time.