Should the virtual become the reality?

When my friend Kritika requested me to baby sit her 10 year old son Arnav for a day and a half I was excited. I really like Arnav. He is observant and articulate. He respects women and Kritika tells me that sometimes he goes a little overboard with it. She told me that in his karate class when he has to fight against girls he always loses. The girls are ruthless but he will just never hit them back. When I asked him why he plainly said, ” I just don’t like to beat them, they are all so pretty.” Well, then! It will be safe to say that I think he is one of the nicest 10 year olds around.

In my very limited experience with children I have always loved the time I spend with most of them. Their perspectives are different. They have fundamental questions which you have never tried to answer yourself while you always wanted to. Their love and hatred is based on trust and they trust much easily than adults. There are no grey shades, things are mostly black or white. Life is just very simple.

So when Arnav came home I was looking forward to a day of conversations. We had Pav Bhaji and strawberry milkshake Mumbai style for lunch and then I asked him what would he like to do. He sat on the sofa and swayed his leg, I realised he might be nervous. We had never spent so much time before. So he looked around and pointed at my VR Headset – the virtual reality device that was kept on a stack of books and asked, “What is that?”. I explained the concept to him. About what those goggles/headsets do, the games that can be played, the places that one can visit etc – all from one’s living room. I told him he could go all the way to the space and come back…..twice. This got his attention. I put the VR headset on him and it took him around ten minutes to understand how it functions. This generation is so quick with learning about technology. It is pretty amazing.

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The Google VR- Headset

Arnav was hooked on to those goggles after that.When his eyes got tired he would switch his attention to the Xbox One sitting in the living room and then animated movies. We spent the whole day sitting on the couch. Him in his virtual world and me studying. At around seven he looked really tired so I suggested that we should have a quick dinner and he should go to bed. He did exactly that.

As I looked at Arnav sleeping peacefully and closed the door I felt uncomfortable. I sat on the sofa with a glass of milk and tried to reason with my discomfort. In the 8 hours that we spent together he got to see dinosaurs through his goggles, shoot men, race cars and watch movies on the T.V. He seemed pretty happy, satisfied even. So what was troubling me? Was it the fact that my existence in the room really did not affect his happiness? If I was not sitting in that room would he really care?

When I got up in the morning I looked outside the window and looked at the beautiful fall colours. It made me feel good just sitting and looking at the trees and the birds chirping. It was peaceful. I suddenly realised what had troubled me the day before. In the 8 hours we had spent together we had not had a single meaningful conversation. In the need of keeping him busy, I had left him wandering in a world that really did not exist. He saw dinosaurs and went into the space …. but it was not real. For an entire day I let Arnav live in a world he would never really be able to touch or feel. All this because it was just a convenient choice for both of us. I could study and he could be entertained just sitting on the couch.

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View from the window

That morning we had breakfast and I decided that we were going to spend the whole day outside. I would take him to the park and spend the day there. I packed us some lunch and left. When I told him we were going to the park, he asked me if we could play video games instead. I promised him if he got bored we will come back home. The 30 mins drive to the park was silent. We walked around in the park, he insisted on holding my hand. So I did. It was a beautiful morning. The nature around us was overwhelming. After a while we sat down on a bench. Arnav had not spoken much the whole of that time. I was almost worried of boring him. But then Arnav asked me his first fundamental question, “Why do leaves change colours in the fall?”. I suddenly felt hopeful. It was another thing that I had to google the answer.

The day after that was a breeze. Arnav was unstoppable with his questions. We spoke about rabbits, trees, squirrels, caterpillars and butterflies. We spread a bed sheet on the green grass, ate sandwiches, I lay down beneath the blue sky while Arnav tried to draw his version of the rabbit. By the end of the day on our drive back he trusted me enough to tell me about a crush he had on a blonde girl in his class. It made me laugh, while he blushed.

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From caterpillar to a butterfly

When we reached outside his house I got down to get his stuff. As I started to say good bye I asked him which of the days he liked better. “I liked today, it was fun to chase that rabbit in the park.” I smiled gave him a tight hug and left. Out of the rearview mirror I saw Arnav waving back at me with the sack bag on his back and the painting of a rabbit which looked like a rat in the hand that was not waving at me.

This time the real world won against the virtual.

I really hope Arnav will always choose the real over the virtual. I hope he chooses actually visiting Central Park instead of experiencing it on his Virtual Reality headset. I really hope he knows the joy of chasing rabbits will always be superior to seeing dinosaurs sitting in his living room.

In the end I really wonder if we can play a more conscious part in helping Arnav make that choice.

Sayali Gokhale- Exploring the world of Badminton coaching

I owe my Badminton career to some wonderful people…. all men. I started playing the sport because my father loved it. Santosh Kshatriya, Vasant Gore, Hemant Hardikar, Prakash Padukone, Vimal Kumar –  all men who coached me during various points in time in my career. From holding the racket to becoming a national champion and everything in between, I learnt all from men. Looking back, I realise I was taught how to play women’s singles by men and not by women and I think it is something that requires attention.

Why is it that in such a long history of Indian Badminton (where we have 2 women world champions) there has not been a bigger contribution by women in coaching? Why has a woman coach still not produced a national or an international player from scratch?

Being a coach

Being a coach is difficult. Success of a coach is measured differently than that of a player. I have seen the best of players struggle to become effective coaches and I have seen lesser skilled players become much more effective. One of my coach’s said this, “You require passion that is enough to carry both you and your player through in the worst phases. You need to have the balance to know when to push them and went to hold back. You need to study everything in the sport right from the latest fitness trends to the weaknesses of the players on the circuit. Being a player is an 8-hour job, but you need to be a coach 24 hours a day.” Being an ‘effective’ coach is one of the toughest jobs.

Can women possess all these qualities; can we be effective enough?

I think it is time for women to answer this question and make a bigger contribution to the sport. I am sure there are women coaches all over India but there are really very few who have dedicated 24 hours a day to coaching.

Sayali Gokhale, a friend, is a two-time national champion and has represented India in various important international tournaments. Her strength on the court was her consistency, strokes and resilience. She was always a tough opponent to beat in the national circuit and was respected for her work ethic.

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With Sayali and Sagar Chopda. We have been friends since the age of nine. Its been a great journey.

Sayali left the sport in early 2016 and started coaching May of the same year.

“When Prakash Sir (Prakash Padukone) asked me if I would consider coaching in his academy in Bangalore it was tough to let go of the opportunity. I had inhibitions though. The Academy is home to India’s best junior players and a lot of them were boys. I wasn’t sure about how would they perceive me as their coach.”

Family Support and Sacrifices

Men singles is different from women singles in so many ways. The basics are still the same but there are a lot of different nuances.

So what led her to let go of her inhibitions?

“I think the credit goes to my husband (Sagar Chopda, also a Junior Doubles’ National Champion himself). He convinced me that training the best junior kids in one of the most prestigious academies was a learning opportunity I could not let go. So I decided to give it a chance.”

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With her husband Sagar Chopda at her last competitive national tournament

Making this decision was not easy for Sayali. To be a coach in Bangalore meant living alone in a one-bedroom apartment, living away from her family and from her husband.

I asked her if it was difficult especially now that she was married and that had more responsibilities.

“Oh! Yes. I am making some sacrifices but as a player you are used to that. I have to tell you that I have the coolest in-laws. When I told them about being a coach in Bangalore. They supported me a 100%.  There was no fuss and that has helped me tremendously to focus on the job in hand.”

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With the very supportive Chopda family!

 Role models

 Just like myself, Sayali too never had a female coach.

Was it difficult having no role-models?

“Yes and No. I think I have learned a lot from all my coaches since I was nine. Every coach had a different style and strength. I am trying to emulate all the best practices from each one of them and find my own style of coaching. Having some more women coaches on the circuit will definitely help for sure. I hope Saina and Sindhu are thinking about coaching in the future. We need many more of us.”

The discipline of a coach

After having personally known Sayali it is difficult for me to imagine her shouting on top of her voice and being tough on others. She has a very soft-spoken personality…… or so I think.

“Oh you need to see me on court now; you will be in for a shock. It is funny, just recently my husband was playing on the adjacent court while I was coaching. After the session he told me if he had me as a coach he would be very afraid. I have learnt to be more vocal and strict, it is a part of the job. I am still learning.”

 The first day on any new job is the scariest and the most difficult. How did she face her fears?

“I had called a meeting with all the players in the academy. I told them upfront that I am new to the job and would need their support and feedback. Just like them I was learning too. In that sense I have been very lucky. Both Vimal Sir (Vimal Kumar – current coach of Saina Nehwal) and Prakash Sir have been very understanding. All my trainees have been wonderful. I have felt accepted from day one. That has really helped.”

 Now is the best time to pick up Badminton professionally

Every generation has their own challenges and problems. While we were starting our careers it was less professional guidance on strength and fitness training and lack of sponsors. What according to her has changed for the present generation?

“I think this crop of players really have the best facilities they can ask for. There are physical trainers to take care of their off-court needs. The top players in the academy are taken care of financially by the Olympic Gold Quest and are really well-managed. It’s all up to the players now. India can become a Badminton powerhouse if players show the will.”

 The important role that Parent’s play

Every parent has a lot of expectations both from their children and more so from the coaches. I had to know how challenging is it managing parents.

“If there is a course on Parent- Management I want to enrol in it. Parents today are really involved in every aspect of their kid’s life. I have seen parents involved right from their kid’s warm-up till their stretching in every session, every day. In a way it is great. But their end-to-end involvement also puts too much pressure on the kids which could be a problem. In tournaments sometimes I am joined by the parents to coach them. I have to sometimes coach them more than the kids. I think parents need to let the kids just be a lot more. Kids need to be allowed to make mistakes and learn from them.”

 Bringing it all together

Sayali maintains that she is still very new and has a lot to learn. She also feels intimidated sometimes when she has to sit across coaches who have been at the job much longer than her in tournaments. I know Sayali will find her place and her respect. This could be the beginning of a new era for women coaches in Badminton and I feel a sense of pride and relief that Sayali Gokhale is leading the way. I wish her the best and hope this inspires more women to play a bigger part in making champions. It’s time!

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With her students at a junior national tournament.