” I hate sports.”

When Fran Lebowitz, who is an American author and one of the most interesting commentator on American life said this, it broke my heart. I discovered Fran through Netflix’s show Pretend it’s a city, produced by Martin Scorsese. Since I heard that first episode I was kind of obsessed with this colourful personality. She is a fantastic speaker and writer. She is honest, brash, courageous, yet emphatic and sensitive. The more I read about her, the more I respected her.

The fifth episode of this series is titled – Department of Sports and Health. I have watched this episode at least ten times, especially because a woman that I respect and admire categorically states, “I hate sports.” The first time I watched the episode, I laughed. My first reaction was, “Oh! She is just being funny!” Nobody really hates sports. I have met people who hate doing physical activity, but they did play sport for one reason or the other. Also to clarify – I work as a development professional in grassroots sports in India. I have only met people who love sports.

Fran Lebowitz in Pretend its a city

The good and bad of Sport

Sport brings pride to the nation and unites its citizens. Sport builds character. Sport builds life-skills like the way very few occupations can. Sport brings money, financial stability and fame. Sport helps us build physical attributes. Sport helps create jobs. Sport can help women break gender stereotypes. While all of them are true, there may be negative narratives around sport as well.

Sport may be used as a political tool by nations to push a narrative of their choice. It may be used by nations to project a strong exterior, only to hide interior repression and conflicts. Sports if not organised and supervised especially in children, there is a danger of creating bullies, cheaters, and insecure humans. The pursuit of sporting excellence may also become a reason for loneliness, anxiety, regret, depression, suicide in the athlete community. Sport can make a Boris Becker rise, and it can also make a Boris Becker fall. Sport is one of the shortest and the toughest professions one can choose and offers no guarantee of a life lived happily ever after (in terms of financial stability especially in India).

While there are both for and against argument in sports, one of the many arguments made by Fran, stayed with me. She says- “You see these people in the streets. They are screaming this, “We won! We won!”. And I am always thinking, “Who’s WE?”. THEY won, while YOU were lying in the sofa drinking beer. Okay?”

To which Spike Lee says, “Thats the beauty of sports. You identify with the team. “

Fran- ” Yes, which is a business. You never see people in the street going, “Yay! Coke won! Coke won. Pepsi lost. How they got you to do this, I did like to know that. The reason sports are so central is because men are in charge of the world. If women were in charge of the world, do you think there would be professional hopscotch?”

The context here is American Sport of course, which is majorly privatised.

With Spike lee, “I hate sports.”

Let me try and dissect one of her arguments in the above sentence.

“You see this people in the streets. They are screaming this, “We won! We won!”. And I am always thinking, “Who’s we?”. THEY WON. You lie in the sofa drinking beer. Okay? “

We are about to witness this soon in our country. The Thomas Cup men’s team will be coming home, and the people in the country are already and will be screaming, “We won. We won.” But if I really think about Franc’s argument what has really changed in my life?

Does the impact of an individual achievement at the highest level in sport transcend beyond the athlete and really impact their society in a tangible way?

When the boys won and the Indian flag went up I did experience goosebumps and shed tears. I felt inspired and proud. This feeling will remain with me forever as a fellow athlete. Half an hour later my two year old woke up and I was back to being mother and doing the household chores. On the personal and a very individual level life quite honestly hasn’t changed much for me. I am back to my routine of being a mother, a professional, and a wife. But then I have already been a professional athlete and have been fortunate enough to play for the country and win medals for it.

The super Indian Men’s team winning the Thomas Cup

But this experience may be totally different for someone else.

A 11 year old boy watching the Thomas Cup final in a small village in India must have thought – ‘If they can do it, so can I’ – which is great. He will feel inspired and dream about his own podium finish. But what next? This 11 year old boy will get up the next morning and realise he doesn’t have a badminton court around, the one that he has is 30 kilometres away from his house. He also doesn’t have the shoes or the shuttles to play with, and won’t be able to afford them. He will also not be able to afford the coaching fees to start playing the sport. His parents, who are daily wage labourers, have no clue on how to make their son a Badminton player. So yes, the boy will be inspired for a day and then reality will strike and that exceptional Thomas Cup win will fade in his memory. This, I fear, might be the story for majority of 11 year old’s in India thinking of clinching a gold. But there is precedence in how other countries changed this situation. Indonesia.

How do you go from dreaming to doing?

The Indonesian Model

Indonesia boasts of being a 14 time Thomas Cup champion and has a total of 20 medals in the Olympics in Badminton, amongst many other laurels. When I tried to look at their journey from winning their first Thomas Cup gold medal to their 14th medal, they really seem to have built a robust eco-system around the sport. Just like any country that has made its journey towards excellence in any sport, Indonesia too worked on bringing all the important pillars of their society together. The citizens, private investments, government at every level, national federations each of them played their part well.

Factors that helped Indonesia turn into a Badminton powerhouse-

Role Models– Every sport needs role models to draw inspiration from. Indonesia has many of them, right from Susi Susanti to Anthony Ginting.

Susi Susanti

Badminton culture– Badminton is part of schools, colleges, community gatherings, backyards. It is everywhere. Indonesians even living in the remotest part of the country make their own rackets and shuttles tie a rope and play. They play the sport anywhere, without waiting for an indoor court.

No shoes, will play!

Schools– Every school in Indonesia has a Badminton court (even if it means its an outdoor court). In every province in Indonesia the Indonesia Badminton Association (PBSI) conducts Badminton technical training for the physical education teachers. The teachers then hold the potential of becoming coaches at the clubs in the country.

Clubs– Indonesia has about 3500 Badminton clubs in the country. Each of this club has to register with PBSI to avail benefits. There are close to 1 million people registered with these clubs.

Djarum Club in Indonesia

The role of the Federation From raising funds from the private, the public and government to running coaches training programs across schools and clubs PBSI, has a huge role to play in the success of Badminton in the country. The Talent Identification is done through the following steps-

1) formation of regional badminton clubs

2) holds regular championships / tournaments each year for young athletes especially early childhood to adolescents

3) through clubs- PBSI member club, PBSI program’s each club has to accept early childhood students with free training fees, where the cost of training early childhood at the club is borne by PBSI.

PBSI is as focused on recreational Badminton as it is on professional Badminton. its funding and schemes are divided into these two different verticals. They were quick to recognise the importance of organised recreational sport as an incentive to create potential athletes. The more adults play for fun, more children are likely to accompany them and get interested in the sport.

PBSI

The role of government and private sector– The government and the private sector has invested in the sport through PBSI. The government has incentivised building infrastructure in Badminton, and also gives many incentives to the athletes playing at various levels- through sports schools, pension schemes , a monthly stipend, and jobs. All the clubs in Indonesia are run and funded by a huge share of private investment. Athletes at provincial levels and national level receive a lot of endorsement and financial help.

The role of society– Nothing really works if the citizens of a country don’t play an integral role in bringing a sport to the forefront. Right from a club match at a province to the Indonesian Super series, there is no argument to the fact that Indonesia has the best audience. All the world athletes in Badminton absolutely love to play in this country. They also participate as active members by playing the sport in their backyards and make the sport a religion. They also actively make donations towards clubs in their provinces to help them flourish. Without the citizen playing an active role nothing really succeeds.

Its packed, fully!

Where is India right now?

India in Badminton has many role models today. Over the last decade we had 3 Olympic medals, 12 world championships medals, 2 Uber Cup bronze and now the Thomas Cup gold, amongst other feats. We have two excellent academies -Gopichand Academy and the Prakash Padukone Academy- that have over the years given us the best talent the country has ever seen. The Government is slowly and steadily increasing our sports budget over the years, and the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports is playing a very active role in developing sports in the country. The private investment in the country in sports is also increasing every year. Non-profit organisations like Go Sports and Olympic Gold Quest have worked tremendously hard for the last decade to raise money for a whole lot of Badminton players and athletes from other sports. India is slowly finding it’s feet in various other sports as a podium contender besides cricket., thanks to all of these efforts.

And yet, Rohit, a 11 year old boy from a village in India has a slim chance of becoming a world champion. Badminton cannot be dependent on only two academies for creating world champions . We need to focus on creating awareness about sports and incentives that exist amongst rural and urban parents and our government school system. In the last few years if you look at the the numbers in terms of participation in district, state level, national level tournaments the numbers have gone up by a 50%. Saying this we need an equal number of coaches and sports scientists growing in the country at the same rate. For the longest of time India has relied on foreign coaches. I believe that it is a mistake. We need more investment and incentives to build world-class coaches in the country. We need to invest in creating cohorts of hundreds of coaches and sports scientists in the country. For this we need the infrastructure, funds and the academic expertise to be pulled in for both coaching and sports science. For the past few years most of the money spent by all the major players in the country has been majorly invested in athlete development, we need to make an equal or more investment in developing the eco-system as a whole, which will invariably help the athlete too.

India needs to develop rural sports infrastructure, coaches, sports scientists , build community sports models that can be self-sufficient. We need to incentivise the club culture, develop district, state, national level leagues in the sport. The Badminton Association of India, the private sector, the government, the athletes, the coaches all will have to play a major role in this. Manipur is a great example of how a state with the least public or private investment has been the most successful state in sports in the country. Finally we as a people need to show up in the stadiums cheering our athletes at every level of competition, and pick up a racket and just play.

We have done so well to get where we are today in Badminton. But we need to make the journey from here to becoming the next powerhouse (or even better) than Indonesia and China in the sport. Until we build the right eco-system for the sport to flourish in India, most of our sporting achievements will remain a selfish endeavour, limited to impact the individual. To go from ‘They Won’ to ‘We won’ it will take a massive vision, resolve, political will, partnerships, funding, patience and persistence. I am sure we can do this, our Thomas Cup team has showed what we are capable of if we really work as a team.

My life’s mission is to prove Fran wrong.

Because unlike Fran, “I love sports.”

Manipur- The state where mothers play

Manipur- The state where mothers play

I reached Imphal and my heart sank. The roads were deserted, there was hardly any building that was fully constructed, there was filth and mosquitoes in every corner of the streets. I looked at Urja, my team mate from Simply Sport and asked her, “Is there a curfew? I hope we are going to be safe.” She tried to look back at me reassuringly, but I am sure she was a little tense too. This was just the first day of Imphal and we still had four days to go.

Urja and I were in Imphal as part of research for our ‘Women in Sport’ paper that we are writing in association with Sports Authority of India. For this research we are doing a comparative study between the two best states for female participation- Haryana and Manipur and the two worst states, Bihar and Rajasthan. The progress we have made since we started this project has been substantial and Manipur had to be the state with which we started our on-ground study. We were looking to get inspired, but our first few hours in Imphal was not exactly that.

Five days of Holi celebration in Manipur

Once we reached our hotel, we decided to take a ride along the city after a few hours of rest. We striked a conversation with our driver and slowly started making sense of things. We reached Imphal on 20th March which is right in between the 5 days holi celebration in Imphal. Our ride took us to a renowned painters house in Imphal. His museum told us stories of history of Manipur through paintings. His great grandson who managed the museum told us this,

“We celebrate Holi for five days here. Nobody works, not even the waste pickers. All we do is dance, play, sing and eat for these five days. Also the government doesn’t care much about us in Imphal. No private investment whatsoever, neither public investment. We as a community stand up for each other here. Our communities is all we have.”

The RKCS Gallery
Fantastic art!

So it wasn’t the curfew, it was just Holi. Also the garbage on the streets had an explanation too now.

The Importance of Community

Community is an important word in Manipur. Everything they are, everything they do is for each other. When Imphal’s youth was drowning in drugs and alcohol or violent revolutionary acts due to lack of employment opportunities and cluelessness, the elders, especially the elder women in their communities immediately started taking steps to engage them in better activities. They realised nothing could be better than sports to get the youth to spend time productively and put their minds and bodies to good use. Thus started the amazing journey of sports clubs in Manipur. There are around 1000 registered sports clubs in Manipur. Each club is funded and run by volunteers, community donations, ex-athletes and coaches. The clubs are involved in conducting various inter club leagues in various sports, NOT JUST FOOTBALL.

Look at the audience 🙂

The Culture of community led Sports Clubs

Fortunately, Urja and I reached Manipur during Holi which is the most important time for all the sports clubs. In these five days all these clubs come together to do various sports competitions including sports like football, kabaddi, volleyball, marathons etc. In these five days you would see the ‘Annual Sport Meet’ banners in very corner of the city and their villages. These club matches are organised for all age-groups ranging from the age of 10 yrs- 25yrs and for men and women. Also, all these games are serious in every form- there are volunteers who officiate matches, ex-athletes serve as chief-guests also coaches, and there is AUDIENCE, a fully packed ground cheering and shouting for their clubs. The audience has as many girls and women as boys and men. For a girl coming from Pune (like me) to witness this kind of energy while nobody is watching (no selectors, no sponsors, no advertisements, no tv crew, no media, no other possible external reasons) was quite a special experience. Manipuris play because they love to play. Sport is a part of the lived experience. It is not a rich man’s occupation. The rich don’t play sports in Manipur, they study. The poor play sports in Manipur, they live and breathe through sports.

As many women as men…
My son finding his inspiration too

The Nupi Lan Movements led by women

Also the sports story in Manipur, is ruled by the women in the state. Manipur, is a tiny state with an area of 22,327 sq km in the Northeastern part of India, and is home to diverse ethnic groups and sub-groups. Even then it is a state that has produced 18 Arjuna Awardees, out of which majority of the awardees our women. In our interviews with different stakeholders in SAI National Centre of Excellence in Imphal, we asked almost every stakeholder be it coaches, administrators or athletes they all told us the same stories. Stories of how Manipuri women fought battles on the field, when their men were wounded or dead, be it against the Mughals, the Britishers, or any other insurgents. The Manipuri women have also been the founders of every important ‘Nupi Lan’ (agitation) as they call it. Be it the 1904 and 1938 agitation against the British, or be it the Meira Paibi movement in the 1970s against drug abuse and alcoholism or the 12 women standing nude in 2004 against AFSPA. There have been other women-led movements across the country as well, but Nupi Lan remains a strong testament to the power of women’s voice in India.

Nupi Lan Image courtesy- Wikipedia

These stories and narratives of Manipuri women being strong, beautiful and fierce is etched in the minds of every athlete, coach or administrator from and in Manipur. I realised the importance of narratives through their stories, in how it affects women and men in our societies. The stories that are passed on year after year by our ancestors basically play a pivotal role in the way the present generation of girl and women define themselves. The narratives we hear in other parts of the country about women might be very different and that affects the way girls look at themselves and at playing a sport.

Women rule the world

In Manipur women are tremendously strong physically too. There is of course a genetic and DNA advantage, in the ways their bodies are built. In addition to this, the rural life in Manipur is hard. It is also majorly dependant on agriculture. Men, women and children are involved in farming much more than in education. To be a farmer is not easy. It is a hard job, more so physically and demands a lot out of you. Rural girls in Manipur have to play a part on the agricultural field with their parents. There is no choice, you eat only if you make enough food. Food also involves a lot of fish. The Loktak lake in Manipur is a major resource for fish. In addition to this all the markets in Manipur are run by women and girls too. In the city our sight-seeing guide was a woman, the woman on the roads asking people for donations during Holi were women, women were also a huge part of the audience watching sports as well as playing sports, and women were also bus and cab drivers. In Manipur women are everywhere. They refuse to hide behind closed doors. Why should they?

Loktak Lake
Fishing circles at the lake
Women own the markets in Imphal
Ima market- Mother’s market in Imphal

They demand tremendous respect in their matriarchal societies, may be that translated into me and Urja never feeling unsafe in Imphal. We were not even looked at a second time for looking different, talking different, or not knowing the language. We felt safe, almost comfortably invisible, though still respected. Can the same be said about how a Manipuri girl feels when she is roaming the streets in Delhi or Pune? I did wonder.

SAI NCOE Imphal and lessons from there

The other most important factor is that there is no lack of female role models for sports in Manipur. The banners of sportswomen can be found everywhere in the state. The women athletes in SAI are in awe of the glamour and the opportunities that these athletes have got for themselves. Majority of the girls in Manipur including all our sporting stars come from the rural parts of the state. Also a lot of women athletes in SAI Imphal come from really poor backgrounds and sports becomes an opportunity to get out of the poverty cycle. Also every woman star athlete is a part of their community clubs, access to greatness is easy and reachable. For a lot of athletes in Imphal easy accessibility to champions is an added advantage.

The beautiful SAI NCOE in Imphal
Ibomcha Singh, coach of Mary Kombucha and many other great boxers. He claims there is no boxer in Manipur who hasn’t been fed or has stayed at his home.
With the NCOE Director, Mr. Thang. He was the most efficient, welcoming and kind to us. He made this whole visit extremely successful.

The story of Manipur’s mothers

Manipur is a sports heaven. It is a movement led by its own people, in which both men and women play an equal role. Girls here are blessed with the physicality but also a history of warriors and heroines has helped them develop a warrior mindset. It is like the women athlete told me, ” I don’t need to look at Mary Kom for inspiration, my mother plays football every Sunday at the club. I and my father watch silently by the sidelines. She doesn’t play professional football, she plays because she loves to play. She doesn’t have the right shoes and she plays in her saree. To see her do that every Sunday is inspiration enough for me.”

It should be inspiration for us too. Sports should be a way of life for every woman, medals are secondary and will then come. Within all the filth, the rotten smell, the un-built buildings, the mosquitoes in the Imphal city, this is the lesson I was able to learn from Manipur.

I will never forget the sparkle in the athlete’s eye when she told me about her mother. She was genuinely proud, medal or not. We need to do everything in our hands to change the narrative of women sport in India. We could really do well to learn from Manipur, especially the mothers!

Mothers participating in a different kind of a marathon.

It’s a beautiful problem, period.

The room opens. In 2022, the room I refer to is virtual of-course! I meet multiple women and men in this room every month to talk about menstruation and it’s effect on athlete performance. On my screen I see a lot of faces – curious, confused, shy, disinterested even. Most of them are girls, sometimes women and once in a while there are a few men or a man in the conversation too. I notice that they are staring at the screen eagerly waiting for me to quickly start the conversation but then also may be to end it quickly. The conversation I am about to have is not exactly a conversation they are comfortable with. Neither the men, nor the girls. 

I ask the question, “What is a period?” 

Workshop in progress

There is pin-drop silence, always. 

Now I begin to see their faces more clearly, because there is not much that they are saying. Some girls start giggling, some roll their eyes, some run away from the screen, some laugh, some are blank, some want to almost say something, but they stop short of that. Mostly fearing they might say something that is wrong. The male coach generally doesn’t say much. I am not sure if he’s just unsure or that he thinks the question is only for the girls or other women in the session and not him. 

Why would it be for him? Nobody has asked him the question ever before. Let alone in a room that has mostly women and he is probably the only man. It is a woman’s issue, not a man’s.

When I was ten years old, I had a coach who believed that all athletes should wear white and white clothes only. White shirts, white shorts, white socks! 

This was okay till girls in our group hit puberty. Once that happened, they were not comfortable with anything white. A red stain on a white shorts is disgusting, isn’t it ? It still is for most of us. The coach would give in a little and allow us to wear dark coloured shorts, ‘on those days‘. 

Our hearts should have been filled with gratitude because our coach allowed us to wear dark colour shorts, ‘on those days’ right ? Alas ! that didn’t happen. It would actually embarrass us more. As dark colour shorts was a public announcement about us menstruating, to the rest of the group which included the boys. Our coach never had any other conversation with us on it, other than ‘ Wear dark coloured short, ‘on those days.’

This was a mistake. 

He should have told us about menstruation and how it affects our performance. He should have told us about the importance of eating right amount of calories during menstruation to avoid injuries. He should have told us to not over train during menstruation. He should have told us there is nothing to be embarrassed about a red stain on a white shorts. He should have empathised with our pain. Instead he said, “What will you do if you were in a tournament?” 

There is enough and more science now on how menstruation has a direct impact on performance.

Research and studies suggest that, there is a slight increase in body temperature (~0.5 degrees C) during the luteal phase of the cycle which can cause dehydration. Hormonal shifts in the body could affect multiple parts of the body including muscle, bone, endurance, energy level and attention. Pain levels and pain perception are also affected for many women. Bad nutrition, could cause low body weight, irregular menstrual cycles and low bone density issues for athletes. Stress fractures and other problems that the female athlete suffered from could limit an athlete’s activity and potentially even end a sporting career.

Fu Yuanhui, a Chinese swimmer at the Rio Olympics, made headlines in 2016 for telling the world she was on her period. It was the first time an athlete pointed to Periods as a reason to not performing to potential. Image Courtesy- Getty Images

And yet, when I desperately call academies and coaches to register for our workshop, I hear more ‘No’ then ‘Yes’. There are various reasons/excuses to not engage. Parents are not comfortable, participants won’t be able to sit through the entire workshop, athletes are preparing for tournaments, they are travelling, they are too young, etc. What coaches need to understand is that until understanding the female body and how it functions (which includes menstruation) is not their priority, female athletes are not their priority.

There could be many reasons to say, “NO”. There is only one reason to say, “Yes”- because it is the right thing to do.

After the radio silence on the question- “What is a period?”, the room does open up. I make sure it does. Learning doesn’t happen over a presentation, it happens over conversations. Uncomfortable, honest conversations where we share our own experiences and our struggles! Of all the answers I have heard over the course of me conducting these workshops, this one has truly stayed with me – “Periods, it is a beautiful problem.”

When I asked the girl to explain, she said, ” Because periods help us bring a new life into this world which is beautiful, but with that it also gives us pain, mental and physical problems and causes embarrassment – which is problematic, right?”

I didn’t correct her. There was nothing to correct. Period is a problem for every female athlete, that is playing any sport, at any level, anywhere in the world. It is a bigger problem for some than the others. The only way to solve the problem is to speak up and acknowledge it – by both the athlete and the coach. And then to educate ourselves on how can we manage this problem so that it helps us perform better. 

I, for one, never spoke up about it when I played my sport. I know now it was as much my mistake, as it was my coach’s. My mission now is to engage with every female athlete on the subject so that she doesn’t have to remain ignorant like me. If I have learned one thing since launching the ‘Menstruation and Sports’ workshop it is this – Talking about menstruation in sport is not easy. 

But I can promise one thing I will I keep engaging till I reach every one of the female athletes or their coaches. 

So to all the coaches – if you haven’t still received a call from me, expect one soon. The change for me begins with you, not the parents or the athletes. 

And I am going to make sure you start the conversation. 

And if you have not heard from me yet BUT are reading this, please please please reach out to me so that we can accelerate the change. Simply Sport Foundation is actively running Menstrual awareness workshops for Sports Coaches and Athletes

Let us start the conversation here.

“Let’s talk about money, honey!”

Power is an important part of our social structure. How you define power is subjective. It could mean different things to different people. But in all my readings, discussions and observations about power, one interpretation of its definition is recurring – money. Like it or not money yields a lot of power in our life. It shapes the decisions we make, the relationships we have, the people we meet, the networks we build, the things we buy, the lives we live. 

Free Stock Photo of The Mighty Dollar - The Power of Money | Download Free  Images and Free Illustrations
Power= Money?

Money was really never important to me. It still isn’t. I played professional sport because I love to play. I work and coach because I am truly passionate about it. I don’t base any of my relationships on how are they going to help me financially. Money has never really been the centre of my decision-making universe and always been a by-product of sorts. Money is also never a part of any of my conversations with friends, especially girlfriends. We never speak about stocks or mutual funds. We may be touch upon how much do we earn and what we deserve sometimes. Culturally, in the society I live in, talking about money directly is considered impolite, being obsessed by it openly is considered indecent. Yet in my lifetime I have seen friendships, families, people break because of lack of it. 

But I started thinking about money a couple years back when my husband had a candid conversation with me on the topic. 

“We need to pay the EMIs for the house, buy groceries, pay the bills, pay for the insurance, pay salary of the maids, plan travel, eat out and and and …. shop for the clothes you don’t need. And this is generally the amount we spend – XXX. So honey, it is about time we talk about money.”

When my husband finished that thought, I was perplexed. For two reasons, first I thought that my husband has probably lost all of his savings on some gamble and we are doomed. Second – I had no idea where my money was at that time. The only thing I knew is that I had a bank account from which I could draw my everyday expenses – but I didn’t know until when. Luckily, the first thought wasn’t true. The second was, and still is partly true even today.

I HAD NO IDEA WHERE MY MONEY WAS!

Yes, this is exactly me. Just a little thinner! 😀

Does this ring a bell for any of my fellow women friends reading this? 

I still struggle with it but luckily I have got better since I had that conversation with my husband. Accepting that you don’t know is the first step towards knowing right?

I consider myself a strong and independent woman, a free thinker or sorts. I started earning a regular salary at the age of 16. I started earning my own money at the age of 9, when I won my first 1000 rupees ($15) in cash when I won a tournament. So basically I have not spent a day without making money one way or the other from age 9 till today. I love the hustle and am proud of it. I made the money but had no clue where it goes, how it functions, how do I make it work for me today and in the future.

This is sort of counter-intuitive. How does a strong independent woman, remain so oblivious to understanding money? More importantly her own money.

And to make things really interesting let me inform you that my father is a banker. Yep. 

My father has been working at Canara Bank since he was 19. It was his first job and his only job till he retired. He understands how the bank works. All the money I made since the age of 9 was taken care by my extremely diligent and knowledgeable father. I never had to go to the bank for anything. It was basically taken care of, for me.

Guarding me, my money and beyond…. #Bestguardever

Enter Patriarchy

Irony is that as a free woman I fight patriarchy all the time. I never tolerated it and would not let anyone I know suffer through it. Yet, when it came to managing my own finances, I let the patriarchal mindset take its course. I always let my father handle the finances at home. He decided a monthly budget and how we spent it. Now my mother, a teacher, drew a salary which in Marathi we joked would be enough to buy kothimbir and mirchi (Corriander and chilly). That basically translated into ‘ I don’t earn much so it doesn’t matter’. That salary also got routed to my father since he was planning the finances. Also it was pretty natural for her to do that since she saw her mother, all her sisters and almost all of her girlfriends do the same.

So I continued the tradition with my money. It was convenient for me. I bought whatever I wanted. I didn’t have to worry about where to invest, how many accounts I held, do I have enough to for my older – retired self, ordering cheque books, ATM cards, filing taxes etc. Everything was given to me on a platter.

And no this was not a Britney Spears replay. I used every single penny of what I earned. My father never allowed anyone else to draw from that pool, even he didn’t touch it. #BestGuardEver. 

The Hate for Mathematics and anything that involved numbers

I passionately hated Mathematics as a kid and I still do as an adult. For me to understand money, I had to understand numbers and that scared me. I let myself believe that I should not directly handle money because I didn’t exactly understand numbers. I know money is not just Math, it is more of a combination of math and art. Also, if you understand enough, it is basic common sense – which I believe I have in plenty.

So as we enter 2022, I want to take complete responsibility of my own money. I can’t tell the world I am an independent woman, when I don’t even know what is my life’s savings, the inflow, the outflow and everything in between. I need to understand the science of money, how it functions, how to invest it, where to invest it, how to make it work for me – while I sleep – yes I caught the lingo quickly. Independence stems from being in control of your own finances, a true feminist will always tell you that.

Early this year I wrote to one of my mentors asking him to help me get better at money. I told him, that I have no understanding of money and I have finally realised that it is not exactly a thing to be proud of. We had an hour long call, he couriered me a bunch of books to start my journey. The more I have read the more I have realised handling your finances is not rocket science. It is simple, and very doable. You have to start though. 

I have been blessed with a fantastic father and a financially intelligent husband who I could completely trust with all my money and every decision I need to make with it. Though starting this year I want to take this trust I have on them and instil it on my own self. I work very hard to make my money, and only I should have the right to make decisions about it. I see all the feminists smiling at me from the heaven and the earth. This is the year I hope to make them proud.

Power is not just money for me. It will never be. But I would like to be able to live a good life on my own terms and understanding money will empower me to do that. So this year, 2022, I am finally going to be truly independent. I can’t wait to see what that feels like!

Happy New Year $$$ 

Look at how happy he was when I told him about my 2022 goal 😀

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 🙂