Sports for girls……..and boys (of course)

In the news item discussion today, we post a recent article about the Indian women’s hockey team and follow it up with a brief discussion about sports for children, both boys and girls. News extract from:

“India may have won the final of the women’s Asia Cup hockey tournament against China in a penalty shootout, but it was a fully deserving victory. Throughout their campaign in Japan, team members played out of their skin to register the win, which has secured them a spot in next year’s World Cup emphatically on merit, not as wild-card entrants. The triumph came against formidable hurdles, and in the absence of any expectations. Indian women were never the favourites, going into the tournament ranked 12th in the world and fourth in Asia — behind World No. 8 China, Korea and Japan. Incidentally, India defeated defending champion Japan in the semi-finals. This happened despite a degree of pre-tournament disarray. The team lost its second coach in the space of a year, and Harendra Singh came to the assignment just a month before the Asia Cup, that too with no previous experience of having worked with a women’s hockey team. The team had other issues to grapple with as well; the fitness and skill levels had slipped. The lack of expectations, sadly, was clear from the fact that there was no live telecast, not even online streaming. Such live updates as there were came via social media.

The hockey federations must heed this victory and use this occasion to considerably scale up support to the women’s game. The insistence on appointing foreign coaches, despite the clear discomfort and disconnect among the women in matters of communication, has unnecessarily cost India too much time. The inadequate competitive exposure made available for the team was unfortunate. Unlike the men, women players start early; some in the senior team are as young as 16. Their careers often end early. That the women, most of them in their early 20s, still continue to go out and give their best is a testament to their dedication. Railways remains the biggest provider of employment — but goalkeeper Savita Punia, the star of the final, and a veteran of over 100 matches and perhaps Asia’s best, is yet to get a job. Harendra Singh has his work cut out too. He has a reputation for being obsessed with results. He is a disciplinarian who has the ability to coax the best from his players, lead from the front and put in the hard yards. In fact, it is a reflection of the team’s hard work, dedication, discipline and focus on the game that someone who is regarded as the most difficult Indian coach to work with is already in awe of his players. The road ahead is arduous, and 2018 will be crucial for the women and men, with the World Cup and the Commonwealth Games as well as an Olympic spot to be secured through the Asian Games. Captain Rani Rampal’s girls have shown they can do it.


There are some serious challenges facing competitive sports in India, but there is also a larger issue about physical activity in general and sports for women in particular. As a State, we have fallen way behind in providing opportunities for ordinary citizens to keep fit at all ages, and this commentary will focus on some of the challenges and consequences of this alarming situation. The recent film Dangal demonstrates how much grit one needs in order to reach an international level in competitive sport. In a nutshell, there are no spaces for common and competitive sports for ordinary people in urban areas. In the frenzy for providing housing and making profits, builders, babus and netas have compromised the needs of citizens. Perhaps the decision makers have access to exclusive clubs or offshore schooling and don’t think about these issues for others, but someone seriously needs to take up these issues in public interest.

Sports for girls……and boys, of course

DSC_0187 - Copy
A Gond village in Chhatisgarh

In rural life and even more so among tribal groups in India, engagement with the outdoors is a given. Travelling through villages, it is possible to see unstructured and unsupervised groups of children playing in natural surroundings, climbing trees, running around, jumping into streams, or playing with sand. These groups are loosely watched over by adults and they learn to handle themselves independently fairly early in life and develop an effective grasp of nature’s elements. Farm and forest are their playground and sitting indoors is something that implies imprisonment. In villages, boundaries and borders may mean something to adults, but children usually have free access to other homes, streets as well as fields. Schools often find it hard to have village children ‘sit in one place’ for a length of time, and teachers complain about the hassle of ‘keeping children indoors’.  Village schools usually have unpaved grounds around the bare classrooms that provide ample opportunity for group games after school, and one can frequently see kids running around chasing each other once school gives over. Although they may have few toys, if at all, there seems to be an abundance of spaces to play. The example of Bhudia Singh, the youngest marathon runner is a case in point. When he was punished for being ‘cheeky’ and asked to run around a field by his judo coach his mother had assigned him to, he was found still running five hours later. After a quick physical check, it was found that his heart was still functioning fine and Bhudia became a marathon runner. In village life, ‘outdoor play’ isn’t even a thing, it’s a way of life!

Flying with a dry Mahua leaf pin-wheel

In this sense, rural children’s activities are almost a reverse of children brought up in the ‘safe confines’ of their apartments in urban areas. In towns and cities, we seem to have lost spaces to play in, and urban development has rarely considered children’s needs in the rapid construction projects that are underway. Specific planning for children’s play activities are highly inadequate and we have seriously failed our children (and adults) in this regard. Although some towns may retain a bit of the ‘rural’ flavour of access and availability of space to play without adult supervision, such spaces in big cities have shrunk. We have built malls and dams, airports and schools, religious places and cinemas, but playgrounds for children are few and far between. Even in parks that should allow children free access, people will frown at older children playing games on account of possible injury to the elderly or damage to plants. Only the very young are welcomed. Hundreds of children have to share small areas that developers have designated for play in the fight for building homes and selling them even among middle and upper income colonies. In the case of city schools, grounds have been built up end to end for more classrooms, especially in the private sector.

Learning to ride

This remains one of the most tragic aspects about urban planning, and one that has had and is likely to have, important consequences for children’s development and health. Younger children are still able to find confined playgrounds, it is the 6 years and older ones who are without any place to play. Young children wanting to set up a team for weekly football need no equipment to play, just a ball and a bunch of friends. Yet, finding that space where they can safely play is near impossible. In public spaces, even for adults, there are few places left where one can just walk. India is blessed with good weather almost all year round, and we are unable to make the best of this on account of the fact that pavements and streets have left little place for people to walk.

Families (20)
Village life

In schools, sports is often seen as opposed to study. Many teachers consider play as a waste of time, especially in classes where examination results will determine future admissions, children are told to focus exclusively on studies for better results. We fail to understand that sport in fact improves the capacity to learn. Further, kids who like playing are sometimes seen as disruptive to group activity.

At the basketball court

In an earlier post, we shared the story of life-lessons from a Dad about his daughter at the basketball court. There are so many lessons that engagement with sports can teach us. In his Last Lecture, Randy Pausch leaves a series of lessons for the future generations, both his and a million others who have read his touching essay. Engagement in team sports is one of them, he recommends that every child should play with others and learn to manage time, share, to cooperate, to deal with losses and to enjoy a win with balance. Where have we gone wrong in our push for a better life? How did we lose focus on the importance of physical activity? A quick look around us can easily provide evidence for the lack of adequate activity, and that is unfortunately having serious health consequences. It is time for us to take this matter very seriously and ensure that children of all ages have some vigorous activity every day, to stay healthy, develop social skills, and stay actively engaged. We need a serious movement towards providing spaces for sport in our everyday lives.

Some links:

Top 16 Benefits of Playing Sports!_India

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s