Growing up, sports/ physical education was a bittersweet memory for me. Mostly bitter because I was never good at it, and that made me nervous whenever there was a PT lesson and sweet for the thrill I felt when I saw other people, people close to me play and play well. Often that thrill was accompanied by a feeling of longing of being as body confident, as energetic and as fluid as those playing the sport. If there is one regret I have about me growing up, it is this, that I never took to sports even while wanting to be good at it.
And that is precisely why I am very particular about exposing Ira, my four year old daughter, to physical activity as much as possible. While it is true that you can't and shouldn't push your child to do anything and that they develop likes and dislikes uniquely, I can't emphasize how physical activity isn't just a hobby or an 'extra-curricular' activity. It is a life skill and I have come to believe it is innate, albeit in varying degrees.
Relationship between play and a child
As children, the basic instinct is to be free of inhibition, to be not conscious of your bodies, of not probably having the restraining judgement of the possible and the impossible. As children grow, the environment and the conditioning decide how they react to physical activity, peer pressure, competitiveness and so on. As kids we are all great at physical activity, which is nothing but play.
So the first question I answered when I asked myself what qualities does playing a sport bring out in a person, the list is quite impressive. I however, only got to know about this much later in my life, through reading and watching the abundant data on the critical role that this plays in the development of a child. I was amazed by what I learnt.
More than the obvious physical aspect of it, it has such a strong mental and emotional aspect to it. In fact, I wonder why we call it physical education. It is all in the mind and it is fascinating. Playing a sport teaches you discipline, teaches you how to focus, improve your concentration by releasing hormones which help strengthen your thinking and reasoning abilities. Playing a sport requires you to choose reflexes which will win you the game, it requires you to strategise and yet be entirely in the present moment and give your all. Playing a sport teaches you to lose gracefully, to learn from your mistakes and to deal with the varied emotions you feel while winning, losing, training and learning to take responsibility. It teaches you to take calculated risks, and the courage to own them, whatever the outcome. But over and above all this is a very personal experience which compels me to make sure that Ira takes to some sport as she is growing.
My own experiences with sport
Growing up, I always had a good height and I have been lean, so in school our sports teacher would call me to train for volleyball or basketball. I even tried going a couple of times but never sustained because in my mind my body and my energy had certain limitations. The most important thing for any sport is very simple - balance. Your sense of body confidence comes from being able to retain your body balance in normal as well as challenging situations. I have always been the hand holder for the simplest of climbing ventures, I never learned how to ride a bicycle and I am clumsy at catching a ball at all times. Balance is the answer to all of it. Balance and a close second is core strength. I am trying to regain these two in whatever degree I can now, because it is never too late for anything, but if as a child I had been taught these things well, things might have been different.
Should I turn my daughter into a professional athlete?
While I still am not sure if I want Ira to pursue any sport professionally, I think that is better left to her ability and liking, but if she does show a tendency towards any particular sport, I wonder what that would mean for me as a parent. Will I be brave enough to support her in pursuing that dream? Yes, I said being brave because I do believe that in our current educational system, choosing to pursue sports is an alternative in many ways, it is exceptional in most settings. Does Ira have that grit to be an exception? Is grit innate or does it depend on the guide, the mentor, the coach? Should I be trying out different sports and coaches right now when she is very young, so she and we can find out if she has a gift for a particular sport?
Finding her first coach- how, where do I start?
Professional athletes sacrifice a lot of stuff that we take for granted, but most of the people I have seen thrive on the discipline that the sport provides them. So I don't personally worry if Ira can handle the discipline and the emotions that come with being a sportsperson. If she takes to it, she will do fine. The crucial point would then be her coach and I have heard the impact of the first ever coach that any athlete has had. I think there are different kinds of coaches just like there are different kinds of teachers in schools. And the teachers whom we remember the most are those who looked at us as a person, beyond just the marks and looked well enough to recognise what we are good at and what needs to be worked on. Same goes for a coach, someone who knows the importance of winning but teaches to learn from the losses as well. Someone who knows when to raise the bar on you, and when to leave you alone for a bit. Someone who knows when to let you go to the next level, accepting that they have taught you all they could. And the relationship that forms out of this is cherished for life.
I know of parents who stopped their child's sports as they enter the higher standards, because they want them to focus on studies, and I always feel bad about the way we have all been conditioned. I also know of parents who had to just let go of a sports career dream because the going does get tough, financially, mentally and socially as a parent too. And that brings me to the last part of this whole issue. The problem with sports is two fold and cyclical. Our education system in terms of curriculum and teaching methods places more importance on academic education. Physical education, the way it is taught, also needs a rehaul. Pertinent questions need to be asked for this - what is the impact of sports on child development? What are the basic skills that sports impart and what are the best techniques of learning them? Is it possible to quantify the impact of sports on a child's personal as well as academic development? It is only when the way of teaching and emphasis changes that things will change at the other end too.
Parents will also have to understand what role sports play in their child's development and unfortunate events like sacrificing sports for academics will finally stop. No one should have to choose between sports and academics, either as a parent or as a child.
About the author
Shweta Vernekar Navlakha is a Senior Programme Associate at Parisar, Pune. Being a mother has changed her perspective of looking at work and life and she enjoys documenting this change. When she isn't working on clean air or sustainable transport, she is reading, writing or making drawings of things she writes about!
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