Opinion

Sporting pathways

The sports programmes of the Tata Trusts are designed to promote excellence in different disciplines, and to equip children and young adults with life skills

Neelam Babardesai

Neelam Babardesai is head of sports at the Tata Trusts

It was a sunny day in Khunti in Jharkhand in December 2017 — just a couple of months after I had joined the Tata Trusts as head of sports — clear skies, fine weather and a ground teeming with girls and boys all set to take part in a ‘barefoot hockey festival’ being organised by Collectives for Integrated Livelihood Initiatives, an associate organisation of the Tata Trusts.

Just before the finals of the hockey festival unfolded, I had the opportunity to wish each member of the two teams. Eager faces ready to play, some barefoot, some not even in the same uniform, shy smiles, minimal eye contact and uncertain handshakes greeted me.

Two years later, same place and same event: the moment I enter the ground, sporting a Tata Trusts Tshirt, I am warmly welcomed by the girls and boys waiting for their match. Morning wishes and smiling faces, brighter smiles and firmer handshakes, much more eye contact and louder thank yous — the joy the children felt at being part of the celebratory occasion was palpable.

I was struck by the change, by the power of sports and the impact this had made on the lives of all these children and youth growing up playing hockey in village mud pitches. On view was vindication and validation of the greater value that sports can deliver when used as a means to provide opportunities to the underprivileged from India’s rural and tribal regions.

Due to its popularity and existing infrastructure (mud pitches to play), hockey has been the perfect vehicle for the Tata Trusts to extend and solidify their ‘sports for social development’ programmes. This translates into sports for holistic development and, for the really talented, the backing to cement a career in a chosen discipline.

Primarily focusing on children and young adults is also, for the Trusts, a way to help develop different sports and a sporting culture in India. Our sports initiatives are guided by an ecosystem-driven approach, built by fostering partnerships with local bodies and working to create an environment of opportunity and excellence.

The Tata Trusts strategy here is based on a ‘sports development pyramid’ that aims to lay a strong foundation of fun, physical education and sports through in-school and grassroots projects. From these fundamental building blocks to talented players and coaches, advanced training and competitive events, all leading to excellence programmes.

The foundational layer is critical. That’s how we can reach the maximum number of children, not just to enable them to have fun playing and adopt healthy lifestyles but also to instil in them a variety of life skills: discipline, teamwork, confidence and more.

Where possible, the Trusts blend their sports programmes with existing education initiatives. Typically, the sport chosen is traditional to the region, which helps infuse a strong connect with the local community. These are the principles that have defined the design and implementation of — besides hockey in Jharkhand and Odisha — football in the Northeast, badminton in Mizoram and ‘physical literacy’ and athletics in Uttarakhand.

The initiative in Jharkhand focuses on the Khunti and Simdega regions, both of which have a thriving hockey tradition that has produced many players for the country. Add to this basic infrastructure, including mud grounds prepared and managed by schools and communities, and we had the essentials to create a network of nearly 60 grassroots hockey centres in the state.

The best talents go to one of the two regional development centres, in Khunti or Simdega, for further coaching on astroturf pitches. The hockey-playing pool also provides coaches, many of whom have come through a ‘train the trainer’ component where coaches were picked after trials involving experts from Bovelander & Bovelander BV, set up/founded by Dutch hockey legend Floris Jan Bovelander, who are our technical partners.

The Trusts have also set up the Naval Tata Hockey Academy (NTHA) in Jamshedpur in partnership with Tata Steel. NTHA is at the apex of a framework that strives to offer high-quality hockey training alongside a regular education.

In 2019, we replicated the programme structure in the neighbouring state of Odisha. Applying the learnings from Jamshedpur programmes, we also partnered with the Odisha Govt. to reuse existing infrastructure and designed programmes to complement existing government institutions. The model in Odisha has already produced four national players, representing India in the women’s junior team at the 5 Nations Tournament in Ireland. Today both the hockey academies, together give high performance training to 40 girls and 90 boys, majority of them being from the respective states and are amongst the top 3 academies in India in the junior age group.

The Tata Trusts’ badminton programme in Mizoram is similar to what is happening through hockey in Jharkhand and Odisha, and quite different as well. The close-knit Mizo community have a love of sports, art and music. Badminton is a favoured sport and it suits the children here, inherently endowed with a good physique and hardworking by nature.

This is another three-tier programme based on collaboration, community ownership and sustainability. The infrastructure for a grassroots effort was in place and to this was added centre management committees (CMCs), comprising community members, the district badminton association and coaches, to manage operations at the chosen centres.

There is a flexible fee structure (the amount is decided by the respective CMCs based on paying capacity) and the money collected is employed for further developing players and sport in the region. The state administration has been extremely supportive and we have been fortunate enough to have the vision, the moral and technical support of Pullela Gopichand, one of India’s top badminton coaches.

Besides the grassroots network, we have two regional development centres where 30 of the most promising players are given special coaching, proper equipment and exposure to out-of-state tournaments. In just three years, we have placed — on full scholarships — 15 players in the best residential training academies in the country. We have, meanwhile, also created sports careers for coaches.

A football camp for children at the Assam Rifles ground in Aizawl (Mizoram), where a grassroots project has reached more than 3,000 kids
The Tata Trusts-supported ‘centre of excellence’ football team won the inaugural Mizoram U-15 league in 2018 and successfully defended the title in 2019

It’s a matter of pride for us that today in just three-and-a-half years of our intervention, even after our exit, 26 out of the 40 grassroot centres we set up, continue to operate independently, a true measure of their sustainability quotient. Designing this programme and working closely with our associate organisation, the North East Initiative Development Agency (NEIDA), at every step during its implementation has been a satisfying journey for me, something I will treasure for the rest of my life.

In Uttarakhand, the Trusts piloted three diverse projects in the past two years:

  • A physical literacy initiative for primary-grade schoolchildren, where teachers were trained to teach academic concepts through experiential physical activities. These activities require no equipment and can be conducted in classrooms, and not just to improve fitness and develop basic foundational sports skills but also to improve cognitive, affective and social skills. In collaboration with the Dehradun-based National Institute for the Visually Handicapped (NIVH), we crafted a project to support the holistic development of visually impaired children using sports which opened up exciting opportunities for every child at NIVH, helping them engage in football and cricket which has helped improve their confidence. The really talented ones were given additional support for training and competitive exposure. Due to the programme, two football players were selected to represent India in a friendly blind football international tournament organised in the UK.
  • In athletics, we designed a programme where the goal was to plug gaps in the existing setup and enable talent to blossom at the competitive level. Quality coaching, adequate nutrition and sports science were important ingredients here. As a result, two athletes from the initiative were selected for participation in the World Race Walking Championship and one has made it to the Indian national team. Within two years, many players have won at the national level and four of them have been selected for international participation. Thus, with very little support we have been able to achieve great success in a very short time, underlying how a correct gap analysis and flexible and right intervention can bring better results.

In football, the Trusts backed the establishment of a ‘centre of excellence’ in Aizawl in Mizoram, the objective being to groom fledgling talents in a sport very dear to Northeastern hearts.

Among the most successful sports initiatives of the Trusts, in partnership with the Mizoram Football Association and the state government, the centre trained 41 players from the Northeast over a period of four years through the programme, which kicked off in 2017, and placed 31 boys in the best football academies in India.

In sports science, a relatively new field in India, the Trusts allocated a sports scientist and data analyst to NTHA, Odisha, and helped put together a team, including a physiotherapist, psychologist, nutritionist and strength and conditioning expert to work as a support group for NTHA in Odisha and for those in our badminton and athletics initiatives. Lack of awareness about sports science has been a stumbling block but, through workshops and with a lot of patience, we have been able to make progress in making the coaches understand how sports science and technology can really help track the progress and well-being (mental and physical) of the athlete and really help prevent injuries and improve performance. Having a central team working across projects really helped in sharing knowledge and learnings across programmes and improve efficiency.

Last but far from least, the Trusts have been supporting the Mary Kom Boxing Academy in Imphal in Manipur since 2017. We do this by sponsoring promising young boxers from poor backgrounds who train at the Academy. And then there’s the ‘life through cricket’ programme — a collaborative effort involving the Trusts and the Cricket Live Foundation from New Zealand — which seeks to harness the power of sport to develop life skills and education for children from marginalised communities in Mumbai. Both these programmes, though having different objectives, have the same philosophy of providing opportunities to the underprivileged to improve their lives as athletes and individuals.

I have had the chance to get to know and work closely with some fascinating sportspersons over the course of my years with the Trusts. One quality common in all of them — other than their sporting prowess, dedication and resilience — is their humility. Experiencing this has strengthened my belief that sport goes a long way in developing great human beings.

Children at a badminton training centre in Aizawl