Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Ready, Steady, GO!

“Virtual sports do not develop any reliable worthwhile qualities that could assist in real life. Indulging in them could actually create a false sense of accomplishment.” says Dr. Kannan Pugazhendi, sports physician and consultant.

In some ways, it is an endless loop. There are no spaces in apartment complexes for our children to play physical games. So there is no fun for the children. When our children seek out fun in virtual forms, we parents want them to do something that will keep them fit and provide them with social skills. When all that they really want to do, is have fun in some form.

“Staying healthy and fit and getting social skills – those are adult parameters. The child is only thinking of what else he can do to have fun. This is where virtual sports and passive entertainment take over.”says Saumil Majmudar, CEO of Edusports, “With the TV and PC, all the attributes of a playing experience are there – like winning and losing - but without the benefits. If we want to ensure that the health, fitness and social benefits are there, we need to help children enjoy the playing experience on the ground.”

At some level, we can rest assured that although the emphasis varies from school to school, children ARE being provided some physical exercise during the Physical Education (PE) class at no or minimal additional cost.

While some schools we spoke to have P E classes every day for some classes, others have it twice a week with specialised coaching for specific sports after school hours. The PE class itself could either be a free-play session where the children could pretty much play any game they wanted, to playing an active sport like, say, Basketball. But is it enough?

Chandra Nagarajan, the Senior Vice Principal of PSBB T.Nagar branch says, “Besides the Physical Education Class and the EduSports sessions, we have made swimming mandatory for our students from Class 3 upwards. Swimming is a survival skill – not only is it life-saving for the children themselves, but they will also be able to help others.”

Most schools also heartily encourage their students who are achievers in sports. For instance, for the swimming siblings, A.V. Jaywant and Jayaveena, their school, Chettinad Vidyashram has relaxed the mandatory attendance requirement. The children study on their own and their teachers enable them in any way possible. Kamala Ravindran, the Headmistress says, “When some of our students have travelled abroad for sports coaching during the school term, we have also explored methods like online teaching.” In fact, most schools in Chennai boast of alumni who have gone on to become National level sportspersons.

What about the child who is not an achiever just yet, who is still trying out different sports and has not yet reached a high level of proficiency? In some cases, if the school is focussed mainly on the achieving children or on acedemic prowess only, the sedentary ones and the mildly sport-interested ones may lose out on some basic age-appropriate physical skills.

Dr. Pugzhendi says, “Unfortunately the educational institutions, especially the teaching faculty included, do not feel the importance of sport participation or benefits of fitness. They make parents believe that it would be only a distraction for educational ambitions. This is totally untrue.There is an urgent need to alter the focus of the physical education programmes in schools which are only competition oriented. The inclusion of noncompetitive elements as fitness is an absolute must.” ”

EduSports, a Bangalore-based company addresses exactly this need. The organisation's objective is to equip children with the right skills at the right age, so that they get a headstart to many forms of active sports that they could play for life. They believe that the way forward is not by opening up play grounds,or conducting an afterschool program, but by making activity and sport part of a child's education. A sort of 'outsourced P E class'.

Majmudar says, “We partner with like-minded schools - who believe that sports is as important a part of holistic education as maths or sciences - to help develop a generation of healthy and fit kids through the magic of sports and physical activity.We run the entire P E period in the timetable with our own curriculum, lesson plans, props, assessments, parent interactions etc. How would you expect your child to be taught maths? That's exactly what we do with physical education.”

When we spoke to children, parents and educators about the importance of active competitive sports over unstructured play in a child's development, it was reiterated to us, that sports achievers function differently from other children.

Some parents also said, “Children of sportspeople become achievers. They have a definite edge over other parents.”

The assumption is that the achiever child is a blessed child, endowed with superior genes and a gift for the sport pursued. Either it is the parents' contacts among sports people or the parents know how to spot their child's talent.

However, parents of achievers say that the parents' commitment is all that is required. Parents who are physically active themselves know the value of it and ensure that the home environment supports an interest in sports. When a child pursues a sport, the entire family's lifestyle changes.There are some daunting challenges that come up long before the family has to contend with the threat of career-ending injuries and favouritism among selectors.

For the moment, let's talk about the achievers.

- Rohini Rau was a little over a year old, when she accompanied her mother sailing. When she was eight years old, she attended a summer camp. That same year, she participated in her first Nationals. Today, Rohini Rau is the National Sailing Champion (Laser Radial - Women -for the last 7 consecutive years and 420 Class -Women- for 3 years). She is training hard to qualify to compete in the Olympics even as she is pursuing her studies in Medicine. Among other things, she also dances the salsa and has learnt to play the piano and violin.

Rohini's mother, Aysha says, “I come from a background where we were encouraged to do everything.Parenting is a job you have not been trained for, so if you have been exposed to a lot of activities, you will think that's the normal thing to do. But if you have been brought up believing that you must only study, that is what you think should be done with your child.” Rohini's family pulled out all the stops to support her in a sport where the financial demands become greater as the sportsperson begins to compete. This is not only in the cost of training but also equipment, the boat, berthing fees for the boat, ongoing maintenance and consumables. And the prizes are non-monetary.

- When Aarathy Kasturi Raj was seven years old, she visited Tower Park in Anna Nagar where she saw a roller skating class in session. She attended a camp there and went on to win, in the years since, 81 gold medals in roller skating and ice skating including 3 in international championships. She is in her 12th standard and intends taking up Medicine. She also plays basketball.

Aarathy's father, Kasturi Raj says, “I was an athlete but was deprived of sports because of my parents. They always wanted me to study.” As a result, he believes that his children should not miss out on the encouragement he never had. Aarathy's father accompanies her wherever she competes and since there are no facilities to learn competitive ice-skating in India, Kasturi Raj ensures that Aarathy visits Korea regularly for training.

- At the 34th National Games in Ranchi this February, A.V. Jayaveena created a record by becoming the youngest swimmer to win a medal in the history of the National Games in India. She went on to win 6 medals in the 6 events she participated in. She is in the 8th standard.

Jayaveena's parents, 'Thalaivasal' Vijay and Rajeshwari chose to move houses to be closer to the pool that their children train in. Rajeshwari puts it succintly, “As individuals, we parents have our own wants - like going for movies, to the beach etc. But if we invest that time in our children, they will have a good future. Later, when they have created their own future, we can prioritise ourselves. The idea is that we should not have regrets later that we could have done more for our children.”

- Shalini Hudson, whose three daughters, Sharon, Beryl and Rachel, are into Track & Field training, disagrees, “Both my husband and I are not sportspeople. But we are still able to encourage our daughters.” She accompanies her three daughters twice a day on most days for their athletic training. She's lucky they all train at the same venue! Shalini has also given up watching television so she can assist the children with their studies in the evening, after their training.

Although we may admire these children for their accomplishments, we do tend focus on their genes, the 'lucky' breaks these children have and the money that their parents are willing to pay for the training and equipment that comes with playing a competitive sport.

But we tend to sideline the role of family environment, parental attitude and the child's own diligence and hard work.

Without putting these children on a pedestal and without undermining our own efforts as parents in providing the best for our children, surely we could wonder about what the families of achievers are doing differently? Maybe we could consider some traits and attitudes that seem to set these children and families apart. How else could one explain the fact that each of the achievers listed above has a sibling who is also an achiever in sports?

  1. Achievers start learning their first sport early.
  2. They are exposed to many sports so that they can find their passion.
  3. Although they may begin to learn a sport at the behest of the parents, they choose the sport they want to pursue. The first medal or win is usually a major motivator.
  4. They become self-starters in pursuing the sport they love. They align their lives to the sport.
  5. They learn to manage their time between academics, sports and hobbies.
  6. They believe that it is perfectly natural to be a national level sports person AND get above 80% in exams AND learn to dance/sing/paint. In fact, they believe that physical exercise, especially sport, improves academic performance by increasing concentration and these children are known to train right through their Board Exams.
  7. Their parents spend a lot of time and resources on nurturing their talent, not to mention sacrifices that they are happy to make. At least one parent has a 'never-say-die' attitude to somehow finding and funding the best resources for the children.

The rewards of taking up a sport are aplenty too. One of the main benefits of a child training in a sport is changes in lifestyle. Girish says, “When they take up sports, your children are getting into the habit of getting up early. To get up early in the morning, they have to sleep early at night. Secondly, time management – when they wake up in the morning, they have very little time to come to the pool, so they have to quickly get ready. Automatically, they keep their equipment organised. These habit fall into place without any effort. ”

Could this, perhaps, serve as a blueprint for other families? And can families course-correct if they are not sports or physical activity oriented? How does one even begin to influence a sedentary child or a child who has not played active sports?

Girish says, “Most parents give the child choices. Any child, given a chance, will select the easier choice. Nobody likes controlled training. In the beginning it is essential for parents to teach them that sports is important. Parents have to push the child and also initially, assist the child in balancing time between academics and sports.”

Krithika Mouli, a parent, says, “The only way to find out what sport the child is good in, is to enrol the child in a few classes and see if she takes to it. Usually, the first recognition among peers is a defining moment as to whether the child will pursue it or not.”

Other than the regular coaching and summer camps that clubs and associations provide, there is a plethora of options available to pursue most sports in Chennai. (See box)

Here's a thought. Enough of us parents are worried about cholesterol levels and the battle of the bulge. What if we moved from being active supporters to active partners in learning a sport along with our child?


Body Mass Index (BMI) is one of the key indicators of overall fitness of an individual. While a high BMI is is related directly to obesity-related malaise, low BMI ratios have direct correlation to immunity-related malaise. The recommended BMI for children between the ages of 5 and 14 is in the range of 19-25.

In a study conducted by EduSports in 2010 among 4098 children surveyed across India, nearly 23% of the children, aged between 5 and 14 years possessed a high Body Mass Index ratio (above 25) and 19% of children showed low BMI ratios (below 19). Together, a whopping 42% of the children surveyed did not possess ideal BMI ratios.

However, a nine month, in-curriculum, controlled fitness-led physical education program in their respective schools, done on a selective group of 667 children, revealed improvement across the five fitness indicators that they were assessed upon. Endurance of children went up by over 17%; abdominal strength increased by 37.5%; percentage of children with the right BMI increased from 54.96% to 67.72 % and flexibility increased by almost 4%.

EduSports undertook this survey to identify the overall fitness levels of children in Indian schools as that would be a key indicator to the child’s performance across several factors including mental agility, immunity to disease and sports excellence. The study was built into the curriculum of 21 schools across 15 cities.
- Source: EduSports


Why do girls not take to sports as readily as boys do? Some reasons we hear are
- I will get tanned and don't want to look dark
- I will get injured and will have bruises all over
- I am a girl and cannot compete with the strength of boys

How much of this is coming from the child's own assumptions and how much is coming from our social conditioning?

Dr. Pugazhendi says, “Parents (or society) feel that a girl who is a player, dancer, or even NCC participant will not be an ideal housewife. Or the girl's marriage alliance would be rejected just on the basis of an imagined poor character. These are the main reasons for condemning girls' participation in anything outside education.”

One common but rarely-expressed reason is that the girl is simply not comfortable sharing playing space with boys. For instance, in swimming classes. To address this, some schools have started segregated games where, for instance, boys and girls swim at separate times; girls can play basketball by themselves while boys go in for what is considered a more aggressive sport, football. To some, this may seem like a rather archaic solution to the problem, but if it helps get more girls out on the playground, why not?
Although many schools go on record to say that the girls in their school are as passionate about sports as the boys are, they are really referring to the sports achievers among girls and not necessarily to girls in general.

Krithika Mouli, a parent, suggests, “I believe schools should do more to get girls to play sports. I think they should take them to real sport events with women participants and get them to interact with successful sports women.”

Dr. Kannan Pugazhendi says, “For girls, physical fitness ensures the reduction in the pain during the monthly cycles, and allows them to set even world records during these phases. Regular exercise would ensure optimal weight and body composition, bone mass and mineral density specifically. The bone mass in girls must be increased from the day of menarche until menopause through weight training or optimal axial loading of the long bones and the spine. Girls require the fitness to cope with demands made not only at school but thereafter in real life.”

But when it comes to specialised sports training, parents are not comfortable in sending the girl to class by herself in the early morning or late evenings from a personal safety perspective. Some parents don't send a girl child for specialised sports training fearing that she will 'befriend' boys there.

“Girls deserve as much of the joy of sport as boys.” says Dr. Pugazhendi “It is the failure of the parents and the society if they do not give them the freedom to participate in competitive sport and feel proud about their achievements.”

Are there alternatives? Dr. Pugazhendi suggests, “If the family feels that the girl need not be given the privilege of sport participation, then the support of classical dance would be ideal. The classical dances of India would be able to provide the same benefits as any sport participation.”


It's a fallacy that India never had a sporting culture. India is home to some fascinating sports forms like Silambam, Kalaripayattu, Kho Kho, Kabaddi, Mallakhamb, Mushti and a sport that many Indians may not know exists today indigenously - archery from Meghalaya! Many of these forms are being taught right here in Chennai.

Take Kalaripayattu, for instance.

“Kalaripayattu is considered the Mother of Martial Arts of the world,” says Dr. Pugazhendi, “It has been taken to other countries accepted, adopted and adapted to their country. It is India that has to recognize the values of our own system as we have realized the importance of Yoga recently.”

Shaji K. John conducts classes in Kalaripayattu at Besant Nagar for students from 7 years of age. “Kalaripayattu is a martial art taught primarily for self-defence. Fitness and adaptation to creative forms is a benefit along that journey. Among children, seven is the right age to initiate training because at that age, the bones are more supple and the mind is free from unnecessary things.”

Roshini Gopinathan has struck a happy balance of being fit herself and ensuring that her children learn a sport. Along with her children, Rohit (14) and Rishi (8), she has been learning Kalaripayattu for a little over a year and a half. Two years ago, when the family still lived in New York and were planning to move to Chennai, they saw a documentary on this martial art form and decided to research it. They found details of this class, and once they moved, joined it. Roshini says, “I have been fascinated by Kalaripayattu since I was a kid, but never had the opportunity to learn it until now. It is quite an intensive form with 3-4 classes a week, for over an hour. I would say my endurance and flexibility have improved. Although Rohit already has a lot of endurance, his flexibity and posture have improved significantly. It's still too early to say for Rishi.”
Perhaps we could interest more parents to follow Roshini's example and enrol their children in other such indigenous sports forms. We just might see a resurgence of some of the sports that are dying for lack of students.


While there are private clubs for specialised sports and many academies for cricket coaching across the city, there is not much information on places where some of the other sports are taught. Here are some resources that cover most sports :

  • Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu (SDAT)'s website has a list of Sports Associations and Stadium Officers. If you call them, they will also provide you details of various classes held across stadia. Visit http://www.sdat.in/stad_off.html or call 044 28364322/28361011. For instance, there are classes in forms like Track & Field, Kabaddi, Table Tennis and Boxing at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium and hockey at the Mayor Ramanathan Stadium.
  • YMCA College of Physical Education – The College has a Basketball Academy and a Cricket Academy. Their Triangle Tennis Trust handles the Tennis coaching. Classes for outsiders are only at after-college hours, summer holidays and on wekends.
  • Martial Arts – While there are many martial arts schools that have opened up, do ensure the trainer is well-qualified and the class comes highly recommended by other students.
  • Swimming – Every other club and hotel in Chennai has a swimming pool. Some schools with pools also conduct swimming camps. The other options are swimming clubs like Turtles and the Velachery Aquatic Complex.


There are times when, specially during exams, we consider sports as a distraction, Dr. Kannan Pugazhendi has some very valid reasosn why a child needs to be play an active game or sport.

He says, “Participation in any form of exercise could relieve stress especially in the child's preparation for any form of examination. The student who exercises will be more relaxed, confident, has a deep sleep even if it is short, to achieve all this. Instead of being a distraction it would set the internal environment for peak performance in any examination.”

At a physical level, sports skills help
  • stimulate unlimited fusion of movement patterns that challenge the nervous system.
  • The unique combinations demand the young brain to meet with appropriate muscular control that connects various parts of the brain which cannot be mimicked.
  • When these skills are repeated again and again the choice of the appropriate muscles in a distinctive sequence makes the movement smooth, coordinated, dexterous, efficient and effective.

At a mental level, playing a sport helps a child to
  • cope with disappointments
  • handle criticism in spite of victory or loss in a game
  • learn to do a particular skill the right way at the right time or understand the failure to do so, with minimal consequences
  • cooperate and coordinate with people irrespective of their likes and dislikes
  • to play fair
  • to be injured and suffer pain. Then to conquer the fear and return to sport again
  • appreciate the friend and foe in success and failure - attitudes that cannot be taught by anything other than sport.

In the long term,
  • physical fitness that is established through constant participation in sports from school to college vanquishes the need to visit a hospital prematurely in life except for an injury.
  • the police force of the body, the white blood cells, are well equipped to fight disease and recover at the earliest.
  • injured tissue heals faster too.
  • the pursuit of excellence in sport demands commitment and disciplines the mind and body, and develops an absolute aversion to alcohol, smoking and drugs.
Every sport has its unique challenge that demands and as a result, hones a specific set of skills.
  • Racquet Sports - hand-eye coordination
  • Football &Rugby - foot eye coordination
  • Sprint Events/100 to 400 meter races - Motor qualities such as speed
  • Gymnastics - balance, poise, coordination, flexibility
  • Rock climbing, kayaking and rowing - muscular strength and power

An edited version of this article appeared in the July 2011 Issue of Parent Circle

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