This article was originally published on TeacherPlus Magazine, May-June 2019 Edition

“Every human being has a fundamental right of access to physical education and sport, which are essential for the full development of his personality. The freedom to develop physical, intellectual and moral powers through physical education and sport must be guaranteed both within the educational system and in other aspects of social life.” 

International Charter of Physical Education and Sports, UNESCO 1978 

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1978 adopted the International Charter of Physical Education, Physical Activity and Sport. For the first time, the practice of “physical education and sports” was established as a fundamental human right, and emphasized its importance in education, individual and community needs. As a human right, access to sports and physical education is crucial for the development of the youth and thereby of the nation. By improving mental and physical health, reducing drug abuse, promoting athletic and academic achievement, sports can contribute significantly to the building of human capital and enhance productivity. 

Historically, sports and physical activity have been considered integral parts of living a wholesome life and believed to strengthen communities. Many ancient activities such as Yoga, Tai Chi and even the Olympic games are examples of this. The vigour of community support and the passionate following of sports such as cricket, hockey, and football in India position the country as a sport-loving nation. However this love and passion has failed to translate into active participation. While there have been several studies, surveys and reports advocating the inclusion of sporting and physical activity for children, there is comparatively less emphasis, in terms of policy, private programmes and even general awareness, on adopting and sustaining a sporting lifestyle for a healthy life. Furthermore, our society’s transformation into a tech-driven culture has resulted in unprecedented levels of inactivity. Simply put, as a species, we’re sitting around more than ever before. We are generally intrinsically motivated to eat. We are not equally motivated to do physical activity. According to a participation report released by the Physical Activity Council, Generation Z (ages 6-18) is the least casually active generation in history.

Sport is a powerful tool for involving all children – including the most marginalized and vulnerable – in group activities from an early age. A high-quality curriculum enables all students to enjoy and succeed in numerous kinds of physical activity. They develop a wide range of social and technical skills and the ability to use strategies, tactics and compositional ideas to perform successfully. When they are playing, they think about what they are doing; they analyze the situation and make informed decisions. They also reflect on their own and teammates’ performances and find ways to improve them. As a result, they develop the confidence to take part in different physical activities and learn about the value of healthy, active lifestyles.

Building integrated sports ecosystems is the need of the hour. With almost 300 million children in India, it is more than fair to say that we have enough children where almost all sports can have their own base. Unless India makes a well-structured effort to broad-base sports and increase participation at the grassroots level, we will continue to lag, not just in social inclusion and youth development parameters but also deliver limited success at international events. 

Through Bridges of Sports, one such ecosystem for athletics in northern Karnataka is slowly being built. This organization specialises in customized  sports education programmes in underserved communities and village schools. It works towards filling the gaps in school-based physical education by delivering carefully researched and designed curriculum, well-trained coaches and trainers, equipment, technology, and assessments. At the grassroot level the emphasis needs to strictly be on the holistic development of the students. We found that more than 70 per cent of coaches did not know about the basics of strength and conditioning and almost 90 per cent of children between the age group of 8-18 did not know about protein. Almost all coaches had no access or understanding about various basic equipment. We also realized the importance of mental health, sports psychology and performance coaching when we conducted one on one sessions with students to understand their perspective on competitive and non-competitive sports.Hence it was apparent that the change had to begin from this point. We wanted to create an extensive ecosystem which would include components of physical education as well as professional sports training. 

We partnered with the Centre of Sports Science, Medicine and Research at Manipal to understand the nuances of the sporting world. The aerobic and anaerobic capabilities, biomechanics, balance, speed and also injury risks of a few students were assessed. This helped us and the coaches implement better training schedules which were backed by data and scientific evidence.We also created a zero compromise policy on use of types of equipment, as these not only improve training but also create interest among children to join our training. Creating a curriculum is easy but getting the coaches to understand and create their own structure training methods is difficult. We built a basic structure for the curriculum and allowed the coaches to improvise around this structure (with suggestive guidance from us, through workshops) – which enabled them to learn and develop over the years. The core focus of the curriculum is to build and improve the physical ability of children which we monitor through nine quarterly tests, which gives us a holistic view of their development.Tackling sensitive topics like puberty, menstruation which are often still hushed up or tabooed in most societies is another component which was required to create a positive environment. Since physicality is one of the most critical aspects in sports, we conducted workshops which deliver information on hygiene, preventive measures, and spread awareness regarding the same. This not only brings about a sense of belonging but also encourages greater participation. 

Since sports is still not seen as a lucrative career option for youth in India, another obstacle in creating the desired environment is the mindset of parents and guardians. Change in the mindset of the society as a whole will play a significant role to ensure success in this field. Campaigns focused on education and sports integration can cut across the diversity of our nation making people more cognizant of the benefits of physical education. It not nly builds physical stamina but also instills qualities such as obedience, determination, will power, and discipline. We need to establish a positive sports environment that ensures athletes, coaches, families and other support groups interact cohesively to promote lifetime success for the participants on and off the field. 

Sport has many definitions attributed to it. It can mean participating in physical games as with most sports, participating in mental games such as chess, or even participating in light-hearted leisure activities. The common divisor across all these definitions remains that one needs to participate, and this participation is one that does not trickle down from the higher echelons of society or institutions but rather one that stems from grassroots developments. There is a significant need for participation across channels, starting from the government, municipalities, community, private institutions, schools, and non-profits, to maximize the opportunities that sports, physical education, and sports development offer to the country.