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Barkha Sonkar: No Fear

At first glance, Barkha Sonkar is the exact opposite of what you would expect a dominating basketball player to look like. She’s short (only five feet three inches), she’s quiet, and she’s permanently laced with a non-threatening smile that strikes no form of trepidation whatsoever in her opponents.That is, until, she step

At first glance, Barkha Sonkar is the exact opposite of what you would expect a dominating basketball player to look like. She’s short (only five feet three inches), she’s quiet, and she’s permanently laced with a non-threatening smile that strikes no form of trepidation whatsoever in her opponents.

That is, until, she steps out on the court.

On Tuesday, the first day of the Junior National Basketball Championship at the Thyagraj Stadium in New Delhi, I watched Barkha play for the first time in over a year. That is because the 15-year-old has spent the last year as one of the eight Indian hoopsters chosen for a scholarship at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida (USA), where she is being coached to reach her incredible potential as a young basketball star. Back in India for the Summer, Barkha has spent the last few weeks at camp with the Indian Youth team at the Indira Gandhi Stadium in Delhi. When the Junior championships tipped off, she was invited by the coach of her home state – Uttar Pradesh – to represent them in the U18 tournament.

With no practice or preparation with her squad, Barkha, the youngest one in the UP U18 Girls’ side, took the helm as the team’s point guard, emotional leader, primary scorer, shot-creator, defensive-hustler, and the motor that controlled the team’s offense. She finished with 24 points in a 56-48 win against Orissa.

So what keeps this motor running? Why was this unassuming little girl from Varanasi, the daughter of a humble car mechanic, chosen into an exclusive group of youngsters by the IMG Academy coaches for the scholarship? How has she become the point guard for IMG’s competitive Youth team? How did she dominate various Youth-level tournaments in America, and how does she manage to dominate a game as by far the youngest one on court back at the Junior Nationals in India?

I guess the most important question here is: At 15, and with all the odds stacked against her, how does Barkha Sonkar handle the pressure?

Barkha answers by recalling her early days as a quiet, young Indian girl, whose world was completely shaken and stirred when she was relocated from a small basti in Varanasi to the world’s finest multi-sport academy in Florida, where she had to improve her English, get good grades in school, find her way around away from home in a completely different and sometimes daunting new culture, and still fulfill her primary objective for being there: improve on the basketball court. It was a challenge at first, she said, and the confident girl who first left India a year ago came across a nervy few roadblocks in her early days at IMG.

“I used to make a lot of mistakes initially,” said Barkha, “The other Indian girls in the group (Saumya Babbar of Delhi, Kavita Akula and Pooja Ambistha of Chhattisgarh) and I were very scared.”

A sponge for constructive criticism, Barkha quickly gained confidence and began to mend her mental roadblocks. “The coaches there helped me improve my confidence,” she said, “And the Senior girls also told me to not be afraid and play my natural game. I stopped being afraid. I let the mistakes happen, and with time, the mistakes went away.”

She has improved her game dramatically in several different facets. She’s a better long-range shooter now, a more efficient passer of the ball, and a more vocal leader on the court. Add all that to her breathtakingly fast pace and ability to attack the basket, and it’s no surprise anymore that this short point guard can become a devastating weapon for any team. But it is her fearlessness that has given her the edge over so many others of her age group (and older), from inter-school tournaments in America to inter-state championships in India.

It’s a good sign of ‘handling pressure’ when someone answers that their toughest moment was also their finest: for Barkha, this moment came earlier this year with the IMG Academy Team during an U16 tournament featuring teams from several schools and other academies at New York. Barkha put up a gritty performance in this highly-competitive tournament that earned her the ‘best player’ status, even though IMG lost in the Final.

Having competed in this and in several other high-pressure situations in the US, Barkha admits that she has discovered how to play with a cool head even in the toughest of games. And with a confident, carefree, and dominant first performance at the National Championships in Delhi, Barkha showed that her young age and small size wasn’t going to stop her from leaving an indelible mark in the competition.

“Barkha is an outstanding part of this team,” said the Uttar Pradesh coach, Askan Rai, “She is a great ball-handler and leads our team. She has improved our play from all angles and raised the confidence of everyone in our team.”

It will be Barkha’s performance in the next few games where she will truly be tested. Uttar Pradesh are a relatively weaker side overall, placed in Level II in these championships. For lower-ranked sides, they have to beat more, tougher opponents to move on to the knockout phase. Orissa was an easier challenge, but UP are now set to hosts Delhi and the talented Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu sides in their next few games.

“We have a good team,” Barkha says, “It will be tough but I think we can do well. We can hope to reach at least as far as the Semi-Final stage of this championship – from there onwards, we shall see how it goes.”

After the Junior Nationals are over, Barkha will return to practice under Coach Shiba Maggon, who has been working with the Indian National Youth Probables, which will determine the team that will represent India at the 2nd FIBA Asia U16 Championship for Girls in Urumqui (China) from October 5-12, 2011. Unsurprisingly, the determined young Barkha is more than ready for an opportunity to represent India at this tournament.

From basketball tournaments in Florida and New York, and championships around India, and then competition with the best of her level in Asia, Barkha continues to boast the same confidence to help her succeed at each level. Don’t be fooled by the unassuming first impression: that same small, friendly face will one day be the future of the point guard position for India.

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