India isn’t a country known for being proficient at sports, but there are many people in this country who want to change that notion.
One such man is Suheil Tandon. A former cricketer, Suheil set up Pro Sport Development (also known as ProSportDev) in 2013 with the aspiration of injecting a sporting culture into the Indian system.
I was fortunate enough to have a brief chat with him on his ambitious project.
Hi Suheil, how did you come up with the idea of starting Pro Sport Dev?
Basically, I had done my postgraduate degree in Sports Management from Loughborough University in the UK and had always wanted to develop sport at the grassroots level. I was previously a keen cricketer and noticed that even in the most popular sport in the country, we were lacking behind in several areas.
A lot of change is needed in Indian sport, we must look at a bottom-up approach rather than the top-down approach. In this country, there is very little support for kids who are talented, especially those that come from under-privileged and marginalised backgrounds. We need more than skill coaches to nurture that talent. A sportsperson’s diet and nutrition, as well as fitness and conditioning, is something that are things that are neglected here. We need people who can help with such things.
All this and more made me initiate the Khel Vikas project in Odisha.
You make an interesting point about nutrition. Do you think it’s one of the main reasons we don’t produce good sportspersons? Or even good fast bowlers in cricket?
Fitness and nutrition are two huge problems here. Look at Dale Steyn – have we produced a fast bowler who’s as good an athlete as him? We don’t focus enough on producing good athletes and that must be changed. It’s important to be an athlete first, and then work more closely on your respective game and skills.
Its hard because a lot of people in India struggle to have three meals a day. I work with weightlifters who require more food than the average sportsman. It is a challenge to keep improving their diet, and to get food that suits them well for competition, especially on a budget.
Where did you get your inspiration from to start such a project?
I always got a nagging feeling whenever I saw India performing at the Olympics and other sporting events, where we usually fail to come out with a lot of success. There is no sporting culture in place in this country. It’s a neglected aspect of life.
Even in cricket, resources do not match the talent that is out there. With so much interest in the game, we should have the best cricket team in the world by a long margin. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case.
There must be emphasis on sport at all levels. Developing a sporting culture at the grassroots level is very important. We must not marginalise sports to the elite. I’ve come across grounds and sports facilities in Delhi which are being wasted as the bureaucracy doesn’t allow young kids to play on them. This must change.
It’s not a question of lack of talent. We have a billion people in this country; it is just the matter of finding the right talent and training them. The change can’t come alone.
Can you tell us more about the KhelVikas Project which you are working on currently?
The project is based in Odisha and is run in partnership with Gram Vikas Schools, an NGO based in the region which has been working here for the past 35 years. We mostly work in the tribal rural areas and conduct sporting activities for the schools run by them. Within Gram Vikas, the schools are set up to educate tribal, under-privileged children of the region.
Which sports are you concentrating on currently?
Volleyball is a sport that is growing at a rapid pace at the schools. A lot of kids have shown an interest in the game.
Badminton, kho-kho and kabaddi are some of the other games we invest our time in at this moment. Football is also played at few schools. There are plans to start working on athletics and cricket in the near future.
You spoke about sports like kabaddi and cricket, so your aim is not just the Olympics?
Our aim is not just to develop athletes for the Olympics. At Pro Sport Dev, we have divided our activities into two: recreational and competitive.
Recreational activities involve kids who just want to play and enjoy the game. On the other hand, the competitive division deals with training athletes who are interested in participating in elite sporting events in the future.
Kho-kho, kabaddi and the likes might not be the most appealing games, but they do help an athlete improve on his/her fitness.
Sports like Kho-Kho and Kabbadi are popular in rural areas, and serve to not just get children involved in sport, but also develop as natural athletes.
We have spoken about Indians lacking in the physical aspect of sport. Do you think the mental aspect is also a concern? Do you work on that?
I think the mental aspect of the game has improved in India, but still needs more focus. When I first started, most of the kids had no confidence at all as they came from backward, highly remote parts areas of Odisha. They had no exposure at first and struggled to give their best. Luckily, there has been a change in recent times.
In the beginning, the performances of the kids in practice and competition were completely different. They were overwhelmed at competitive events and struggled to make a mark. We even had a volunteer who hosted a confidence building session for the kids.
How has the experience been thus far?
The response has been absolutely fabulous. I came back to the country two years ago and what I’ve experienced has truly been extraordinary. Over the last year, the response has been especially magnificent which shows that we are on the right path.
The kids are very good to work with. They are excited by the experience and constantly want to learn too, which is very encouraging for us.
Considering your project concentrates on young children, how do you go about with their education?
This project was initially a pilot. We are now working with Gram Vikas for the next three years and we visualise the four schools we work with as sports academies. We’d like to bring schools together under one community in the near future. There are also plans to start sports clubs within communities and villages in the regions we operate in.
We also aim to have a Centre of Excellence programme running by mid-2014. It will be a residential programme. We will start with weightlifting and then go on to volleyball and move on to other sports later.
The plan is to bring education and coaching under one banner and do it together as one is as important as the other.
Have you come across any problems with parents who are reluctant to allow their children to pursue sports at the cost of education?
Most of the children are from tribal areas, they are usually the first generation in their families to get an education even at the primary level. Unfortunately, a few have left the project to concentrate on studies.
Our focus is on making sure the kids under our supervision complete 10th standard as a bare minimum. Kids need to succeed at both – sports and education.
We recently had a father of a promising 13-year-old weightlifter, who was bemused seeing his son lift weights. He questioned the Gram Vikas in-charge on the motives of the programme. He couldn’t understand why his son had gone from lifting stones to lifting weights in just over four months!
Therefore, I think it is necessary to educate the parents as well as teachers about sports. Young talented sportspersons need to find the right balance between sports and education. The mentality of choosing one over the other has to change. It is possible to be well educated and be a top athlete.
Do you see yourself associating yourself with other similar projects such as HVI and Yuwa?
Definitely. Our focus is currently on sports development, while a few other projects look to bring about development through sports. Our main aim is to introduce and teach sports to children, but also produce athletes who can represent India at the highest level.
A similar organisation to us is Rural Development Trust (RDT), who are based in Andhra Pradesh. They have great facilities and programs for games like cricket and hockey. Their stadium often hosts Andhra Pradesh’s Ranji Trophy games as well.
Do you find it easy to get funds to run your project?
Our current project is funded is Gram Vikas. We are lucky to be contracted to them for the next three years. The plan is build on from there and look at funding from other sources, even international ones.
Are volunteers readily available?
We always find volunteers who are willing to help. A lot of people who come as volunteers and interns even take breaks from their day jobs for a period of 3-4 months to assist us.
Finally, what are your future plans? Do you intend to extend your future projects to other parts of the country?
Our focus currently is solely on Odisha but yes, we would like to explore other pockets of India. We are a young organisation and we are learning at every step we take.
We plan to have partnerships with foreign universities whose facilities, technical knowledge and know-how about sports are very in-depth. They can help us with a lot of aspects that are missing in India. We would also like to learn from the development of sport in other countries, say such as the United Kingdom, as their experience would go a long way in improvingsports in our country.
About Pro Sport Development
Pro Sport Development or ProSportDev is a sport development organisation that uses sport as a means for the holistic development of youth, especially within the underprivileged sections of society who lack the resources and opportunities to participate and compete in sport. ProSportDev not only promotes the sustainable participation of youth in sport, but also provides those with the ability and desire, a platform to excel and progress to an elite level.
About Khel Vikas
KhelVikas, which literally translates to “sport development”, seeks to provide the underprivileged and tribal youth in the state of Odisha access to participation in regular recreational sport.Moreover, KhelVikas seeks to support highly talented and motivated athletes in their quest to achieve sporting excellence. ProSportDev is implementing the KhelVikas project in partnership with globally renowned rural development organisation, Gram Vikas. Gram Vikas has over 35 years of experience in working with marginalised and underprivileged communities, and also runs residential schools for underprivileged tribal children in the Odisha. The project is currently working with youth in these Gram Vikas residential schools, as well as within several Gram Vikas communities.
Watch the Khel Vikas promo below: