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12/05/15 Issues

How can sports transform young lives?

In 2002, Dream a Dream partnered with Ashish Ballal (Sportsman, Arjuna Awardee) to run a hockey programme for children from vulnerable backgrounds in Bangalore.  On the first day of the programme, we had a bunch of 20 excited children from a residential school. We gave them hockey sticks and balls and as they were admiring their new play equipment, we saw a boy hit another boy with the stick and hurt him bad. We were confused and shocked. In due course, we found out that the 11-year old boy, let’s call him Raj, came from a violent family background and his only response to conflict was to hurt the other person. 

We had an amazingly sensitive coach who recognized this behavior and instead of punishing Raj was keen to transform him. He setup a schedule every session, where Raj was given 25-30 balls and asked to hit them forcefully on the condition that they go into the goal post. In six months, we saw a visible change in Raj. All his aggression and anger had been channelized into the sport and what’s more Raj’s self-confidence had gone up and he had become the best hockey player in the team. 

On another occasion, Raj had disappeared from the residential home and stopped coming to hockey sessions for over 2-months. A volunteer, who had been actively following the children in the programme, was worried and wanted to find out what happened. On a particular Sunday, we got hold of a couple of children who knew the neighborhood where Raj lived and went in search of Raj. It took us over 3 hours to finally locate his house and when Raj saw us, the smile and relief on his face was palpable. We found out that he, his mother and brother had been beaten up by his father and he was forced to go to work. Raj was in a very difficult situation. He wanted to go back to school and hockey but could not leave his mother and brother behind. Yet, Raj felt tremendously grateful that 2 people came searching for him and were concerned for him. For the first time, he felt that he meant something for someone. He made a decision to go back to the residential school and promised to complete his education at all costs.

Today, Raj has completed his graduation, has been working with Dream a Dream over the last 3 years as a Life Skills Facilitator and recently was promoted to a Programme Facilitator. 

Sometime back, he came over to have a chat with me. Raj said he had realized something and wanted to share it with me. He said, “Uncle, when I was a young boy, I would wait for the day when I would grow up to be a big man and stand up to my dad, hit him back if he tried to hurt my mom or brother. Today, I am big and strong but I don’t feel anger towards my dad. I have realized that I my dad probably didn’t get the support he needed when he was a child and that’s why he has become angry and bitter with life. I feel grateful that I had the support of volunteers and coaches who stood by me. I feel sorry for my dad and understand today why he became who he became.”

This, for me, sums up the power of sport in a child’s life and there are many stories like Raj’s that demonstrate this power in many different ways.

Another young man said that it was the weekly sports sessions that kept him out of trouble in his neighborhood and if not for sport, he would have probably joined a street gang. Today, this young man runs his own business. 

A bunch of 5 boys and a girl, who were learning rugby, got together and started a rugby league next to an open sewer in their neighborhood to meaningfully and positively engage other young children in their communities. For those young children, these young boys and girls became positive role models. The Maruthi Rugby League today is a self-sustaining, voluntary initiative that has over 25 young people from the local community choosing positive engagement over street fights. 

A young girl in the Hockey Programme wanted to teach hockey to another bunch of kids from an orphanage. On being asked, she said, “For the first time in my life, I know something that someone else does not know so I feel I should share it.”

A young girl, after 3 years of learning hockey, came up to the coach, hesitating and fearful and said, “I really don’t enjoy hockey but can I still keep coming to the sessions because it helps me make friends.” The courage to speak the truth and the courage to know what one likes and dislikes and the ability to make that choice is what the sport gave this young girl. She was one of the most consistent participants in the programme and it was not because she loved the sport.

A 13-year old young man, passionate about football, got a chance to join the Dream Football Programme and transformed his life forever. His passion for football was channelized by his coach who pushed him hard to get better every day. Despite resistance from his father, he pursued his passion and got selected to represent India at the Homeless World Cup in Paris in 2011. The experience transformed him and he decided to become a Life Skills Facilitator at Dream a Dream nurturing the passion of other children in his community. Last year, he got selected to do a one-year community college programme in the US and he is currently in the US studying at a college and also representing the college team in football. He says, “I have two passions in life. To play football for my country and to take my story of transformation to other children in my community and inspire them to have a dream.”

Sport is a medium, albeit a transformative medium, that allows for something bigger to happen in children’s lives. These stories and behaviors are indicators of healthy, positive choices that young people learn to make when they are trusted; when safe spaces of learning and engagement are created for them; and when a caring, emphatic adult stands rock solid with them as they learn to overcome life’s challenges. Exposure to a sport creates the right environment for reflection, nurturing and fostering positive skills through role-modeling. 

By Vishal Talreja

This article was originally published in Ashoka India Blogs and can be viewed here:  http://india.ashoka.org/how-can-sports-transform-young-lives