Indian women athletes have time and again performed on a par, if not better, than their male counterparts in the international sporting arena. And yet it is common for sportswomen to be subjected to gross prejudices and gender bias.

Endeavouring to shatter such stereotypes and create a level playing field for sportswomen, a Delhi-based startup, called The Art of Sport, has dedicated itself to the overall development of girls between the ages of 5-12 through sports and other group activities.

Started in 2016, the initiative was conceived by a husband-wife duo, Richard Paiva and Nupur Dhingra Paiva, who are committed not just to making girls excel in sports but also intend to instill within them a spirit of self-belief that is essential for excelling in sports.

In conversation with Guardian 20, co-founder Richard Paiva spoke about the organisation’s mission, and shed light on its day-to-day activities.

Q. How and when did you come up with the idea of The Art of Sport?

A. In 2015, when my daughter was in a skating class, I noticed how the instructor was communicating with the children in a militant way. Most children were intimidated. This made me think of the many children who have potential to be the next big sportsperson, but have stayed quiet and not pursued sports because they think every coach behaves this way. Can you imagine how much potential India has lost this way?

Q. Why was the project designed exclusively for developing female sporting talent?

A. We believe the opportunities given to girls for playing an outdoor group sport are much less as compared to boys. The concept of both genders playing together at this early age usually results in most girls being sidelined, given the more boisterous manner in which boys play. Therefore, it was important to organise a girls-only atmosphere so that they not only develop the basic skills of a given sport, but also persist with it, begin to understand team dynamics and find their voice.

Q. What are your organisation’s future goals?

 Our vision isn’t to make these girls world class sportswomen. (Yes, if we can provide them with the confidence at this stage for such an aspiration, that’s a bonus.) But to be able to make them confident women in society.

Q. The project is open to girls from ages 5-12. Why the age limit?

A. The main reason is to engage with young girls before they are lead in to a gender construct. Our focus is on getting them to find their voice, express their feelings—this helps them in knowing themselves better. Moreover, we do not encourage competitiveness. One of our core mottos, which we unflinchingly adhere to, is “collaboration, not competition”. Also, “play for joy”. Why? At this stage, children (not only girls) need to understand the basics of any sport, understand their bodies and minds in a non-competitive atmosphere. Most importantly, they need to learn to not give up on physical activity.

Q. How many girls as of now are part of The Art of Sport?

A. Parents have observed our highly methodical approach to building their daughters’ overall capacities and have noticed that playing a contact sport requires a certain mental and physical structure. Once they were convinced, they not only encouraged their daughters, they also spread the word in their social circles. As a result, we have gone from two girls in July 2016 to 31 girls at present and still growing.

Q. To what extent are you and Nupur involved with the day-to-day work and activities here?

A. Thankfully, Nupur and I get along very well. Our partnership has two very integral parts binding us for the success of The Art of Sport—that is, communication and no ego. We are very clear about strategies, operations and various aspects that govern a startup. With Nupur’s background, she mainly looks in to the emotional and mental progress of each girl. I look in to the physical development. But what we do as a team, has so much that blends in to the other that we are constantly discussing on subjects that may not necessarily be one’s core. For example, team-building through art and music; this needs inputs from, both, a coach and a psychologist.

Q. Did your 14 years of experience in the hospitality industry, and Nupur’s experience as a psychologist, come in handy when you began this project?

A. Yes, they did. We have brought a high level of professionalism to this unstructured industry. For instance, the ease of use for making payments by setting up online methods for parents to pay fees. We are also building a CRM system akin to what any respected hotel chain would build. Our planning of a playing session is clearly defined and archived. Each girl’s profile is monitored (and sometimes video monitored) and archived as well. Nupur’s background in psycho-therapeutic clinical work influences how she has designed the weekly supervision for the psychologists, case study, record-keeping and the activities that touch an emotional core of parent-child /peer-group relationships.

Q. Any initial challenges that came in the way?

A. At first it was breaking mental barriers. This was at the institution level. Convincing various administration offices was a huge challenge. Once past that, the parents were reticent in sending their daughters for something like this. But after seven months of the girls on the programme, we have several brand ambassadors in parents. It is still a challenge convincing parents, but at least we are making some progress.

Q. Does it at times get difficult to manage young girls?

A. It is always challenging managing a group of girls! The aim is to understand their individuality and yet get them to perform as a team. This is constantly a challenging process as we are dealing with varying degrees of idiosyncrasies

Q. How are parents involved with the programme?

A. Parents play a massive role in our programme. In order to understand the girls better, we engage with their parents. We want to know what does she struggle with, or what do they struggle with together, food habits, sleep patterns, etc. All this helps us build a sharper profile on each girl.

Q. What all sports the girls play during the session? How are the sessions planned?

A. Football and basketball drills. We organise drills as everyone gets to play simultaneously and together, each girl’s body gets used to moving in various directions. The component of team drills is very high in what we do.

The overarching structure of “overall development” is broken down in to key fundamental pillars i.e. core conditioning, stamina, reaction drills, agility, team-building, listening and communication drills, collaboration etc. We start with basics on each of these in various combinations to achieve our goals. Each session is lead by a certified All India Football Federation (AIFF) D license coach for grass-root training and a psychologist. While the coach leads the drills, the psychologist observes each girl’s performance and interaction with others and accordingly engages with that girl to better understand her.

Q. What all activities in addition to sports are encouraged by The Art of Sport?

A. We focus on the overall development of a girl. So what goes on off the field is as important as what is on the field. Hence, what makes this an overall development programme is our attention to many aspects of the girls growing into healthy women : nutrition, water, avoiding excess sugar, understanding the meaning of organic, organising visits to farms so girls can see how our food grows. An awareness of the importance of being environmentally aware— linking our eating and wastage with the health of the planet. We organise each of these activities

Q. Are there specific sessions planned that look into the nutritional demands of  young girls who want to take up sports?

A. Each activity that focuses on nutrition is blended into the programme. So some days we might have a playing session that concludes with the team sitting and discussing the importance of food.

Q. What steps according to you should the government take to ensure equal opportunities to women in sports?

A. Have more open playing spaces, preserve parks, provide for local funding and make local authorities accountable for resources. When we have ample and safe playing spaces, we will see how children (girls and boys) start coming out more often to play and just use their limbs. Grassroot funding is as important as funding a national squad. Such infrastructure support would help young children to build on their capacities.

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