Dr. Rajender Jaiswal observed a fresh ounce of energy in the tennis program he had been running in the early months of 2020 for the students of the Rajkiya Pratibha Vikas Vidyalaya, a government-aided school in Mayapuri, New Delhi. The veteran tennis coach from Delhi has trained several professional players including Yuki Bhambri and Divij Sharan during their foundation years; however, this grassroots tennis program, conducted as the first thing in the morning, during students’ ‘zero’ period, was a different ball-game altogether.
Lawn tennis is an expensive sport: courts are high-maintenance, equipment is relatively expensive and quality instructors are hard to come by. Incubated by the Amba Dalmia Foundation, ‘EduTennis’ is an initiative that intends to enable marginalized communities to break the cycle of poverty. They do so by designing tennis programmes specifically for government and low-income schools through which 21st-century life-skills are taught.
Mind over Medal: Using Sport for Development
The shift necessary for viewing tennis in terms of medal-winning performances to an instrument for individual development is a complex one. After three decades of coaching, Dr. Jaiswal would be the first to agree that producing a national champion is far simpler than instilling life-skills such as critical thinking and self-awareness in youth.
So, in a country like India, where socioeconomic factors underpin all matters, every aspect of a tennis academy — infrastructure, coaches, or students — needs the right alignment to achieve its intended outcomes. The power and value of grassroots sports interventions resonate well with The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDG) list, which delves into good health, quality education, and gender equality. Here’s a snapshot of all the things that go into the programme’s design, which indicates how sessions go beyond tennis and tie into larger goals.
Learning Outcomes Designed by Global Research
That sport can empower children and be an integral part of their education in their formative years is a relatively understudied notion when syllabi and schooling are concerned. “Something like this has never been attempted in India. By leveraging the power of an aspirational game, we truly believe we can improve lives,” says Jaideep Bhatia, the Co-Founder of EduTennis. “Especially for empowering the girl child, the programme will positively impact student participation and incentivize girls to continue attending school, which is a part of the SDG 5”, he adds.
When asked how such an interdisciplinary programme has been designed, Jaideep tells me, “We realized early on that a diverse team of experts is required to set up the EduTennis child and youth development program — one that addresses both technical tennis skills as well as the socio-emotional learning of children and young people. Dr. Jaiswal, who has years of experience working with tennis players from low-income families and Bidisha Fouzdar, a social science expert with experience in the non-profit sector, were the right choices to build this groundbreaking program from scratch.”
By incorporating the findings of a research study by the Department of Sport and Health at the University of Michigan titled “How Tennis Influences Youth Development”, the EduTennis programme reviewed how participation in tennis classes correlate with improving children’s psychological health. The representation below shows how the sport can be used effectively in doing so.
Developing such curricula with the help of expert players and coaches, students can be expected to learn applicable life-skills such as quick decision-making, working in a team, problem-solving, thinking creatively and laterally, communicating better, honing their interpersonal skills, gender sensitivity, assertiveness, and resilience. Such skills have been identified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as universal skills that are essential for personal development.
“What struck us was that delivering complex messages to children around life skills such as critical thinking and problem-solving could be made easier by gamifying the learning using tennis,” Bidisha Fouzdar tells me. “So, we started designing tennis-based games and activities, which, when played in a group under the watchful eye of a trained coach, would trigger such learning.”
Before the pandemic induced the closure of all sporting activities, the ‘impact’ of these programmes was to be measured in three different ways –
- Daily sessions were monitored by coaches for the quality of student engagement and participation rate
- Base-line data on ‘learning outcomes’ is compared with end-line data collected through the academic year
- Most importantly, participants will be tracked up to the age of 30, well after they have graduated from school. Longitudinal studies of each student will assess if and how they have applied the acquired life-skills in managing their careers, families and finances.
One visible benefit from the few months that the program had been running was that of participation. “In excellence or coaching, the full focus is on children who play well, which accounts for just the top 2-3 percent in a class of 40. But, in EduTennis sessions, everyone participates and learns, especially girls”, says Bidisha.
Life skills are a critical part of solving India’s employability woes. There is an impetus for more initiatives to focus on this issue, but the challenge lies in proving the correlation between life-skills training and enhanced economic opportunities. Over time, the program will foray deeper and contribute to creating resilience against complex issues like poverty and gender-based discrimination. With schools currently shut, the EduTennis team is developing plans for an online and offline hybrid curriculum that spaces out in-court sessions with online ones. They have signed off on a safety protocol for reopening courts and are hopeful of starting soon.
Dr. Rajender Jaiswal is fully aware that this EduTennis pilot program, which is limited to 340 school students, is not a large sample to make general claims. However, he is convinced that lawn tennis has shifted gears into the grassroots domain; and while the “sport for development” road is being paved in several different ways, carefully designed lawn tennis programmes can be one such instrument to be adopted by schools across India.
Featured image courtesy Rajkiya Pratibha Vikas Vidyalaya Mayapuri, New Delhi