Contrary to what most people believe, sports and games have far more benefits than just getting healthier or winning Olympic medals. For me, the other benefits of sports—the career and, indeed, life skills they instil and enhance—outweigh the gains of fitness and prizes any day.
Two weeks ago, I was invited to visit Koppal in rural Karnataka (9 hours north of Bangalore by train) by Sunil Savara, founder of Foundation for Life, an NGO that focuses on education of the underprivileged. The foundation is running a pilot project called Rural Edge. The goal: to enable six million unschooled rural youth (with less than four years of education) to provide back-office support to various companies out of their villages by 2020 (these workers would earn around Rs7,000 per month). I was privileged to witness their first steps to success. Here were people who couldn’t even read bus numbers five months ago, but now speak very decent English (class VIII level at good private schools, say), speed-type 40-50 words per minute, with three more months of training to go.
I was there to demonstrate to these youths the “other” benefits of sports and exercise for their holistic development. Rural India already has an amazing level of fitness compared with urban India, so it would have been useless to go on about health benefits. But what else could a game get them? Could it improve their employability too?
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I randomly chose six people out of the 42 gathered. They were then told that they would be captains of teams. They were asked to pick six people each for a 7x2km relay and a hop relay. I told them clearly that picking their friends wouldn’t help the team’s cause. They were a bit reluctant at first, but after 30 seconds they got down to brass tacks and the teams were lined up in 2 minutes. The leaders decided the sequence of activities. They motivated their teams to go out and do their best—even though some were a bit concerned about running that distance. And through it all, natural leadership abilities—for which they had had hardly any opportunity or B-school training—surfaced (keep in mind, I chose six people randomly).
Career sports: Rural Edge trainees at play.
Team spirit and cooperation
Amazingly, the common goal resulted in instant bonding across members. Any team is of course as good as its weakest link, and good sport is not about crushing them, as I explained. Obviously, everyone in the team would not be as good at each activity. So communication skills had to improve to surmount difficulties. And as it happened, some participants just did not know how to do the hop relay. The captains noticed and practised with the whole team, showing patience, never losing their temper. Those who were good taught those with poorer technique—and within a few minutes, some were covering double the distance they could before.
Healthy competition and camaraderie
I had told the teams that winning wasn’t supposed to happen by hook or by crook. They were able to grasp that instantly, better than many a corporate intern. Indeed, it was an amazing, eye-opening experience to see people helping even competing teams. On a few occasions when some participants struggled to finish (running barefoot on a rocky track at close to 40 degrees Celsius), people from another team went over and ran alongside or even cheered them to the finish line. And this when they knew there was no prize money—they were just happy to give their best to the game, and bond in the process.
Even though this was impromptu, within a minute the new teams realized they had to be organized to get a good result. Indians are infamous for not knowing how to queue up, but here I had uneducated rural Indians queuing up voluntarily in 15 seconds flat so that I could easily tell apart the seven teams. No noise, no confusion, no rowdiness (indeed, with little idea of what lay before them, they had been asked to meet me at 7am; they were all there by 6.55, and it hadn’t taken 14 years of schooling to train them to punctuality either, just the promise of an opportunity—possibly a motivational lesson too).
If all this did not constitute performance under pressure, I don’t know what does. And it was all encouraged and revealed inadvertently, in the spirit of the game.
Perhaps our sports training and physical education classes have more lessons to offer. That games are not just for physical fitness and exercise, or even fun. That they can teach life skills, even perhaps show us that we already have them.
The author is a practitioner of sports and exercise medicine and musculoskeletal medicine, and CEO of Back 2 Fitness.Write to Rajat at firstname.lastname@example.org