Not sure if it was me coaching them football or them coaching me about life. Either ways, training U12 kids in KP Agrahara Government School — GKEMPS as part of Just for Kicks’ 2017–18 batch was one of the best learning experiences I’ve ever had.
How it all started
I’ve been part of a Football discussion forum on Facebook for the past 8 years, like most football followers who think they are smart enough to engage in a banter about rival football clubs or feel that their rationale about why a manager decided to go with a specific formation for a game needs to be heard :). It’s fun of course but the best thing that happened to me in that group is when a certain Venkatesh (Venky) joined the group and talked about his association with Just for Kicks (JFK), an organisation that’s trying to help school kids develop life skills with the help of football.
This was exciting to me since I’ve spent (and keep spending) a good amount of time playing and thinking football in my life. I’ve always wondered if there would ever come an opportunity to coach a team and this was it (that wasn’t just that, more about it soon). I reached out to Venky and we met to discuss the possibilities of me coaching a school team for their first championship trophy (a man’s ability to creatively fantasise is admirable).
“Is there a tournament at the end of it?”
I’m not sure if this episode deserves to be mentioned but meeting Venkatesh in person was an affirmation that there actually are people out there obsessed about leveraging sports to help inculcate life skills in students. I could relate to this opportunity since I’ve been a football player for most of my high school life and the way it transforms a person to become a team player in life scenarios is underrated .
The way football and other sports activities help in transforming a person to become a team player in life is underrated.
It’s not just football but any sport or any team based activity that’s goal-oriented can help inculcate life skills, especially when we are young. It could be working with a cast to stage a play, practising with your dance troupe for a finale performance or even collaborating with an organisation to paint afresh a dirt laden public wall. They all teach you how to achieve greatness with a team — which is an incredibly important learning I’ve got in life, partly imparted through football and other group activities.
Now back to my first meeting with Venky! We met for a coffee and 15 mins down, I asked that question that’s been bothering me about JFK coaching: “Is there a tournament at the end of it?” Venky got the cue (my hidden motivation of doing a victory lap with the trophy at the end of the season), smiled and said, “Well yes! We do have a tournament at the end of it, but I’m sure you will enjoy the coaching sessions the same.”
Orientation and Training: Getting a grip of reality
After mulling over the decision for a week, I decided to join JFK as a coach for the academic year 2017–18. I remember there were 2 people I consulted to make this decision: my wife, Sumeeti and my co-founder at my startup Typito, Srijith. This was important because I was about to dedicate 4–6 hours per week to teach kids football and there by life skills but it also means I would be losing that much time in a week to work on other priorities in life. Eventually I used the framework that I used to decide to quit my job and work on the startup — regret minimisation framework, made famous by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. I asked myself: “ Would I regret it later if I don’t join JFK as a coach now” and the answer was a resounding YES however impulsive the turn of events so far could be labelled. So I committed to a year with the organisation and looked forward to the 2 day orientation and training conducted for new coaches.
And the JFK crew got all the coaches for Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad in a training space in Bangalore. The 2 day boot-camp was built around 2 themes: on-ground training and classroom based orientations.
The training gave us a much-needed reality check on the basic challenges faced by students in some of the Government schools that JFK collaborates with. For example, some of them might not have clean toilets and other facilities that you take for granted. But none of this deterred the batch from committing to a year of coaching and we all looked forward to the start!
The memorable drill: Twice a week
I was assigned coach for U12 boys and girls in KP Agrahara Government School — GKEMPS. The school was thankfully less than a 10 mins walk from Sangolli Rayanna metro station. So I used to drive to Indiranagar metro station at 6:00 AM to catch the metro train at 6:35 AM and be there for the 7:00 AM training sessions twice a week. This was at times tiring, but you always look forward to the 90 mins training session! And while on the metro, I used to make final amendments to the training routines I prepared for the day. A sketch used to look like this:
The next 90 mins would be one of the best part: getting your kids to warm up, give them enough football based activities to get on the grove, teach two new skill based activities (or repeat old ones), learn together how to get better at the activities and how they will help in the game, game practice towards the end and finally closing the session with a reflection of the life skills that we learnt that day from the activities. It’s tiring at times, but exhilarating every single time! :)
Here’s a video summary of one of the sessions we did in the 2nd week:
After the 90 mins coaching session, I used to take the metro back to Indiranagar and check-in early at work. A amazing start to the day, I recollect :).
Learning Football and Life Skills
JFK’s curriculum was a well researched one. They were very particular about connecting the football lessons with life skills like courage, team spirit, discipline, honesty and many others. In fact each training session was designed to impart a new life skill to the kids or reinforce one which was already taught before.
This was challenging in a good way since you now need to brainstorm about how to teach life skills and evaluate the kids’ understanding of them while also making the whole experience fun, engaging and competitive with football. I used to spend a good amount of time brainstorming with Sujeeth who was coaching U10 kids at the same school (and later joined JFK to lead operations in Bangalore). Other than the brainstorming sessions, I also checked out YouTube videos by popular football academies to learn how they ensured to impart footballing proficiency in kids while keeping it fun. Connecting all of this with life skills was tough, but that was an exciting challenge for us coaches :).
From what I’ve learnt, JFK has now made a lot of headway in the past 2 years when it comes to developing a scientifically validated curriculum that connects both football and life skills well.
Highlights of the season!
Apart from the standard coaching sessions, Sujeeth and I used to collaborate with Guru and other teachers who were part of Teach For India foundation to try out some interesting fun initiatives for our kids. Here are some of them:
a. We had a “clean the ground” day where both U12 and U10 teams committed to doing just 1 thing: clean up the entire ground off paper and plastic litters. The initiative helped inculcate a sense of ownership in every kid. They acknowledged it’s their ground and it’s their responsibility to keep it clean.
b. We conducted a video training session for the kids where we showed them the highlights of an International football match. This gave them the understanding of how 11 players in a team take up responsibilities of defence / offence and why sticking to your position in a game matters.
Note: If you have ever seen kids play football, it’s very likely you’ve seen all of them just running after the ball. Spacial awareness and positioning in football is incredibly difficult to teach kids (and sometimes even adults :)).
c. We took our kids to watch an ISL match. This was another memorable experience for them. They got to see the scale at which the actual game happens and they were super thrilled!
d. Towards the end of our year, we conducted a mini-tournament (within the school) by combining girls and boys of both U10 and U12 categories. This was a instant hit since it provided an opportunity for all the team members to showcase their skills.
What happened to the tournament Venky was talking about?
So yes, we did have the JFK tournament where each of the schools in a given city competed with each other and the winners went on to represent Bangalore in a inter-city final showdown. Unfortunately our teams Agrahara Blitz (every team had a catchy name) couldn’t make it to the final showdown and my dream of doing the victory lap with the kids having won by deploying tactics inspired from Mourinho and Bielsa never realised :). But, by that time, I understood that it was never about the tournament. The enriching experience that our kids went through learning the beautiful game and also picking up important life skills was much more valuable than anything.
But that doesn’t mean the kids took the tournament lightly. We tried our best to win every match. But at the end, our aggregate points were not enough to see us through to the next round. They were sad when they lost games, but you know they have this super power to get over the failures and be cheerful in a few moments — I’m wondering when’s the last time you or I got to do that :).
Kids have this super power to get over the failures and be cheerful in a few moments.
For a batch of inexperienced players, most of them getting exposure to football for the first time compared to some schools who had kids who were running through the 2nd year of training with JFK, they fought well. From a state where they were struggling to pass and receive the ball, it was heartening to see many sequences of even upto 4 consecutive passes between players during the games. So yes, they will improve in football and life in the coming years — I’m certain of that.
What did I learn from the coaching experience?
A lot actually!
a. I became a much better communicator: Remember those moments at work when you get frustrated at the other person’s inability to comprehend your thoughts (or that’s what you think is happening)? When you teach kids, you face it every day, every moment. And that forces you to stop sulking and start working on communicating better.
b. I learnt the value of doing homework: Each one of the football sessions required me to take some time and think what football skill to teach and more importantly how it would help kids in their life. Not easy right. This was a great opportunity for me to get better doing my homework and not wing it every time.
c. Managing time: Joining JFK as a coach was a forcing function that I placed on myself, especially when I am running a startup. The main concern I had was if it would take away time that I could spend to talk to customers and build a better product at Typito. However, the outcome was that JFK sessions taught me that I could do a good job at both places by managing my time better and planning my days in prior. This is indeed a life skill you’ll learn best, according to me, if you put yourself in positions where you are forced to rise upto the occasion.
d. Teaching or coaching is a great way to get better at your subject, attributing to the effort you put into preparing content as well as explaining it to your students with their proficiency in the subject being your goal. This experience helped me get better at football as well.
e. Most importantly, learning from kids: Coaching these kids was a humbling experience for me. These were kids (most of them) who were coming from not so well to do background and the enthusiasm they showed to learn football, fighting all the odds, humbled me. When I say fighting odds, some of them might be coming to the ground without having a proper breakfast something most of us take for granted. And others might be wearing the same pair of shorts for the nth consecutive training session since they can’t afford to have a pair to rotate for games. And while all this, they remained immersed in the experience, happy as ever. It was a reality check for me to be grateful for the blessings that I’ve gotten in life :). And yes, kids epitomise the spirit of “it’s all in the game” for me. In the ground, they might get into a rift and an hour later you find them putting their hand on each other’s shoulder and taking a walk back to their classroom.
Keeping all this into account, I’m not sure if it was me coaching the kids football or them coaching me about life during those wonderful days…
To conclude, I think everyone of us should teach or coach at least once in life. It’s certainly an experience where you get value as much as you give, if not more — it’s counter intuitive and many don’t realise it unless they give it a try like me.
P.S. JFK is now hiring their new batch of coaches for Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad cities. If you are game, you can fill up this form before 7th June 2019. All the best!
This story was originally posted here.