Monday, July 1, 2013

Manav Sadhna football program

Editor's Note: I wrote this a few months ago for Manav Sadhna's 2013 annual report. A shorter version may make it in there, but wanted to share the full version, which captures the program and children's stories nicely.


The MS football program began as a humble, informal practice organized by some football-loving volunteers with a small handful of children. Two years later, it has become a full-fledged program within Manav Sadhna. Many of the children have been a regular part of the program for over a year, with a deep commitment and a genuine passion for the game.

There are currently roughly 31 children in the program. They range in age from 8-16 years. The main activity of the program is a weekly practice on Sunday morning at Manav Sadhna. This practice has been happening regularly for over a year. The children warm up, stretch, work ball drills, play small sided games, and usually end with a match splitting all the children into two teams. Practice ends with a brief coaching session and nutritious snack.

As the children have improved their skills, they have also participated in city tournaments and other more competitive programs.

Going forward, we aim to provide the football program with a dedicated ground with enough space to practice all aspects of the game without disturbance. The children will also be given more chances to play in larger and more competitive venues. Finally, we will look to increase the number of children in the program, including younger children as well as girls.

Every Sunday morning, 15-35 children come for the main football practice. Another 4 children attend Sunday practice irregularly and/or have just started coming regularly.
The children come from various neighborhoods of Ahmedabad: Powerhouse, Jamalpur, Wadaj (Ramapir no Tekro), Ashramshalla (Manav Sadhna). Several of the children come from Jamalpur, a slum area on the opposite side of the city. To make the 7am practice, the children wake up at 5am, board a bus by 6am, and arrive at the Gandhi Ashram by 7am. It is the children’s commitment and passion for the game that drives them to wake up early on a Sunday morning to come and play.

Practice typically lasts for 3 hours. After a warm-up run and stretching, the children work on ball skills and passing through drills organized by the coaches. The emphasis is on ball control and teamwork. The children are then led into small-sided games and keep-away. Key aspects of the game, such as shooting and set pieces, are also practiced. Finally, all of the children are split up and play one large match.

Once a month, practice is shortened and a filmed professional match is screened for the children inside Manav Sadhna. Having little exposure to top-class football, these film sessions are critical to helping build the children’s model of how the game can and should be played.
At the end, the practice is recapped and the children get an opportunity to share about what they liked and didn’t about the practice, and how to improve. The coaches offer some guidance, and then a snack consisting of fruits and biscuits is served.

Outside of Sunday practice, the children informally (but regularly) practice on their own. Scrounging for balls around their neighborhoods (all of the program’s equipment is kept in a locker at MS), they find and patch old discarded balls and play. Committed to improving their skills, they organize themselves into drills they learn on Sundays, in addition to fun matches.

The Manav Sadhna football program is coordinated by Rahul and Neil. Rahul is a staff member at MS and also runs arts programs for the children. Since a young age, Rahul has had a deep passion for sports, especially football. However, as a child he was never given the opportunity to play. Now, as a coach, he plays through the children. His dream is to have a player compete at the Olympic level. Rahul is the backbone of the football program. He rides his bicycle from several kilometers outside Ahmedabad every day to work at MS. Whether it’s a weekend or holiday, you can always count on Rahulbhai to be there to help and put in effort with the utmost sincerity and care. He shows tough love with the football team, being strict when they make mistakes but being generous with praise when they show well. Neil is a volunteer from the US who grew up around the game of soccer. He is thrilled to have the game in his life through this program, and is committed to seeing it reach and benefit any child at MS who is passionate about the sport.

In March 2012, the MS football program connected with Kahaani Football Academy, the premier children’s football club in Ahmedabad. Kahaani’s director, Manisha Shah, has been a huge supporter of the MS program. She offered Kahaani’s large grass sports ground to MS for Sunday practice. This is a hugely valuable opportunity for the children, who normally play on confined dirt patches in the Gandhi Ashram. However, travelling to the grounds has been a challenge, with so many children to manage safely. When available, the players and coaches take MS’ Khushi bus to Kahaani for practices.

Tournaments and Exhibitions
Kahaani has also graciously included MS players in football tournaments that they regularly organized. In January, 6 players from MS (U-13) participated in the tournament. They played two matches on mixed teams with Kahaani players, playing against others from all over Ahmedabad. It was a great opportunity for the children to taste competition with players beyond their own teammates.

In March, Manav Sadhna organized an exhibition match at Abhay Ghat. All of the children participated, split up into two teams. The field was chalked out and goals with posts and crossbars were erected. Teachers, family members, and fellow MS students filled the sidelines and cheered both teams on with flags prepared by the coaches. The match was a rousing success, with high-quality play from all the players.

All of the children in the program have soccer equipment (1 pair shoes, 1 pair shin guards, 1 pair long socks, 1-2 shorts, 1-2 jerseys) that they keep and maintain themselves.

A significant amount of the equipment have come via donation from people around the world.
The initial donation came from Football Action in the UK, which sent balls, jerseys, cones and other equipment that was critical for the program to launch.

However, shoes were still in short supply. Later, an individual walking through the Ashram spotted the children playing barefoot, was moved, and spontaneously wrote a cheque to cover shoes for the first batch of players in the program:

Later, Andria Caruso, a volunteer from Michigan, was inspired to organize a clothing drive for the children. She ended up collecting over four large boxes of donated shorts, jerseys, shoes, socks, sweats, and jackets:

As the children play on harsh conditions, shoes and balls get worn down relatively quickly. Manav Sadhna has stepped in to keep the supply of these two critical equipments in supply for the children. In addition, Manav Sadhna has procured a first aid kit and has covered the costs of the snacks since the program began.

Program Successes
The most compelling indicator that the children find value in the program is their sincere dedication to practice and playing the game. Despite the difficulties of travel, playing on dirt fields with dust flying, being constrained by the lack of area, the children play on with no complaints. They attend practices very regularly, only missing them when they must study for important exams.

One shining example is Dasarath, a player from Jamalpur. Dasarath comes from a very challenged family background. To earn for himself, he works as a sweeper and rag picker. This work requires him to wake up early in the morning daily to do sweeping before he gets ready for school.

Dasarath is crazy for football. On Sundays, he still has to do his work. So he wakes up at 2am and works until 4am. He comes back home, gets ready, and goes around the neighborhood waking up and gathering the other children. He then leads them on a run for several kilometers to the main bus stand at Paldi, where they catch a bus the rest of the way to make practice on time.

The children have improved their skills as football players significantly since they began. Starting from scratch, the children could not dribble or pass, let alone understand spacing and movement. Since then, the children play with skill, combining discipline and creativity. They diligently work in drills as well as play matches. They listen to the coaches and take their advice seriously. They have truly become students of the game. During film sessions, the children used to grow impatient, only wanting the see the goals. Now, they patiently absorb full 90-minute matches, appreciating the subtleties of build-up, defensive positioning, spacing and movement, and set pieces. They model their style of play after FC Barcelona, using quick and precise passing to break down their opponent.

Robin, one of the program’s more talented players, was invited by Kahaani to join their academy. Our vision is to send one child from the MS football program to the Indian National Football Team.

Team sports certainly imparts many valuable life skills. These children have markedly improved in their teamwork, cooperation, patience, and communication during practices. They have become proud and self-confident as athletes and young people

Looking Ahead
The future is bright for the Manav Sadhna football program. With the successful development of our first group of children into formidable team players, MS will look to expand and improve the program in a few key areas:
  • Expose the children to more competitive playing opportunities. Enrolling them in camps, tournaments, and academies that let them grow their passion and skills for the game. This will require financial and human resources for coordinating participation and entrance fees.
  • Construct a dedicated grass field for the children to train and play matches. With limited space in the Ashramshalla, the children cannot fully develop their skills. They need a large dedicated practice field. Ideally it should be grass, since the dirt fields lead to the children breathing in large amounts of dust as they play. Manav Sadhna has identified a field and cleared some debris, but more funds are required to finish the project
  • Improve the nutrition of the children. They are served a snack after Sunday practice, but they require regular nutritious meals to keep their strength and grow at healthy level.
  • In the harsh conditions that they play in, the children require regularly replaced equipment including balls, shoes, socks, jerseys and shorts.

A blog provides regular updates about the football program, with videos and pictures:

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