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  • Manish Wahi

Do You Want to be a Football Player? Are You Crazy?

This blog by Manish Wahi, an alumnus of the High Performance Leadership Program (3rd edition), tells us what a domestic ecosystem to identify and nurture young Indian football talent for the world stage would look like. He addresses the concerns of parents whose children are scouted as football talent, and outlines the details of a sports ecosystem that accommodates and addresses those needs for the child’s professional and personal future outside of the sport.

“India is a sleeping giant of world football.”

This line has been quoted many times over the years by various people. It is true. I believe so. The trouble is, the giant has been asleep for too long now. Why would a child grow up in India want to play football as a profession? Or, to rephrase the question, what kind of environment is needed to enable or encourage a child to grow up and play professional football? Let’s see this from the viewpoint of the child (and the parents). The question must be studied in the Indian socio-economic context, without aping the models from any other country. The models adopted by other countries are undoubtedly very effective, as is proved by the prominence of those countries on the world football stage, but it would be a fallacy to assume that blind imitation would work for India. I am in no doubt about the abundance of football talent in this country. This article will look at creating an ecosystem to identify and nurture this talent.

Let’s consider a child aged about 5 years, very happy to kick a ball around and he can do tricks with the ball that other kids of his age cannot. The parents too are happy about it: he’s an active child and clearly talented. He’s growing up, and so is his school syllabus (if he is going to a school) or domestic responsibility (if he isn’t going to school). From this point onwards, the story of football for many children starts disintegrating. The good thing is that thanks to the government’s efforts, increasingly more children are gaining access to basic school education. At school and at home, our talented child continues to ‘be allowed to’ play football as he grows up. At the age of about 11 or 12 years, his parents become more concerned about further studies and vocation. Here, I will discard what usually happens, and instead introduce a scenario of ‘what is possible’. The challenges have been discussed quite often, let’s see if there are possibilities.

The talent of such children is obvious to anybody with an eye for it. Let’s say he is spotted by a scout for a club that has its own training framework. It could be a local club or located elsewhere in the country (in which case the child will have to be provided with accommodation). Nurtured, this child may shine as a footballer. So this club now proceeds to train the child (alongside many others recruited like him) based on a training system, while also addressing the genuine concerns of his parents for his future. The methodology of such training will encompass many facets as the child grows up. It will have to include incentives as well as ‘fallback career options’ for the child. Most importantly, the training itself should never become a financial burden on the child. It will be an ecosystem where a player can grow without becoming imprisoned by the game. This does not have to necessarily be a residential academy, as we shall see. I shall now list the essentials of such an ecosystem.

Core Methodology The system set in place will comprise the following steps: Scout–Identify– Train--Absorb–Reward–Progress. Without getting into much detail at this point, I will briefly discuss each step. The club will aim to identify talent at a young age, preferably at 7-8 years, from the pool of children training with them and through scouts. Every child choosing to train with the club cannot be expected to be the same, and so the truly promising ones will be absorbed into the club teams of various ages. These will get trained more specifically and also be rewarded through a stipend (or salary), school credits (please read on for more) and a financial planning program. These players will progress to senior teams, along with other players following a similar trajectory.

Training Methods Football training at the club will comprise three aspects: skill, physical and psychological. The intent is to develop skilled players adept at the Indian way of playing football, who are physically robust to match international levels, and mentally tough to withstand pressures at all levels of the game. Of course, this training will be graduated and progressive, taking into account individual strengths and weaknesses. It is essential to recognize each player as an individual first, and then direct the training methods to each one’s psychology.

Healthcare The players are recruited at a tender age. Obviously, their parents will be concerned about their physical well-being. The club will offer a package for this. The training areas will be safe and kept free from any scope of potential injury. In-house, immediate medical attention will be available for commonplace and match-related injuries. Severe injuries are going to be referred to affiliated healthcare centres. This means the club will be affiliated with a network of such centres. Of course, the child’s family might prefer to seek treatment through different doctors, and they would retain the right to do so.

Nutrition Good training needs to be supplemented with suitable nutrition to bring maximum benefit to a player. Here the word ‘suitable’ is significant. It has been proved through numerous studies that modifying one’s diet according to one’s body type can bring about a huge transformation in health. To fulfil this requirement, the club will make dietary plans for its players based on their body type and age. This would be in accordance with traditional Indian systems of health, and aim at strengthening the body from ‘inside-out’. This dietary plan will be comprehensive and offered in two forms: meals at the club or as a menu that can be followed by the player at home without it posing a financial burden. The club will remain sensitive to the fact that some players may come from financially constrained backgrounds. The diet plan will be monitored and modifications will be made to it as dictated by the player’s progress.

Studies and Vocational Training This poses the biggest challenge to the gifted child and his parents. If studies suffer, the child’s future would be adversely affected. But does it have to be so? Football training and academic effort can be undertaken together. The key issue here is that if a child spends too much time in sports, then academic scores are affected. To address this issue, the club would contact and affiliate with the schools where these selected children are enrolled. The school would then extend credits towards academic scores in return for certification of selection in the club team, with the credits increasing as the child gets selected to higher-age teams. Details on this model exist, though a complete layout of that would be outside the scope of this article. In this way, the child can continue their studies while following his love for the game; both can go hand-in-hand.

Financial Planning Eventually, career choices for anybody come down to how much one can earn, while performing in a sport one is good at and trained to do. We all have heard numerous cases of famous players living a life of immense financial disadvantage once their playing days were over. Nobody should ever have to face that. So how about building financial security as an integral part of training and membership of a club? Certainly, our club would charge a fee for training. But the moment a child gets selected for the club team (at any age), a stipend will be given along with a financial planning package designed for him. This will continue as the player progresses to progressively senior teams. The intention will be to maximise the returns on investment for as long as the player is a member of the club team, such that in the long term the player becomes financially independent. It will be thus an incentive as well as a ‘membership benefit’. Thus, the player would be willing to constantly strive towards better standards because it can bring visible financial prosperity. And if the players improve their standards, the club's performance improves. A win-win situation. In case the player chooses to join another club, his portfolio goes along with him but the club would no longer be responsible for his financial planning. Here I must emphasize that to undertake such an effort, it takes a very large-sale investment and also a viable revenue model for the club.

This ecosystem will require a dedicated and passionate team of coaches, nutritionists, physiotherapists, counsellors and administrators. More than anything, it will require the WILL to do it. Building a team that works on clear intent and objectives would then deliver the results as visualized. This is a long process, but I am confident that it can work.

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