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How Army Sports Institute Pune is using talent transfer principles to find divers from gymnastics

In this article, Mr Amit Kamath, Assistant Editor (Sports) at the Indian Express taps into the knowledge and peer learning on offer at the High Performance Leadership Program to report on the fascinating story of Army Sports Institute, Pune’s talent transfer initiative. Mr. Kamath reports from the ground on the efforts of the innovative diving program that has found a winning formula to recruit and train high-potential young divers with an eye on India’s future at the Olympics


Mr Kamath is a participant of the 4th edition of the High Performance Leadership Development Program conducted by ELMS Sports Foundation

 

As a sports journalist who covers Olympic sports, there’s always something new to learn considering just how vast the canvas of Olympic sport is. But the High Performance Leadership Program helped widen my horizons to so many concepts in elite sport that usually we as journalists take for granted, like the emphasis successful sporting systems pay to long-term athlete development and talent identification.


While the program helped me zoom out and look at Olympic sport in the country from a wider lens (a perspective that usually gets lost in the daily grind of news reporting), listening to the experts has been an excellent learning curve that has made me a more informed sports journalist. In particular attending sessions from Dr Roger Jackson, Kelly Skinner and Dr Oleksandr Krasilshchikov will inform my Olympic sports reportage in years to come.


Not just the experts, listening to my cohorts share their experiences of working within the system has been an eye-opener as a reporter from the other side of the fence. One example of this: in a recent session, Lieutenant Colonel Abhayjit HS Sandhu happened to mention a case study of talent transfer that the Army Sports Institute in Pune has been using successfully. Lt Col Sandhu happened to mention that at ASI, they were looking at scouting divers as early as eight years of age by scouting them from gymnastics, which is also a sport where athletes start, and end, their careers early.


This piqued my interest as a journalist. Previously, I had never considered that there would be a diving program in India. The more I thought about the concept, the more it made perfect sense. It’s a sport that offers eight gold medals at the Olympics,. At the Asian Games in Hangzhou later this year, there will be 10 golds on offer. Besides, it’s not a sport that too many countries are focussing on.


This led me to reach out to Lt Col Sandhu and get the permissions required to travel to ASI Pune to meet the coaches and officials behind this program as we thought it would make for a good feature story for The Indian Express, the media organisation I work for.


At ASI Pune, we met the young members of the Army Boys Sports Company training in diving. Many of these youngsters are the country’s top divers in the rankings in their age groups. This includes seven senior divers and 25 Boys Sports Company children. The youngest of the lot is a batch of nine kids who are all aged around eight years and were primarily scouted from the states of Manipur, West Bengal and Maharashtra. Most of the kids training at ASI Pune come from a gymnastics background, which helped them transition smoothly into diving. And the most senior members of the group of divers were also scouted young and are now representing India. For example: London Singh, who will be India’s only diver competing at the upcoming World Aquatics Championships, trains at ASI Pune. Siddharth Pardeshi, who will be joining London as the only two Indian divers who will travel to Hangzhou for the Asian Games later this year, also trains at ASI Pune.

Interestingly, while London was an athlete that the ASI Pune scouting department calls “raw talent” (an athlete who turned up for trials at ASI without any sporting background), Siddharth was an athlete who used to be a gymnast before being scouted and convinced to take the leap into diving.


Lieutenant Colonel Nikhil Allen Singh, who runs the program at ASI, mentioned how over the past year ASI Pune recalibrated and sharpened its approach to finding divers. Like London (who had an elder brother who was a diver, which is how he had showed up for the open diving trials at ASI), there were a few divers who had come through the open trials and were inducted into the program as “raw talent”. But since last year, ASI Pune has focused on only finding the next crop of divers from gymnastics.

The talent scouts from ASI Pune travel almost ten months in a year to scout for talent to join the program across seven sports, including diving.

This time around, for diving in particular, after the scouting process was completed, 47 kids pan-India were selected. Out of this, 30 came to ASI for tests. From these, nine were finally picked to learn diving. This is an exercise that happens annually.


Explaining why ASI Pune was not scouting for divers from swimmers, Lt Col Nikhil Allen Singh said: “If we go to swimming tournaments (to scout for diving, kids will be around 12 years old. That’s already too late. If this was sport where an athlete can dive till 31 or 32, we would have gone and scouted 12-year-olds or older kids also. But because this is a young body’s game, we scout kids who are around eight years. So we go to gymnastics clubs.”

Currently, China dominates the sport. At Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020, the Asian country won seven out of eight gold medals on offer. They also won nine out of 12 events at the 2019 world championships.


The reason why China does well in diving is that it picks kids as young as five and six and then they’re trained under strict supervision for the elite level. In a democratic nation like India, it is not possible to blindly try and replicate the Chinese model.


But the ASI model is looking to bridge that gap. It scouts kids almost as early as China does and then puts them in a training set-up where discipline is the buzzword. The ASI Pune also has a dry land pit — which ASI officials say is the game changer since it allows divers to work on new techniques without needing to dive in the water (repeated contact with water takes a toll on divers’ bodies).


What also makes the ASI program commendable was that China is known to heartlessly cast away athletes that do not perform, these kids at ASI Pune are getting education side by side and they will have a job with the army when they come of age. These aspects — of education and job security — allows ASI to convince parents easily to send their young kids to a different state to live and train.


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