Rahul Brahmbhatt: Galvanize a Sports Culture
Mid-Year Public Progress Report
After studying chemical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, Rahul Brahmbhatt spent the past eight years working in engineering, sales, and marketing. In 2008, Rahul returned to school at George Mason University to study Sports Management. He is currently a Fellow with Ahmedabad Ultimate, a grassroots sports initiative using Frisbee as a conduit for broader social change. Rahul’s main objective is to cultivate a culture that embraces organized sports and realizes the long-term value it provides to Indian youth and their communities.
Ahmedabad Ultimate is an Indicorps initiative. Its roots trace back many years. Since 2004, Indicorps staff and interns have played Ultimate Frisbee as a way to stay fit, unwind, and continue developing their leadership and teamwork skills. What began as a number of volunteers playing pick-up games slowly began to evolve into something much larger. The sport, and its “Spirit of the Game” creed that stresses the highest levels of sportsmanship, teamwork, and integrity, began to attract people of all ages and backgrounds. Through Indicorps, the game caught the eyes of many groups in Ahmedabad, including a group of dedicated Manav Sadhna volunteers and youngsters from the Abhay Ghat area of town. This excitement and participation led to five-year period in which Indicorps brought summer interns to run coaching camps, introduce the game to new areas of the city, host a series of monthly youth tournaments as well as host adult national tournaments. Indicorps recognized the immense potential of the sport of Ultimate Frisbee and the idea of an organized youth team sports league in Ahmedabad. In early 2009, Ahmedabad Ultimate was born and Indicorps dedicated more resources to the project than ever before. With a staff of two focusing the majority of their time on Ahmedabad Ultimate, three Indicorps Fellows also joined the team.
Ahmedabad Ultimate now looks to serve the entire Ahmedabad community by utilizing team sports as a tool to empower youth and bridge communal divides. AU sees holistic development potential of team sports as an idea that is yet to be recognized by Indian society as a whole. Team sports for youth are able to address areas of personal development that aren’t exercised in daily life in India, such as, but not limited to: leadership skills, ability to work well in a team, patience, selflessness, conflict resolution, anger management, and an ability to learn from loss. As Ahmedabad Ultimate looks to bring the entire city together through sports, the goal is to have a presence in every segment of society, from the most affluent to the most economically disadvantaged. More than half of the teams come from underserved communities from around the city. For all of the youth associated in Ahmedabad Ultimate, whether they are coaches or players, education seems to be the most pressing issue in their lives.
My project’s aim is to “Galvanize a Sports Culture” and at times this has been difficult to translate into action. I first looked at it as a marketing project where my role was to get people excited about sports. This understanding of my project changed when I made two observations. The first observation was that people actually are excited about sports in this country and follow it with a fever unseen in the United States. Shops, cities, and sometimes the entire country shut down for one to five day at a time to watch and attend cricket matches. The second observation was through meetings when I realized that the actual Gujarati word for sports was “ramat-gamat” which literally means “play-schmay.” My project’s goal was not only to galvanize a sports culture, but to redefine it to make room for another set of sports other than cricket. Surely, there must be some grey area between cricket and just playing around. One of the challenges of my project is to have society see the value in investing time, energy, and opportunity cost in sports, when it may not reap any visible benefits for years after the child has grown up. The project, for me, began as a series of these types of abstract, academic thoughts and has gone through a series of evolutions over the past six months. For two to three months, I focused more on macro level, policy implementation through the government, colleges, and universities. The potential was there to reach up to 900 colleges in the state of Gujarat. After witnessing the slow pace of change at the top, I decided to focus more on the grassroots level and deal directly with the communities in which Ahmedabad Ultimate already had a presence. For me, the growth and recruitment phase of my project has ended, and I feel the project now calls for a holistic strengthening of our current areas of participation.
As with any sports league, there are many stakeholders from students to parents, teachers to schools, all the way to community businesses. All of these groups must take pride in what their children are involved in for sports to touch an entire community’s lives. The project also involved utilizing sports to engage groups in sports that would not normally participate with each other in activities. Whether that involves crossing lines based on gender, caste, or religion, Ahmedabad Ultimate is dedicated to bridging these communal divides to show entire communities that once we play together, we can live together. When at a tournament of 100 kids I see 10 girls playing alongside their boy teammates and competitors, I feel like I’m part of something that is making a difference. It is very rewarding to note that I am not the only one who notices the fun that the kids have. At tournaments, we are fortunate to have the support of many of the parents of our players. They thank us for providing the platform for their children to interact with other like them across the city. Our series of monthly youth tournaments is beginning to sow the seeds of friendships between teams from opposite ends of the city and children of opposite ends of the socio-economic stratus. Only time will tell what the lasting impact of this project is, but for the time being, the results have been spectacular.
Project Implementation Progress and Future Plans
There have been several accomplishments during the past six month and there are many more to follow. Organizationally, there are many ways in which Ahmedabad Ultimate has matured. Upon arrival, there were 6 teams in the city with 4 active coaches. In the most recent youth tournament in February, there were 10 teams. Through the newly developed Ahmedabad Ultimate Coaches and Leadership Development Program, there are coaches in place for almost all of these teams. These 10 teams are also geographically spread throughout the city, in contrast to the previous teams all hailing from one highly concentrated area. This way, Ahmedabad Ultimate has a presence almost all over this city of 5.5 million people. Ahmedabad Ultimate has also created a niche as a sports for education and development organization that can assist other organizations looking to incorporate sports into their programs. In this way, Ahmedabad Ultimate was an active contributor to the Kevalya Educational Foundation’s series of workshops for headmasters and the Gujarat Government’s Saptadhara University program for its 900 state colleges and universities.
Ahmedabad Ultimate, in its quest to increase access to sports to everyone in the city, is nearing its last iteration on disc manufacturing of over 1000 discs. These discs will be sold either at cost or at a loss to make discs available to anyone who wants one in the city. The mere ease of access to discs will increase the exposure of Ultimate Frisbee to people all over Ahmedabad. The disc manufacturing project is part of a larger rebranding of Ahmedabad Ultimate that has taken place over the past 6 months. New, high-quality marketing materials have gone out to the city and its youth that stress the importance of the local language. In addition, media coverage for Ahmedabad Ultimate and its monthly youth tournaments has continued with 4 articles printed in English print media and its first appearance in Gujarati print media here in the city.
In December, Ahmedabad Ultimate hosted the 2009 Ahmedabad Ultimate Open, a national level Ultimate Frisbee tournament where six adult teams from four cities competed over a two day period. The tournament was an opportunity to cement Ahmedabad as a staple on the Indian Ultimate Frisbee scene. The completion and sportsmanship at the tournament was impeccable, led by the performance and spirit of the two teams from Chennai, veterans of the Indian Ultimate circuit. The tournament was also the first opportunity for many of the Ahmedabad Ultimate youth league participants, coaches, and parents to see what Ultimate looks like on a larger scale. The opportunity the youngsters had to interact and learn from the more senior players from all over the country was priceless in motivating them to continue with the game and the league.
Recently, I have begun coaching a youth team from the Ramapir No Tekro slum-community of Ahmedabed, the city’s largest area of its kind. While this part of my project is new, it has already proven invaluable in making me feel connected to Ahmedabad Ultimate. I hold 2-3 practices a week with the team of 10-15 children ranging in age from 13 to 16. While technical coaching and improving in the game is important, I find the most value in learning about these children’s lives and asking myself what I can do to add value to their already rich experiences. I have begun by visiting their families and will soon be tutoring them in high school level geometry and algebra to prepare them for their board exams in April. In the following 5 months, I will be focused on engaging these children in different ways they can improve in school and engage themselves more in their community.
The community’s involvement as a whole is key to galvinizing Ahmedabad’s sports culture. The parental involvement in the league is already tangible as they allow their kids to participate. But more than that, these parents need to become proponents of the league and spread this news to others. This can only be done when the parents can see visible improvements in the children’s grades, attitudes, or behavior patterns. Ahmedabad Ultimate’s largest and most successful youth tournament to date was coordinated by a local youth coach. His leadership and performance was the most encouraging thing for those of us that wish to see Ahmedabad Ultimate be a locally-driven venture. The level to which the local coaches are taking ownership of not only their own teams, but each others’ teams and the league as a whole is inspiring to see. The next step is to introduce a new holistic component to each monthly tournament that compliments the athletic competition. A talent showcase has already been held, and some ideas for future tournaments include a health and nutrition component and a study skills component.
Future major projects include an International Summer Coaching Camp where coaching from overseas come to Ahmedabad for two to three weeks and are paired up with a local youth coach to gain experience in the technical and holistic aspects of the game. The camp will also provide an opportunity to engage the youth teams in a new and exciting way during the torrid summer heat in Ahmedabad.
On a policy level, I am currently attempting to bring sports organizations from all over Ahmedabad together to conduct a seminar on the value of sports in developing countries and begin period discussion groups on the most pressing needs of these organizations. These conversations and shared concerns can be the foundation for developing a sports for development think-tank here in Ahmedabad so that the new sports organizations here in the city have a body that will speak on the their behalf. I also have plans to engage with various groups on bringing a basketball coaching clinic to Ahmedabad in the next six months in order to increase the city and state’s profile across many varying sporting communities.
I chose to serve as an Indicorps Fellow to fulfill my desire to be involved with sports, children, and international development. My experience over the past 6 months has been a constant reminder that the lenses through which we view the same world is vastly different, yet surprisingly the same. The ways in which the Ahmedabad Ultimate youth teams from affluent private schools interact with the teams from slum areas are the same both on and off the field. Through these past few months, I have had the opportunity to spend at least one week in three rural villages in three different Indian states. One of those villages, Sarasavadi, Gujarat, was my home for a month. Here I coached Ultimate Frisbee, taught English, and led village clean-up and tree plantation campaigns. In Ahmedabad, I have lived in very diverse and colorful homes and areas of the city. I’ve attempted coaching teams in two slum-communities. One was horribly unsuccessful and the other seems to be going down a more fruitful path. I’ve been able to see how different kids playing the same game become one large team.
Through Indicorps and Ahmedabad Ultimate, I have had the joy of crossing paths with the Gujarat state chapter of the Special Olympics. Through our common bonds of volunteerism and sports, I have become a volunteer on their staff and assisted with the organization and the execution of their most recent State Championships and will be a presenter at their State Zonal Meetings coming up in March.
The challenges I have been facing are not with India or customs and culture, but more with the daily battles both externally and internally. The year, so far, has called for me to summon an inner strength to move past things I am not accustomed to dealing with. Coming into this year, I had corporate, start-up, and entrepreneurial experience under my belt, but I’ve seen that even experience in all three sectors doesn’t address some of the potential frustrations during the Fellowship year. This simple observation tells me that my experiences and frustrations during this Fellowship are only preparing me for the rest of my life.
This year’s experience in grassroots sports development has prepared me for my next steps both in sports management and in life. Down the road, whether I am at the NBA working on expansion into India, working in the community relations department of an NFL team, fundraising for an NCAA athletic department, or doing my Ph.D. in Sports Psychology, I will know that my Indicorps Fellowship year played a large role in my success.
Rahul Brahmbhatt, August 2010 Indicorps Fellow