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Could the future of sports coaching in India ever be female?

#GenderAnd Culture: Why have we failed to have women taking executive decisions in Indian sport?

Written by Karan Prashant Saxena | New Delhi |
June 9, 2017 1:00:19 pm
Disha Malhotra, Nikki Ponappa, Simi Begum Sharma and Sunil Dabas talk about the gender disparity in Indian sports coaching

A quick web search for women coaches throws up more search results for train coaches rather than women sports coaches. “This, in a country, where it is only women who managed to make their names in Olympics,” says Sunil Dabas, the only woman coach to be given a Padma Shri in India, ever.

The founder of Olympics games in 1896, Pierre de Coubertin described women’s sport as ‘the most unaesthetic sight human eyes could contemplate’ and advised that some of the disciplines be reserved for women, though a few females were allowed to compete from 1900.

According to a 2016 report, almost half of National Olympic Committees surveyed by the IOC have fewer than 20 per cent of women on their Executive Boards, including ten nations who had no women at all.

In Indian sports association governing bodies, women constitute between two per cent and eight per cent. Hockey India, with 34 per cent female representation, is the only exception.

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Dabas is the coach of national kabaddi women’s team and has led her team to win six gold medals in 2010 Asian Games and 2012 World cup. “Women are not given enough representation anywhere. Look at this. The Indian Kabaddi League has hit the fifth year but we have still not been able to start kabaddi league for women in India. Why?”

Nikki Ponappa, who runs a golf academy in Coorg with the motto, ‘Love, Live and Play golf fearlessly’ left her successful corporate job in 2008 to become a golf coach. After an injury as a hockey player, she had to quit the sport to pursue MBA and take a job. But the corporate world did not hold this sportsperson’s interest for too long and she started training as a golf player and went on to win the Satish Memorial Trophy at the age of 34. She says, “Everything is tough for women. Just like the corporate world, it is tough for woman to jump into sport in India.”

Simi Begum Sharma, who was number one in Assam for five consecutive years in Assam and number seven in the International Tennis Federation ranking for India, echoes the same sentiment. She is currently a Tennis coach at several schools and academies in New Delhi. She points out the double edged sword that women athletes and coaches have to face. She says, “Families do not support young women to train as athletes or sports coaches because it is not considered safe to travel as a girl.” Simi also faced a similar opposition from her family. She says, “These days, women coaches are preferred for girls because parents feel more secure to send their daughters to them.”
While this could be seen as a positive step to ensure that more young girls participate in sports, it is also, at some level, limiting and undermining for women coaches.

Last year, the Sports Authority of India made a revealing statement. It said that more women will be appointed to tackle the growing complaints of sexual assaults in Indian sports bodies. Many women coaches found that offensive since their worth was seen only as security guards for the protection of women athletes and nothing more.

In April, this year, just two months before ICC Women’s cricket World Cup, the board replaced Purnima Rau, the coach of the tea with former Baroda batsman Tushar Arothe. Rau in her response told ESPNcricinfo, ““I wasn’t given any explanation or reason by the board. In fact they didn’t even have the courtesy to inform me. In terms of results, we were successful. To be axed this way is disappointing and insulting.” The team was reported to be in the winning form when Rau was removed.

Dabbas, who received the Dronacharya award in 2012, the highest award for Indian coaches, points out this blatant sexism. She says, “They (sports authorities) do not take a second to remove women coaches without an explanation. Administration, organisation, Federation and coaching centers, all of them are male dominated. There is negligible presence of women. Are women not equal? Are they not getting medals for the country?”

Disha Malhotra, the first Indian women’s football coach to be recognised by the Football Association and has been classified as a UEFA C Licensed coach points out another discrepancy. She says, “I am coaching a men’s team in Ashoka University. Yet, both in India and abroad, it is still rare to find a woman coaching men’s team though the vice versa is pretty common.”

While in the West, the number of women coaches coaching men’s team has seen a steady growth since the appointment of Nancy Lieberman and Becky Hammon in the National Basketball Association in 2015, many point out that the prospect of being coached by a woman may even be considered embarrassing for a male athlete in India.

Disha, who represented India’s U-19 football national team, before playing in league level football in USA and Italy, and then getting a degree in Bachelor’s of Arts in Sport Management from the University of Michigan, runs a football coaching center for boys and girls called ‘Foot and Ball’ in New Delhi. She points out that the deeply entrenched patriarchal hierarchies in India also play a role in how young boys and girls respond to coaching. She says, “Girls are more disciplined. Though strength wise there is difference and boys are more energetic but girls pay more attention. They listen more carefully even though one should not generalise.”

Disha also point out another difference. She says, “There is a significant gender pay gap in football. Among players there is a larger difference, comparatively lower among coaches.” This is a reminder why, in 2015, Dipika Pallikal, India’s top ranked squash player, refused to play in the squash nationals for four consecutive times time due to the gender wage gap. She was reported to have said, “While men in the squash championships pocket Rs 1,20,000, women only receive Rs 50,000, less than half of their male counterparts’ pay.”

It is hard to say when India will be able to say goodbye to the old boys’ club that has been filling the slots for every possible sports body, academy, and federation and even in recent Bollywood sports film like Chak De and Dangal. The good news is that there are many women coaches excelling as sportspersons and it is increasingly hard to overlook them. Like Nikki says that both, male golf coaches and female golf coaches are similar. “All want that their students excel.” If the coaches do not discriminate, why do we?

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