Urban Deserts for Sport, Cultural Diversity & An Indian’s Perspective about Learning Sports for Joy

I met Bob Knipe at SHAPE America’s Speak Out day last year. That day I observed many American physical educators/professors walk and work for hours all across The Capitol seeking increased funding for physical education (PE) programs in America’s public schools. Bob Knipe was one of those hundreds. This post is the result of an interesting article that Bob shared today. I could have written to him a personal message. However I wanted physical educators and coaches working in American schools to read about my experience. As an Indian living in the United States, I see my cultural perspective is essential in the American physical education world. There are millions of Indians living in American communities and after five years, I am yet to meet a physical education teacher who is of Indian origin :| By the way if you know one, ask them to please get in touch with me.

Over the last several months while over coming a personal crisis, I found solace in sports. And you need to know how I learnt a physical literacy skill that I will continue to use for the rest of my life. I never had the opportunity to pursue sports as an every day activity after my high school [until I graduated high school I was athletic. Never competitive beyond the school level though. I played Kabaddi, Kho-Kho, ran track (100 meters) and participated in regular callisthenics routines during the school assembly each morning]. After graduating high school I entered a world of ‘nil’ physical activity. Competitive academic environments that were devoid of all physical activity was the norm back then (2000 – 2002). So I went along onto the same track with thousands of others like me. That is the kind of community access to sports and physical activity I come from in South India. Ironically, I was living in a very much ‘urban’ area. In contrast to the common perception that only rural areas in India lack access to sports and physical activity opportunities, I was very much living in a ‘city’. But I lived in what I’d like to call a UDS = ‘Urban Desert for Sport’ in India.

The typical characteristics of a UDS are as follows:

  • No public play grounds.
  • If there are public playgrounds, they are often ‘taken over’ for other activities (political, commercial etc).
  • If the above two challenges are dealt with, the public spaces are often times (majority times) not safe for girls/women to pursue organized sports and physical activity.
  • If the above three challenges are fixed, the spaces are unaffordable to an Indian who comes from middle class and further lower socio-economic statuses.
  • Over 95 percent of the time, recreation and entertainment options are sedentary options.

I don’t think UDS as a concept can be restricted to India. We have UDS areas all over the world. Yes, in countries that are struggling to ‘develop’ the density of these areas is way too high. As PE professionals we need to be watchful of who in our physical activity or physical education classrooms comes from a UDS. Who needs that extra push to take up sports. Who needs extra help to include their ‘culture’ in learning physical literacy skills.

Having spent about 8 years of time being ‘sedentary’ after high school, America happened to me. Like at full throttle. Highly marketed fitness apparel to well packaged fitness programs. However it could all have gone south to Florida very promptly if I wasn’t physically literate. My training as a physiotherapist helped me. I struggled with stress and other lifestyle challenges settling myself into the United States but the biggest blessing was being able to be free to explore and identify how I could get up and moving.

While in India during the 8 ‘sedentary’ years after high school, I did dabble in yoga and fitness programs taught by personal trainers. However none of them became life skills. For a little long after coming to the United States I did try ‘pilates’ too. But trust me nothing became a fitness habit.

What worked for me would surprise you! At 31 years of age, I started learning a sport that I enjoyed playing as a kid and I actually am making progress in my sport skills!

As a young child, my father taught us how to play both football and badminton. Football that is played with foot. I will not call it soccer. No way! :) Also remember that I was very active in school for fun. There wasn’t much glorifying of any sporting achievement. While it is viewed as lack of encouragement, today I see that it did help me. We did receive certificates and rolling shields. However most of them went back to be displayed in the school. Nothing was a giant take away trophy that could be displayed beyond school. So it never was focus. The medals!

As a child I was scared to learn football as I feared stepping on the ball while trying to dribble with my feet and falling. So regardless of my dad’s commitment to teach me the game, I never learnt it. I learnt badminton though. I learnt it well enough to play with my father (who played non-competitive badminton for many years at the bank where he worked). So it became our favourite weekend activity. It became our go-to activity on a boring weekday evening . It kept me moving. It made me sleep well. My father enjoyed making us run. What joyful memories of me and my brother running into each other during the rallies and falling down laughing! Looking back I realise that, it was his way to tire us both (we are twins) out at once so that he and my mom could get on with house hold chores. Thanks dad! smart strategy!

Years later, in September 2017 when I got to know of a new badminton club in Frisco, TX there was no doubt I was going to ask someone to teach me badminton again. Over the last six months, I have not become a professional badminton player. But through my crisis,


Badminton moved me.

No matter how bad the day was, no matter how meagre the possibilities seemed, I knew there was that court out there. There was someone to help me learn a new skill. And then like a true blessing my father was there  standing next to me and playing rallies with me.

What I learnt as a kid. The joy of playing a sport with no competitive desire in my heart. To enjoy the sport for what it is.

This became my ‘moving forward’ mantra. It became the support system I crashingly fell into. I shamelessly sought solace in it. That is the beauty of sport skills you learn as a young kid. To enjoy the sport for what it is. To look forward to the joy you experience playing a sport.

I grew up learning to be competitive with myself. Sometimes it can become harmful because one becomes too critical of oneself. And competing with oneself can become lonely. However, learning to compete with how better I got from yesterday worked for me. I believe my father’s method of coaching us in badminton when we were young worked for me to learn life skills through badminton. In one of the darkest times of my life I found an opportunity to go back to the sport and I didn’t need a lot of effort to go back.

I know it happens everywhere in the world. But I think it is still a stronger practice in countries like India. I was born a left handed person but was over the years forced to only use my right hand dominantly. Not sure how exactly changing my handedness influenced my dexterity challenges [Silently swearing and screaming it did!]. I am notorious in my family for confusing right and left. So over the years while not having gotten over that confusion, I have also struggled with crossing over on instruction or demand while performing certain physical activity skills. Haha! lo and behold! Badminton mysteriously ‘fixed it’ :)

For all my non-physical education readers, crossing over for example is our ability to cross the right hand over the body’s midline to touch the left foot’s big toe. And six months back that was a very complicated task for me. I have a friend called Heather who teaches Zumba classes at TWU as a witness for my challenge. Heather! I finally learnt to cross over successfully because of my badminton drills.

For my American friends who teach physical education in America’s public schools. Here are a few words of requests I have for you as a woman of foreign origin:

  • Please pay attention to the cultural diversity of your classrooms. This piece from Huffington Post is a great resource to understand how diverse classrooms may get.
  • If a student in your Phys Ed class is from a diverse cultural background and wants to avoid a group class or specific activity, try to find a healthy way to find the reason for their reluctance.
  • If there are kids from diverse cultural backgrounds in your classes joining the school later in the school years ask what games they know from back home. You will be blown away by how many games need almost no specialised equipment.

Growing cultural diversity in American public school systems should get onto the future strategic planning agenda of organizations like SHAPE America.

Growing cultural diversity in the public schools of United States is a boon. And like I had a story, we all come with our stories and often times, these stories can help transform the quality of our programs.

Why was it important to mention Bob? 

Over the years I have met many physical educators here in the United States. But I only met a few Bob Knipe(s). They are a very small number. They are your neighbours who wake up each morning with a strong desire to educate your children with life skills. Skills that will shape and if necessary chisel their bodies and minds. Skills that will teach them structure and discipline. And more importantly skills that will empower them as individuals to enjoy their every day life with a good health status. Over the last one year since I met Bob at The Capitol, I have observed his social media shares. I have learnt from a lot of them. Bob is one of the many American PE teachers from who I learn everyday. But also know that they work with very low salaries and almost no funding for their school programs at times. But you will never see them make an excuse for no resources. If you reside in America, and your child goes to a public school here, please remember to engage in conversations with your child’s Coach Bob and ask them how you can help them. Thank you to your and thousands of your colleagues Bob. Like I have learnt from Americans to say, “I am richer in your friendship.”  

Yet another American joins my list of #BeautifulAmericans