Just For Kicks : Can Sports Transform Indian Academics? This Young Woman Shows how it can be done..

Without change there is no innovation, creativity, or incentive for improvement. Those who initiate change will have a better opportunity to manage the change that is inevitable - William Pollard

Surya Varikuti, a football enthusiast from Bangalore and Rudresh Gaudnour from the Just for Kicks Programme were selected as India's representatives at the global Football For Friendship (F4F) social programme in Russia in June 2018.

Surya plays as defender and had participated in various football tournaments across the country like the National U13 Youth League. Rudresh Gaudnour is a member of Just For Kicks run by Neha Sahu & Vikas Plakkot. While Surya got the opportunity to play, Rudresh was taken in as a young journalist meant to report on all the local and global activities of the F4F programme as part of the International Children's Press Center.

Both 12 year olds joined other young footballers and were part of the 32 International Teams of Friendship playing against each other in the Gazprom Football For Friendship International  Championship at Moscow in June 2018. This annual friendly tournament is aimed at bringing together children from around the world, through the unifying spirit of football.

What is this ‘young reporter’ that Rudresh Gaudnour from Just for Kicks had been selected for about?

A special feature of the Football for Friendship program is its own International Children's Press Center. Young journalists in the press center cover the events of the Programme in their countries, they prepare news for national and international sports media, participate in the creation of materials for the Football for Friendship TV channel, the children's Football for Friendship newspaper and the program's official radio station. The International Children's Press Center unites the winners of the Best Young Journalist national contests, young bloggers, photographers and writers. Young journalists from the press center present their view from within the Programme. It is ‘children’ about ‘children’.

Rudresh Gaudnour had just proved a point for the Just For Kicks Programme with his selection – if you have skills coupled with knowledge about the subject (in this case football) you stand to get noticed and are provided the opportunity to prove yourself.

What is Just for Kicks?

Just For Kicks is a programme run by Neha Sahu & Vikas Plakkot. Both as co-founders are alumni of Teach for India too. Neha had graduated in 2010 from New York University with a B.Sc. in Psychology and a minor in Media & Communication. After having done volunteer work with low-income African and Hispanic communities during her 2nd year and having gained valuable experience about inequity and the forms in which it existed in society, she decided to return to India. In Mumbai she applied for the Teach For India Fellowship in 2010 and got selected as a Fellow.

Incidentally, Teach For India is a Fellowship program, that enrolls India’s brightest and most promising youth, from the nation’s best universities and workplaces, to serve as full-time teachers to children from low-income communities in some of the nation’s most under-resourced schools. The experience of teaching in classrooms and working with key education stakeholders like students, principals, and parents, make Fellows get exposed to the grass root realities of India’s education system and they then begin to cultivate the knowledge, skills, and mindsets necessary to create a wider movement for educational equity in the country on their own.

The Modus operandi

Just for Kicks is a unique state-of-the-art curriculum developed in-house close to 2012 beginning. The beauty lies in the seamless blending of life skills with football learning. A minimum 3-year program cycle, has children (boys and girls) starting at an early age of 8. So interesting is the curriculum and its delivery that about 80% of these children continue to be part of the program beyond the three year cycle extending up to 6 years.

The facilitators are trained on the curriculum and philosophy and deliver up to 48 sessions in-school through the year. At the end of the year, children participate in an intra-city league that extends for 2-3 months, providing children the necessary social exposure. The children are placed in homogenous gender-specific groups of ten each.

The focus of the programme is an all-round development of the mind through a brilliant blend of academics, extra-curricular activities and imbibing life skills.

The long road taken

Neha and Vikas both alumini of the Fellow programme came together in 2011 to start Just for Kids with a vision to carry on after the Teach For India days were over. They had learned tremendously that paid off for their own initiative.

Neha had taught at Shindewadi during her 2 year stint as a Fellow in Teach For India at Shindewadi. What she learnt there came in very handy when she started the Just For Kids Programme. She recalls “A lot of what I have accomplished is attributed to the kids I taught in Shindewadi during the 2 years of my Fellowship and everything that they taught me in return. My first two months were spent just getting the 47 2nd graders to sit down on their benches. It was only after a year that I felt like I was creating milestones with my kids”.

Academics alone could never be the key. For learning in a holistic way other extra-curricular activities were added. But most important of all a game like football (popular after cricket in many parts of India) was chosen to train in. Football is a game and no game generally gets segregated into high and low status. “Just For Kicks happened very organically because Shindewadi is a football hub in Bombay. Our 6th grade team could easily take on kids 4-5 years older than them. Kids who would refuse to attend class would never skip football so I started teaching them Math and English using the rules and principles of the game and at the same time recruited volunteers to aid their sport training. The idea was to use the sport to develop essential life skills and academics in children who were not doing well academically,” Neha reminsced.

Neha was paving the path to form a solid team, while other Teach For India Fellows in Pune were simultaneously building a project to facilitate leadership skills through sports.

“We came together because of our shared belief and it eventually led to the creation of 14 football teams that participated in our first league match in Pune. While driving back, after my Shindewadi team having performed so well there, I remember thinking to myself that I’ll have to continue with Just For Kicks!” is what she said.

“We evolved by learning from sport curriculums in different universities across the world and then progressed to creating our own curriculum, hiring our own coaches and also having an app to record player feedback and attendance.”

Neha’s schedule was a daily affair of academics starting 9 A.M. and during the day included extra-curricular activities as well.

The initial breakthrough took some time like a few months to a year before the children got attuned to what they were told. After then what resulted was amazing.

What they achieved

Just For Kicks (JFK) became a registered NGO in 2015. The JFK model worked for offering in-school training programmes that were implemented by 60 schools and impacting 1600 children in 2016, across Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore and Hyderabad!

Asked about the most challenging stakeholders to the JFK journey, Neha exclaims, “Definitely school management! Most schools in India view sports as an added curriculum and have very few resources or sports equipment to supplement it. There is usually just one Physical Trainer a school who takes up activities like jumping jacks and spoon and lemon race, etc. Very few understand how fruitful sport can be when teaching values such as leadership, discipline, team work and even coping with academics. Fortunately our school retention rate is excellent because within one year, the kids were displaying better behaviour in class, showing more confidence and dealing with loss in a disciplined way – the schools couldn’t help but take notice!”

Football gave a very big advantage with its rising popularity in india, especially with the India Super league that has been viewed by 429 million viewers in 2016 – two and a half times that of FIFA World Cup 2014. 5 years after it had started there were over 160 participating teams from both Teach For India as well as other miscellaneous low-income private and government schools in the inter school football championships that had Neha and Vikas as one of the main organizers and included their own team as well.

An excited Neha once said, “Vikas and I are passionate about getting everyone to play irrespective of their social or economic background and want Just for Kicks and the School Football Championship to grow exponentially every year. We are also seriously committed to putting up a national girls’ team one day and are collaborating with a for-profit organisation called Soccer Connections to provide training and coaching. I personally feel there is more raw talent in the low-income communities of India and that these kids deserve to receive the same skills and training as anyone else,” Neha mentions.

From getting low-income schools to play on the same pitch as the elite schools to partnering with an English Premier League Club and even having ex-Manchester United player Louis Saha distribute prizes at the closing ceremony of SFC , it is like a dream start.

With the tremendous popularity of football in India today, Just For Kicks would be using the leverage of football to develop critical life skills among children attending under-resourced schools. One of the main reasons for under-employment is the lack of skills and approach towards life that Just For Kicks has focused on tremendously and helped to bridge through its curriculum and which it continues to build on.

Today, Just For Kicks is operating in close to 100 schools across various regions of India impacting 3000 children. 45 % of them happen to be girls. Operating in cities like Mumbai, Pune, Hyderabad, Bangalore, and Chennai and a lesser prominent region like Dharwad, Karnataka there are about facilitators/ coaches on JFK’s roll along with a supportive backend team of 14 members plus.

What about the road ahead?

Neha and Vikas have an ambitious plan of impacting the lives of 1 million children by 2025. They have even planned three phases to achieve it. Phase 1 is already implemented with developing a good achievable program. Phase 2 would see a replication of Phase 1 but with higher targets. Phase 3 would be about influencing policy decisions through interactions with the powers to be and helped by many other stakeholders who have similar lines of thought.

In 2018 they would be working with close to 6000 children across India and beginning a pilot in another developing country in Asia. They are already working on building a larger entity that’ll not only offer football-based life skills coaching but also other creative mediums like music. The new entity would use different vehicles like football, music, LEGO, among others to achieve the same results.

There are plans to enhance the budget, increase the staff and include other activities that would be in the interest of the children coming under the umbrella of Just For Kicks.

Reflecting at times on the past, Neha sometimes feels that if it were not for Teach For India, Just For Kicks may not have been a reality. Musing she once said, “The origin of Just For Kicks lies within a Teach For India classroom. As a group of fellows, we were consistently struggling to develop long-term character traits of our children within the walls of a classroom. In an effort to find solutions to this problem, we experimented with the idea of using a sport like football. In no time, the attendance rates skyrocketed, children began to display a lot more confidence, it became easy to communicate with them as teachers due to the out-of-classroom bond, and they also began working collaboratively as one unit. Just For Kicks wouldn’t have taken birth had we not had the first-hand experience of the problems faced by children attending under-resourced schools”.

From when they started, Just For Kicks has come a long way, progressing at a pace that makes Neha and Vikas gasp. They never expected the sort of response they got to be so quick and encouraging. Not that sailing has always been smooth, but then their focus and determination to achieve what they want has always helped them on their way.

What they envisage for the future is commendable and praiseworthy, and if they come anywhere close to it, India could very well be seeing something revolutionary that could be replicated cross many other parts of India as well.

For what Neha has done and likely to do, we feel there is only one thing that we all can do – applaud. For to all of us definitely She’s Different.


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