At the felicitation of the Khelo India medallists in Mumbai last week, Maharashtra’s Education and Sports Minister Vinod Tawde interacted at length with athletes and their parents. He spoke about the government’s Open School Secondary Certificate Board – an initiative to help children pursuing sports, arts or with disabilities.

The open SSC board will allow children to be home schooled and appear for the fifth standard exam at the age of 10, eighth standard exam at 13 and 10th standard exam at 15.

The minister said that the marks in these exams will be considered at par with the class 10 examinations conducted by the state board, Central Board of Secondary Education and Indian Certificate of Secondary Education.

The sports department, he added, will hold counselling sessions for the Khelo India medallists and their parents at every district to explain the working of the open SSC board.

Despite a loud applause Tawde’s speech received, it missed a small yet significant detail: children belonging to U-17 and U-21 categories, who had cleared the Class 10 exam, participated in the second edition of the Khelo India Games – they, hence, had little need for the government’s proposed initiative.

Balance of academics and sports

The initiative is another example of the solution being disproportionate to the problem.

On the face of it, the decision seems to be a radical step towards giving sportspersons and artists a space of their own and aiding them in following their passion without the burden of regular schooling. But the question that needs to be asked is whether there was a need to reinvent the wheel when it could have been just oiled.

Speak to any coach or a sports expert and they will tell you that till the age or 15-16, sportspersons need to enjoy what they are doing and the right balance between academics and sport is important to avoid burnout.

But pulling out these children from regular school and earmarking them for a special board will only add the pressure of expectations at an age when they should be concentrating on learning their trade and enjoying the process before competition kicks in.

More importantly, going to school, interacting with other children and finding the right balance between studies and sports is an important aspect of personality development, apart from giving them a shot at an alternate career.

Even former India skipper and current under-19 and India A coach Rahul Dravid has been insisting on the same in the aftermath of India all-rounder Hardik Pandya’s controversial comments on television show Koffee with Karan, which led to the latter’s suspension along with teammate KL Rahul.

If it was just about helping them with examinations, the current set up of SSC Board can make a few exceptions and ensure that the exams and tournament schedules don’t clash or special classes are conducted for these players outside their tournament schedules.

In 2017, the ICSE Board allowed two badminton players — Simran Singhi and Ritika Thaker — to give one of their Class 10th board paper in the Berlin Embassy as they were playing a tournament there.

So, is there a simpler way to promote sports and ensure that sportspersons can concentrate on improving their skills and achieving greater success without really looking for a radical solution?

The answer is yes.

How to make school sports better?

The first step in that direction is to make school sports glamorous enough for academic institutions to give it a priority. In schools that avail of government grant, additional incentives could be given for those supporting sportspersons and helping them excel. Other schools could be acknowledged by the government for their contribution towards the cause.

Even today some schools in Mumbai have a separate sports division wherein the best athletes are helped with their studies, according to their training and competition schedules. More schools would be ready to do the same if they are made equal partners in the development of the players.

In the current scenario, the way the state government’s sports department conducts school-level events is hardly attractive to those pursuing a sports career. If the organisation is shoddy and the schedules are completely haphazard, then why should the schools bother?

The schedules, tournament venues and facilities disregard the needs of students and schools and that ultimately results in academics getting priority.

Also for reasons best known to the sports department, competitions are held in almost 100 sports including musical chairs, hopscotch, jump rope and rope skipping. The pressure of adding more such trivial sports is mounting further as the government has started giving additional marks for district and state participation for 10th standard students.

These additional marks have become a controversial issue over the years because some schools and parents’ misuse of these provisions. They, for instance, push academically brilliant students in sports teams – instead of a student, who in good in sports – for more marks. There have been many cases of genuine players benefiting from the rule as they could not play the inter-school circuit due to their commitments with the state and national federations.

During my playing days – and mind you, I was no international sportsperson – I got admission to higher secondary (and even to graduation and post graduation courses) under the sports quota because the academic institutions felt that I could help them win medals in inter-collegiate and inter-university tournaments.

That system did not need the crutches of additional marks. Yes, there were a few who misused that system as well. But many genuine sportspersons got admission to better courses because sports teachers recommending the players knew that they were the ones who had to deliver on the field.

To the current government’s credit, they are thinking of ways to promote sports and sportspersons by giving them cash prizes and coming up with different schemes after a long period of lull.

But the open board initiative may only end up isolating sportspersons from regular schools as they may be asked to opt for the new board and the schools would stop making exceptions for those wanting to follow their sports career and also be part of regular school structure.

One must understand that expansive strokes, aimed at pleasing the gallery, may get instant applause. However to win in sports, the real need of the hour is to perfect the mundane percentage shots and make them your strength.