‘Saw 15-YO National Champ Become a Bride’: Sports Hero Helps 11000 Kids Break Shackles

When Suheil Tandon started Pro Sport Development (PSD) in 2013, he did so with the intention of helping talented underprivileged and marginalised youth pursue excellence in sports.

In India, resources for sports are the main problem, not ability.

PSD aimed to do its part to fill that gap and help develop the next generation of star athletes.

 Suheil Tandon started Pro Sport Development (PSD) in 2013.
Suheil Tandon started Pro Sport Development (PSD) to help kids build life skills through sports.

However, an incident at the start of their first project gave Tandon pause.

A promising 15-year-old female weightlifter did not return to school after the summer holidays. When PSD asked the school authorities about her, they discovered that her family had arranged her wedding during the break. For the girl’s family, her potential weightlifting career was irrelevant to her future.

“This news hit me and the team hard,” Tandon, who is 33, says. “We were faced with some harsh realities in the context that we were working in, and it made all the sporting achievements seem inconsequential.”

In the short term, Tandon tweaked the programme to include the wider benefits of sports, but PSD was still geared towards building medal winners. By that measure, it was a success, with the athletes earning over 25 medals on the national stage. But by then Tandon had realised focusing primarily on sporting achievement in isolation would not address the larger social barriers to playing sports in India, particularly for girls. So, in 2015, PSD officially expanded its mission.

“At this point, we took a conscious and strategic decision to change our vision and move forward by utilising sports as a tool for the holistic development of young people,” Tandon says. In other words, the organisation would seek to develop a young person’s overall human potential through the promotion of an inclusive and sustainable sporting culture.

Pro Sport Development seeks to develop youth's overall human potential across 15 states.
PSD seeks to develop youth’s overall human potential.

Tandon had always been passionate about sports, having played and watched multiple sports growing up, but it wasn’t until he was studying mathematics and economics in college that he discovered a career in sports was a viable option. “With some sound advice from a family friend working in the sports industry, I decided to pursue a sports management degree from Loughborough University in the UK,” he says.

That’s where his interest in developing athletes at the grassroots level first took hold, which led to the creation of PSD with the support of family and friends.

Today, PSD works in 15 states across India and has reached out to 11,412 young people, 51 per cent of whom have been girls. Its two core teams are based out of Delhi and Bhubaneshwar, respectively.

Pro Sport Development helps youth fight gender norms through sports.
Pro Sport Development helps youth fight gender norms through sports.

“Whenever PSD works in other states, we do so in collaboration with local organisations, while our team members from Delhi or Bhubaneswar travels to these locations,” Tandon says

Through its activities, school children are given access to structured physical activity and sports-based programming, which in turn helps them develop soft skills such as teamwork and leadership.

PSD has also taken on the more ambitious goal of changing the perception of sports in the country. “[In India] Sports is not considered a fundamental right that all children and youth must have access to, as defined by the UN,” Tandon says. “Neither is sports considered an activity that can be utilised to drive positive change within the lives of young people and within communities.”

The impact of their work can be seen in the personality development of children such as Shibani Pradhan, whose father drives his own auto rickshaw. Pradhan was 11 when she joined the PSD program in Bhubaneswar. Now 14, a class 10 student at Saraswati Sishu Vidhya Mandir, Pradhan used to play games with her friends but didn’t know much about organised sports. Now she enjoys playing cricket and badminton in particular.

She says taking part in PSD’s programs has been “a lot of fun” and she has learned what is expected of a team player in sports, as well as learning about leadership. There have been important benefits off the field as well. “I am much more comfortable talking to boys,” she says. “We have learned there is not much difference between boys and girls. [The program] has also improved my studies because I have become mentally stronger. My communication has also improved.”

The centrepiece of PSD’s efforts is the Community Sports Program (CSP), which has reached over 3,000 children in Bhubaneshwar. The CSP also involves developing community trainers and teachers thereby ensuring the program is local, sustainable, and inclusive.

During the lockdown, PSD had to switch to an online model that included live workshops for those who had access to an internet connection. Among them was Srabani Patra, currently a class 10 student at Saraswati Sishu Vidya Mandir school in Bhubaneshwar. It was through CSP in 2021 that Patra learned about gender stereotypes, particularly in the home, where parents treat sons and daughters differently. “I want all parents to see their sons and daughters equally,” she says.

The workshops gave Patra the confidence to discuss gender norms with her father, Krushna Chandra Patra, which in turn has led her entire family to start questioning existing gender norms in their community.

Pro Sport Development hopes to inspire gender-inclusive change across the country.
Pro Sport Development hopes to inspire gender-inclusive change across the country.

It’s precisely this kind of change that PSD hopes to inspire across the country as the organisation grows. It’s also how the organisation measures the success of its programs since it changed its mission in 2015. According to Tandon, the organisation uses “quantitative and qualitative data collection methods to evaluate the outcomes and impact of the initiatives”. Participants fill out surveys at the start and end of programs to analyse personal development. PSD also interviews trainers, peers, teachers, and parents to gauge the nature and extent of any changes.

When it comes to the CSP, the increase in physical activity is one measuring stick. Beyond that Tandon says, “success for us is defined by the soft skills and values they are able to develop and implement in their daily lives, as well as their change in attitudes towards gender norms and stereotypes, and a better understanding of how to articulate life choices and make decisions concerning their own lives.”

While counting the number of medals its athletes won was easier, their current approach is undoubtedly more satisfying. “The best part of my job is that it does not feel like a job,” Tandon says. “During my travels, I also get to interact with young people who have benefitted from their participation in sports, which is always great to experience first-hand.”