October 2021 | 986 words | 4-minute read
Neelam Barbardesai was barely eight when she discovered gymnastics. While she was training hard to compete, she also started coaching side by side, but a back injury put an end to her career as a gymnast.
After pursuing a career in information technology (IT) for 12 years, at 36, she embarked on a journey to combine her training in IT with her passion for sports.
Today, a mother of two, Neelam heads the Sports vertical at Tata Trusts. Her child-like excitement and passion for sports is what makes her stand out. Taking up gymnastics as an after-school activity, Neelam’s discovery and interest in the sport led her to participate at the Nationals in the Under-12 and Under-15 tournaments.
“All I remember of my early school life is academics and gymnastics. I practised from Monday to Saturday, every evening. During summer holidays, I would attend the summer camp and spend the entire day training and coaching,” says Neelam, who started her training, first at a school in Vile Parle, a Mumbai suburb, and later continued in Lokmanya Seva Sangh, another institution nearby.
Unfortunately, at the age of 15, Neelam suffered from a back problem, and she couldn’t pursue professional gymnastics. “Back then, medical science wasn’t so advanced; I needed surgery which wasn’t advisable at my age,” reminisces Neelam. This twist of fate made Neelam shift her focus from performance to coaching.
“After completing my 12th standard, I stopped competing in gymnastics and turned to coaching. It is something I knew and something I enjoyed. I had picked up several techniques and skills from my coach, and I wanted to take that learning ahead. I loved the feeling of being able to teach and groom others, so I started to coach regularly,” says Neelam, who continued training young children in gymnastics all through her 4 years of engineering and into her corporate job in IT.
Among her many accomplishments, she lists training students, who went on to play at the national level, and setting up gymnastic classes at the Prabodhankar Thackeray Krida Sankul, a sports club in Vile Parle, where she continues to head the programme, 22 years on. She also applied her IT knowledge in sports by developing the first ever Gymnastics Judging programme in India, which was implemented at the 3rd Asian Gymnastics Championships held in Surat in 2006.
“I started my own coaching class with 2 mattresses and 5 kids, and today there are 400 children doing gymnastics every week,” says Neelam, who brought in younger coaches, trained them, and even created a gymnastics curriculum. “I look at gymnastics from a developmental perspective. It is the mother of all sports; it develops a child physically, mentally and helps build strength and flexibility. It prepares children to take up other sports,” says Neelam, whose standardised coaching process with a defined curriculum and assessment sheets has become a benchmark of sorts. “I do not want to concentrate on only those students who are doing well and push them to the nationals but rather I want to share the joy and potential of gymnastics with the maximum number of children. Sports is not just about competition, the values and life skills it teaches are for everyone,” she adds.
It is Neelam’s unconventional point of view to sports and gymnastics that she brings to the table at the Tata Trusts. Neelam’s expertise in creating process-oriented sports programmes with an eye on sustainable projects is key. She has been part of some of the Trusts’ most successful sports initiatives such as the Hockey programme in Jharkhand and Odisha in association with the Netherland’s Bovelander Foundation, the Sports Science and Technology Implementation in Odisha and Badminton programme in Mizoram, where the focus is not just on developing players but also on training local youth as coaches, and collaborating with local communities to create a stronger sporting ecosystem. Physical literacy and integration of Olympic values in education are the current programmes which she is heading.
“The fundamental philosophy at the Trusts has been to provide opportunities to the children from tribal and marginalised communities,” says Neelam. “The idea is to have state-wide sports programmes, focusing on fundamental sports skills along with life skills, identifying talent and giving them opportunities so that the best talent from the grassroots will be able to go to the next level. The programme fosters partnerships with local bodies to create a sustainable model that local communities can take over and aims to develop capacities and create opportunities at local/regional level.”
As someone who has tread both paths, Neelam is clear about what she enjoys the most — designing sports programmes, coaching children, watching them play, and helping them achieve.
The pandemic has, however, altered her and the Trusts’ sporting schedule for now.
“Our trainers continue to train the children online. The trainers had to be trained in the use of technology and all of us have had to innovate, but the main thing was to continue the engagement with the children. Online training has opened up newer ways of learning,” says Neelam.
In her personal life, as in her professional life, Neelam has infused sports into her daily life. An avid trekker, Neelam doesn’t practise gymnastics given the demanding nature of the sport, but can still do a handstand and cartwheel. “I work out regularly and so does my family,” she adds.
“Sports as a career is always a challenge,” says Neelam, adding, “My aim is to showcase how sports is critical for holistic development. Just as language literacy and math literacy are important, so is physical literacy. It is essential to be able to live a healthy and active life.”