“Ensure your children play at least one sport”

Sruthy Susan Ullas interviewed former international tennis champs Gaurav Natekar and Arati Ponnappa on balancing parenting duties with work and the imporance of sports education

Gaurav Natekar is an Arjuna awardee, Asian Games double gold medallist and seven-time national tennis champion. Together with Mahesh Bhupathi, he manages multiple tennis schools across the country under the banner of Mahesh Bhupathi Tennis Academies. Natekar and his wife Arati Ponnappa, also a former tennis national champion and India’s coach for the junior team at Wimbledon 2017, and his father Nandu Natekar, the legendary badminton player, own Natekar Sports and Fitness Pvt. Ltd, a company that specialises in offering sports advisory and consultancy services to large corporations, state governments, among others. Together the Pune-based couple raise two sons — Aaditya (14) and Anshul (12) — who are also avid sports enthusiasts.

What’s your parenting philosophy?

AP: We were lucky to have parents who let us focus on sports over academics, which was very unconventional 25 years ago. As parents we follow the same philosophy — of giving our children the freedom to pursue their priorities in academics and sports and support them fully. Aaditya is keen on becoming a professional golfer and is enrolled at the Tarun Sardesai Golf Academy, Kolar, Karnataka. Anshul plays several sports such as football, but is not inclined to take it up as a career. We respect both their decisions.  

GN: Our mantra was that they should play some sport every day. We have explained that this will not only boost their physical fitness and emotional well-being, but the lessons learnt on playing fields will prove useful in whatever career they choose. 

But most Indian parents are focused on academics and don’t encourage their children to play sports. What is your advice to them?

GN: My observation is that children who play sports tend to be smarter. Their concentration is better, their attitudes are more balanced and health/fitness is good. All children should play one or more sports, at whatever level. Even during exams, parents should encourage children to play for at least half an hour. There is no better stress buster.

Moreover unlike two decades ago, there are several career options available in sports apart from being a sportsperson — in coaching, writing, commentary, management, marketing, sports medicine etc. Also every college has a sports quota for promising young sportspersons while foreign universities offer generous scholarships to talented athletes and sportspersons. 

How do you help your sons balance academics and sports?

GN: Balancing academics and sports is not difficult. Children while away a lot of time after school hours on tech gadgets. Instead, they need to be encouraged to engage in a sports activity after-school hours followed by study time.

AP: We tell our boys that academics is important not because it earns them a degree but because it gives them a broader world view. We have never demanded super grades from them. Therefore we’ve never had to do a balancing act. If a child is talented and wants to pursue a sport seriously, it’s the duty of every parent to give her a go at it; studies can be completed without super grades and higher education can be completed after taking a sports break if necessary.   

Most school managements are obsessed with academics and don’t give sports education the importance it deserves. What’s your comment?

GN: The top consideration for us while choosing a school for our children was that it should give equal priority to academics and co-curricular and sports education. Considering our gene pool — with two generations of sportsmen in our family (father Nandu Natekar was a national/international badminton champion) — we presumed that our sons would be interested in games and sports. Our older son Aaditya is enrolled at the Tarun Sardesai Golf Academy while Anshul studies at Vidya Valley, Pune — a school which encourages co-curricular and sports education.

I am also in an eight member-committee of CII (Confederation of Indian Industry) which has advised all schools countrywide to get their students on sports tracks and playing fields. Some private schools have built incredible sports infrastructure, but it’s severely under-utilised. It’s like building a mansion but never living in it.

What’s your take on the heavy involvement of children with gadgets and social media these days? 

GN: Luckily my sons are totally off gadgets. We bought Aaditya his first mobile phone at age 12 when he had to start travelling on his own for golf tournaments. Otherwise, they have little time for gadgets after their sports and studies.

There’s a growing tendency among new-age parents to micromanage their children’s lives and activities. What’s your comment?

GN: We try not to fall into the trap of being helicopter parents who hover around their children every single minute. In my tennis coaching programme, I see a lot of over-protective parents constantly advising their teenage children and overseeing their every activity. Children will never learn to fend for themselves if they are under continuous parental supervision. 

What is your final message to parents?

GN: Ensure your children play at least one sport. Give them as much freedom as necessary without abdicating control.

AP: Give your children freedom to explore and take chances. There is no harm in failing. All you need to do is help them pick themselves up and try again.

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