Male coaches, do you know how to treat your female athletes?
- As in many parts of the world, the Indian sporting system tends to hide or look away from the abuse of female athletes by coaches or other male authority figures, write Sharda Ugra in her latest column.
What’s the last social media video around sport that stuck in your mind? For me, it’s a video which, when I first saw it, I was staggered that it had not been made mandatory viewing for Sports Authority of India (SAI) coaches, alongside SAI’s guidelines for “protection of children” at its centres.
The video is called “Working with Female Athletes – Common Mistakes Made By Male Professionals.”
It is the eighth in a series of “15 Hacks for Indian sports physiotherapists and S&C (strength & conditioning) specialists”, produced by Bangalore-based Deckline Leitao with fellow professional Alaap Jawadekar from Mumbai. Leitao is sports conditioning specialist at Bangalore’s RxDx sports medicine centre and Jawadekar is senior sports physiotherapist at the Olympic Gold Quest foundation.
In the two-part video, Leitao and Jawadekar address men working across the Indian sports environment–coaches, managers, trainers, physios, masseuses, strength and conditioning experts, yoga teachers–in bald, plain terms about correcting their preconceptions of working with female athletes.
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Its message is simple: “Learn to Behave”.
The video refers to the 2017 Larry Nassar case that ripped through US women’s gymnastics and about Korean Olympic speed skating coach Cho Jae-beom sentenced to 10 years for sexually assaulting double Olympic gold medallist Shim Suk-hee when she was 17.
As in many parts of the world, the Indian sporting system tends to hide or look away from the abuse of female athletes by coaches or other male authority figures. Accepting that this spectre exists without instant victim-shaming has only just begun.
Leitao and Jawadekar have taken a step ahead and gone at their colleagues with both barrels. At the outset, they point out that the men in Indian sport - many of whom may not have had female friends - will be in positions of power working with women who have attractive, toned bodies which are revealed more than the woman on the street because of their sporting uniforms – short skirts, swimsuits, tights. Leitao says, “You have to understand one thing - the bodies that are being built are not for you. You are not some Brad Pitt that the girls want to impress. You’re just a coach who has got a job that has to be done.”
Right at the start they tell their male colleagues that they’re called sir only because it’s the teacher as guru Indian custom, not “because you’ve been knighted by the Queen…you’re not god’s gift to women that they want to impress you. You have to remember this…”
This sobering, never-uttered reminder to men in the business also throws up the image of a particular “type” of Indian sports professional - radiating ego and control over wards.
Jawadekar says the core issue of physical contact between female athlete and male trainer/ coach/ physios during gym, training or stretching, needs to be discussed openly because silence only keeps the power equation uncomfortably imbalanced.
Leitao had an early list of dos and don’ts which he checked with the female athletes he had worked with, and asking for more suggestions. They came in a flood. National champion swimmer Maana Patel says she had talked about unnecessary touching, voyeurism and passing judgement on the clothes they wore.
Maana’s preferred gym wear is a tank top and shorts but, she says, this is often seen with disapproval, as if the athlete has “not come to train properly, that you have just come to look at yourself in the mirror.” Then there’s also taking videos of women training without their permission. All of this, Maana says, “has an impact on your mental well-being.” The men around female athletes, she says, “which includes the staff, coaches, physios and trainers, they should really work for a better and healthy working environment for females. Even if she wants to wear whatever she wants… take your hormones elsewhere, please don’t bring them it workplace, leave them outside the gym, the field, the court, the ring.”
Leitao and Jawadekar are addressing those very men but their words in the two 20-minute videos reveal the mentality which women in Indian sport must negotiate.
“Keep your personality, your culture, your community at home, don’t bring it to work,” Leitao says.
To former national badminton champ and India international Manjusha Kanwar (nee Pavangadkar), currently sports co-ordinator at the Indian Oil Corporation (IOC), the videos are the perfect segue into focussing on silent traumas endured by female athletes; of the constant dread of unwanted male attention, disrespect for their physical space and of course the threat of assault by a male in power.
As a competitive player, Manjusha tried to keep “safe” by virtually disguising her femaleness in a pixie “boy cut”, wearing men’s clothes and slouching her shoulders to make her breasts as invisible as possible.
“It was my way of dealing with what was around - my defence mechanism. I would have loved to be girlie and all, but the given the circumstances, because I was not aggressive by nature, not confrontational, I had to then take care of myself in a different way.”
Manjusha, above average height for the Indian woman at 5ft7, says that she still walks with a hunch.
“I have spent so much time slouching, it’s like I can’t keep my shoulders straight now.”
This, for many female athletes, is the terrifying “normal” which exists lifelong in them.
The situation can be addressed, Manjusha says by at least putting detailed norms of appropriate and inappropriate behaviour into place - while training, in camp, on tours, while travelling - for both the athlete and the support professional.
Manjusha says, “If today I cannot send my child where there is a manager and a coach, then it is no use of talking about how forward we are. I must feel safe... Unfortunately, today you have parents travelling only because they don’t feel safe.”
The themes underlined in the videos are not pies in the sky, they are the ugly truths around Indian sport which are played out particularly brutally, Manjusha says, at state level and with para athletes.
A conversation of this sort can produce two sets of responses: one from male professionals supporting this open reckoning of their industry. Others could erupt in outrage over hurt sentiments and questioned integrity, throwing in a few Dronacharya-references as well.
That’s when responsibility for Indian sport's decades-old horror stories can finally be placed at the door not of its female victims, but its male perpetrators.