This feature was originally published in Tadpoles magazine and can be accessed here

Image credit: creative team.

Image credit: creative team.

War and peace. Love and hate. Rich and poor. Yin-yang. Darkness and light. These supposed opposites or ‘koans’ as the Zen Buddhists would call it, have perplexed us for ages. If Gandhi were alive, he would have termed such metaphysical dilemmas, ‘as older than the hills.’

What about academics and sports? Can these be reconciled?

Consider this:

  • Girl ‘A’ graduates from India’s top legal institute, the National Law School of India University, Bengaluru as a multiple gold medallist. She then does her post graduate studies from the University of Oxford, England on a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship. She returns to India to work on access to justice issues in policy and litigation.
  • Boy ‘B’ completes his twelfth standard scoring a high 93.2%. Being based out of India’s IT capital Bengaluru, he then invents an android application that prevents ATM burglaries. Subsequently, he gets scholarship offers from 12 world class institutes across the globe, including three ivy-league universities. He finally chooses Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where is currently studying Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.
  • Boy ‘C’, 21, is a neurobiology and physiology major at the University of Maryland, USA. With a 3.99 GPA, he is near the top of his class and is now considering studying medicine. Growing up in a south Indian family, academics is his number one priority.

These three are young adults at the peak of their mental faculties, busy interacting with the top intellectuals in India, USA and Europe across diverse disciplines.

By the looks of it, Girl ‘A’, Boy ‘B’ and Boy ‘C’ are typical ‘geeks’, who value mind over body.

Now let’s consider this next set of individuals:

  • Girl ‘X’ is a five time national level basketball player from Delhi. She is invited to the u-19 Indian team selection camp by the Basketball Federation of India. Later she captains her college teams in India and UK. Girl ‘X’ is also a champion sprinter and an accomplished marathon runner.
  • Boy ‘Y’ is in 12th standard and finds classrooms ‘suffocating’. He is extremely passionate about basketball and takes a year off after school to train and play professionally. His father is unsure and worries that his son is “too much into sports”.
  • Boy ‘Z’ is a reserve point guard at an elite division one college basketball programme in the US. Thanks to his rock hard athletic physique, he is known for his gravity defying windmill dunks despite being only 5ft 9 inches tall.

Three young adults. Extremely talented at sports. Body over mind.

What if we told you:

Girl A and Girl X is the same person named Vrinda Bhandari?

Boy B and Boy Y is the same person named Sudhanshu Nath Mishra?

Boy C and Boy Z is the same person named Varun Ramasamy?

Hard to believe?

Sounds like a classic ‘koan’ doesn’t it?

“The idea that athletes are stupid is a movie stereotype of the ‘jock culture’.” Vrinda Bhandari tells us via an email interview. “I have always believed in balancing sports with academics: basketball and running are a great break from studies; they refresh your mind, increase your alertness, and most importantly, make you happy. When you play basketball, you forget all the stress you have been carrying through the day and hence can get back to work with renewed vigour.”

But what can athletics teach somebody that a classroom atmosphere may not? “Team work, the ability to absorb losses, the maturity to make short-term sacrifices for long-term gain, and discipline, is what I’ve learnt from playing competitive basketball. I love the intensity and physicality of sports, combined with the intelligence required to play the game well.” Bhandari answers.

Interestingly, for Varun Ramasamy, sports and academics have always been complimentary activities. “It takes work ethic to study and that same discipline is needed to succeed on the basketball court as well. These dual pursuits teach me time management and make me more efficient.”

Unlike in the west, in India there is this perception that it has to be ‘either-or’: academics or sports, but never both. Since professional playing opportunities in our country are limited, primacy is given to mind over body. Athletic disciplines take the backseat and are thought of as childish hobbies to be “grown out of”, something which rankles the Rhodes Scholar, “We will benefit a lot if we see sports education as an integral part of an all-rounded, holistic education (and not just as a “free period” in school).”

For those of you wondering if Bhandari, Mishra and Ramasamy are overly talented freaks of nature, think again. “I don’t think it’s genetics at all, just hard work, family support and obviously, a bit of luck,” says Bhandari, to which Ramasamy adds, “if you care enough you’ll do both.”

So what’s your excuse?

Gopalakrishnan R
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