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The Game is Much More Than Play

Enabling leadership through football

Owing to its focus on play,  “sport for social development” has taken off in the recent past all across the globe. From children affected by war in Syria, to children in South Africa receiving crucial AIDS awareness and medical care, programs are increasingly using sports like football and basketball as a medium.

The United Nations, which in 1978 recognised sport and physical education as a “fundamental right for all”, acknowledges the unique power of sport to attract, mobilize and inspire. 

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development recognizes the growing contribution of sport towards peace and empowerment of communities.

Football “is a common passion shared by people in the throes of poverty, but also by those who have the resources to make a significant difference. Football can transcend the barriers of gender, nationality and ethnicity, and address issues such as gang violence, lack of education or poor health practices.” (Steve Fleming, full article here.)

EL Play program at Shri Sant Gadge Maharaj PMC School, Pune, 2018

At Enabling Leadership (EL), football is a tool to enable a child’s leadership capacities such as risk-taking, creative thinking and self-awareness. A combination of the intrinsic power of the sport with the fundamentals of life-skills learning inform the curriculum. 

Football is about a child’s joy at scoring their first goal and the spirit a team demonstrates when they face their first defeat. Through every on-field experience (goal, drill, pass, shot, loss, win, save), coaches take their teams through the process of reflecting, synthesizing and applying their learnings to future actions, on and off the ground. For instance, passing the ball not only helps children function better as a team and score more goals, but also instills in them the importance of communication in the classroom and at home too.


The EL Play football for leadership program aims to develop children into leaders within their homes, schools and communities, where parents, teachers, and coaches play an integral role in enabling high quality learning interventions for each child. 

Without the diligence of parents in dropping and picking their children from sessions, the stewardship of  teachers in acknowledging how football has made their students more confident in the classroom, and finally, the persistence of coaches investing their time into planning sessions, the true impact of the program would not be realized.

Football as an In-School Intervention 

EL Play program at Shri Sant Gadge Maharaj PMC School, Pune, 2018

EL Play’s program runs annually from July to March, parallel to the public school calendar, with a total of 48 sessions, each lasting 90 minutes. Each session focuses on selected technical (football) skills, taught through exercises that integrate the organization’s leadership framework. Sessions incorporate a warm-up, interactive games, skills practice, cool-down and a team talk. Coaches use multiple pedagogical strategies like open-ended questions, positive reinforcement, feedback and journaling to help children internalize these life-skills and values.

All coaches participate in a teacher training at the beginning of the year that includes a focus on behaviour management, facilitation, strategies to teach values and life skills. Subsequently, coaches meet once every month to share, reflect, and further build their coaching skills.

The annual EL Play League is an opportunity for students to practically apply the skills they have learned and practiced in training sessions in a fun, competitive environment. The League is distinct from a standard football tournament in that teams learn and interact with each other, not only across schools but also nationally, across regions. It felicitates not only the sport winners but also those who embody the values of inclusivity, teamwork and fair-play.

Insights into community transformation through the “EL Play” program in Pune

In 2011, EL Play was piloted in Pune. Since then, over the last six years, the program here has witnessed many powerful stories of transformation. 

In 2012, when the program had just kicked off, it was the teachers across partner schools who were debunking common misconceptions about how playing sports implied a student would be less focused on academic achievement.

Over the years, schools have seen students enrolled in EL Play come to school more regularly, handle stress and anger better, ask more questions in class, and slowly evolve into the leaders of tomorrow.

EL Play program at Shri Sant Gadge Maharaj PMC School, Pune, 2018
Ms Kadam, Principal, Epiphany English Medium School, Pune

School principals like Ms. Sangeetha Kadam of Epiphany English Medium School, Pune,  tell us that learning is not only confined to the classroom. EL Play sessions receive the same level of importance as a a class on physics. Epiphany school is always abuzz with drama, dance, ultimate frisbee, and football classes.

Many parents who initially hesitated to enrol their children in the EL Play program, wondering how sport would benefit their child and worrying about injuries and fatigue, have now  begun to support the program. Being the closest observer of the various changes in their children, many parents now understand how playing a structured sport like football not only ensures that their children are active, but also more disciplined and responsible at home. 

Many parents want their daughters and sons, equally, to be trained in football, and proactively reach out to coaches to address issues around anger and violence.

Football coaches who once asked what life-skills are and why or how they connect to football have experienced firsthand the value of their work; be it through their students speaking more confidently, not discriminating or fighting and being supportive of each other.

“I’m grateful to be a part of EL Play because it not only gives an opportunity to upcoming coaches, but also provides children from under-resourced schools the opportunity and platform to play football. What sets the EL Play program apart is that it is designed to tap into the talent of a child by bringing the medium of football to their doorstep, thereby making it accessible. It gives me immense satisfaction and happiness to watch the smiling faces of my students who give the game all of their heart, day after day after day.”

Dinesh Dass, Coach at Sant Tukaram e-Learning School

Coaches like Dinesh Dass who have been a part of the program since June 2016 have given up job opportunities at football academies (where most licensed coaches aspire to teach), to focus instead on training  more EL Play students, mentoring newer coaches and collaborating with them to create innovative lesson plans that integrate life skills and football.

As a consequence of the enthusiasm and efforts made by parents, teachers and coaches, students like Akash Pandey have been a part of the Program for over four years.

They have been so influenced by the game that they are eager to join as coaches and share their learnings with 8-10 year olds across the city.

Akash was a goalkeeper for his team when he played with the EL Play program. Originally from a community in Kondhwa, Aakash was known at school for his intelligent questions, positive character, and leadership on the field and off it. Aakash embodies the values and life-skills such as creative thinking, problem solving ability that are the tenets of the program. He is now a Junior College student who also coaches with EL Play at the same school he was a student at.

Aakash Pandey, Coach and  former EL Play student for 4+ years

“I was surprised when I received a call to be a coach with the EL Play program. I had second thoughts but realised that it would have been my last year on the team. Becoming a coach offered a great opportunity to stay connected with my school team. That along with the love, support and environment the EL Play program has provided me, made me reconsider my decision and say ‘YES’ to being a coach.

Football has been a great teacher. Besides teaching me the techniques of the game, it taught me the meaning of team-spirit. Even though we came from different backgrounds and had differences in opinion, when we played football, it didn’t matter because we were always one team.

Through football, I have learnt how to express myself confidently, show compassion and be helpful towards those around me as well as take ownership of my own life for my own betterment – which are qualities important to every student. Football has helped me understand the importance of being open to learning at all times – because everyday has something new waiting to be discovered.”

Continuing to provide and receive support from its community of stakeholders, the EL Play football for leadership program will see parents, teachers, coaches as well as student alumni and football academies leveraging their collective strengths to build a healthy ecosystem for every child to flourish, while nurturing football at the grassroots.

Photos & videography: Alisha Vasudev

Films by: Rachit Sai Barak

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Picture of Rishi Nandwani
Rishi Nandwani

Program Lead, EL Play
Enabling Leadership

Picture of Rachit Sai Barak
Rachit Sai Barak

Media Associate, Public Engagement
Enabling Leadership

Picture of Elita Almeida
Elita Almeida

Public Engagement Team
Enabling Leadership