India were crowned champions of the SAFF U-15 Women’s Championship 2019 in Bhutan last year and among the goals on the road to victory was striker Sai Sankhe, scoring thrice — a hat-trick against the hosts in the group stage.
Off the field — the 15-year-old recorded another landmark achievement as she attained a score of 96.2% in her ICSE Class 10 examinations — the results of which were announced on Friday (July 10, 2020).
A probable for the upcoming FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup India 2021, Sai was part of the India side that finished second at the U-17 Women’s Football Tournament in Mumbai last year and spoke in detail about how she balanced her studies with football while managing the ‘pressure’ that comes with board examinations.
“The pressure was there as I really wanted to do very well in my boards and ace them. With the result I secured, I am very happy. If you love football and consider education to be as important, you can do both together — hands down,” Sai told www.the-aiff.com.
“The exams started at the end of February this year but my preparation began much before while we were in our training camp. I was following up with my regular school studies at all times while at the camp. If we had training in the morning, I would come back and study for some time before lunch,” Sai explained her routine.
“After the evening training, I would study again. If there was no morning training on a day, I would use that time to study too. Basically, whatever time I could get, I used to it to study and prepare.”
Grateful to AIFF for their flexibility
The striker who was scouted for the national team following her performances at the Hero Junior Girls’ NFC 2019-20 in Kolhapur in April last year, talked about the emphasis on education laid down by the coaches in the camp and the All India Football Federation (AIFF).
Special tuitions were organized in the camp for the players to study and Sai stated that she “couldn’t have asked for more.”
“Our coaches in the team were really supportive and stressed on how important education is for all of us. They really helped us and organized tuitions for us as well. We couldn’t have asked for more.”
“The tuitions started in November itself and we had them for three months. In the evenings, you could study any subject you want and the teacher was there to help you. I used to study history and geography in those tuitions because those are subjects I hadn’t much.”
Anand Sankhe, Sai’s father, expressed his gratitude towards the federation and the coaches for their ‘flexibility.’
“Having regular classes and having a tutor come in creates a different atmosphere, which helps everyone to study and keeps them motivated. Additionally, it helps the girls understand studies are as important as training,” he stated.
He added: “Sai was allowed to leave the camp a month in advance by the coaches, which shows that the AIFF is flexible and takes care of both aspects of the development of these young players. It would have been easy for them to make the child choose one, but they didn’t do that. It was really helpful on their part and we are grateful for the support from the coaches and AIFF.”
Sai, who hails from Mumbai, also spoke about the ‘critical’ support she received from her school and parents, who guided her to focus on “working hard” and not think much about the result.
“I had great support from my school (Arya Vidya Mandir, Juhu), who allowed me to just go and play as they granted the required leaves. The teachers helped me with my studies. The support of my family has also been absolutely wonderful. My parents would often tell me to work hard and give my best without worrying about the marks,” she recalled.
Ashwini Sankhe, Sai’s mother, mentioned: “If the child is determined that he or she wants to excel in both academics and sports, it is very much possible. During exam time, we told her that we will be happy with whatever you score and that you should do your best. We tried to be supportive and saw that she was competitive and wanted to do well herself.”
Maymol Rocky congratulates Sai
Meanwhile, in a live chat with AIFF TV, Senior Women’s National Team Head Coach Maymol Rocky congratulated Sai on her achievement and emphasised on the importance of studies for both boys and girls at her level.
“Congratulations to Sai. I think that sports and academics should go hand-in-hand for both girls and boys. She has set an example for her teammates that without studies we cannot do anything. I tell all parents and fans that you need to push your children for both sports and studies and that we cannot neglect studies.”
“I think all the girls need to step up and start studying. They need to keep that in mind that there you can’t skip academics. The fans out there should understand that our federation gives importance to studies as well. And credit to the coaches also who are pushing the girls to pursue and excel in both fields,” Maymol expressed.
Learning lessons for life
With the right support, sports and studies can go hand-in-hand for young athletes. In fact, Sai feels, the two even complement each other. Sharing her experience, she expressed that football has taught her “lessons for life” and on the other hand, doing well in studies has enabled to perform better on the pitch too.
“I feel I have learnt so many life lessons from football. For example, it has taught me that life is not always fair and that things always don’t go in your favour, which is something one does not learn in classrooms.”
“On the other hand, football has also helped me concentrate on my studies and keep me sharp and fresh. Doing well in my studies also makes one more confident while on the field. Both sides help the other,” she explained.
With lockdown enforced across the country as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sai has continued to focus on improving in both fields while trying to make optimum use of the time at hand.
“We have been given a fitness routine to follow by our fitness coach (Per Karlsson), which I use to train in the evening six days in a week. In the mornings, I like to complete any studies that I have and help in work around the house. I have also started learning Spanish during this lockdown, as I always wanted to try learning a new language,” she smiled.
Her father Anand also spoke about her possible career choices, with football and studies both an option, especially with the way football in the country is growing.
“We count ourselves lucky and are grateful that Sai has both options open (career in football or studies). We can see football in India is opening up brilliantly — especially women’s football — with so many opportunities coming up. The World Cup exposure would be fantastic and with the Hero Indian Women’s League (IWL) also expanding, it is looking like a viable career option in the future. We’ll see how things go in the next 1-2 years and let Sai make her choice. We will support it, no matter what,” he affirmed.
(Shraishth Jain / AIFF Media)