Last summer, Anushi Desai spent 20 days at a training camp for discus throwers in Portland, Oregon. Now the 15-year-old is looking forward to the next edition of the South Asian Games, where she will represent India in the event.
No, one summer camp did not transform Anushi into a world-beater. But the camp honed her technique, improved her performance and focussed her athletic energies: She had attended a skiing camp in Zermatt in Switzerland in 2008 (which she enjoyed immensely), and also plays handball, football and track events. However, when she began excelling at the discus, winning at the state and national levels in 2010, her mother Malini trawled the internet and shortlisted two training camps in the US. After zeroing in on Portland’s Throwers’ Academy, run by Olympian Mac Wilkins, the family scheduled their summer holiday around the camp.
"The training was fun, with different exercises every day," says Anushi. What was especially beneficial was Coach Wilkins’ decision to videotape Anushi's action, which helped her perfect her turn-and-throw technique. In December that year, at the Maharashtra Schools Sports Meet, Anushi would go on to break the record for discus throw, improving her own performance by as much as 15-20 percent.
Training with another Olympic winner-turned-coach, the Romanian Adrian Ginju, worked fabulously for 10-year-old Toshi Mahrotri as well. While planning to visit New York, the Mahrotris investigated summer programmes that would add some structure to the holidays for their two young children. "We really lucked out with the swimming, especially for Toshi. After years of struggle in the pool, especially with freestyle, the camp offered her a breakthrough. She started enjoying swimming, her style and technique improved," says dad Tarun Mahrotri.
What was the difference? Toshi's coaches in Hong Kong, where the family lived, were good swimmers but not as analytical and communicative. "Asian coaches tend to be more prescriptive. There was an assumption somewhere that if you perform the same action—swim a lap in a particular style 10 times or 40 times—you will get the hang of it. Toshi's coaches in Hong Kong would stand by the pool and tell her to keep swimming," says Toshi's mother Bhavani. "Ginju did things differently: He swam the whole length underwater with Toshi, and watched her very carefully. Then he had a talk with her—not a counselling session or a pep talk—but on the theory of swimming, how she has to move the water, and on the high elbow recovery technique. Surprisingly, it worked with Toshi—everything came together and her freestyle became perfect!"
The New York experience was so good that international camps have now become an annual ritual for the family, which spends some time each year talking to friends in different places and researching online for the best sporting options for their kids. This summer, the Mahrotris have decided to holiday in London, while younger son Kabir enrols for a week-long soccer camp at the Bobby Charlton Soccer and Sports Academy in Manchester.
Football camps in Europe have long scored with kids. Ask Cyril D'Souza, founder of the Mumbai-based Universal Sports Association, who was inspired by European national teams' practice drills abroad to start escorting groups of young footballers to the UK or Spain every summer. "The sporting facilities in these countries are fantastic—the quality of training grounds, the grass, the open spaces. So is the game sense for football and athletics. The UK and Spain, especially, are at the top of their game today," says D'Souza. "Our students learn the drill, the details of a warm-up, how to control the ball, how to pass in the English or Spanish style of the game."
As part of the camp, D'Souza's young wards participate in tournaments like the Catalonia Trophy, a league for under-nines to under-19s in Costa Brava, near Barcelona.
"The players compete on well-kept real grass and 3G grass pitches before progressing to the knockout stages. Besides exposing kids to international players and styles, such tournaments and friendlies with Spanish teams give the kids a chance to know where they stand competitively.
This is the reason I like parents to come along, so that they too get a chance to see the details of the training and acquire an idea of their children's potential," says D'Souza.
The majority of the sign-ups for the Liverpool and Barcelona summer camps conducted by the Premier India Football Academy, however, travel on their own. The 15-odd boys, in the age group 10-18, are escorted by Anjali and Nirvan Shah, the husband-wife team that runs PIFA’s coaching classes in Mumbai, Bangalore and other cities. Besides food (including vegetarian options) and accommodation, the summer package includes a stadium and museum visit—Camp Nou, home to FC Barcelona, in Spain, and Old Trafford (Manchester United) and Anfield (Liverpool FC) in the UK—a tour of the city and a trip to an amusement park. The training itself is conducted by FA-licensed coaches.
For many parents, though, it is the chance to pack in a sports camp with a family holiday that is the dealmaker. It helps, of course, that some of the world's greatest cities also have deep associations with sports and coaching facilities: New York, London, Liverpool and almost all of Spain. Sporting traditions here are strong and facilities like playing fields and tracks and parks are fabulous. There’s a culture of coaching, and of children playing. They’re often interesting matches to attend. And the weather helps as well.