While sports in India continue to be a male-dominated field, the role of women is certainly improving. With champion athletes like Saina Nehwal, PV Sindhu, and MC Mary Kom finally gaining widespread recognition for their efforts, more women than ever are being encouraged to pursue their sporting passions. Tennis is no exception to this trend. In the wake of Sania Mirza’s ascent to the top spot in the world rankings, India has developed into a hub of talent on the Women’s Tour. Just a few years ago, in 2017, not one, not two, but three Indian women ranked among the top 40 juniors in the world as per the International Tennis Federation.
This is a testament to the rapid development of the sport in the country. However, despite the increased interest and recognition for women’s athletes, one factor continues to disappoint. The tennis coaching fraternity in India remains overwhelmingly male-dominated, with the role of training our athletes still being perceived predominantly as ‘a man’s role‘. Having competed extensively on the Indian tennis circuit for almost a decade now, I can count the number of female coaches I have encountered on one hand. One of these coaches, who has been rapidly gaining recognition over the past few years, is 27-year-old Namita Bal from Pune.
Namita Bal is a unique presence in the Indian tennis fraternity. She works tirelessly and maintains an unwaveringly energetic outlook despite working in a system that is notorious for being lax and letting talent fall through the cracks. She was a talented young player herself, ranking in the top 10 of the junior rankings and winning the National doubles championships thrice in the U-14, U-16, and U-18. Tragically, a recurring back injury forced her to pull the plug on her competitive career in 2015. The youngster, however, is not one to be denied so easily.
She decided to look at her injury as a blessing in disguise and decided to use her experience and passion to groom young players and help them achieve their goals. What had the potential to be heartbreaking has since bloomed into an amazing new purpose for Namita Bal, and she has made incredible progress in her coaching career in a remarkably short period of time. At just 27 years of age, she has already assumed the role of India’s Junior Fed Cup Captain, which means that she mentors and accompanies India’s junior team as they compete against the best players in the world.
Being a professional player myself, I have had the privilege of working with Namita, and have witnessed firsthand the exemplary work that she has been putting in with her players. I recently had the chance to interview her, and we spoke about her experience as a female coach in India, the importance of female role models in sport, her struggle with body image issues, and the ambition she harbors for the future.
Q. In India, being a tennis coach is a vocation that is generally reserved for men. Have you ever felt out of place, or have people ever made you feel out of place? How has it affected you?
Namita Bal: No, I’ve never let myself feel out of place. I think it’s good that I’m different, I like it. I think I thrive when I stand apart, and it makes me work even harder for my goals. A lot of people have definitely tried to make me feel like I’m out of place, and not taken me seriously. While I can be negative about some parts of my life, I’ve known that I belong on the tennis court since I was 8 years old, and that is not something that anyone can change. I can’t let their narrative become my truth. It’s made me a better coach as well, because I know that a 27 year old man doesn’t have to work as hard as I have in order to be taken seriously. I pride myself on this extra work I’ve put in, as I’ve had to learn about so many different aspects of the game in order to be where I am. I think this makes me well rounded, and it gives me an edge over a lot of my peers. So it’s all good.
Q. You’re obviously different from most of your counterparts, and that can be intimidating. Have you ever struggled with pressure or self doubt as a result of this?
Namita Bal: Again, while I can be negative with other things, coaching is not something where I really question myself. I’ve always believed in my ability and my passion. Of course, some assignments carry a bit more pressure, like the Junior Fed Cup, which was a very big deal. I did feel nervous while leading up to it, but I eased into it as soon as it got underway. My focus shifted to my players and what they needed out of me, and I’ve always felt extremely capable in that role. So yes, things can be a bit intimidating at the start, but I always ease into them once I get underway.
Q. Recently, you’ve also made forays into the men’s circuit. What has that experience been like?
Namita Bal: I feel like male players don’t usually take me seriously, but that has begun to change. I think growing up and seeing all their coaches be men, they can’t really perceive a woman in the role. But again, I’m confident in what I bring to the table, regardless of whether they believe it or not. Last year I traveled to a tournament with a men’s player for the first time, and that was a slightly intimidating prospect. But again, as soon as we got into the thick of it, all that went away, and we did pretty well. I think that male players have also started to accept me as a coach more now. And it is one of my ambitions to be the Davis Cup coach for India, because why not? I definitely believe that I can make that happen.
Q. What is the significance of women role models like you in sports today?
Namita Bal: I think it’s important for there to be women role models not just for girls, but also for boys. Obviously girls have different challenges and perspectives that they need help with, which is a role that men can’t really adopt. I think they need to have role models that can guide them on these issues from experience. There is such a taboo and so much misinformation surrounding so many issues, and I think we really need to do away with that. And I also think that young men also need women role models in their lives. So many boys don’t see me as a coach purely because they’ve never seen women in such roles. The only way to change that perception is by encouraging more women to pursue their passions and adopt these sorts of roles.
Q. A major issue that women across the world struggle with is body shaming. Have you ever had issues with your body image? How has it affected your life?
Namita Bal: I think this is such a massive struggle for so many women, as we’re constantly made to believe that we have to look a certain way. The most important thing I’ve learnt, and want to share, is that while perceptions do need to change, you can’t wait for others. You have to try and break your own barriers. In my playing days, my body was a big part of my self-concept. When I got injured and had to stop training, it affected me really badly. I couldn’t train so I lost a lot of muscle. And I became so afraid of gaining fat that I almost completely stopped eating.
I was afraid I wouldn’t look ‘fit’ anymore, and I was so obsessed with looking thin that my health started to suffer. My family even got me diet enhancing pills because I was so underweight, but I’d throw them away. I’d keep falling sick and getting injured often. After a stage, I realized that this was severely hampering my coaching and keeping me from meeting my goals. I made a change in my diet, and my focus when training shifted to getting stronger rather than looking fit. It’s been a challenging process, but it’s definitely helped me both physically and psychologically. I’m a lot stronger, healthier and I also get more enjoyment out of food now.
Q. What sort of changes do you think need to be made in order to improve the role of women in sports?
Namita Bal: I think we need to change the way we perceive women, and the way women perceive themselves, and this can only happen if we make a proactive effort at the lower levels. If more girls take up sport, then more will end up as players and as coaches. We definitely need to encourage more participation at the grassroots level- maybe in school environments. We need to tell girls that they don’t need to fit into any roles, and that they can definitely pursue their passions. I think that’s the best way to bring about a change. I’m definitely going to be advocating for these sorts of changes as my career progresses, and I’m also open to administrative roles in the future to implement these measures.
Rudraksha Rishi Mitra is a tennis player from New Delhi. He’s been competing on the national circuit for the past 6 years and currently trains at the RK Khanna Tennis Stadium.. He also writes articles and blog pieces on a number of topics such as personal development and mental health. He did his schooling from DPS RK Puram, and is currently studying at Fergusson College, Pune. You can find him on Medium and Linkedin.
Featured Image Source: The Hindu