Sports are often used as a tool for personal and social development. They can instil a multitude of values, then reflected throughout our lives. I met with Benoy Stephen and Vivek Srivastava to discuss using Ultimate Frisbee to support children from economically and socially disadvantaged communities in India.
Can you tell me about yourself and your organisation?
Benoy: Hi, Nadia, thanks a lot for having us here! My name is Benoy Stephen, and I play Ultimate Frisbee. I got introduced to the sport during my last undergrad year. Then, I got the chance to work with Teach for India in a government school in Hyderabad, where I met with some wonderful kids and tried out a few things to support them using Ultimate Frisbee as a tool. In the process, I met Vivek Srivastava and a few other peers who wanted to do the same and, we all set up Y-Ultimate together, and now, here we are.
Vivek: I used to sail on ships for 15 years before deciding to do something else and went into business school. During my studies, I loved learning about Organisational Behaviour and became a research assistant in the field. One of my research topics was ethics at the workplace, which is how I came across Ultimate Frisbee. Then, I completely went into the sport and started playing full time.
We are both members of our team and play with our kids. The youngest in our team is 15 years old, and the oldest is me, and I am over 40. We all work hard together!
At the end of every Ultimate Frisbee game, a spirit circle takes place. It is a beautiful concept where you have both team members mixing up, coming together in a circle, and then resolving any conflict, giving feedback, appreciating each other so that everyone goes home with a clean slate.
What is Ultimate Frisbee?
Vivek: Ultimate Frisbee is a non-contact self-refereed mixed-gender sport. It is played with a flying disc, and you could say it is a mixture of basketball and American football.
Unlike many sports, you have to self-officiate and uphold the rules as a result. This constitutes the fundamental principle on which Ultimate runs, and it is called the spirit of the game (SOTG). Therefore, you do not use any mind games and always have to remain respectful while playing.
Benoy: Also, at the end of every Ultimate Frisbee game, a spirit circle takes place. It is a beautiful concept where you have both team members mixing up, coming together in a circle, and then resolving any conflict, giving feedback, appreciating each other so that everyone goes home with a clean slate. It is a space for reflection built into the sport that constitutes an excellent tool for learning.
All along, our biggest motivation has been those kids.
What were your main drivers and motivations to start the organisation?
Vivek: In the heart of Delhi, we came across an economically challenged community. The children from this small community would come, watch us play and become enthusiastic about it. They wanted to play, and we pulled them in with us.
We quickly saw their great potential: they were very athletic and picked up the sport very fast! We were encouraged by how they were growing, so we thought we needed to develop further this project to sustain it.
We got donations from family and friends first. Then, inspired by the positive changes that we saw in these children, we registered ourselves as an organisation to support even more children in India. All along, our biggest motivation has been those kids.
How do you reach out to more children?
Benoy: The young kids that we met in Delhi have grown so much as players and individuals. So, we decided to mentor them into becoming our young coaches to help us reach out to more children.
We have three models to do so. One is through schools: we have both an in-school program and an after-school program - depending on what works best for each school. We also do a community program where we immerse ourselves in a community with the support of a partner organisation and other groups or individuals. Finally, we help other organisations set up their Ultimate Frisbee program, where our youth coaches go, build capacity, and then leave and support them remotely.
You mentioned you needed funds to pay for the gear and tournaments, for instance. Do you generate revenues to sustain your purpose?
Benoy: Most of our revenue comes from donations, and we have individuals who donate to us for a particular community. So, whatever contribution we get goes entirely to the youth coach that is handling that community.
Many communities want engagement for recreational purposes, but also, some communities have started aspiring to take the sport more seriously. We are always happy to support them no matter how far they want to go.
How long do you work with a certain group of children?
Benoy: The kids we met in Delhi always stay with us and have become our youth coaches, and we plan to stay together. Otherwise, we conduct one-time workshops in communities and schools and continuous coaching programs that last a year or more - depending on the funding, players' availability, community issues, and more.
Vivek: Yes, the youth coaches constitute an essential part of our organisation, and we are all able to teach people right from the beginning (basic level and up). So, it will just depend on the aspirational level of the children. Many communities and NGOs want engagement for recreational purposes, but also, some communities have started aspiring to take the sport more seriously. So, we are always happy to support them no matter how far they want to go.
It is great to hear how you are providing these children with a sense of community and purpose.
Vivek: Yes, and you know, our children regularly get selected for the Indian national team. Two of our girls have already represented India at an international level. In 2020, we had four of our girls who got selected for an Under-20 (U20) team for India. Unfortunately, the tournament got cancelled because of COVID-19, but that is how good our children are. I also got the chance to play a tournament in France while representing India, and we won the Spirit of the Game Award.
That is awesome, congratulations guys! I saw you have been to several states in India. So, how many children have you worked with so far?
Benoy: We have worked with more than 1200 children in one year so far.
One of our girls wants to grow up to implement policy changes to allow for more gender equality and tackle other issues that she has seen in her village. Others want to become lawyers.
Overall, what effects have you seen in their lives as a result of your initiatives?
Vivek: The community in Delhi, previously mentioned, has around 500 children, and we work with 30 of them. So, if you look at their peers, they tend to drop out of school as they do not have the correct support system to help them make the right decisions for their future.
On the other hand, most of our team's children are doing well in school and have future goals. For instance, one of our girls wants to grow up to implement policy changes to allow for more gender equality and tackle other issues that she has seen in her village. Others want to become lawyers.
All of this has been very organic - and we think it is related to the nature of the sport. Indeed, Ultimate is an inclusive sport where both genders play together. So, all of our kids have forgotten gender stereotypes. Also, they do not pick up on their peers' bad habits such as smoking and drinking as it is not enough to be gifted to succeed in this sport - you have to put in the effort and discipline to get results.
So, we have noticed changes in their attitudes such as resilience, discipline, ownership, positivism and inclusiveness; and it is so nice to see what they are now doing with their lives. These changes have kept us going.
Let's talk more about your journey to become an organisation. Was there anything crucial to make it happen?
Benoy: I would say something crucial was constantly seeing our team winning tournaments and the Spirit of the Game Award, calculated based on opponents' rates. So, playing at the highest level of spirit and winning as a result of performing at our best were components that made us keep moving forward.
It is rare to have both high performance and spirit in a team. In India, the teams that generally win have traditionally not been high on spirit scores. Nevertheless, we managed to keep our kids competitive without them becoming aggressive.
What do you feel have been your greatest achievements?
Benoy: Winning a tournament while having a highly-rated spirit performance is a great achievement for us. Also, we love it when a community reaches out to us to start playing.
Vivek: Yes, I agree. Indeed, it is rare to have both high performance and spirit in a team. In India, the teams that generally win have traditionally not been high on spirit scores. Nevertheless, we managed to keep our kids competitive without them becoming aggressive. I do not know how we did it, but it is one of our most outstanding achievements!
I am aligned with that approach. I believe it is good to seek excellence, but never at the expense of other people.
Vivek: Yes, exactly! The only person we have to beat is ourselves. You can see this mindset in our jump-rope workouts videos. You can notice a huge difference between the beginning and eight months later: this reflects their mentality and how they want to achieve mastery and excellence in what they are doing.
Benoy: Yes, it is noticeable, and it gives me a lot of joy. When I started playing in 2015, I played against a team with smaller kids, so it was easy to throw the Frisbee above their heads, and we ended up winning the game. However, they worked on themselves, learned from their defeats, and never gave up, and now the tables have turned completely: they are one of the best teams in the country at this point.
What have been your biggest challenges?
Benoy: Even though the International Olympic Committee recognised the sport, our country does not recognise it. So, when you pitch the sport in a school or community, you get asked questions as "Can I make a career out of this?" "Will I get a certificate that is going to help me with a job or an admission somewhere?" Sadly, the answer to those questions is "not yet". So, we have to let them see the sport's potential and ask them to give us a chance to show them.
Vivek: Another challenge is funding to take care of our coaches, travel costs, gear, and other expenses. We also need to cover the financial incentives we have in place for our kids who teach and coach other children via our paid-forward model. In this model, we try to cross-subsidise our initiatives. For instance, we take the money earned from going to a school to work with socially and economically underprivileged communities. However, as schools do not know well about Ultimate and it is not a well-recognised sport in India, it becomes challenging to sustain our model.
How can we support your organisation?
Benoy: Donations are welcome because there are constantly a few communities that would like our service pro bono. Also, we are always looking for like-minded people with different skill sets than ours to help us do things better and figure out how to take this best forward. Finally, we look for volunteers to capture our games' greatest moments to communicate what we are doing.
What do you envision for the years to come?
Vivek: Our mission is to spread out Ultimate Frisbee to as many children as possible.
To everyone, come and play!
Would you like to share anything else with the people who are going to see this interview?
Benoy: Try Ultimate Frisbee! If you want to start anywhere in India, reach out to us on our social media platforms, and we will get back to you and support you with whatever you need, even tools to help you build your community to reach out to more children.
If you are an educator, I would like to share how sports are a great tool to teach children how to accept, recover and learn from failure. Indeed, even if you put your best foot forward in sports, things might not go as planned.
To everyone, come and play!
Thanks so much for reading this post!
If you are a social entrepreneur and would like to share your story, reach out to me via LinkedIn. I am looking forward to it!