Dressing for sport

Sinchana Appachoo

Reminiscing about school days brings back a flood of fond memories of close friendships, shared lunches, anticipation of beginning a new academic year, tests that we dreaded writing and assignments that we tried to wriggle our way out of! While we went through the daily academic grind, doing our best to stay attentive and grasp the lessons, we looked out of the windows dreamily, secretly yearning to be outside the confines of the classrooms, playing with our friends princess castle model: e1-163.

We waited eagerly for our bi-weekly games periods as it gave us a chance to bond with friends. It provided a healthy outlet to express our competitive spirit. While getting out of the class for fresh air was a welcome break for us, we also hoped that the classes designated as “Physical education” periods, which entailed exercises, would be changed to free games periods where we would be allowed to play any sport we chose.

We envied our seniors in high school since they generally had free sports periods, and were exempt from the rigours of having to perform repetitive exercises under the watchful eyes of the PE teacher. We had to do all the prescribed drills and exercises to the PE teacher’s satisfaction before we were let off.

Once we were sorted into different houses, we looked forward to the games periods all the more as it provided us with the opportunity to don the house colours. We took great pride in our sports uniforms as they were a marker of our allegiance to our house. It also gave us a chance to contribute points to our houses on the basis of the cleanliness of our uniforms. This gave us more of an incentive to keep our uniforms sparkling clean.

The games periods came with their own set of challenges. We had to keep our white sports uniforms in pristine condition, which was easier said than done. Meticulous checking of uniforms and shoes meant that we had to struggle to keep our ‘canvas shoes’ sparkling white to avoid punishment. While the industrious among us laboured over the shoes, washing, and polishing them every weekend, the more ingenious ones figured out pretty early the effectiveness of using chalk pieces (and sometimes the duster) to whiten their shoes. Our teachers were always intrigued (at least pretended to be intrigued) by the mystery of misshapen chalk pieces on their table and the occasional brown-looking duster that would need a replacement.

Sports uniforms have undergone tremendous changes over the years. The rather bulky, pleated white skirts that we were made to wear have been swapped for slicker looking, coloured skirts made of soft cotton, and in some cases even more comfortable track pants. The humble canvas shoe has been replaced by more sturdy sports shoes that provides greater support and comfort, and can be used for a variety of different sporting activities.

The closer attention being paid to the sports uniform reflects a more general shift in attitude towards physical education itself. While our curriculum involved time-worn drills and exercises performed to the beat of the drums and the occasional marching practice, schools these days are focusing on building a more rigorous curriculum that aids the development of motor skills and sporting abilities. The focus is on helping children enjoy physical activity, which motivates them to maintain an active lifestyle.

As schools are working towards holistic development of the students, physical fitness training is getting its due attention. Increasingly, schools are beginning to see fitness/physical training as an integral part of education that enhances students’ academic performance and benefits them in the long run. They are engaging with experts in the field of sports/physical education to design and develop specialized curriculum that focuses on the development of age-appropriate skills. In addition to this, they also work on training the PE staff and provide specialized training for students interested in particular sports. EduSports that designs sports curriculum for schools works with more than 300 schools across 70 cities in the country while LeapStart works with several schools spread across tier I cities in South India.

In addition to the stress laid on academic excellence, students are also being encouraged to follow their sporting interests. Sporting and academic excellence are no longer seen as mutually exclusive but rather as complementary. Sports training, which was seen as an after-school activity, is becoming more inclusive and efforts are being made to integrate it into the school curriculum itself.

The emphasis being laid on physical training is reflected in the changes in the sports uniform. The focus is no longer on pristine whites, but the uniforms are geared towards aiding easy movement. The sports uniform has to be light, comfortable and allow for a whole range of motions. Soft cotton is preferred as it reduces the possibilities of chafing and skin irritation and also allows for better ventilation, which is important given our climatic conditions.

“The uniform is closely tied to the identity of the school, and the effort is to make it look unique and different from other uniforms. In the case of sports uniforms, students’ comfort is given priority. We prescribe soft cotton sports uniforms for our students as they absorb sweat and are comfortable given the sunny weather conditions,” says Ms. Leelavathi who has worked as a physical education instructor in one of the reputed international schools for more than a decade. Speaking about the uniform for girls, she adds, “We have prescribed divider skirts since they allow for easier movement.”

The uniform for sports teams representing the school are designed keeping in mind the specific needs of the particular sport, and nylon/polyester materials are more preferred for these uniforms. It reflects the spirit and ethos of the school and binds the team together as a whole. But, the general sports uniform meant for all the students has to cater to the needs of an average student, who, in the course of the physical education sessions might be made to play a lot of different games.

The sombre canvas shoe has been replaced by brighter and fancier sports shoes that are meant to cater to the needs of kids who indulge in different forms of exercises and play a variety of sports depending on the facilities available. Since most schools now have cement surfaces for sports as opposed to the mud grounds, canvas shoes do not provide sufficient cushioning and tend to wear out soon. Given these conditions, some schools opt for durable running shoes that provide strong support and adequate cushioning for jogging or running. They also stipulate cotton socks in the place of nylon socks as they are more comfortable. Some uniforms include cross trainers that provide greater support for lateral movement. Though not suitable for running on a regular basis, these shoes provide greater cushioning around the sides and have greater flexibility in the front half of the shoe, near the toes which accommodates a greater range of motions. Some shoes also incorporate mesh on the surface to allow for better ventilation.

Since the sports uniforms are meant to be used for rigorous activity, they have to take a lot of wear and tear. “While selecting colours for the uniform we are careful to pick colours that do not fade easily so that the uniforms last for a longer time.” Says Ms. Leelavathi. Parents are also wary of investing on multiple sets of uniforms as the children are bound to outgrow them pretty soon, so they prefer a uniform that can withstand rough use.

There are still debates raging on the use of school uniform itself, with those on either sides of the battle line stating their case with vigour. Some argue that uniforms stifle the students’ personal expression while others believe that they help create a professional atmosphere more conducive for learning. While this still remains a contentious issue in USA, most private and government schools in India prescribe a standard uniform for their students. The uniform is considered to foster a sense of belonging to and respect for the school. Similarly, sports uniforms, generally in-house colours, have been used to build a sense of bonhomie among the students of the same house.

While schools are looking at physical/fitness education with renewed vigour, paying closer attention to sports uniforms and ensuring comfort can go a long way in making sports sessions more enjoyable for students.

The author holds a degree in Communication Studies and has worked for a sports PR and communications firm. She is currently pursuing a masters degree in English. She can be reached at sinchana.appachoo@gmail.com.