Making a career in sports is incredibly tough, more so when your parents are doctors, even if they fully support you in achieving your aspirations !

Sarthak Pawar, our next pathbreaker, Head of the Sports Psychology department at Reliance Foundation’s Young Champs Academy (RFYC), works with some of the best youth players in the country, facilitating their mental and physical growth to help them face the rigours of professional football. 

Sarthak talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about his fascination for football from an early age and his transition from a player (state/national level) on the field to a sports psychologist conditioning players, off the field.

For students, there are no excuses for not pursuing your dream career, its your life and only you can control it !

Sarthak,  what were your growing up years like?

Hi, my name is Sarthak Pawar and I’m a Sports Psychologist by profession. About 26 years ago, I grew up in the city of Pune in a Maharashtrian family of doctors. Even though we lived in an area associated with gang violence, both my parents are very progressive and really emphasized the need for a good education starting with a fluency in English, as early as when I was 5 years old. This was further enhanced when I was put in the oldest convent school in Pune, St’ Vincent’s High School. The atmosphere of the school also influenced me to take up various sports and I was heavily invested in football and really wanted to become a professional player because I ended up playing at the inter-school, college, zonal, state and national level. I even enjoyed coaching at a young age and used to teach football to the kids in my locality.  My parents, who are both doctors, always supported me in every possible way and made sure I didn’t miss out on opportunities, but also encouraged me to keep on maintaining my grades. In school, I was a relatively smart but extremely lazy student, as is often the case with student athletes, though I did enjoy History, English and Biology (Thanks to my mom).

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did a BA in English Literature for my graduation from Fergusson College in Pune and my masters in MSc Sports and Exercise Psychology from Leeds Beckett University in the UK.

What were some of the influences that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

If there is anything that has helped me walk on this path, it would be the constant support of my parents. The initial plan was to become a doctor like my parents, but I soon realized I lacked the dedication and consistent efforts required to become a doctor, and hence ended up making a switch from Science to Arts. My parents were extremely supportive and made the switch as fluid as possible. During this time, I stumbled upon Psychology and instantly took a liking to it like fish to water. Just the concepts of learning and conditioning piqued my curiosity like no other. After this, it was a relatively straight road for me as it was pretty clear that I wanted to learn more about Psychology and even possibly carve out a career in this field. The only obstacle was my dream to also work in football. By then I had realized that being a professional footballer was not a realistic goal for me and therefore I was constantly looking for other ways to stay connected to the sports world. The perfect solution was then presented to me in a very casual conversation by my uncle who mentioned this career in Sports Psychology and in an absolute instant, I decided that was it for me. Without any research in the job role or what the job market is like, I had my heart set on becoming a Sports Psychologist. In hindsight, it was such an impulsive decision to commit to, but it all worked out in the end.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? 

I graduated from Fergusson College in Pune, where I did a Bachelor of Arts (BA). I wanted to major in Psychology, but missed out on the list by 1 mark and therefore had to change to English major. Not getting Psychology was a gut punch, but I started looking at alternate ways to still walk on the path of Sports Psychology that I had already chosen. I started doing parallel courses in Sports Psychology and sports coaching to facilitate my growth and kept on building my base in psychology. 

After I came to terms with the fact that I’m not getting a Psychology specialization, (and it took a while to get there) the next step for me was to reflect and reassess my ambitions. I loved my college life in Fergusson, but I was open to swapping it for some other college if the lure of a Psychology major presented itself. However, that was not to be, and I had to start preparing myself otherwise. Firstly, I checked with counsellors and colleges abroad whether there was the possibility of still applying for a Master’s in Sports Psychology. I started going to a lot of college fairs to meet representatives of foreign universities and explain my situation. A few of them were pretty firm that there was no way I could get in without an Undergraduate degree, which also cancelled out my top 2 Universities, Loughborough University and Liverpool John Moores University. But there was a sense of optimism as there were still a few who said they were open to the application, depending on how I facilitate my learning along with my current education. Accordingly, I started learning the course modules of these universities and picked online courses that helped me become better equipped to get in. These actions really paid good dividends as I got accepted by 3 universities and consequently had serious options to choose from. After finally getting in, I also applied for a couple of scholarships and funds but didn’t get much success. Finally, on the basis of my application, the Leeds Beckett University offered me a partial scholarship that I was more than happy to accept.

This helped me create a good foundation to apply for my post-graduation course in Sports Psychology. This culminated in my admission to sports psychology programs 2018 where, out of many options, I chose to pursue a MSc in Sports and Exercise Psychology from Leeds Beckett University in the UK. I was also bestowed a scholarship that covered 40% of college fees. Traveling to the UK was daunting but gave me a sense of optimism for the sense of challenges and opportunities ahead. The course was great and gave me so much practical and theoretical knowledge and experience. With modules focusing on current research, contemporary standards of practice and practical applications,this course not only helped me get a holistic understanding of Sports Psychology but also set a good foundation for a career in Sports Psychology and even football specifically, with an opportunity to work with a professional club like Doncaster Rovers. 

How did you make a transition to Sports Coaching and Conditioning?

Along with my degree, I also pursued my coaching badges in the UK in Football and Futsal coaching. Getting a job as a coach was quite hard to begin with since I didn’t know a lot of people but my motto was clear. I had 2 years in the UK and I was going to make the most of this time. So I would constantly look around for opportunities to intern and coach as a mental coach and football coach. I got my big break and got an opportunity to coach with Leeds United FC, historically one of the biggest football clubs in England

My first job with them was to coach really small girls and create awareness about women’s football. This meant that I went to primary schools and played fun games like “Ring around the Roses”, “Duck duck goose” and so on. Within these games, I would involve a bit of football to get them hooked onto the sport. 

Soon, I was also given another young boys team and this meant more opportunities to coach proper football. After a lot of toiling I finally got my big break when they asked me to join a top coach of the academy and be his assistant for a session. And I still remember the day as clearly as ever. It was an evening session and it was absolutely pouring as it quite often does in the UK. The local bus transport I used to commute stopped about 2 Kilometers before the training facility, and so I had to walk  in the freezing rain and reach the ground in time. Though It was slightly tiring, the moment I reached the pitch and saw the flood lights switch on, the lush green grass and some of the best coaches in the country standing and planning their session, I knew this was the life for me. I enjoyed that session more than any other and learned so much from them that I can still apply most of those things today. 

From here on, I had even more clarity about my career choices. I kept on working with Leeds United and also managed to get another coaching job to manage the National League Club Guiseley FC and their U-12 team. Along with this, I also had to manage the rigors of completing my dissertation and Master’s degree. Finally, the day came when I was awarded my degree and the look on my parent’s face when I mentioned them in acknowledgements is still etched in my memory.

Tell us about your career path after completing your master’s.

After completing my degree and at the end of my term, I was offered a job to coach and work in the US with a football coaching firm from the UK. This was a new step in my career and one that I had not anticipated. The job offer meant that I switched countries and went over the Atlantic into a completely different environment.

The job involved me going to a new city every week, coaching about a 100 kids and then moving over the weekend to a new city where we would start the process again. As daunting as it was, it turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made, as I got to learn new cultures, coach hundreds of kids and travel all over the US of A.

Finally, after completing my term with UKIS (The company that hired me to go to the US), I was back home in India and looking for a fresh start. This was also the time the Covid Lockdown was in full steam and it meant that I had no idea what I was going to do. Naturally, I wanted to restart my career in Sports Psychology and coaching, but I did not know where to start? It had been a while since I was in India, and with the whole country locked down, where would the opportunities come from? With this seemingly rational thought process, I assumed that there would be no opportunities in India for Sports Psychology, and therefore made the absurd decision to not even try. I wasted 2 months before I was sick of sitting at home and decided to almost join my best friend in a real estate business. That’s when I was sitting in my locality and one of the kids who I had coached way back when I was in school met me again and told me he was now playing for Bengaluru FC, one of the top teams of Indian football. He said that they had a psychologist and it was somebody that I actually knew. So I reached out to Liyaan, asking for guidance and nothing else about this field in India. She told me all about her struggles and the issues she faced before she reached this level and asked me to keep on going and also shared a few more contacts. 

Through one of these contacts, Vardayini, I was made aware of a job opening at the very best football academy in India, Reliance Foundation Young Champs Academy (RFYC). She recommended me and within a week I was speaking to Parth, the lead Sports Psychologist about the job. He and I really clicked on a philosophical level and I got the job and started learning under his tutelage. Though there was a lot for me to learn, the experience of working under him was exceptional. One day, he called me up and told me he was leaving and suddenly the job that had a lot to learn from became even harder. Suddenly, the Sports Psychology department became a 1-man team and that one man was not remotely prepared for it. Ideally there was a lot more I would’ve liked to have learned from Parth, but that was not meant to be and now there was a job on my hand, to steady the ship and make sure the department was still functioning effectively. Thankfully, the academy and staff were extremely supportive and I found my bearings soon enough which meant things started flowing. This meant that I got to travel with squads to many tournaments including an overseas tournament to Dubai which helped me understand the athletes even better and even grow personally. This process finally culminated in the academy being extremely happy with my work and offering me the role of the Head of the Sports Psychology department and asking me to hire somebody of my choice. 

How did you get your first break?

I was sending monthly emails to every major sporting institution in the North of the UK during my master’s. This helped me get a few coaching jobs that in turn helped me get more experience and improve as a coach. Finally I got my big break and got an opportunity to coach with Leeds United FC, historically one of the biggest football clubs in England. It came after they got sick of seeing my emails every week and finally invited me in for a talk to see if I really was credible.

My first break was at Leeds United FC where I got it through constant emails being sent to every major club I could think of. I was ready to travel hours away with local transport just to conduct one training session and this persistence was what got me my first big break.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

There have been quite a few challenges, but this path has really helped me learn and grow and I’m grateful for it.

Challenge 1: 

The first challenge was accepting that a career as a footballer and doctor was not for me due to different challenges. It took a while but with some guidance I was able to start on a new path and build my repertoire towards it. 

Challenge 2:

The second challenge was not getting Psychology as my specialization in my undergrad degree which meant my goal of becoming a Sports Psychologist was in danger.  It took a while to accept, but I soon realized that the only way to move forward was to work on the things in my control and keep on improving in those aspects and so I started studying all I could to prepare myself for a postgraduate degree in Sports Psychology.

Challenge 3

Managing my life during my masters degree in the UK with all the studies that needed to be done, a part time job in a bar to pay the bills and working towards extracurricular growth by coaching football and getting more experience in that regard, was hard and intense work.. 

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

I am currently the Head of the Sports Psychology department at Reliance Foundation’s Young Champs Academy. RFYC is the best rated football academy in the country and the second best in Asia. With some of the absolute best youth players in the country, my job involves facilitating their mental and physical growth as athletes so that they are better equipped to face the rigours of professional football. 

Accordingly, I work with the athletes on and off the pitch. Off the pitch, we carry out Psychological Skills training (PST) sessions which intend to create awareness about the various mental aspects that are required for an athlete to consistently perform at the highest level and keep on improving. 

Along with these, we also have individual one-on-one sessions on an “as per need” basis, especially if an athlete is struggling in certain aspects. Lastly, we also carry out tests to monitor various mental aspects like the motivation levels, the desire to set quality goals, the ability to solve problems etc. Based on these tests, we can further evaluate the athletes and then help me improve and condition them even further. 

What skills are needed for your role? How did you acquire the skills?

Naturally, a lot of this work depends on my ability to create a good bond with the players and evaluate their body language to assess the mental state they are in. While some of these qualities are ones I have acquired on the job or learnt through my degree and internships, a majority of it has also been developed through my own experiences as a footballer. Quite often, the most impactful bits of my work are when I’m able to really empathize with a player and understand what’s going on in their mind on the pitch. And this is greatly facilitated by the fact that, I was also once in their shoes. But it is also extremely important to not try and fit their feet in my shoes, that is, not assume that I was in a similar situation so I know what they are feeling. It is more nuanced and requires patience to understand a youth athlete especially because quite often they themselves have not vocalized some of these thoughts to themselves. And these are some of the best bits of my job where I’m able to observe the player on the pitch, which is their natural setting, and watch how they perform, without judgement. Thanks to my coaching experience, I’m also able to coach them on the pitch, give small pointers and then speak to them after the match to reflect on the game. This is naturally not something that has instant results, but is more of a “Process over Performance” approach. So it might be hard to see if the athlete is applying these interventions, but every now and then you take a step back, reflect on the challenges a player has been facing in the past and then watch them thrive in the present and feel a sense of satisfaction and pride !

How does your work benefit society? 

I believe my role at the moment is about creating awareness. Awareness of mental aspects in elite sport. For too long, as a coach, we’ve worked on the physical, technical and tactical aspects. A player might work as hard as they can on these 3 aspects but may still not see results because there is literally no consideration of many mental variables like his/her mental state, confidence in his/her abilities, the level of comfort in their current settings, etc. Utopia for me would be an environment where every athlete is also asked to reflect and be aware of how their own psychology is affecting the results they are getting. If I were to be able to inspire people to think about elite sports from such a psychological perspective, that would be the biggest victory I could achieve.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

Working with our team in an international tournament in Dubai 2022 was certainly one of the best moments in my professional career. This was an “Under 15” team playing against an older opposition from other countries who were certainly faster and physically much stronger than us. The first game was not the best simply because we let their physique get into our head and played with a lot of fear. Naturally the team was gutted to have lost the first game but the way they reflected on their match, and discussed looking for solutions was already a turn for the better. 

We worked on a bit of mindfulness as we have in the past and the idea was to focus on nothing but the present moment. If we could keep away the distracting thoughts of how strong our opponents were, we could show our best brand of football and that’s exactly what they did. We bounced back in spectacular fashion and worked towards only one goal, playing our own style of football, without being distracted by the opposition. We ended up getting the bronze medal after losing out on penalties, but the success of the tournament was much more far reaching than that. All the opponents were stunned with the technical ability and mental composure our boys showed, which in turn led to compliments like, “We didn’t know India had such good football”. Little did the boys know that just staying true to their game would have such far reaching consequences which culminated in the best way possible, with our players winning plenty of awards and more importantly, securing opportunities to play in countries like Spain and England.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Choose your job on the basis of your passion. If there is something you are really passionate about, just start working with it. Don’t worry about anything else. I chose my career simply based on what I was passionate about and honestly at that point, there was not a single job profile in India for a Sports Psychologist. Even today,it is such a niche position. If you really like what you do, you’ll be consistent and happier doing that in the long run as opposed to anything else. Your passion will open doors for you that you didn’t even imagine existed. Even if things aren’t going well, stick to it. Think about the big picture. Stay true to the process. Because if you keep staying true to the process, you may get rejected once, twice or even thrice, but one day, you will get an opening in the field you want to work in. And that’s when your dream job begins, and it only gets better from there! 

Future Plans?

Currently, the aim is to create more awareness about Sports Psychology and its benefits in India and abroad.  This is also facilitated by constant research and studies. The day you think you have learned enough, is the day you begin to stagnate.

Professionally, I am extremely happy in the role I currently wield, another dream I have comes from another passion of mine, Liverpool Football Club. As a boyhood supporter, I have a goal to achieve and that would be to work with the Liverpool FC and thereby reach the top of elite sport. 

In parallel, someday I would love to work with the national team of India as I believe that would be a great challenge, massive achievement and most importantly a big step in creating even more awareness about the importance of Sports Psychology in elite sport.