Durva Vahia (MSc Paediatric Exercise and Health 2017) is Assistant Coach of the U17 and U19 Indian Women’s Football Team, former goalkeeper for India, NYIT Bears and Exeter City Ladies Football Team, and lead Sport Scientist at Reliance Foundation Young Champs (RFYC).
Based in Navi Mumbai, the RFYC is one of the first football academies in India to have a dedicated sports science team for youth football.
At the beginning of 2019, her achievements were recognised by the Mumbai District Football Association who named Durva a Mumbai Icon.
How did your love of football develop?
I started playing the sport at the age of 11, very unintentionally, thanks to a few random series of events. A childhood friend of mine joined football coaching at our school, and I just tagged along. At the time my sister was in her final year of school, so my family was very happy that I was busy playing football rather than distracting her. I was a very un-athletic and chubby child and only joined to be with my friends. I didn’t enjoy it very much and needed persuasion from my friends to continue. Over time however, I got better, started loving the sport, and had to be persuaded to leave the field! Funnily enough, all the friends who caused me to start playing stopped playing themselves within a year of joining.
How did you find playing football at Exeter?
I absolutely loved it! It was one of the most positive playing experiences of my life! I’ve played football in different parts of my country, I’ve played in the US and in England. Personally, I enjoyed playing in England the most. I played for the University team as well as Exeter City LFC. While Exeter City was a more competitive league and environment, I really enjoyed both the experiences. The entire experience was very positive and I grew leaps and bounds as a player. The players and staff were extremely warm and welcoming and accepted me within the group. At both teams the staff and players created an environment that helped me learn and grow through the process. Of course the focus was on performance, however the way the message was transferred was a positive, process-oriented method which made it all the more enjoyable. I’ve made some friendships during my time there that I hope will last a lifetime.
How did you transfer to coaching from being a player?
Mostly opportunities. In India, it is close to impossible for women to sustain a career as professional footballers. I therefore took up coaching as a way to explore my career options, while still playing the sport. I juggled both for three years before moving to Exeter to pursue my masters. I grew more as a player while I was coaching. From my experience, coaching is about learning and adapting. You need to definitely know your sport, but also your athletes. It’s about building strong relationships where the athletes understand that you always have their, and the team’s, best interest at heart. The most motivating aspect of coaching, for me, is the difference you make in the lives of the athletes. Helping them see the best possible version of themselves and guiding them on their path to achieve it, makes all the obstacles worth it.
What is the proudest moment in your career so far?
For me, nothing compares to working with the National Team. When you wear the national team colours you have a duty to give it everything you have since you represent not just yourself, but all the people of the nation. You have been selected and trusted to represent the nation, one that very few have the opportunity to do. The first time I heard the national anthem while wearing the Indian team colours, I got goosebumps. Not to minimise other accomplishments, but none others have the same emotional sentiment like this. It’s something I’ve dreamt of since I was a young girl and something I will cherish dearly for the rest of my life.
Did your time at Exeter help you in your career?
Absolutely! My understanding of Sports Science as a profession was very limited before I reached England. During my time at Exeter, I was exposed to world-class research projects, facilities and staff. The staff pushed us to stay relevant with the current research in the field and really raised the bar for us. During my time working at Exeter City FC Academy, who are known for the quality of their youth football structure, I was exposed to an extremely structured and development-oriented model of approach. My mentor there, Adam Kelly, helped me understand the application of my education. He showed me the holistic picture of youth development and that by doing the simple things correctly we can do so much to help the players. The application of current research, as well as research on current practices, was at the centre of the sports science department. This raised the quality of the staff and practices at the Academy. My supervisor, Craig Williams, being one of the leading professionals in his field, taught me so much about the sports science as a discipline. He encouraged me to be critical of all aspects of my work and then make decisions. He guided me to thinking beyond what was in front of me and to push further to explore better rationales and practices. After I came back to India, I joined Reliance Foundation Young Champs, India’s only 5-star youth academy, as a Sports Scientist. Even now, Craig continues to mentor me, helping me grow and develop as a professional and a person.
How did it feel to be named a Mumbai Icon?
Being named Mumbai Icon was a really proud moment for me. It was an extremely heart-warming gesture to be acknowledged for the effort and accomplishments. To be welcomed so warmly by the city I grew up in, is truly humbling. I hope I am able to help grow the sports culture in the city and I hope I can inspire others to do the same. The city has given me so much and it was wonderful to be able to give back, albeit in a small way.
My long-term goals are to create a sports science structure in India that is at par with global standards. Currently, the path that sports science takes to reach India is long-winded and slow and therefore we are a few steps behind in terms of global practices. I hope to bridge that gap so that we can give our players the best possible opportunities to develop.