THE ‘KACCHA LIMBU’ Phenomenon: How ‘Underdogs’ Outperform the ‘Gifted’

The Ugly Duckling story makes an apt parallel for the Kaccha limbu Phenomenon.
The ‘Kaccha Limbu’ phenomenon
Universal flaws in the educational and social systems that contribute to unjustly classifying kids as jocks and wimps – and suggested measures to overcome them.

‘Sometimes being the problem helps you understand the problem better.’

If you went to school in India as I did, you must have noticed the practice of calling the weaker, smaller kids ‘kaccha limbus’ (raw lemons) during a game – they are the ones picked last on any team, not allowed to bat or bowl but just to field in a game of cricket or just pushed somewhere into the background in a game of football. I, myself grew up as a ‘kaccha limbu’. No doubt about it that i was bad at sports among the people of my class/batch (but that has multiple reasons to which we shall get to soon) but to make matters worse, I had too many ideals – especially against lying. So I was generally the boy nobody wanted on their team because if i got out, i would walk off the crease even if the game was rigged by putting our own umpire and i was given not out – and if i was made the umpire while my team bats, I would call fair and not cheat – and in a bunch of kids obsessed with winning over sportsmanship, that’s way too much idealism. This put me away from teamsports on the whole and i found myself liking martial arts, swimming, trekking, rifle shooting and games/sports which do not need groups. And yet almost all through school i was never a great athlete. ALMOST.
and that is where the key lies.
Towards the end of my school life and into college, I improved phenomenally in sports and as an athlete – i won a sprint for the first time when i was 14, i hit a six among my school mates for the first time at 14, i won swimming and judo competitions at 15-16, i kicked serious ass at volleyball in college – and even today, at 27 i’m fitter, faster, stronger than most people my age. Infact, i’d even say that most people my age and size cant even accomplish half the physical feats i can.
What happened? Where did the kaccha limbu go? Was there some kind of miracle that occurred as i hit teenage and beyond?

It is something I noticed all through school but couldn’t find the right words to put it across – until  Malcolm Gladwell pointed it out in the best ways possible. In his book Outliers, Malcolm points out that the difference in the academic year and the actual year results in an unfair advantage to people born in certain months. Since motor development is extremely rapid in the early years even a difference of few months can make a huge difference. The kids that are in the same class but are older by a few months are with a magnanimous advantage over the smaller kids. These kids are better at sports and many activities than the younger kids – but they are not seen as younger and older, but as the same age! And in India, since the academic year starts in JUNE-JULY Me being born in June put me up for a direct disadvantage against kids born earlier that year (march-april predominantly). And kids born post july-august would go on to the next years batch way older in their own batch and yet percieved to be of the same age. Add to that the fact that there were kids who had flunked certain classes and were later on in my class – years older than any of us (these were the unquestioned jocks – stronger, taller and always at the head of any game).

On top of that, i was born blue, had a leg fracture at age 2 that left me bed ridden for 6 months and had a genetic predisposition towards low bone density. My motor function development was not just slow – it was RETARDED to say the least.

Now imagine a game in this class of percieved ‘equals’. me and a bunch of kids who were typically june-july born or were obese were the last ones allowed to play any game – so our motor functions did not get any better any faster but infact was stunted even further. ( The only place where we were all equal was in the morning Physical training class where we were all made to go through the same drills uniformly.) Not allowed to bat/bowl, not allowed to play ahead, not passed the ball even when playing – it was a very frustrating scenario – not just for me, but for every kid who was in that situation of being labelled a ‘kacchha limbu’.
On the other hand, the kids who were admitted to school a year late or were flunkies who had stayed back a year were considered the ‘gifted’ ones – they got to play leads at every game, the coaches preferred them, they were the prima donnas. They just got better and better every year owing to the amount of preferential treatment and practice they got! And this gets worse – with time i also came across coaches who were willing to change their birth year on record so that they could compete with younger kids while being much older to earn trophies for the school/club/state.
Infact, i actually looked back at the school record of the ‘best athlete’ every year during my tenure in school and noticed that 90% of them were students who were plainly one year older to the rest of the students when the award was given. So only the 10% of that list were truly genetically gifted/hardworking sportsmen who had earned that award on righteous merit and not owing to a fallacy of the system. And i admire those guys! i met a few of them recently and they are still athletic for their age – some of them even being sportsmen even today. Those are real sportsmen/athletes.
And where are most of those ‘prima donnas’ today? most of them have big belly paunches and don’t play any sport, have mediocre levels of athleticism and are just full of air of memories of the time they were great athletes. Their performance at even their most favored sport has gone below their plateau of averageness, let alone peak.

What Happened to the STAR athletes? How did some ‘kaccha limbus’ catch up to them so fast and so suddenly? Here’s what happened: 
Till early school set in, the older kids had an advantage over the other kids due to their developed motor system and thanks to the system, that advantage kept growing in their favor all the way upto teenage. Talent didn’t truly count for shit. But once teenage set in, the field was sort of levelled – the differential in the development of motor capabilities started levelling out or reaching a plateau – Talent became key. Yet, the years of preferrential treatment and extra practice that the ‘jocks’ got still kept them in the lead. At this juncture, some ‘kaccha limbus’ that still didn’t give up, started picking up faster and faster. By the first two teen years, the playround was almost levelled in therms of motor capabilities – the only other factors being PRACTICE and TRAINING and muscular development. By 18, the field is actually levelled but the ‘jocks’ who are still practicing are still often ahead in the game, but not by much, at times due to higher muscular development from years of training. and as it starts moving towards 25 – the age where the body’s developmental peak is reached and plateaued, the field is but anyone’s field. AND THAT IS WHERE TALENT, SHEER WILL POWER AND EFFORT HAS THE CAPABILITY TO OVERCOME EVERYTHING ELSE.

The Kaccha Limbu that has talent and keeps on training and developing his skills eventually at this point is most likely surpass the jock who was always ahead of him.

Look around you and you’ll see a million examples of this phenomenon.
When you have such a flawed schooling system, would you change it or take advantage of it?

On a systemic level, we would have to match our academic year with the regular year or make sure that kids are admitted to school on ages actually appropriate for their class – especially for sports. infact, for sports and games in early classes, the division of age should be 3 monthly – 6 monthly – annually in growing grades respectively.

But expecting a system to improve is too much, especially in a country like india. So let me just suggest ways to beat the system and keep your child at par with his actual development:

Delayed School Admission:
If we can’t change the system, i suggest we don’t hurry ourselves into putting our kids to school according to the academic year. A school year wasted is not really wasted, its rather invested in improving the kids mental an motor functions. So if your kid is born in jun-july-august- don’t be in a hurry to put him/her into school, take your time and send him/her to school in another year. This way the bias would be in your kids favour.

Playgroup Different from School Group:
Well this wasn’t possible for me in a hostel, but let your kid have a playgroup of kids actually his own age or younger from time to time. it will help build his motor functions and self esteem in a big way.
When i was in school, i realised that every time i went back to school after a vacation, i actually got better at sports – as back home, i played with my younger cousins and friends, putting me at an advantage. When i went back into my group of playing with the ‘grown ups’ i carried a few of the benefits from my vacation over.

Use Science, its available:
If your kid actually has a physical condition that delays or disrupts his motor functioning, pay heed to it and take professional help. A little help at a young age makes a huge difference at a later age. Its like a growing snowball. for eg: if your child has flat feet, get orthopedic insoles or he would grow up thinking he is a naturally bad runner/athlete where as the actual problem would be that his feet have pronated from being uncorrected for so many years. (as in my case). If your kid has dietary problems, fix them by visiting a good nutritionist. These are small pebbles that later turn into boulders.

PS: and for parents who are in a hurry to put their kids to school just because their neighbour/relative’s child is also in school – i’ll kick you in the face. Don’t ruin your kids life – he/she would have a double whammy – not just with this flawed system we have in place but also against your clearly misplaced and comparative expectations.

-Pushkaraj S Shirke

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