Playing abroad was a real eye-opener for me: Kean Lewis
“Life has no limitations, except the ones you make” by Les Brown is an ideal quote that truly resembles Kean Lewis. The 28-year-old was born and raised in Mumbai, but decided to take a challenge overseas at a tender age. Kean has been an integral part of national and international clubs like Houston Dynamo FC, Mohun Bagan, Pune City, Bengaluru FC, and Sudeva Delhi FC.
In a candid chat, Kean speaks about the hardships of living his dreams in the US and India, passion to upgrade his skillsets and the potential of sports for development initiatives.
How has your transformation been as a player and a person after your stints in foreign countries and locally?
I began playing here in India from a young age in school. It as at Mahindra United, that I got my first exposure to constructive coaching and training. At school, there wasn’t much training but they always supported me to go out and train at a better level. After playing at Mahindra for 4 years I got picked up by Tata Football Academy (TFA). I lived in their hostel and got a glimpse into what the next generation of footballers in India do to achieve their dreams of playing pro. For me and my family though, it wasn’t just about football. The idea was to grow beyond just playing football, which is why I left TFA 2 years in and decided to go to the USA.
Of course, I got a scholarship and the opportunity to play at the Division 1 collegiate level, but more than that it was about being able to pursue both education and sports, something that is still lacking in India. As a person, I grew immensely in the US, learnt to pay my bills, work part-time, get assignments turned in, training rigorously, cooking and meal prep. As a player, I developed more into a winger than as what I initially went to the USA as — a striker. The coaching helped me transform technically, tactically, physically and psychologically. Overall my athletic advisors, major advisors and faculty all helped me with career options and always thinking about the next step in life.
My University coach even helped me get an on-campus job at the gym where I worked for 2 years. I also ended up working at Subway for a few months to pay the bills as I didn’t want to take or ask for money from home. After graduating with a degree from a top Uni in New Jersey I got the opportunity to play semi-pro with Houston Dynamo, which was the best experience I’ve had in the USA. I also had to stay employed and thus was working as well to keep my visa status intact.
Playing abroad was a real eyeopener for me. It showed me exactly what India lacks and why football has developed quicker in other places. Getting a degree in sports management and my coaching licenses in the USA, further enhanced my capacity to understand the systems in the sporting world.
As a player, you’ve had the opportunity to play in three big cities of India (Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi). Which one would you rate to be the best footballing city? State your reasons.
Something that I love doing is travelling and football has enabled me to do so. I enjoying playing in different cities as I get to explore them as well. If you go to see, I never got the opportunity to play professionally in my home city, Mumbai. It’s been only early on in my youth stages when I played in Mumbai. Since the age of 16 though I’ve been away from home. It’s not just those three big cities, I’ve kicked off my professional career in Kolkata in India, for giants Mohun Bagan. The love the city has for football is commendable, but of course, with the passion and love of the fans comes the pressure to perform and win trophies. But for me, the best city would be Bangalore where I joined a team with a legacy of winning trophies. BFC was the best team I’ve played for not only because we became ISL champions in my first season with them and played 90% of the games but because they are the benchmark of what a professional club should be in India.
The management, the players, the functioning of the club is very similar to what I experienced at Leicester City – professional, trusting, punctual, understanding, this is what builds a solid relationship between the club and the players. I fell in love with the city also because of its amazing weather and vegan eateries which made my journey here so much more enjoyable off the field. Although for me, at the moment I think Kerala is the best footballing state. No matter the city, the people of Kerala are passionate and promote their players even if they are playing in other states. This is a state that I’d want to play in to experience the support of the fans.
Having studied sport in the US, how do you think the football ecosystem is structured here in India? What can be the learnings for Indian football from US Soccer?
India has a lot to learn. The setup that the USA has is right from high school to college to the pro levels. The players are tracked, scouted, coached well, educated about nutrition and injury, and understand what it takes to become a professional from a very young age. A scouting system is also in place to recognise the talent that does well through the ages. If I look back at my career I don’t recollect any systems at the school or college levels for players to be recognised. Coaching was barely existent. How do we expect players to develop in such a scenario?
It also is about allowing kids to be student-athletes and not only a student or only an athlete which is generally the situation in India. Players have to decide whether to pursue sports or choose another line of work. This leads to spreading awareness about making sports a career which means showing that the pay is good, there are benefits of becoming a pro athlete, because the process of getting there is long and doesn’t happen overnight. For this, you need years of investment in your food, training hours, simultaneous education, discipline, belief and support from the surroundings.
Alongside your career as a footballer, you also run an academy, do you have any plans of expanding it or running multiple sporting ventures in the future?
I think as a footballer you have to be ready for a second career or a post-playing career. Sport is an uncertain career. You may be out of a job because of a serious injury or family issues, so you have to be prepared for life after or beyond sport. That mindset was always instilled in me from the start. I spent a few years coaching in the USA and it was amazing, where I realised I enjoyed coaching young kids and sharing the knowledge I had. Moreover still playing actively there I could easily associate with what my players went through. Although I coached ages between 8-18 of both genders, there was so much learning for me and I would love to have that opportunity again in the future.
The kids’ academy I was working with loved my work and was willing to sponsor my visa. At that time I was only 21 and still wanted to pursue my dream of playing professional which is why I came back to India, declining that offer. These coaching stints with 3 different clubs in Houston (Soccer Shots, Houston Dynamo Youth Program and Albion Hurricanes) is what inspired me to start an academy in my home city, Thane, to give the kids from my area the opportunity that I never had growing up. Since I would be away from home playing in different cities, I began this with a friend Vaibhav Karpe, so that he could be in charge when I wasn’t around. What I sought with our academy was to coach them beyond just the aspect of the field but of life as well.
The idea was to provide them with holistic development. They needed to learn modern life skills for professional sport — working social media, speaking skills for interviews, psychological evaluations, self-assessments, dealing with their successes & failures, nutrition habits, parental support and so on. Now I’ve handed the entire ownership to my friend who runs it but I continue to stay involved with them. I want to be able to get into further coaching with bigger clubs at a higher level in the future which is why I’m working on getting my UEFA licensing. I continue to do freelancing work in the offseason with other academies and also do private coaching. It keeps me busy and also engaged with the game.
What are your immediate goals and long term aspirations?
My immediate goal now is to get a contract with a club and then get preparing for the next season. I will spend a few days with my family when the season ends, travel a bit and post that the offseason work begins. I’ll also complete my final exam for the sports psychology course I’ve been taking for the last 4 months. Along with my training, I’ll be also doing a few private coaching assignments and then sessions for some academies.
In the long run, I’m on course to complete my UEFA C license so I need to prepare and figure out when I can travel for the final assessment. In a couple of months, I’ll also finish my sports law course. By the end of all this hope, the next pre-season will await me.
If you ask me what I plan on doing long term as in, post my playing career, my answer would be that I want to get into coaching. Although I think the trend now for all players is to become coaches. I would essentially want to work overseas as the Head Coach in an academy or University. It will enable me to travel and also embrace new cultures, I think the learning curve for this is much more than what I would have in India as I’ve seen the system here for the majority of my life. I also would want to get into commentating which is another option that I would like to explore.
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