Over the course of the last week, I’ve held training camps for the Afghanistan Women’s National Wheelchair Basketball Team and the Mazar-i-Sharif men’s team, as well as a course for coaches and referees. It’s been a hectic schedule, but a wonderful experience working with three very different groups.
The Women’s National Team
This was the second time we’d convened the first Afghanistan women’s national team – which includes players from Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif, and Herat – for a training camp to build unity amongst a group that is used to competing against, rather than with, one another. The 15-player team includes an intriguing mix of personalities and experience.
The Mazar contingent (five players) has been playing together the longest of the three women’s teams – about five years. They are a fast and aggressive group, but are also a bit entrenched in an individualistic, unpolished brand of play that can make the transition to higher-level team concepts and coordination a bit challenging. Their team had won two national championships in a row on the virtue of physical superiority and individual dominance, but were bypassed by superior team play by Kabul and Herat in the most recent tournament, dropping to third place out of the three teams.
The team members from Kabul (seven players) have been playing for between two and three years and tend to approach the game with more finesse than their Mazar counterparts. While this has led to most of them having more technically sound games than the Mazar players, it can often come at the expense of physical and mental intensity, keeping them from being as dominant (they won the championship last week, but by the narrowest of margins over a much less experienced team from Herat) as they might be.
The three players from Herat are the team’s youngest in terms of basketball experience, all of them having played for less than a year, but have made up for lost time by being eager and fast learners. They don’t have quite the physical strength and fire of the Mazar players, nor do they yet have the polished technique of those from Kabul, but they balance the power and finesse of the other two teams and add to it a focus on understanding team play that nearly won them a championship in just their second tournament.
Finding a way to get these various styles and backgrounds to coalesce into a highly functioning team that will be able to compete (hopefully soon) against more experienced national teams from around the world was my challenge.
Despite the players coming into camp mentally and physically fatigued from their tournament (and for the Herat players, a three day camp preceding that), we made a great deal of progress. The Mazar players committed to reworking some of their long-held habits to improve their efficiency, the group from Kabul stepped up their intensity, and those from Herat fought through their exhaustion to make further progress on increasing their knowledge and physical skills. As always, it was a joy to teach all of them and see the lightbulbs of understanding go off over the course our time together. The team still has a ways to go before it’s going to be ready for top international competition, but the potential is there and they’re one step closer to realizing it.
The Mazar Men
The Mazar-i-Sharif men’s team – the first ever formed in Afghanistan, several years before I first came – has been through an epic series of successes and disappointments as the country’s wheelchair basketball league has evolved.
When I met them in 2009, it was after I had spent a week teaching the brand new men’s team from Maimana – my first experience in Afghanistan – and had driven across the north of the country with the Maimana players to play a game between the two teams. Mazar thoroughly dominated Maimana in an extremely rough game (from both a technical and physical perspective).
When the two teams met again in 2012 as part of Afghanistan’s first national wheelchair basketball tournament, though, Maimana shocked everyone by beating Mazar in the finals to win the country’s first official championship. Mazar had come into the tournament as the clear favorites and were stunned by the loss.vIn 2013, Mazar bounced back and dominated the rest of the competition on its way back to the top of the Afghanistan wheelchair basketball mountain and the league title. The team’s confidence was restored.
Just a year later, however, Mazar suffered its biggest loss yet when the team’s top three players fled to Europe as refugees. The remaining Mazar players fought gamely in the fall 2014 national tournament, but were unable to compete at the level of the rest of the rapidly-improving teams and finished a distant last place.
Mazar’s fall from the top has had one silver lining, though. As a result of its loss of established players, the team has recruited a large group of new players over the past six months, many of whom have the potential to make a major impact. With all this new, untrained talent coming on board, I decided that they would be the one provincial men’s team I would coach in advance of the upcoming national tournament as they try to fight their way back into contention. It was a true pleasure working with the team (the first time I’ve trained them as a group in over two years), and the new players were fantastic first-time students, drinking in every bit of information I could squeeze into three days. They have a huge challenge ahead of them catching back up to the rest of the league, but their future is bright.
In the Classroom
I spent the past three days teaching a class for all the coaches and referees here in Afghanistan (twenty in all). It was a lot of fun to get them all in a room together and delve into the finer points of leadership, practice planning, and in-game coaching techniques as well as walking them through all the rules of wheelchair basketball. Everyone was very engaged and they asked lots of questions that showed how far they’ve come in their understanding of the subtleties of the game. Tomorrow morning we start the four-day spring 2015 men’s national championship tournament, which will give them the immediate opportunity to apply what they’ve learned. Good luck to all the teams!