I have one more day of training the Kabul women’s team; it’s hard to believe how fast the week has flown by! Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve been teaching for so long now, or maybe it’s the difference between coaching twice a day for a total of 7-8 hours and coaching once a day for 3-4, but I feel like I just barely got started with them and the week is already almost over.

The Kabul women have been a lot of fun to work with – it’s great getting to start with a team at the very beginning of their wheelchair basketball experience for the first time this year – and they’re really enjoying the experience. It’s funny; their lack of experience is actually a great advantage for them when it comes to learning. Whereas with the men’s groups I’ve been working with have taken quite a bit of time to break their self-taught habits in order to learn the new skills and techniques I’m teaching them, the women don’t have bad habits and, as a result, pick up my instructions very quickly. Sometimes it’s difficult for them to get the physical coordination down right away since none of them have played basketball – or any competitive sport for that matter – before, but that will come with time as long as they’re practicing the right way. I have a feeling they’ll be light years better the next time I see them, which is really exciting.

All the players and coaches on the women’s team are very nice and enthusiastic, but one in particular has really stood out to me. Her name is Shukrya, and she’s by far the weakest player in the group. Most of the women’s team had started practicing about a month before I arrived, so they’d all gotten to know each other and begun to learn the basics under the teaching of Mirwais, one of the player/coaches I’ve talked about in previous entries. Shukrya didn’t join until the first day of training camp this week, though, so she literally hadn’t touched a basketball until I handed her one on Sunday. She’s the quietest of the players, rarely makes eye contact, and is very self-conscious about her lack of experience and physical weakness (part of which is due to her having had polio, which left her left arm a lot weaker than her right). Still, she shows up every morning (not all the players have) and tries to get better. Every once in a while, when she does some small thing correctly – dribbling in place, for instance – while I’m watching, she’ll let herself have a brief, shy smile. It’s extremely endearing. Combine this with the fact that she wears a beat-up NY visor over her head scarf, and I just can’t help but root for the kid. It’s my goal to get her to feel the excitement of athletic success, even if it’s just something small, before the end of the week to spur her to continue to develop as a player. I know she can do it.

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Shukrya shows a rare smile while getting a lesson in dribbling from me and Mirwais

Today I went to visit Skateistan, a state-of-the-art indoor skateboard park and school for Afghan kids that was built three years ago by an Australian named Oliver Percovich. It’s an incredibly unique facility that is the heart of a grassroots skateboarding movement that’s growing like wildfire in Kabul and will soon expand to Mazar-e-Sharif. Oliver told me and a few of my colleagues the story of how he started Skateistan, and it’s fascinating. He arrived in Kabul in 2007 with his skateboard and no agenda and, when he started skating in the streets, noticed that kids of all ages were fascinated by his board and wanted to try it for themselves. Skateboarding was basically unknown in Afghanistan at the time, so there was no social stigma associated with it like there is in other parts of the world. Oliver saw this as an opening to do something meaningful for the kids he was meeting in the streets, so he started recruiting boys and girls, rich kids and poor kids, kids as young as six to kids as old as 17, and getting them to use skateboarding as a form of self-expression. He didn’t tell them how they were supposed to do it; he just let it evolve for the kids in the way that made most sense to them. Then he started using skateboarding as a carrot to get kids that otherwise wouldn’t be going to school to start attending classes.

Skateistan has now grown to a group of over 500 kids, each of whom get 2 hours per week at the skate park – 1 hour skating or playing sports and 1 hour going to classes held at the facility. 40% of the students are girls and they’ve even recruited disabled kids as well, who each have their own way of riding the board that they learned completely on their own. It’s been an amazing achievement over a relatively short period of time, and it was great to for me to get to hear what worked for Oliver and what didn’t as he grew his movement over the past four years. I invited him to send a representative to the upcoming stakeholders’ meeting about expanding wheelchair basketball in Afghanistan since a few of his disabled skaters have also started playing basketball. His and his team’s success would be an invaluable resource for me to draw on as I try to figure out how best to take wheelchair basketball to the broader Afghan disabled community.