I just completed the last day of my week training the team in Herat. The team here, which I wrote last year exhibited some concerning signs of a lack of leadership and short attention spans, showed the most improvement of any team in the weeks between my training of them and the 3-on-3 tournament in June 2012. They took second place in the tournament and were the only team to beat the eventual champions from Maimana.

Given this rapid development last year and the emergence of a few star-quality players, I was hoping Herat would have leaped further ahead in the year since I saw them last. While there has been some improvement, I’ve found that the team still struggles with maintaining a focus on changing bad habits and working to polish the various techniques they’ve learned. As a result, the first day of training this week was a bit rough, with the players showing less enthusiasm for conducting skill-related drills and only seeming interested in playing games (during which they inevitably reverted back to their self-taught techniques and generally sloppy play).

As I did with the Mazar women’s team, who showed a similar attention deficit when it came to practicing, I tried to quickly come up with different ways to position the teaching so that it would maintain the players’ interest, with a focus on making basic drills competitive between the players. Also as with the ladies, this really kickstarted the energy at our sessions and the players were much more invested (and much better) over the last couple days as a result. It’s exciting to see the mood of a team continually improve over the course of a week, and it makes me hopeful that Herat will go through a similar growth process over the next few weeks that they did last year, leading to a strong tournament performance.

Tomorrow we’ll have a small inter-team tournament with spectators from the local ICRC delegation, so hopefully the players bring their A games to show everyone how much they’ve improved.

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Teaching the players how to throw a baseball pass and how to develop a winning farmer’s tan

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Farhad, one of the team leaders, learns quickly because of this kind of focus

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Mohammed, the team’s youngest player and one of its most promising

The gymnasium where the Herat team normally practices (they’re the only team in Afghanistan with regular access to an indoor court) is currently under construction, so we’ve been playing at an outdoor court at a local high school each afternoon. During our practices, there are two student break periods of 15 minutes apiece, which means we’ll be in the middle of a drill, hear the muffled sound of a bell ringing inside the school, and suddenly hundreds of students between ages 10 and 18 will come flooding out the doors and onto the court trying to get the best vantage point possible to watch the players. If we’re not using the entire court, the students will fill every available space to get as close as possible to the players. It’s almost like a swarm of locusts blotting out the sun, only a lot more supportive. The kids clap and cheer every time a player makes a basket, which is fun. At the end of the 15 minutes, it’s like playing the initial swarm in reverse as all the kids run back inside, leaving a litany of candy wrappers blowing around the court in the afternoon wind.

I learned a new Afghan expression yesterday that made me laugh. My translator in Herat, Farzan, made a comment to a player who is also a coworker of his at the Herat orthopaedic centre, and explained to me that he had just used a term of endearment that Afghans regularly use with close friends. “You are my liver.” Farzan knew that this was a foreign phrase to westerners, so he tried to explain. Basically it’s similar to our saying “you are my heart” but without the romantic subtext (I think). I’m not sure what’s more romantic than the thought of a disembodied human liver, though, so maybe it carries more meaning than I grasped.

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Farzan (second from left) interprets my directions to Said Habib, Coach Qawamuddin and Abdul Rahim

Michael Glowacki, director of the League of Afghanistan documentary, arrived in Afghanistan just before I left for Herat and is here capturing player stories and practice footage again. It’s good to have him back; Michael, his camera and his questions have become a staple of my Afghanistan experience over the last couple years. Michael took the amazing photos captured above and generously shared them for the blog.

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I told Michael and Alberto to do their best eagle impressions while holding the most American thing Alberto owns. Alberto, being Italian, didn’t understand the assignment.

I’m also having a good time getting to know a new crop of European expatriate colleagues here. The guys – three Frenchmen, an Italian, an Iranian and a Brit – have converted the ICRC compound’s small lawn into a makeshift soccer field. They enlisted me to referee their match the other night. Good times, even though I have a barely functional memory of the game’s rules, not having played since I was 11. Nobody was paying attention to the ref in a 3-on-3 pickup game anyway, so it worked out well for all involved.

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From left: Michael (American), Denver (British), Romin (Iranian), Lorenzo (Italian), Romain (French) and Rahbi (French/Lebanese) kick out the jams