Last night we completed the first half (five days) of the Afghanistan men’s national wheelchair basketball team training camp in preparation for our first international competitions in Italy. We fly out a week from today, and I’m amazed by how much the team has already progressed in such a short time.

We only had time for one day of rest/recovery following the three-day men’s national tournament, which meant a few players were out with nagging (but thankfully minor) injuries the first three days. One of those forced to miss time was Shahpoor from Maimana, one of my earliest students from my first trip back in 2009 and, at this point, the country’s top player. Shahpoor suffered what was feared at the time to be either a broken bone or torn tendon in his shooting hand in the second half of the national championship game. Everyone (not least, Shahpoor) was concerned that he’d be forced to sit out the games in Italy. Fortunately, though, it turned out to be just a sprain and, with the help of the group of expert physiotherapists at the ICRC orthopaedic centre, he was able to resume playing at full speed by the fourth day of camp. Shahpoor is a tough kid and a natural leader; his insistence on hitting the court the first second he could take the bulky wrap off his hand (and even playing in small doses before that by teaching himself to shoot left-handed) showed his natural competitive drive and had a major impact on the intensity of the team’s approach.

Image
Shahpoor from Maimana in 2009 (age 16) and today

Another thing that was noticeable after Shahpoor’s and the other injured players’ return was a palpable improvement in team unity. The first couple days went well, but there was a slight-but-noticeable separation between the players from the different provinces – nothing antagonistic, just a lack of clear understanding of how to work together with teammates who, just a couple days before, had been opponents. By the fourth day of playing and living together, though, that separation had evaporated and the team was really starting to hit its stride. They’ve been picking up complex strategies and team concepts much more quickly than I expected and, in spite of an exhausting schedule of two physically and mentally demanding practices per day, have continued to surprise me with their growth at every practice.

Image
Team unity has grown with every practice together (photo by Michael Glowacki)

Image
They may be friends and teammates now, but that doesn’t mean provincial rivals Shahpoor and Mojeeb (from Mazar) don’t still enjoy a good old fashioned physical battle when the drill calls for it (Photo by Jessica Barry/ICRC)

Our greatest challenges in preparing for the trip to Italy are primarily mental at this point. As I told the team on the first day of camp, they are every bit as fast as any team I’ve seen and have the physical talent to compete at a high level. However, they’re working from a major experience disparity compared to the teams they’ll be playing, so learning to focus every second they’re on the court – and being able to execute newly learned skills and tactics in high-pressure environments – will be of paramount importance. It’s a challenge for them both individually and collectively. It’s also a test for me as a coach as I try to instill the ability to block out stress, distractions and fear in a group of players who didn’t grow up in competitive environments where this ability can form naturally over time – not to mention finding a way to keep them from feeling completely overwhelmed by their first time leaving the immediate geographic region where they’ve all spent their entire lives. We’re all having fun figuring it out, though. Today is the team’s one mid-camp day to rest and recover, and I can’t wait to get back on the court tomorrow to see how much further we can progress together in the coming week.

Image
Saber from Kabul (front) and teammates (L-R) Sayed Mohammad, Mojeeb, Mohammadullah, Nasrullah, and Mirwais (Photo by Michael Glowacki)

Image
Ramazan from Maimana (Photo by Michael Glowacki)

Image
Teaching with help from my assistant coach/interpreter, Malang (Photo by Michael Glowacki)

Image
Just because it’s intense doesn’t mean training camp can’t be fun. Mohammadullah from Kabul. (Photo by Michael Glowacki)

The Times of London ran a nice piece about the national tournament and upcoming trip to Italy this morning. It will be publicly available here through Friday.

 

Personal note: Condolences to the family of Chase Brink, a player for the Junior Rolling Nuggets back home who passed away yesterday after a months-long battle with complications from pneumonia. He was 15 years old. You’ll be missed, Chase.