Following the women’s national tournament, I partnered with the Afghanistan Paralympic Committee to finalize the selection of the country’s first national women’s wheelchair basketball team, which I then spent the next few days coaching as part of their first training camp. We had named the initial 10 members of the team in May of this year, and chose the final two, plus three alternates, on October 31st. The naming of the team is a major landmark for women with disabilities in Afghanistan – it was something difficult to even imagine being a cultural possibility just two years ago – and was a thrill for all involved. However, as the person charged with selecting the team, it meant I had to make some very difficult choices.

The teams from each province – women’s and men’s – are represented by 10 players when we hold national championship tournaments in Kabul (there are far more players in most provinces, but only the top 10 make the teams that travel for tournaments). This means that, with womens’ teams in only three provinces, the national team is composed of half of the total tournament participants. On one hand, it’s great to be able to convey such an honor on a large percentage of the players. On the other, it means those not selected feel a very acute sense of disappointment upon hearing the names of the team members announced.

Both with the women and the men, I have a close personal tie to every player that competes in the national tournaments. I’m their teacher, their coach, their referee, and their friend. I’ve been working with many of them for years, since some were barely more than children, and in almost every case, introduced them to the first and only sport they’ve ever played. So when I select the national teams, the excitement of acknowledging the success of those make it is tempered a bit by sadness for those who just miss the cut.

Given how far these players have come in such a short time, it’s often easy to forget that they didn’t have the formative athletic experiences that inform our reactions to the regular ups and downs of sports. Not winning a game or not being selected for a team is hard for any competitor; I’ve experienced both many times in my life and it is always painful, even as an adult. But for players for whom wheelchair basketball has become their identity – the first thing for which many of them have ever received real positive recognition – it can feel much bigger than those of us who grew up learning how to win and lose from an early age can possibly understand. Most of the Kabul players were in tears following their loss to Mazar in the women’s championship game. One of the players who wasn’t selected for the national team came to me and, with her eyes downcast, asked why I thought she was a bad player. It’s hard to know what to say in these situations. I try to be as patient and compassionate as possible when dealing with their disappointment, but ultimately I understand that this is a painful-but-necessary part of the learning process for all of them… and for me.

All the above-mentioned evolutionary challenges aside, I had a wonderful time conducting the national team training camp for the women. They made amazing progress in just four practices, their attitudes were great, and I am so excited for the chance to see them travel abroad to experience international competition for the first time (hopefully sometime in 2015!).

Womens national team blog 1
Afghanistan’s first women’s national wheelchair basketball team

Womens national team blog 2
Running the national team through a speed and endurance workout

Following the women’s national team training camp, I’ve spent the last three days training the teams from Jalalabad and Kandahar (the two newest men’s teams in the country) in advance of the national tournament this week. It’s been a pleasure – and a laugh riot – to coach these guys, as always. I wish them both the best of luck!

Mohammad Shah from Kandahar
Following a grueling three hour training session, Mohammad Shah from Kandahar – one of the strongest (and sweetest!) guys I’ve ever met – decided to climb the ladder to the gymnasium balcony… while strapped into his basketball wheelchair… then hung by one arm for almost a minute to pose for photos. Wow.