In the eight days since my last post, I’ve held training sessions for five different groups of players – about 60 players in total in that span. The first four days following the men’s national championship tournament were dedicated to an intensive two-a-day training camp for the Afghanistan men’s national team. The latter four days were split between four groups of lesser experienced Kabul-based players – those who haven’t (yet) had the chance to represent their city at one of the national tournaments. That meant I had the opportunity, within the span of just over a week, to teach a huge range of players, from the most experienced and highly-skilled in the country to those who were picking up a basketball for the first time.

The national team training camp convened after just one day of recovery from the grueling four-day tournament, during which each team had played either seven or eight games. Given that the majority of the national team players logged heavy minutes in all of their teams’ games, they were all fighting through physical and mental fatigue at the beginning of camp. This fatigue led to a few minor injuries and illnesses that gradually reduced our number of active players from thirteen on the first day (we were also missing a couple players who had to return home after the tournament for final exams at school) to ten on the fourth, but those who made it through the grind showed remarkable resilience and improvement.

This team has improved to the point that they’re now learning abstract concepts like reading offenses and defenses to make split-second decisions and counter-decisions during the flow of a game. It’s an important leap forward for all of them, and is a completely new mental approach to wheelchair basketball from what they’re used to – incorporating chess-like strategic thinking into a game where they, their teammates, and their opponents are moving at top speed all the time. It has been a difficult evolution to teach, and I feel like I’ve learned as much as they have from the experience but. By the end of the four days, though, I could see that the light bulb of understanding had flickered on for all of them. The players were all just as excited as I was when everything started to click after days of trying to grasp such new and foreign ideas. It was an encouraging step toward reaching the level of group cohesion that they’ll need to compete internationally.

Shifting immediately from the high-level national team training to working with players trying to understand basketball at a much more basic level was an energizing experience. This was the first time in three years that I’ve had the chance to teach beginning-level players in Afghanistan. As the game has spread across the country during these past few years, I’ve been increasingly focused on training the top players and coaches in each province so that they could – in turn – spread that teaching to ever-expanding groups of newer players in their local areas. While this will continue to be my primary teaching approach here (the goal, after all, is to gradually increase local knowledge to the point that, eventually, the Afghans will be doing all the teaching themselves), the schedule lined up this time in a way that allowed me to take a few days at the end of the trip to get back to my roots. It was an opportunity to engage with lots of new players and to reconnect with several whom I hadn’t seen since the early days of 2011 and 2012.

The experience was wonderful and a bit nostalgic. It was a nice reminder of why I started doing this work in Afghanistan in the first place. I love seeing the popularity of wheelchair basketball being spread by its local practitioners – new players being introduced to the game by players and coaches who were themselves brand new just a few short years ago – but, for a few days, it was a pleasure to get to share that initial excitement with them again myself.