I spent two days this week working with the new women’s team from Jalalabad for the first time. The most experienced of the players have only been playing since January, so they are all very new to the game. As I mentioned previously, I didn’t think forming a basketball team for women (much less a team for disabled women) in a place as socially conservative as Jalalabad was a realistic possibility – at least not yet. I was thrilled to be proven wrong, however, and am proud of the ICRC leadership and coaches in Jalalabad for pushing the envelope and giving their disabled women the chance to join the league.

Before the Team Jalalabad training camp – and their participation in their first women’s national tournament – could take place, we ran into a few challenges. First, many of the families of the players decided that, even though they had given approval for their sisters and daughters to join the weekly practices at home in Jalalabad, sending them to Kabul to play in front of large groups of strangers in the big city was an entirely different matter. Even after the coaches pleaded for the reticent families to reconsider, only five of the 15 players were given permission to make the trip.

Then, while I was in Badakhshan training the new men’s team last week, there was a tragic Taliban attack in Kabul that killed over 70 people and injured over 350 (thankfully none of the players or my colleagues were affected). As a result, another of the players’ families decided that Kabul was not a desirable destination right now and pulled their daughter from the traveling roster, dropping the number of team members to just four. The family’s decision in light of the attack is completely understandable, of course, but it’s eye-opening to think that people living in a place as volatile as Jalalabad would see Kabul as comparatively unsafe; no differently, I suppose, than how my own family and friends back home must feel when they see war-related news from this part of the world, particularly when I’m here. I was sad to hear that I’d have one less player to work with as a tangential result of more senseless violence, but I focused on giving the four that would be coming the best experience possible to get them excited about dedicating themselves to their new sport.

Luckily, the pool of female players in Kabul has grown to a point that there were many who were happy to join the Jalalabad contingent as surrogate team members, both during the training camp and in the tournament. Six additional players were selected – most of whom I hadn’t had the chance to coach previously, which was great – and I had a fantastic two days teaching the combined group the basics of the game. It had been a while since I’d had the opportunity to coach a brand new group of players here – the last was the team from Herat over a year and a half ago – and, as always, it was both challenging and fun to try to find engaging ways to get them to learn as quickly as possible.

I hope I’ve made some progress as a teacher since my first days coaching the team in Maimana over six years ago(!), but each group of new players comes with their own unique personalities and ways of learning that constantly keep me on my toes. The Jalalabad women were no different, but they made great progress in just two days and left the training feeling as ready as they could be for their first leap into competition. They’ll have all they can handle trying to keep up with the much more experienced teams from Mazar, Kabul, and Herat in the tournament, but they’ll learn so much and, I hope, come away even more excited to continue their journey and bring their teammates who stayed behind in Jalalabad along for the ride next time.

Good luck to Ferishta, Jellwa, Zeba, and Ghul Rukh and their coaches Taj and Inam this week!