I spent my last eight days in Afghanistan conducting training camps for the men’s and women’s national teams. We had some great experiences during the week in spite of things not going according to the script we had written before I arrived.

The plan, just days before I left Colorado in early October, had been to conclude my visit with a trip for both teams to Iran. Alberto, Shukrullah, and I (representing the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of Afghanistan) had been discussing this possibility with the Iranians since July, but the conversation took much longer that we’d hoped because Iran’s wheelchair basketball federation spent the summer and early fall completely (and understandably) focused on preparing its men’s national team to compete in the Rio Paralympics. As a result, it wasn’t until two weeks before I departed that we finally got the invitation from their wheelchair basketball officials to come to Iran for 10 days. The schedule the Iranians proposed would include a men’s tournament, with our national team playing some high-level Iranian club teams and a weeklong women’s training camp with some of their top coaches, concluding with games against one of their women’s club teams. It was a fantastic opportunity for both our groups, and one that we were excited to present to all the players.

Unfortunately, just two days before I boarded my flight to Geneva on the way to Kabul, we received a message that the Iranian government decided that one month was not enough time for them to process entry visas for all our players and coaches. After taking so long to put in place, the trip was, in that moment, taken off the table. I was in favor of pressing the issue, but Alberto assured me that, if the regime in Iran had given direction not to give us the visas we needed – for whatever reason they chose to cite – there was no way they were going to be processed. I was frustrated and disappointed in equal measure, but I realized that Iran would continue to be one of the best opportunities for our teams (particularly the women) to get international experience outside the infrequent IWBF-sanctioned regional competitions, so I agreed not to push back on the decision in hopes that an arrangement can be worked out sometime in the future.

That left us to conduct another pair of national team training camps without an international trip on the horizon, and I was concerned that the players’ surprise at the last minute cancellation would make it difficult to motivate them. I should have known better. Every one of these players has spent their entire life in a country beset constantly by disappointment and unpredictability. Within that environment, they have lived most or all of their lives until very recently on the margins of society due to their physical disabilities. As a result, they are as resilient emotionally as they are physically. There would be no letdown in focus or hope as a result of the trip’s cancellation – just a lot of questions about when the next one might be.

For the men’s team, we scheduled the training camp in a new structure we’d never used before. Even though we wouldn’t be playing the planned tournament in Iran, I wanted to create the best approximation possible of that type of competitive environment, so I scheduled both the men’s national A team (the traveling team) and the national B team we created last May to train simultaneously and play against each other each day. We held short practices for each team in the mornings, similar to the preparation time we would have access to during a tournament, and played regulation games with referees each afternoon. I coached team A and my assistant coach, Qawamuddin from Herat, coached team B with Mirwais from Kabul acting as his assistant. Thanks to Canada Wheelchair Basketball for introducing me to this competition-style training camp model during my week spent with their national teams this summer – it was a perfect solution to the challenge of having our trip to Iran evaporate at the last minute.

Coaching National Team A through drills during the four-day men’s training camp (Photo courtesy of ICRC/Thomas Glass)

Though national team B has less experience (aside from two former team A players) and are for the most part a bit younger than their team A counterparts, they are all very talented players and came into the camp full of confidence and ambition. They know that every time they roll onto the court, they are each competing for a future spot on the traveling team, so they wanted to make a strong impression. They did just that on day one of the camp, pulling off a 1 point victory over team A in the first game ever played between the two. Their bench exploded at the final buzzer, with coach Qawamuddin leading the cheers (and plenty of playful jeers) in team A’s direction. While the team A players were a bit stunned, having come into the game confident that they could outplay their opponents every day, it was the perfect situation from my perspective. Team B got the jolt of confidence it needed by notching an upset to begin the week, and team A was forced to realize that, if they don’t play focused, consistent basketball, they can lose to anyone.

I took team A into a classroom behind the gym spent the next hour having each player give their impressions of things the team did well and something it could have done better to win the game. The answers were, to a man, insightful and accurate. Another concept I had picked up during my time with the Canadians was the value of letting the players puzzle through dissecting problems rather than just telling them what they did right and wrong (extrinsic vs. intrinsic feedback). It was a powerful approach, and it both brought the team together and prepared it mentally to play better games the rest of the week.

On day two, both teams came out determined to get a victory. They each scored nearly twice as many points as they had in the first game as a result of using the patient offensive principles we’d been going over in practices. Team A could not imagine losing two in a row but, unlike in the first game, they stuck to the game plan we’d developed and trusted that it would get them a win. That in itself was a major step forward. Team B was undeterred, though, and fought hard to take a four point lead into the final seconds of the third quarter. Just as the buzzer sounded, Team B’s youngest player – Mohammad Amiri from Herat (19) – launched a one-handed throw from five feet behind midcourt. Swish. It was the longest shot I’ve seen anyone make here, in practice or in a game, and he was immediately mobbed by his teammates and cheered loudly by his opponents.

Mohammad’s miracle shot gave his team a seven point lead going into the final quarter, but I told team A to stay patient, that if they continued playing the right way and not devolve into individualistic basketball, they would put themselves in a position to win. It worked. Team A gradually ate into the lead and, with 2 seconds to go, trailed by one with the ball out of bounds in its own frontcourt. The inbound pass went to Bilal – one of the young stars of the team that played in Japan last October and the most valuable player of last spring’s men’s national tournament – who turned, took one quick dribble, and launched a shot from just inside the three point line that went straight through the bottom of the net as the final buzzer sounded. Pandemonium ensued. Two games, two one-point margins, and two victors. It was an amazing way to start the week.

Despite losing its starting point guard, Ramazan, to a finger injury on the morning of day 3, Team A kept its momentum from Belal’s buzzer beating shot and won the next two games handily. More important than the victories, though, was seeing the team come together as a brotherhood the way we’d heard preached by Team Australia when we met them in Japan. With players from different provinces, different ethnic groups, several of whom have different first languages, this kind of unity has been something we’ve been working very hard to achieve. It was shown clearly on the final morning of practice.

I came into the locker room early to greet the players as they prepared for their final training session, and noticed that the normally jovial Nazir, the MVP of the just-concluded fall national championship, seemed very tired and withdrawn. I asked him if everything was ok, and he told me that his grandmother, with whom he had been very close, had passed away unexpectedly the night before in his home city of Herat. He was devastated by the loss and struggling with being so far from his family during such a difficult time. I brought the team together to begin practice and told them that Nazir had suffered a death in the family and needed all of us to be there for him as surrogate family members. Without another word being spoken, all the players dropped their heads while Wasiqullah, the team captain, began singing a traditional Afghan eulogy in Nazir’s grandmother’s honor. As he sang, members of the Kabul futsal team, which had just finished practicing on the court, came and sat around the circle of our players, bowing their heads as well. This was brotherhood at its most powerful.

I found this moment so moving that I had to capture a few seconds of it for posterity. Nazir is in yellow.

The women’s training camp was my first time delegating head coaching duties to Tahera Yousufi, a star of the women’s standing basketball national team who has spent the last two years learning the wheelchair game as an assistant coach for the Herat women’s team and the women’s national team. Tahera was clearly nervous to be taking the reins, but I assured her that I’d be there to help every minute. She did a great job and really stepped into the role as the four-day camp progressed.

The competition element of the women’s camp was a bit more challenging to structure than was the men’s since we don’t yet have a second women’s national team for the first to compete against. I still wanted to have a similar structure of practices in the mornings and regulation games in the afternoons, though, so we split team into two groups of six and had them play full games with just one substitute per team. Of course, even playing such heavy minutes, every player was loath to come out of the games even for a short break.

The goal of the women’s camp was to conclude it with the national team playing a game against the men’s team from Maidan Wardak – the first time a women’s team would have ever competed against a team of men in the country. When we proposed the game, we weren’t sure if the women would all be comfortable breaking this social barrier, but as soon as I suggested it to them on the first day of practice, everyone was excited to take on a bigger, stronger team and show them who’s boss. It was exactly the attitude I’d hoped for.

Unfortunately, the next day, about half of the players came to me and said that when they told their families about the planned game, they were forbidden to play against men. I tried speaking with some of the male relatives – fathers, brothers, uncles – who had accompanied the players to Kabul from Mazar and Herat to convince them. I told them that their daughters, sisters, and nieces had already broken down so many perceived walls by becoming women’s wheelchair basketball players in the first place, and that this was the best opportunity for them to improve since there are currently no female players in the country capable of giving them the kind of challenge they will need to learn to play internationally. They listened and considered the plea, but ultimately decided that – unless I could guarantee that there would be zero physical contact between the male and female players during the game – they couldn’t, in good conscience, allow it. Of course I couldn’t say that there would never be a hand slapped or other incidental contact between opposing players – not if we were going to play the game in a way that would give them the type of competition they needed – so we agreed to table the idea for now.

It reminded me of the first days of the women’s teams in Mazar and Kabul, when they wouldn’t allow any men to even see them practicing. A year later, they opened their practices and games to all observers and now, just a few short years later, they play national tournaments in front of news cameras and throngs of screaming fans without a second thought. I hope we’ll see the same type of evolution with respect to playing alongside and against men. I’ll continue to be patient with a cultural paradigm that is different from my own and, as with the Iranian situation, hope that everything will work itself out in the not-too-distant future. These women are strong and getting stronger every day. I know they will eventually find a way to take on all comers.

The ICRC in Afghanistan produced this fantastic clip of footage from the women’s national tournament to promote the program (Thanks to Thomas Glass and ICRC Afghanistan Communications)

A few additional photos from my last week in Kabul:

Future Afghan wheelchair basketball stars

blog-5Young disabled futsal (and hopefully future wheelchair basketball) players – Photo courtesy of ICRC/Thomas Glass

Sunset in Kabul