What does it mean to achieve success? That can be a complicated question depending on the aspect of life to which it’s applied. One of the things that’s so compelling about team sports, though – and one reason being a fan is so much fun – is the relative ease of answering it. Generally speaking, if your team wins in competition, you consider that a success. If it loses, you don’t. Simple.

From a coach’s perspective, however, things are a bit more complicated. Success is more a measure of progress than of victory or defeat. If a team I’m coaching plays its best basketball in a loss, to me that is still a success. If it plays poor, uninspired basketball but wins against a weaker opponent, it’s not.

As I prepared to coach the Afghanistan men’s national team in its second-ever international competition – the 2017 International Wheelchair Basketball Federation Asia-Oceania (IWBF AOZ) Championships in Beijing, China in late October – I spent a lot of time trying to determine how our team should measure whether or not it was successful. The IWBF AOZ Championships were the qualifying tournament for the IWBF World Championships, to be held in Germany in 2018, and brought together the 14 best national teams from across Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Given that Afghanistan had gone winless in its first international tournament – the AOZ qualifier for the Rio Paralympics, held in Japan in 2015 – and had only had the chance to train together three times in the two years since, capturing one of the four men’s qualifying positions at this tournament was probably not an achievable success metric.

The team would be dealing with an added challenge in that the players would all be using brand new wheelchairs – the first custom-fitted basketball chairs any of them have ever played in – which only arrived two days before they left Afghanistan for the journey to China. The chairs, produced by the head of Thailand’s wheelchair basketball program, are made of aluminum and are of excellent quality; they’re significantly lighter and faster than the steel chairs the players have used since they began playing the game. Those attributes – combined with the better fit and positioning given by the chairs’ customized builds – are normally a huge asset… unless the players haven’t had time to learn how to harness their newfound speed and maneuverability. The team would be able to do more athletically in these chairs, to be sure, but I knew there would likely be a plenty of crashing and unforced turnovers as they went through the process of learning to control themselves in their new equipment.

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Mohammadullah models his brand new basketball wheelchair the day before departing for Beijing

At the end of my last entry, I mentioned that I was unable to travel to Kabul to train the team as originally planned due to a security incident in which one of my (and a few of our players’) ICRC colleagues, Lorena, was tragically killed. Since that incident, the ICRC Orthopaedic Centre in Mazar-i-Sharif, which housed the basketball court used by four of our national team players for training, had been temporarily closed. That meant that none of those players had been able to get on the court for nearly a month and a half leading up to the trip to China. As anyone who plays basketball – or any competitive sport – knows, that long away from training makes it extremely difficult to jump back into the game, especially at the sport’s highest level. Luckily for us, the Chinese tournament organizers generously allowed the team to come to Bejing five days early so I could hold a brief training camp to help them prepare. I knew it wouldn’t make up for the months I would have wanted them to be working out daily in their new chairs in order to get as sharp as possible before the big competition, but we were determined to make the most of it.

When we got on the court for the first time, rather than rolling out the basketballs, I spoke to the team about how we would approach our training and the competition from a mental perspective. We are ready to take a big step forward, I told them, but that can only happen if we pull together as a single unit and commit to supporting one another throughout this experience no matter what happens. The cheer we would use to break every huddle would be “mushte wahed,” which loosely translates to “one fist.” That’s how I wanted the guys to think of themselves when they were on the court – five individuals bonded together tightly enough to play as one. The team-as-a-fist concept was something I read in a book by a well-known U.S. college coach, and it seemed tailor made for a group of Afghans, each coming from different tribes, different regions, different cultural backgrounds, but needing to cast all those differences aside in order to maximize their collective talent.

I also posed a question to them that would help all of us gauge how successful our tournament would be – something much more esoteric than wins and losses. “What do you want the rest of the teams here to leave Beijing thinking about Afghanistan wheelchair basketball?” Each player answered in turn, and all the answers were insightful and deep. The common themes among them were:

  1. We want everyone to see that Afghanistan wheelchair basketball is no longer weak, but that we are now a real team ready to compete at the international level, and;
  2. We want them to see that Afghanistan is not just war and poverty and extremism; it is a country full of good people. People like us.

They were perfect measures of success.

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The Tournament

During the training camp, we had the opportunity to play a series of “friendly” games against the Chinese men’s and women’s teams (the Chinese women were the defending AOZ champions and would go on to defend their title in their home country), as well as the men’s teams from Thailand and New Zealand. The practice games were very challenging – we lost each of the games against the Chinese teams and the Thais by at least 25 – but with each game, our team got a little better and a little more comfortable in their new chairs. By the time we played New Zealand the day before the tournament officially started, we led the entire game and went into the final three minutes of the game with a five point lead.

At that point I had a difficult decision to make. I knew I could leave our starters – who were playing very well – in the game and have a good chance to pull off the victory, but in the spirit of our “one fist” motto, I wanted to see if the bench could hold a lead under such pressure. I needed to know how various combinations of players would perform in tight situations before we got to the real games, and I wanted everyone to have a chance to confront stress and play through it in case they needed to be called on to do it in a future game. So I put four new players into the game as an experiment. It didn’t work. New Zealand’s starters seized on the opportunity and came back to win. While it was frustrating to the Afghan players not to finish off the win that they felt they had in hand, they understood when I explained to them why I’d made the change, and everyone stood behind the reserves who had given up the lead at the end of the game. They expressed confidence in each other and in the team. That’s all I wanted.

The next morning, following the opening ceremonies, we played China in front of their home crowd to kick off the tournament. In spite of the series of warm-up games we’d played, the pressure of the moment led to some serious first-quarter jitters for the Afghans. We scored one point and trailed by over 20 at the end of the first period. I told them to forget about the score and focus on doing the things we’d worked on in practice the past several days. Remember, all we care about is improving each quarter, each half, each game, I said. They took the words to heart and came out looking like a different team for the rest of the game, even outscoring the Chinese team in the third quarter, 18-15. The final score was still lopsided – we lost by 53 – but that was 25 points closer than the practice game we’d played against the same China team just four days earlier. Progress!

Our second game, against an excellent Korea team, was even harder – the Koreans ran a suffocating full court press defense the entire game – but still the Afghans cut the margin of defeat by 17 from the game we’d played against them in Japan two years prior. Korea would go on to finish fourth in the tournament, capturing the zone’s final qualifying position at the world championships and joining the world’s elite class of teams. There was certainly no shame in losing to them as long as we could maintain our focus throughout the game, which we did.

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Ramazan and the Afghans gamely picked themselves up off the floor again and again against Korea, an elite team that played a merciless press defense throughout the game

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Wasim – a rookie player on the national team – swishes a long three pointer near the end of the game against Korea

In my mind, all the games to that point – practice or official, win or lose – were in service of preparing our team for its third game of the tournament against the United Arab Emirates. UAE had beaten us in Japan in our first ever official international game, but we felt at the time that we would be ready for them the next time we played. This would be our last game in the group stage of the tournament and we knew that a victory would put us in a winnable game in the first playoff round with a chance to finish as high as 9th in the tournament. The players, though they expressed confidence, definitely felt the pressure as they took the court. Playing against a slower, more methodical team rather than at the fast pace they were used to in the other games we’d played led to our team playing a choppy, disjointed style, resulting in a series of missed shots, bad passes and offensive fouls as they pushed their new wheelchairs past the limits of their control. It was clear that we had the advantage in athleticism and probably in talent, but the UAE team knew its strengths and played within its limits, making very few mistakes. The game was close throughout, and the Afghans fought hard until the end, but by the end the more experienced UAE team took control and came away with the victory.

The loss was a difficult pill for the team to swallow. The guys knew that they’d improved a great deal –their opinion had been corroborated by several coaches and officials who had seen us play in Japan in 2015 and were astounded by how different they looked now – and they’d really expected to get the win. I was disappointed as well; I couldn’t stop thinking about what else I could have done to better prepare them to play under the pressure of a game they knew they had a chance to win – the first time they’d ever been in that position. Ultimately, though, I knew it was just another step in the growth process. What mattered in that moment was shaking off the melancholy and getting mentally prepared for our final game against Saudi Arabia – a bigger, faster version of the UAE team we’d just lost to – the next morning.

After letting the team process the loss on their own that evening, I brought them together early the next morning to prepare for Saudi Arabia. It was certainly not a game we would go into expecting to win, but I knew that if the guys played their best basketball, we could all leave feeling like we’d accomplished something. To their great credit, they shook off the disappointment of the UAE loss and played the best half in their history, with every player giving his best effort – whether on the floor or cheering from the bench – on the way to a five point halftime lead. I wish I could have captured the feeling of that halftime huddle in a bottle. I’d never seen the team so confident or so excited.

Unfortunately, the exhaustion from a ninth consecutive day playing against superior competition took its toll in the second half. Saudi Arabia – like the UAE team had the day before – leaned on its experience, got our best player to foul out, and came back to claim the victory. The feeling after the game was nothing like it had been after the previous loss, though. The team had seen its potential come alive in the first half, and despite the final result, it knew – as did I – that all that potential was finally ready to come to fruition.

On the final day of the competition, the team from Taiwan – which had finished 9th out of 14 teams in the tournament (the spot I’d hoped we would play for before the tournament) – invited us to play one more friendly game. It was a chance to get one more dose of invaluable international experience against a well-balanced, fast team, so we eagerly accepted. While the game didn’t count on the official books, our team clearly showed that it was ready to build on its encouraging first half against Saudi Arabia. Once again, we took a narrow lead into halftime. The second half was a back-and-forth battle where Afghanistan held its own and, after Taiwan scored on consecutive possessions to take a 2 point lead with 10 seconds to go, we had two shots to tie on the final play. Sadly, both shots rimmed out, leading to another agonizingly close loss. But to play a game so tightly with a team that finished six positions higher than us was a major step forward. Once again, the guys were proud of their performance and were able to see the game in the context of their continued improvement and future success.

Both the men’s and women’s teams from Afghanistan will have a chance to build on their recent tournament experiences soon. We will travel to Bangkok the first week in March to play in another Asia-wide tournament made up of many of the same teams we saw in Beijing.

The Wall

The day before we left – the team and Alberto to return to Afghanistan and me to come home to Colorado – we had a free day that gave us our one chance to absorb some Chinese history and culture. Alberto and I decided that we’d charter a bus to take the team to the Great Wall of China, a section of which had been made wheelchair accessible for the first time in advance of the Beijing Paralympics in 2008. Everybody knows about the Great Wall – even Afghan wheelchair basketball players – so everyone was excited for the experience.

After a long bus ride through Beijing and up into the hills, we pushed our chairs (or hobbled, in most of the players’ cases) up a series of steep stone streets to reach the gondola that we would ride up to the Wall. The weather was perfect and the leaves on the trees blanketing the hills had turned all colors of orange, red, and yellow. When we reached the top (after a few more treacherously steep ramps), everyone was awestruck by the view from the top of the only man-made structure that can be seen from space. To stand atop the Wall and feel how massive it is, then look at it crawling along the hills into the distance – knowing it reaches 5,500 miles (8,852 kilometers) across the north of China – is almost unfathomable.

The highlight of the trip came after the players had been exploring along the wall for 30 minutes or so and had reconvened at the broad landing area. The three players from Maimana – Sakhi, Alem and Ramazan – each of whom I had coached as teenagers when I first came to Afghanistan in 2009, had brought a tabla (traditional hand drum) with them to China. Sakhi, who is a skilled player, sat down on the top of the wall and started playing a lively rhythm while Alem danced. Soon our group was surrounded by a throng of clapping (mostly Chinese) tourists, one of whom even joined Alem and danced along in the center of the circle. The energy in that crowd of different nationalities and ethnicities was so joyful and accepting that it almost brought tears to my eyes. That a group of 12 disabled Afghans could be cheered and photographed like celebrities atop the most famous structure in the world is such a remarkable thing; something I never could have imagined when I first met them.

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Haidar, like many of his teammates, was treated like a celebrity at the Great Wall, being repeatedly asked to pose for photos with strangers

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Sakhi (seated) plays a beat on his tabla while Alem performs a traditional dance alongside an outgoing Chinese tourist atop the Great Wall (not pictured: the throng of multinational tourists enthusiastically clapping along)

So it turns out that the measures of success at an international wheelchair basketball tournament can be multifaceted. Maybe we didn’t win a game, but the team certainly achieved its goals of showing the international wheelchair basketball community that it is for real and introducing everyone with whom they interacted to the beautiful, joyous side of Afghanistan. For that, they should be very proud.

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“Mushte Wahed!” (One fist)