Sunday, October 12, 2008

To A Different Beat...

If there is anything which comes close to a personal high, then this might be it.
*Warning - rather long post ahead*

"So you guys ready for football?", I asked, as some 15 faces stared at me, most of them confused.

When a colleague asked if I knew how to play soccer and was willing to coach a soccer team, I jumped at the opportunity. The challenge being it was a Special Olympics team. 15 athletes, girls and boys, mentally challenged to some capacity. Quite a challenge I thought. But it did make me nervous. How was I supposed to interact with them? I started doing the groundwork. Reading up on how to interact with these athletes. Took the required tests that a coach is required to take and here I was, July, Day 1, in front of 15 individuals who might have never seen an Indian guy, asking them if they were ready for football.

I was greeted with complete silence.

"Is that a yes, or a no?", I asked, deep down wondering if I was doing it right.

And then one voice out of the crowd says, "We are here for soccer!"

In the United States of America, its soccer! And soccer is what has consumed a good part of my life for the last three months. To say this experience has been out of the world would be an understatement. It has thrown out its challenges but at the same time its made me interact with the human mind on a completely different level.

The first day I was in a dilemma on how I would mix in with these athletes. Very soon I realized you interact with them just like you would interact with any person on a day-to-day basis. Just one rule - for every word of criticism, have five words of encouragement. It might take them a little longer to react and perhaps a little longer to understand, but they do get it. In the end, they do execute plans to perfection. As is normal with anyone who starts playing soccer, the aim is to shoot a goal. And thats what everyone was trying for on the team. So you had 10 atheletes run after the ball and shoot a goal. It was like a herd, all moving together, sometimes tripping each other in an effort to get to the ball.

Yes, it did take time to make them understand what is defence. It did take time to make them understand offense. But in the end, they did get it! It did take time to make them understand the importance of passing. To spread out in the field. To tackle. To take corners. Throw-in's. It did take time to make them understand, no matter who shoots the goal, the team wins! And it took many words of encouragement for them to brave the heat and the cold for 45 minutes. But in the end, they did it all.

By the end of September, passing was more important than scoring a goal. Defense was at par with offense. And it didnt matter which position you play. It didnt matter who scored the goal. The team won. Passing became more important than scoring and defense became the powerhouse on which the offense built their game.

Last week of September, we headed for the regional play-off's. We lost our first game 3-1. I could see some disappointed faces. But that was the warm-up cum wake-up call we needed. What followed was a complete decimation of the opponents. With scores ranging from 1-0 all the way to 5-1. The regional tournament being a league, rather than play-off's, we ended up taking silver (the first team which beat us ended up with on same points). But that put us on way to state level which was played this weekend (10/11 Oct.) at Detroit.

There were 4 teams from my area and we rented a bus and some 60 of us drove down to Detroit. It was one fun trip. We had games on Friday followed by dinner and a dance after which we turned Best Western upside down. This was followed by games on Saturday. Like I said, after that first match loss at regional, we were a team transformed. What followed after that loss was an unbeaten run all the way to the final. And the final had all the drama one could ask for. We trailed 0-1 at half-time. A rebound off our goalie went straight to one of the opposite team's forwards and it was an easy shot into the goal. Half-way through the second half, DN took a shot from mid-field and it sailed into the right corner of the goal. 1-1. What followed was a penalty shoot-out which we comprehensively won. And we were very proud to show off our Gold medal!!

Hall of Fame moment:

- The goalie was a girl (ER). Some people were concerned about this, but I felt she was the best goalie I had ever come across and I was adamant that she be goalie. Once she walked up to me and expressed a desire to play forward. We let her play forward and she shot a goal. She loved it, but she came back as goalie coz she knew this is where the team required her. "If you stop a goal, I say you have scored one", is what I said to her and she just smiled. When the finals went to a penalty shoot-out, she came up to and said, "I hate shoot-outs". "This is where you get to be the hero", I said, "Dont let even one past you!" And thats exactly what she did. She put her body behind the ball, she dived, she took a ball on her face. She cramped a thigh muscle but she didnt let a single ball through. We didn't even have to go five kicks a side. When she blocked the fourth kick, we were up 2-0. And I ran and gave her this huge bear hug. And she hugged me back and said, "I still hate shoot-outs, coach!" There was one guy on my team who shot close to 10 goals in the tournament. But ER was my hero (heroine)!

Hilarious/lovable moments:

- EC was a cookie/brownie monster. He was playing for the junior team (I was not his coach), but I used to interact with him quite a lot. I was walking to the players area when I saw him returning from a game (which the team had won). He had just eaten a brownie on the way and his lips were all smeared with chocolate. He saw me and made a mad dash, shouting, "We won, I shot a gooooooooal" and hugged me, his face going smack onto my shoulder. Rest of the day, I was walking around wearing a shirt with chocolate colored lip marks on its shoulder.

- During practice, we had our back-up goalie (EV) in the nets. Someone took a shot which went over his head. EV walks up to me and says, "Not fair. No goal. It went over my head." "But EV, thats allowed. You have to stop it", I said. "No!! No over my head! No GOAL" and he stomped off.

- During a match I had EV as goalie and the other team had to take a corner. They had no idea how to take a corner. EV walks up with an athlete of the opposite team to the corner, places the ball on the corner, waits with the other team athlete till the opposite team players show up on our side of the field. Then he talks to the other athlete telling him how to kick the ball. All this while I am going crazy on the other side of the field, shouting, "EV!!! Get back in the goal! You are the goalie. If she kicks the ball, we dont have a goalie!! Get back, get back..." All the spectators are rolling in laughter.

- I sent EV in as sub during the final. "You are playing defence and you mark # 10. Dont let him past you. Bring him down" EV is a 5'2" little fella. #10 from the opposite team was a 6'1", 220 lb Afro-American. EV follows #10 like a hawk. And swoops in when #10 gets the ball. First, he goes for the ball, misses it. Realizes the ball is out of reach and #10 is getting away. So he takes one big swing at #10's feet. Hits. #10 limps for a second, but still has the ball. EV head-butt's #10's stomach and sends #10 rolling over. Ref calls foul. EV looks at me, fist up in the air. "Coach, I brought him down"

- AX was the most hilarious guy around. Everytime you look at him, he would smile. He could eat anytime of the day. He got along very well with me, and was this totally lovable guy with an amazing sense of humor. His passion was dancing. During the regionals I caught him
on video just dancing by himself. As we went to state, I asked him if he could teach me to dance. "I suck at dancing AX. All girls run away when they watch me dance.", I said. "Oh, cute", was his reply. At the Friday night dance, he decided to give me some tips during 'Who let the dogs out'. I have him on video over here.

- During the regionals, some cute teenage (17-19) university girls came around for some campaign they were working on. AX did an Elvis imitation and got them totally hooked. After sometime he walks up to them and says, "I turn 30 this Saturday. You are all welcome to my house for an all night party"

The Moment Of Truth:

Its Friday night and all the special olympics athletes were dancing. It must be a few 100 of them, dancing away. The DJ turns on some slow music (Unchained Melody) and most athletes are dancing with their mom, or dad. DN (who had a habit of saying coach after every second word) walks up to me.

DN: Coach, you should dance coach!
ME: Nah DN, I am good.
DN: Ask some girl to dance coach.
ME: No DN, I am good.
DN: You like a girl coach? This is where you ask her to dance!
ME: I cant! My wife would not like it.
DN: You have a wife?
ME: Two!
DN: Two?
ME: One in NY, one in India.
DN: Cool! (walks away with a huge smile on his face)

I used to do my little bit - organizing an "adopt a family" over Xmas at work, volunteering to hand out food to the homeless during thanksgiving etc. However, it left some quentions lingering. This was a completely different experience. It kept me mentally stimulated (very important for someone like me), and I got an understanding of how the human mind works on different levels. It taught me to lead, to follow and in the end, just enjoy and not bother what happens. Its taught me never to give up. When we trailed 0-1, none of the players gave up. We just kept going at it. Its made me apprecite life much more and once again ask myself why we run this rat race in our everyday life when in the end everyone goes back to mother earth. Its made me appreciate people who work in many a thankless jobs/professions.

Some of the kids stutter, and stutter so much that it might take them a good 20 secs. to say "Hello, how are you?" Can you imagine the patience level when you have to work with them everyday? DN, the lead scorer on my team had the biggest mood swings. Half-way through a match, he decides he does not want to play because he has to conserve his enery for another sport which is a month from now. How do you convince him in the middle of the game? Can you imagine saying something and then repeating couple of times just so the other person understands it? Can you imagine doing this everyday of your life?

Finally, what do we do in our everyday life to make a better community? Sometimes, you need to live a different beat.

... 3 days to go!

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

kudos bhai, proud of ya

October 12, 2008 4:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

awesome apoo... i really couldn't imagine u with such patience...I do it everyday and you kind of get used to it and there is a satisfaction factor at the end of the day..ans yes very proud of ya ...THE POOH

October 12, 2008 5:01 AM  
Blogger Solitaire said...

Honestly, I did not read the post because I saw sports in it and knew that it was not my cup of tea.

What's 3 days away?

October 13, 2008 1:29 AM  
Blogger Madame Mahima said...

aww man how am i supposed to make fun of this?! uve ruined my sole purpose of visiting this blog.
i saw the vid of AX dancing, too cute haha
im proud of u ajo, uve got loads of patience and such a huge, big, magnificent......................heart!


October 13, 2008 3:44 AM  
Blogger Iyer Education said...

hats off bro... couldn't see the video though :)

October 13, 2008 3:57 AM  
Anonymous memphis said...

after school/ college, i had promised myself to not read anything that goes beyond 2 paragraphs .. but this article .. just couldn't keep my eyes off even for a sec .. tu solid hai yaar. Extremely proud of you. SRK did something similar in chak de .. but u did it in real life .. that's brilliant.

October 13, 2008 10:48 AM  
Blogger Sonia said...

srk did nothing of the sort in chak de! sheesh! that's like trivializing what u did!

Glad you did what you did. makes me feel a bit selfish cos i don't do anything for anyone.

October 13, 2008 12:53 PM  
Anonymous memphis said...

M lil emotional so it didnt come out correctly..what i really meant was loosing the 1st match and en continue winning till the end..Respect.

October 13, 2008 2:52 PM  
Blogger APOO said...

#Abhi: Thanks bhai!

#Pooh: Do you work in special ed? Well, but come to think of it, a teacher of any sorts requires loads of patience! Thanks :)

#Solitaire: Hmmm... its got sports in it. But its not got much to do with sports :) try reading it.

#Mahi: Thank you! You know, sometimes I like to disappoint you and put you in a spot where u cant make fun of me.

#Iyer: Thanks man!

#Memphis: Thanks dude!

#Sonia: From what I know about you, you do a lot of others. You are just not aware of it on a conscious level!

October 13, 2008 7:48 PM  
Blogger Menagerie said...

amazing, and truly inspiring. Thats all I have to say!

' 3 days to go' shouldn't happen ...

October 13, 2008 10:23 PM  
Blogger dilip said...

Truly inspiring!!

October 14, 2008 1:13 AM  
Blogger the free spirit said... lived my dream and that inspired me to not just dream.
This is amazing. I hardly know you but this window in your life tells so much about you as a person. I actually had a lil tear reading about it...heheheh.
Inspiring and awesome :)

October 14, 2008 3:55 PM  
Blogger the free spirit said...

Oh and hollywood can so make a movie out of it...and with 30 lbs down you can be a hero...on and off-screen

October 14, 2008 3:57 PM  
Blogger APOO said...

#Menagerie: Thanks!

#Dilip: Thanks!

#Free spirit: Thank you for the kind words. I doubt I can be the hero tho'. There were many people around who played a bigger role than I did.

October 14, 2008 10:47 PM  
Blogger Sonia said...

i do?! like whaat?

October 17, 2008 4:11 AM  
Blogger Solitaire said...

Wow. I did finally read it and boy am I glad that I did. I was choking as I read this post. I can imagine the challenges, the thrill, and the fulfillment of working with this team. The joy is so much more than bringing back a paycheck home after sitting hours at a desk working on nothing.

I have a client who has CP and is part of the Olympics special team. She too stutters a lot and has grown up with low self-esteem. Being on the team has done her wonders. I am sure you Mr. Coach have touched so many hearts in ways that you don't even know about.

I hope many get inspired by you. :)

October 23, 2008 6:48 PM  

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