Sunday, March 4, 2012

Kahaani Cup

Today was a banner day for the MS football program. We held a tournament at Kahaani Football Academy's grounds at Sarkhej. All of our four teams were scheduled to play, but the Ashramshalla team had to drop out at the last minute due to a scheduling conflict (yes, these kids are tough to get on the calendar). But our other three teams boarded Khushi ("Happiness"), Manav Sadhna's bus, this morning at 8am and headed over for the tournament.

Manishaben, Kahaani's director, graciously agreed to let our kids hold their tournament at their grounds. Not only that, she had two of her coaches on hand to work with our kids, and a bunch of the academy's players to play an exhibition match before our tournament began. But since we were missing a fourth team, they also agreed to play in the tournament.

You can see the day's happenings through the photo show below, but I want to highlight a few stories from the day.

Our kids have been absolutely jacked about this tournament for the last two weeks. Rahulbhai told me that one of our boys Arvind, who is a ragpicker, had to go out and work for his family on tournament day. So he got up early at 4am to finish his work in time to still play. And while he was awake, he also cleaned the shoes for his teammates so they would be ready to roll at gametime.

One team held a players-only meeting the night before to talk strategy and make sure everyone knew what positions they were going to play. They also all agreed to wake up at 4am to make sure they had a proper cleansing at the toilet. Because they needed a clean stomach to play their best.

Our format was to have two first round matches, with the winner of each meeting in a championship match. The first match was between Powerhouse and Parinde, and went to PKs. It was an incredibly intense situation. The Kahaani field had the PK spot impossibly close to the goal, leaving the keeper little chance. But somehow there was one block by the Powerhouse keeper, so they edged it out.

For the first time our kids played a match with a ref blowing a whistle. And they played like it was the first time. They would not listen to the whistle at all! We could never get them to stop on a foul or even halftime.

Our kids played great. I encouraged them at the beginning of the tournament to focus on using the full space of the field, which they never get in our cramped Ashramshalla practice ground. Use the space to pass and keep positions. They did a decent job, but it was clear that on a proper field like this they are playing a different game. In a constrained space, there are so many important things we can't practice with them; attacking and defending organization, marking space and opponents, communication, set pieces, shooting. Basically everything other then local feet-to-feet passing and dribbling. It's like a stunted type of development, they don't have the room (literally) to spread their wings (figuratively) and develop as well-rounded footballers. This is a big problem. Virenbhai and I renewed our determination to bring this kind of environment to the kids locally. This was the same vision that Football Action originally had. The kids are ready for it, and there is commitment. It is time to make it happen.

Kahaani's team dominated the tournament. In the first round they beat Ahemdabad Fighters 3-0 and in the final beat Powerhouse 4-1. Their kids are not necessarily more talented, but have more experience (4 years on average vs. 8 months for our kids) and are better coached. We had gotten a high quality ball as the trophy prize for the winning team, so it went to Kahaani team. It took some wind out of our kids' chests to get beat so soundly (and also to lose that awesome ball). On the bus ride home it was mostly silent, a big contrast to the ride in the morning. A mix of exhaustion and dejection. But I sensed the stronger sentiment was determination. They took the loss as they should, as a learning experience and a wakeup call. Instructive and constructive. One thing I've noticed about our kids, they don't back down.

One trend I've observed about coaching style in Indian athletics (sports, at my gym, etc.) is that the common approach is militaristic. Coaches yell a lot, berate, encourage through brutality instead of quiet, thoughtful influence. I was always coached with the latter style, since American sports culture tends to favor a coach that encourages and supports calmly rather than one that stomps around yelling. I also think it's a more effective style. I'd like to instill that into our coaches, among other things. One of the main takeaways from this tournament was that our coaches need coaching as much as the players. They themselves are new to the game, and so they are not very effective in leading their teams. There are two things we want to do to work on the coaches: one, expose them to good football through videos. This also goes for the players. Their mental models of good football is barren, something I take for granted since the sport is burned into my subconscious. They need to see what it means to play the game correctly, and to mimic it. Second thing is for them to actually mimic it by playing themselves.

It was such a glorious day overall. All the coaches were smiles and so enthusiastic about the sport and working with these kids. For me, they are an inexhaustible fountain of joy.

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