Sunday, December 15, 2013

Manav Sadhna Football 2013

After over three years, the Manav Sadhna Football Program continues to march on, driven by the enthusiasm and dedication of its players. Below is an update from the past year.



Sunday morning practices have remained an anchor-point for the program. An average of 20 players (out of ~25 total) come to practice and play from 7am-12pm. The practices follow a standard format: warmup/running, stretching, passing and dribbling drills, shooting/small sided games, scrimmage, prayer and snacks. Over the last year the players have shown significant improvement in their ball control and passing skills. Our team is small and physically weaker than most of the competition, so our philosophy is to play with higher skill. We cannot outrun our opponents, so we try to out-pass and out-think them. This is one of the reasons we have modeled our play after FC Barcelona, who became the best team in world emphasizing passing and teamwork.



In the past two months the team has participated in two local soccer tournaments. The first was hosted by Kaahani, one of Ahmedabad's top soccer clubs. In Kahaani's Sintex Cup, Manav Sadhna's team participated in the under-15 division, which prevented some of our best players from playing. Yet the team gave a strong showing for two matches. In the first match, Manav Sadhna conceded two quick goals in the first half due to lack of organization on defense. We struggled to keep up with the speed of the opposing players and the large space they were suddenly tasked with defending. After the second goal we settled down considerably. In the second half, we held the opponent to a 0-0 draw. In the second game, the team faced a superior opponent who picked our team apart. The score was easily run up to double digits, with our team having perhaps one strong scoring opportunity. It was a thorough beating. However, the team responded with resolve to improve and practiced hard for their next tournament match, which was held several weeks later as part of Gujarat's Khel Mahakumbh. It was a single elimination tournament with thousands of teams from all over Gujarat participating. Matches were only 20 minutes. In our first match, Manav Sadhna drew a strong but equally matched opponent. The game was intensely played and our team did well to keep organized on the defensive end. The game ended in a 0-0 draw, and went to a penalty shoot-out. In the shoot-out, our players were confident but ultimately came up short, losing 3-1. The players were absolutely devastated. They had come so close to their first victory! After the match, the players sat silently together waiting for the bus, not speaking a word for 15 minutes. They were very disappointed with the outcome. However, as has become a trademark of these children, they bounced back up. With the clear goal of winning their next match in mind and within reach, they have come much more prepared and focused to practice.


Challenges: Field and Equipment

The program continues to struggle with two main challenges: adequate equipment for the children and adequate practice facility. Some players still lack shoes. Shoes, socks, and balls especially wear out fast due to inappropriate field conditions. Currently the team practices in the abandoned lot area across the street from Gandhi Ashram, next to Vinay Mandir. This is a hard dirt area that is uneven and very rocky. The children are uncomfortable practicing in cleats on this hard ground for long periods of time. Also, the game's flow is interrupted because of the unpredictable terrain. It is unfortunate that the children still lack a proper place to grow their skills. With an open grass field, the children would be able to play in game-like conditions and also be able to practice aspects of the game that are difficult or impossible on hard ground/dirt (tackling, positional tactics, shooting and set pieces, etc.)

Personal Reflections

I continue to be very moved by participating in the Football Program. First and foremost, I am inspired by the children. They have developed a true love and passion for this game. They are dedicated to being better players. They go beyond what is asked of them to improve. In Jamalpur, for example, the players organize their own practices during the week. And they point out that they don't just play matches, they run drills and do exercises that they learned from Sunday practices. Despite having limited open space and lots of trash around, they are able to carry on their practice. One thing they especially work on is juggling the ball individually and in groups. When we first introduced juggling a few months ago, players could keep the ball in the air for a only a few touches. Now, almost all can juggle 10 and some up to 50 touches. Group juggling has become a fun and lively game.

It is a joy to be a part of a program where the children themselves drive things. We do not have to push the players to practice more; they are the ones pushing the coaches to extend practice for an extra hour or organize more matches. They have made it clear through their consistent commitment that they want to improve and grow with the game. One of the signature stories I tell about the dedication of these children is the Jamalpur players' Sunday morning routine. Living on the other side of the city, they wake up at 5am on Sunday morning to catch a bus by 6am, which brings them to Manav Sadhna for practice by 7. All by themselves, with no one other than each other to be accountable to. And this is on Sunday, one of their precious days off!

One of the most memorable moments I've had with the children was the practice we had two days after being blown out of the match at Sintex Cup. I was curious to see how the players would approach the practice having experienced a very discouraging loss. Would they see practice as hopeless and not put in the effort? Before the practice started, I reminded them that in sports, there is always one team that has to lose. The question isn't whether you will lose, because every team loses. The important question is how you respond to losing. Do you hang your head or do you learn from the loss and work on your weaknesses even harder? They took the message to heart and worked very hard that day. It was probably the best practice we had all year.

Going forward, it will be mine and the other coaches' main responsibility to offer more opportunities for these players to improve. Whether it is more tournaments and matches, better coaching and training, and/or better facilities and equipment, we have to make sure that we don't put a ceiling on the players' development and instead let them fly as far as their wings will take them. So far the players have shown real talent; it makes me hopeful that some day one of our players will make it to the national level.

Football (and sports in general) is a powerful medium to make better human beings. Having grown up as an athlete, I never recognized or appreciated the things football instilled in me until I began coaching these children. Football, in particular, teaches so many important life skills. Discipline, work ethic, teamwork, cooperation, communication, flexibility, even empathy and generosity. It is such a fluid game, each player is so interdependent on the other. My team will only succeed if I put my teammates in better positions to make a good pass or take a shot. So I have to care for and go the extra mile for my teammates.

Over time, I have seen a shift in the children. Most of these children have very challenged backgrounds, growing up in harsh environments. It is not their nature to cooperate with each other and communicate in positive ways. Early on, we often used to see teammates stopping to berate each other in the middle of the game, not realizing that they were doubly hurting their team by being negative and stopping their own play to do so. But over time, I have heard their vocabulary change. They are much more encouraging to each other. Nowadays, you are much more likely to hear "well done!" or "good defense!" than a negative comment on the field.

It is a blessing to be a part of these children's lives, to give them love and to receive so much love from them. This experience has shown me how important sports have been in my life, how much they have molded me to the person I am today. Coaching these children, I see how much influence my own coaches had on my personality. And I feel deeply moved to use the medium of sports to bring a positive influence on these children's lives.

Last but not least, I want to recognize and thank Rahulbhai. This program stands on his shoulders, he is the backbone. He is boundlessly dedicated to these children and supporting their growth. He comes to practice on his only day off from regular duties as arts teacher at Manav Sadhna. He never misses a practice or game, and is never late. He brings energy, tough love, and committed strength to this program. I feel fortunate and blessed to be working with him on this project.

Support The Team

We are seeking support for equipment and building a proper practice field for the MS Football Program. We welcome gifts of cash and in-kind. We would also welcome those who are moved to come and volunteer their time with the team. If you are interested in learning more about how you can help, please contact me at neilpatel AT gmail.

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