“It’s funny because I didn’t have the faintest clue of what I was getting into. I absolutely had no idea what it was going to be like to coach people that, not only, didn’t share a language with me but, much more importantly, had very limited or no experience playing sports."
Sports are such a large part of American culture. Even if you consider yourself part of the small percentage that don’t watch or engage in this form of entertainment, it’s undeniable the role it plays in each of our lives as it permeates the culture in which we live. In youth we engage in a multitude of sports at school, both for our physical well-being and as a means of teaching us how to get along with our peers. Sports teach us the fundamentals of engagement with our teammates, as well as our opponents. As we grow up, we are taught to think of sports as an enjoyable pastime, only the lucky make a career out of it. It’s easy to quickly label as entertainment and forget how it once, and still can, serve a purpose other than just mere fun. It can be a tool to gain confidence and problem solve. It can teach us lessons of success and failure. It can be a means of communication through unspoken language. Now try to imagine if you grew up without this framework. Does it perhaps serve a greater purpose than entertainment alone?
Jess Markt is a man who has been exploring the deeper benefits that sports can have on an individual and society. Answering a request made from halfway across the globe, he set out for Afghanistan in 2009 to teach wheelchair basketball to a small group of eager students. At that point, Jess had been playing wheelchair basketball for nine years but had never coached before. He was expecting it to be a one-time experience, a week spent helping twelve individuals learn the rules of the game. As for imparting the skills of the game, by his own admission, it was a very ambitious goal and couldn’t be fulfilled in such a short time. “It’s funny because I didn’t have the faintest clue of what I was getting into. I absolutely had no idea what it was going to be like to coach people that, not only, didn’t share a language with me but, much more importantly, had very limited or no experience playing sports. I created this six-day lesson plan and just kind of figured okay, I know they’re new to the game so I’ll teach them the basics progressing over two practice sessions a day. We ended up getting through less than one day of that six-day plan, both because I didn’t realize how much more time it was going to be to coach through a translator, who also didn’t have experience with basketball, and the difficulty of explaining something like how to use spacing and how to communicate with your teammates when you’re playing. None of these players had any of that background.”
“There’s no question that the most gratifying thing about this whole process has been getting to watch the players grow year to year. Each time I go back, they have a different way of seeing themselves."
After returning home he was intent on trying to find a way to get back to Afghanistan for further training and to equip the players with proper basketball wheelchairs. He also realized he wanted to expand to more players in other parts of the country. After finding a UK-based non-profit organization, Motivation, which builds sports wheelchairs for a fraction of their standard cost, and getting International Committee of the Red Cross to fund the purchase and ship the chairs, he made his second trip to Afghanistan in the spring of 2011. In Jess’s mind, the success of this newly-formed program was going to depend on a couple of factors. “It had to be done under terms that made sense to the local population and organized in a way that resonated with them and would make them want to continue to learn and grow on their own, independent of the times that I was actually there. The administration of the whole program had to be self-sustainable so that coaches were learning within the country, and both coaches and top players were leading and coaching new players as they came along. Eventually my goal was that they wouldn’t need me as much anymore, if at all, and that they would create this continually expanding program where, several years down the road, they’ve got the same infrastructure within the boundaries of their country that we have in the U.S or in Europe.” For his developing ideas to become a reality, partnering up with Alberto Cairo, head of the ICRC orthopedic centers across Afghanistan, was crucial. “He is just an incredibly invaluable partner who has all this amazing experience building programs in Afghanistan that are sustainable like that.”
Since 2011, Jess has been making yearly trips, sometimes twice a year, to coach in Afghanistan. The program has expanded to include six men’s teams and three women’s teams, and there have been huge progressions among players across all provinces. An emphasis on teaching team concepts and leadership proved to be fundamental in their application on the court as well as in everyday life. “There’s no question that the most gratifying thing about this whole process has been getting to watch the players grow year to year. Each time I go back, they have a different way of seeing themselves. They’re now, in a lot of cases, going out and getting jobs, going to school, and doing these sorts of things. I think it has kind of opened up a different way of thinking about how they interact with people that maybe has contributed in some way to that success and desire to do more than what they were expecting of themselves before or that even their communities were expecting of them.” The community response has steadily increased where hundreds of cheering spectators now show up at national men’s and women’s tournaments, with news cameras and print reporters counted among them.
In the spring of 2013, the first men’s national team in Afghanistan was formed, and the opportunity to play on an international level was granted a year later. The players flew to Italy for matches against different teams in different parts of the country. “It was just an absolute life-changing experience for all of us and an absolute transformative event for wheelchair basketball in Afghanistan. I don’t think the Italians had any idea what to expect in terms of the skill level of the Afghans, what they were going to be like, and how they were going to react to this totally different environment that none of them had ever experienced. I think they found these guys were just as competitive, enthusiastic, funny, and engaging as anyone that they would interact with in any other country. It was actually really cool to watch during these games as they interacted with their Italian opponents shaking hands and high-fiving, interacting without being able to communicate with the same language. It was just two teams of basketball players playing against each other, just the same positive bunch of interactions and cultural exchange that I could have hoped for.”
“These women have the opportunity to go do some great things, but you have to work within the societal constructs and restrictions and kind of subtly help them to realize that this should happen and can happen, and that these opportunities have to be there for the women just as well as the men."
A women’s national team has also been formed, but there are still some challenges in getting that completely off the ground. There aren’t a lot of national women’s teams out there, so tournaments are fewer. Then there are a few cultural barriers.There is the viewpoint that women shouldn’t travel alone and should have a family member accompany them. There is also the challenge of changing how women are seen and that they should have the same opportunities as the men. “These women have the opportunity to go do some great things, but you have to work within the societal constructs and restrictions and kind of subtly help them to realize that this should happen and can happen, and that these opportunities have to be there for the women just as well as the men. I’m confident that will happen soon, but it’s a little more of a process, and I just have to force myself to be patient in helping to move that process forward.”
Aside from coaching in Afghanistan, Jess has also helped launch programs in Cambodia, India, and Palestine. “All the places where I go to do this work through the ICRC, now that I’ve been consulting and partnering with them, are either at conflict or suffering as the result of recent conflict, because the ICRC’s mission is to relieve the suffering of people that have dealt with conflict.” The list of places where he would like to continue his work grows, but the challenge is finding the time as he is also coaching the Rolling Nuggets and Lady Rolling Nuggets NWBA teams in Denver, Colorado. Comparing domestic coaching to his experience coaching abroad, Jess says, “When I coach in the U.S I am working with players that, in most cases, are much more experienced. Some of the players have been playing twice as long as I have and have achieved far greater accomplishments on the court than I ever have. Coaching players who are so experienced and so knowledgeable and have such an amazing background of competitive success is a totally different experience, obviously, than coaching players that are brand new to the game and just learning the basics but, particularly in Afghanistan, as that program has grown, and the players have gained knowledge and just continued to absorb and grow and become better and better, the two are getting closer.”
Jess Markt’s competitive nature, coupled with his desire to help others reach and attain their goals, is what propels him further and further. The wide range of skills among all of the players he coaches provides a constant challenge for him to find ways of improving his own skills and abilities as a coach. “I expect myself to be better every time, which is difficult, because I am often zigzagging back and forth between more experienced players and places where players are brand new or without proper training. Coaching is not just learning something within yourself. It’s learning to communicate to people and help them understand things in ways that are not familiar to them. It’s learning to ensure that each player is having fun and an enjoyable experience but, at the same time, that they are feeling competitively challenged. One of the players on the Lady Rolling Nuggets is arguably one of the best players in the history of women’s wheelchair basketball. How do I bring something to her that is making her feel like she is becoming better because I am coaching her? How do I get better at conceptualizing, organizing, and making this sustainable? It’s intimidating and kind of overwhelming at times. It’s kind of like a rolling snowball. The more success I have with it and the more rewarding it gets, the more I feel I have to do, making it better, broader and more impactful.”
A big reason for his coaching success probably has something to do with his ability to connect to people. He is able to make his players feel at ease while at the same time pushing each one to be better. “By far, the coolest thing about this is not just the broader impact basketball has made on these people that have had the chance to play it, but the individual impact that I feel like they’re each having on me and I get to have with them. With every single one of them, I’ve felt like I had a real bond when I left. That has been so important to me to have that be a core part of all of this, and it’s continuing to be my goal throughout this ongoing process. No matter how much this grows or how big it gets, I need to have that individual connection with each player.”
If you would like to learn more about Jess Markt’s work and the players, you can read more on his blog. There is also a feature-length documentary, tentatively titled The League of Afghanistan, that is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2015. You can watch the trailer here.