Wednesday, November 16, 2016

ito ay lamang ng isang laro...

It’s just a game.

We use this phrase to soothe overwrought athletes who just missed their serve on match point. We tell it to Parents when they get too frisky in the stands. We tell it to officials who throw their yellow cards around like cut lumber in a forest. And we say it to ourselves when coaching the better team and we come out on the short end of the scoreboard.

It’s just a game……

Last year, USA Volleyball sent a couple of coaches over to the Philippine Islands for one week to work with some organizations looking to expand volleyball and its life lessons into their athletes, schools and communities. For both coaches, it was a life changing experience.
So USAV went back, this year for TWO weeks. The focus for this excursion was to be more coach’s education, work with the deaf and hard of hearing and with persons with disabilities. Much of the trip was assembled by an amazing woman named Geraldine (Dina) Bernardo. You will learn more about her in an upcoming blog but the catalyst behind the team’s success and most of the opportunities rests with her. 

(Dina Bernardo on the right)

The schedule, put together by the U.S. Embassy in Manila through the Sports Envoy program and their partners: SWEEP (Sport for Women’s Empowerment and Employment Program), Sport 4 Community, PADS (Philippine Accessible Disability Services Inc.) and USA Volleyball, was ambitious to say the least: sixteen different clinics in 14 straight days. The U.S. Embassy suggested in their press release of the two weeks that over 1000 athletes and 300 coaches were connected with in three cities: Manila, Cebu and Baguio.

You hear great coaches talk about the journey. In this particular coaching pilgrimage, they would be 100% right. Much was to be overcome. Language barriers were leveled, discomfort replaced with peace. The barriers of a developing nation opening its arms to clinics with only outdoor venues, dictated daily by traffic in a city of 20 million people, the relationships of local administrations to the cause and weather: from the tropical heat and humidity to typhoon like rain and wind. In addition, a population of coaches who had scant previous training in coaching let alone volleyball and those traditions that had to be unwound and untied.

And so the journey began.

An orphanage the first day under a sweltering sun and 90%+ humidity took some skill training of the 20+ into a rousing game of 9-man volleyball so more kids could play. As was the case with every clinic session that the team does, the athletes were fed lunch or a snack after the clinic. These young people ranging in age of middle school to high school brought back memories of the previous year with a thank you song for the staff and then an impromptu dance party.

The staff worked with coaches in a township called Paranaque the next day. We talked about the science of motor programming and the use of cell phone video to help athletes find their form. The coaches tried their hand at organizing a practice and presenting it to their peers and they learned sitting volleyball as well. The appreciation of the coaches is palatable in everything they say and do. We forget sometimes all that we take for granted in our sport: proper equipment, volleyball balls and coaching options and education. These folks are limited in them all.

Day three took us to the Philippine School for the Deaf for a coaching clinic that began with a country wide earthquake emergency drill. The coaches bought into the ideas of using more science to teach the game and they responded with school administrators by trying both standing and sitting volleyball, enjoying the chance to compete against and with each other. After lunch, the kids came, lower and upper grades for two hours each and the coaches helped the team train their skills and hone their opportunities to play. In the end, these deaf and hard of hearing athletes put on a hip hop dancing presentation that had everyone cheering.

Early the next morning, the team crowded into a 7 person van loaded with t shirts and volleyballs and headed 5 hours north to Baguio in torrential rain. The four women in the van; Jen, Jaemie, Mildred (but she prefers Dred) and Bunny told of how they met as we drove. They had all been on the same college volleyball team and Jen and Jaemie had been on the same high school team too. Dina had been in touch with Jen to work for her and Jen brought them all along. It has been a good partnership for the past 4 years or so and they are affectionately known as the “Sweepers.” They take care of the organization, the translating, the registration and help run courts, keeping the humor and enthusiasm to pitched levels. They are unsung and just another example of young people to which this is NOT just a game! They relish the fact they change lives with each clinic they do.

(The Sweepers: Jen, Bunny, Dred and Jaemie)

Baguio is a city built for 30,000 that supports over 100,000. The city is built through the hills and with the different colors and architecture looks from a distance like legos. In 1990, over 1,600 people were killed when an earthquake leveled much of the city. Today, with the buildings on top of each other crawling up the mountain sides, it’s both beautiful but somewhat frightening to think about. 

The team spent the morning setting up and the afternoon holding a coaching clinic. What started in the classroom finished on the court. These same coaches came back the next day to finish the clinic at a different Baguio school in the morning. At one point, the coaches were asked, after hearing the basics of the science of motor learning, to come up with a practice plan for their team. In every case, the coaches spent 20 minutes or more running and stretching. Again, this outdated concept was a tough sell to these coaches who have traditionally done this with every practice and every sport.

So we tried math; in their three month season, they had 6 hours of practice a week for a total of 72 hours of practice. If they ran and stretched for the 20 minutes, they were giving up 12 hours of their practice time WITHOUT touching a ball. The question to the coaches was simple: would you want to play a team that had 12 more hours of volleyball than you did in the same practice schedule? Slow nods and then grins told us we’d at least gotten them to think about this tradition more closely in the future.

At the end of the clinic that afternoon, a coach came up and asked us if we had any drills for 12 to 14 girls with just one ball. It’s all his school had. We worked on some ideas but in the end, slipped the coach a few pesos the next morning to buy some more balls. Such is life in Baguio.

It was this night that we met a most amazing woman. Her name is Adeline Dumapong. She is the first person to win a Paralympic medal in the history of the Philippines, in power lifting. She is an incredible woman, an even more amazing story and like Dina, will be a blog coming soon.

(Jaemie and Adeline)

As was the case with all of the athlete clinics the team ran over the two weeks, the expectation of 36 athletes climbed to well over 80 by the start, all on one cement court. With ropes in hand, the team put together more “nets” and had the boys and girls be “nets” as well, which they loved as did the coaches. While we might find that ‘cute’ here in the US, there is often no place to practice or put up a net in the places worked and this simple idea of making the kids the nets went over resoundingly well.

The next morning, Adeline had gathered several coaches, teachers and administrators who themselves were persons with disabilities and who taught, coached and worked in schools and facilities for kids with disabilities. Adeline was nervous as these leaders didn’t know there was a game called sitting volleyball and didn’t know how they would respond. The team helped several onto the court, out of their wheelchairs, and definitely out of their comfort zones. They learned sitting volleyball from the ground up, playing at first and getting a true love of the game right away. Soon, as we were wrapping up, they wanted to play more. For most, it was a chance to play, to compete at something; opportunities that they seemingly got very little of in Baguio. One coach drove two and a half hours on a motor bike in the pouring rain on a prosthetic leg just to attend this morning clinic. For these coaches, for this one morning, it wasn’t just a game.

As the team packed up, some of the girls from the clinic yesterday strolled in as they had a game a bit later. They began to play 3 on 3 with 3 girls as the net, something they had learned less than 24 hours before. The Sweepers piled into the van and the team headed the 5 hours back to Manila: tired but confidant of their fresh footprint in Baguio.

On the mid Sunday of the two weeks came a visit to Bahay Mapagmahal, an orphanage in Manila for children with disabilities. There was a small room and 20 or so children awaiting the team along with Adeline who had set up the visit. She was giving back as this was the orphanage she was raised in for 10 years growing up and where she found power lifting.

A rope was strung across the middle of the room, no bigger than an American kitchen, and the children split up on sides and began to play sitting volleyball. The smiles and laughter was almost immediate and more than infectious. The children played, figuring out how to move, how to reach and to be active with their maladies, enjoying every second they could on the court. For these few hours, the game wasn’t a game at all, it was pure freedom. After, the children grabbed instruments and played songs for the team, almost all very proficient in stringed instruments. When Katy Perry’s “Firework” was played the smiles got brighter, knowing Americans would appreciate their offering. What was not lost were the lyrics of the song that somehow added to the freedom they just had playing volleyball:

Do you ever feel like a plastic bag Drifting through the wind Wanting to start again

Do you ever feel so paper thin Like a house of cards One blow from caving in

Do you ever feel already buried deep Six feet under screams But no one seems to hear a thing

Do you know that there's still a chance for you 'Cause there's a spark in you 
You just gotta ignite the light
And let it shine Just own the night Like the fourth of July

'Cause baby you're a firework Come on show 'em what your worth
Make 'em go "oh, oh, oh!" As you shoot across the sky-y-y

Everyone shook hands and hugged and as the team headed to the car, the entire school gathered in front of the SUV saying goodbye again, making faces and smiling brightly for a few more pictures. For a few hours, the team had made a difference. Tears indistinguishable with sweat ran down faces into smiles as the night closed in and the new week was upon us.

The clinic starting week two was for the Pasay School District and it encompassed roughly 20-25 teachers and coaches. The Director of the district was there to say a few words and introduce the team. He told us he had 65,000 children in his district- 65,000!!! His schools ran double shifts, his coaches made pennies or volunteered but still this day, they sat and learned and became engaged and then went out into the humid heat and played for much of the afternoon. The next day, at the same school many of the coach’s kids came to a clinic for the younger grades and then the older. The coaches used some games and techniques learned the day before and the kids stayed engaged and busy for the entire day. There was supposed to be 50-60 but as stated, earlier, it grew closer to 100 in each session. No matter, the team ran a rope, had games going almost from the start and helped the athletes with technique, feedback and kept everything positive. The Director asked if the team was coming back next year as he wanted to bring more coaches and kids.

The team headed back to Paranaque the next morning to work with the kids from the coaches we had worked with a week before. The kids were as young as 5 and 6 and as old as High School Seniors but there were, as per normal, way more than anticipated. Skills were gone over and we used the older players to mentor the younger ones which they embraced wholeheartedly. They worked on skills with the younger players from attacking and passing to setting and defense. We taught them all sitting and then let them play over a rope in small court games to accelerate touch counts. The coaches from the week before were there and helped, using some of the coaching thoughts they had gathered 7 days earlier.

The team hustled to the airport right after the Paranaque clinic to grab a flight to Cebu, 90 minutes to an island of 6 million. Upon arrival, we met another amazing person who would once again challenge the idea that this is “just a game.” His name was J.P. Maunes and he was the founder and the action behind a group called PADS, (Philippine Accessible Disability/Deaf Services). In just his four months there, JP had gotten the nightly news to add a sign language translator and in the Philippine’s Presidential election, he helped polling places to be more accessible for persons with disabilities to vote, some for the very first time. J.P. was a mover and shaker in this community and yes, he is an upcoming blog as well. He wore a white shirt that said simple, ‘Able Bodied Nation.’ 

(J.P. on the right)

We headed to a local arena in Mandaue City in Cebu the next morning. There we addressed over 70 coaches of Special Education and PWD classes and schools and after some basic coaching thoughts, taught them sitting volleyball to take back to their students. There were several PWD in the gym who had come with some of the teachers or were teachers themselves. What happened for the next few hours was simply magic. These teachers and PWD, mostly men, got on a rope we had set up and with some basic training and rules, let loose. It was obvious that for most if not all, they had not had a physical outlet of fun in a very long time. They served tough, blocked serves, talked smack across the nets and became raucous and totally enthralled. The laughter at one point made J.P. emotional because he hadn’t heard that sound coming from these folks in forever. 

The afternoon hosted a clinic for deaf and hard of hearing athletes. Again, skills and play were the norm and then they tried sitting as well, enjoying mixing in with the PWD men who had refused to relinquish their court because they were having so much fun. One of the deaf boys asked to take a picture with Jen and then started crying. We thought he was hurt but he said he was just happy. It’s not just a game…

The next day J.P. got us to a Cebu suburb called Pajo. There we trained more coaches and PWD and deaf and hard of hearing students. The team used the model from the day before putting up ropes to handle the large amount of coaches and athletes. The day we arrived in Cebu, J.P. had brought a couple of his favorite athletes with him and both showed up this day to learn sitting volleyball.

Dexter is in his early 20’s and has an affliction which doesn’t let him use his legs below the knees. He had a wheelchair most of his young life but in the Philippines, there is very little access for PWD. There are rarely ramps into buildings, the sidewalks and roads are uneven and often unpaved. After going through this for so many years, Dexter made an incredible decision. He gave up the wheel chair and began walking on his knees to get around. He has thick rubber pads on his knees, like long volleyball knee pads, and he walks on his knees where ever he goes. He is stared at, he is slow and deliberate but he says he can go where he wants to now and he’s not at the mercy of wheels. 

(Dexter and Daisy)

Daisy is also early 20’s with Phocomelia which is an abnormal growth of limbs or a limb, in her case it’s her right leg which is half the size of her normal left and is supported with a crutch. Daisy is beautiful, charming, loves to dance and tried sitting volleyball for the first time this day, helping the littler kids and working through her own learning curve. She never got frustrated; she never gave up and just enjoyed her time on the court. She would shank a serve and smile and ask how she could get better. She is the youngest of 10 kids in her family and despite her life on a crutch, she is a vocal and effective leader in her local community for women with disabilities and works with J.P. to offer more programming and help make their daily lives better. She was an incredible ambassador for the PWD community and hopefully for sitting volleyball for years to come.

One man in a wheel chair who had been at the clinic from early in the morning stayed off to the side and the back of the proceedings, maybe just taking it all in. Toward the afternoon, when the play got louder, he ventured closer to a court. Finally a ball came toward his chair and he scooped it up. He tossed the ball up and served it over the rope to start a rally. He moved a little closer and served again, and again, and again. At one point, a ball came back to him and he stuck his arms out to pass it. He was now into the court and smiling as his team wanted him to serve every ball.

Just a game?

As the day wound down, the deaf students executed a flawless hip hop dance routine and soon everyone, including the team, was involved: dancing, shouting, singing and extolling the virtues of persons with disabilities everywhere and celebrating life. It got to a fevered pitch with everyone in a circle yelling and singing and dancing. Finally, as the song ended, J.P. got in the middle and yelled, “Let’s hear it for PWD!” and the loudest roar in Cebu echoed over the bay.

The final day in Cebu was spent with many of the same folks from the past two days, including Dexter, in Dragon boating, which is a form of rowing in a specific style of boat more common in Southeast Asia than in America. The team grabbed oars alongside PWD’s and we raced into the bay, taking turns at 10 stokes, 20, 30 50 and even 60 at a clip under the barking rhythm of the boat’s leader. Arms burned, the sun was torrid and the water a cool respite, but the men and women on the boat didn’t notice any of it. They were on the water; someplace many of them, as they climbed from their chairs and crutches, probably never imagined they could be. Working together as a unit, the ultimate team, they powered this 20+ seat hopped up canoe over the water, gliding at times through the small breakers and the wakes of the water taxis.
As soon as the team came back to shore, another group, including Ms. Daisy, went out and trained as well. They came back and the team and the rowers all talked and took pictures under a big shade tree by the dock. The group of PWD struggled at times getting in and out of the boat but J.P. built a transitional seat that made it easier. One thing this team member has learned in the past two years is there is nothing the Filipino people can’t do and being around the deaf, hearing impaired and PWD these two weeks, that idea has become concrete. The team gathered together for one last good bye and as we headed toward the van and our flight back to Manila, we saw Daisy, floating in the bay, effortless and peaceful, finding a place where her crutch wasn’t needed, her disability not in play. It was the perfect ending to our Cebu excursion.
Our final day was in the suburb of Tondo. On the outskirts of Manila near the docks, the town and its inhabitants scrounge for survival. They pore over bags of garbage for food, clothing, shoes and anything they can clean up and sell. Poverty is the norm and human trafficking is routine. In the middle of this ‘war zone’ is a purple building called, appropriately, the Purple House which is home to 411 students of Tondo who have to earn their way in with behavior and a commitment to education. They are schooled and fed daily from private donors and corporations. The clinic was only a half day and only for 30 or so of the students. It was played on a slab of green cement that was the size of a basketball 3 point line with a stage behind it, 3 feet higher. Again, the kids managed to figure out how to navigate the skills games we offered and they had a wonderful 4 hour respite from their daily lives. A few times in the past two weeks, the team introduced ‘Queen of the Court’ to the athletes and having never played it before, they devoured it. Tondo was no exception as they continued to play as the team packed up to leave.

One smaller girl who looked to be 9 or 10 was wearing canvas shoes that had such thin soles, you couldn’t help but think her feet must be getting bruised. She jumped around with everyone, played every drill and never complained once, something that is the norm with these amazing kids. You couldn’t help wonder where she had gotten them.

The team, at least the American part, was headed home. It was hard not to realize, while long days and short nights were the norm, just how much work had been done in these two weeks and the ‘Sweepers’ had been the nucleus of the atom. There aren’t enough Thank You’s for these folks that for the second time in two years, have allowed USA Volleyball to come in and change lives, make friends, grow our sport and do something that coaches long to do every day: make a difference. Dina, J.P., Adeline, Jen, Jaemie, Dred, Bunny, Alvin: these are the heroes without capes. The ones that walk past you on the street: everyday heroes.

It’s just a game. When you hear that phrase uttered the next time, stop the person saying it and tell them it’s not. It can be transformational, it can be uplifting and inspiring and educational. It can redirect lives and give confidence to those in need, and reaffirm the honor and dignity of others.

Sadly, some coaches do make it 'just a game.' But if you are reading this, you are probably in it for more. It doesn't ever have to be 'just a game' unless you want it to be. You have the ability to transform lives, help facilitate great experiences and raise confidence and self awareness. You, coach, have that power!

It’s not just a game. It can save people.

I know. It's saved me.

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