Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Coaching In Paradise: Bacalar 2017

Stuck in visa limbo, I took a punt on an opportunity. So I headed out to Bacalar, Quintana Roo in Mexico to volunteer as head coach with an organisation known as Girls United. It was a new football school especially for girls, and it was located in a tropical paradise.

Tuesday 7th June 2017
I have come to the end of day three and decided to get things started with this piece. It’s half ten at night, and we have all retired to our rooms to wash and sleep. Upon the termination of this entry, I will have my third shower of the day, but could have easily justified twice as many. I have only ever experienced this kind of heat and humidity in Florida.

Around an hour ago, walking back from a local beach front bar, we encountered a tarantula. Sitting peacefully in the road, I believe it was amused at the effect it had on seven humans. Bacalar is an undiscovered tropical paradise. It looks like one of those places you see on postcards. The pictures are real. There’s no need for PhotoShop here. The lagoon is shallow enough for quite some distance from the shore, and it feels like bathwater. Yesterday we spent two hours in there, and today just the two. The three hours was enough to turn me pink. In a few days I will hatch from this burnt skin and turn into a dark brown. I still wouldn’t look like the locals, as I have about twelve inches of height advantage.

The trip over to Chetumal, which is the nearby big town, was perhaps the easiest flight I have ever taken. I definitely recommend Interjet to anyone. Comfy, spacious, clean, presentable, and cheap as chips. Imagine if Emirates did Ryanair prices. Upon landing I was picked up by Romina, the founder of Girls United. If any readers have ever travelled by plane to Yellowknife, then you can easily picture how insignificant the Chetumal airport is. The pickup started very well, as we made a brief stop in Office Depot. Anyone who knows me well will be aware of my genuine love for office supply stores. There’s something about pens and folders. Must be what happens as you get age.

The bungalows we’re staying in are fairly basic, but there is an advantage to that. The Wi-Fi is placed inside a central location. Only a thirty second walk from our front door, but the distance means that I am not wasting time being distracted by memes. Two mornings in a row I have been out for a run, waking up at half seven to do so. I don’t really have a lot else to do. I plan to keep up the commitment to this regime now that I have a roommate. He is a player from the club I used to work at in Mexico City. We don’t recall encountering each other, but do know a lot of the same people, and can both relate to one shared experience; I used to live with his former coach. One morning after the night before, about a week or two before this coach was to be leaving us to return to his old job in the United States, they had a game. The coach, a great coach too, had far too much to drink the night before, and was hungover. Early that morning, there was a panicked knocking at the door. The players had come to pick him up for an away game, and he was refusing to get out of bed. He became aggressive, but they eventually reasoned with him to get up and actually do his job.

The showers in this bungalow are not hot. Not that we’d want them to be with temperatures outside being between 30-40˚C. We don’t have a mirror in our bathroom, but that’s cool as we know we’re gorgeous. The air conditioning is a real God send. The living room feels like a sauna. We refer to our room as The Fridge, which we are keeping on the lowest setting, a tepid 16˚C, with the air-con fan blowing a gale.

We are situated very close to the water. On the first evening, there were only two of us here, in addition to the founder. She left us, myself and a nineteen-year-old from Mexico City, to go explore. What am I going to talk to a nineteen-year-old about? Dolls? One Direction? We seemed to have hit it off right away. While exploring, we were looking for a pier or promenade so we could see the lagoon at night. We discovered what we thought was one entry-way only to find two people having sex in the middle of a dimly lit garden. We walked past them on our way to the water without missing a beat, mutually yet unspokenly deciding to not acknowledge it. Of course, we did not find the pier we were looking for, so had to return back past the embarrassed couple, who had since stopped after being found. Nothing was said, and no noise was heard, until we were around the corner, and I burst out laughing. You just don’t see that every day. Nevertheless, we found the pier we were looking for, and spent hours talking rubbish and getting to know each other. It’s a bit cooler out on the lagoon.

We’re fed good meals here. Very Mexican. I might go an entire month without ketchup. Unbelievable Jeff. That, with the running and the sweating, should see me lose a fair bit of weight while being in Bacalar. The town is small, and not well known to tourists. There’s the odd one or two, and they do annoy me. It’s not their fault they’re tourists, but it is really. There’s now seven of us. I am the only Brit. Late last night, an American arrived. We have a Spanish teacher and a coach educator. Only two of us are not native Spanish speakers. The group dynamic seems to be very good, and I can’t imagine anyone is here for anything other than altruistic reasons, as we are all volunteers. What we look to get out of our time here may be different, but everyone seems like they will be most helpful, will pull their weight, and will do their best for the kids.

Today was the first proper piece of work that we actually did. The coach educator led a presentation for four hours, instructing the content of Premier Skills. In addition to us in the bungalow, we will be working with local coaches. There were five in attendance; two guys and three girls. That’s a kick in the face to this who say that diversification isn’t happening. Premier Skills is aimed at relaying the most basic of basics. Where some may feel like they are being taught to suck eggs, there is genuinely a need for this content. It’s an initiative run by the Premier League in conjunction with the British Council. They go to places where there is a lack of formal coaching education, and impart wisdom on other aspiring coaches. It may sound basic when saying that kids should not be abused, should be treated with respect, should be treated fairly etc. but there really is a need for this stuff in the world. That may sound ridiculous, but ridiculous is synonymous with football. It was good from my own perspective to be able to listen to these well-known and established concepts, but in Spanish, as to expand my vocabulary. Tomorrow begins the practical sessions, and hopefully my burnt shoulders will ache just a little less.

Time for bed.

"Don't drop your phone!" - Thanks for the advice.
This selfie actually inspired another volunteer. Us Red Bulls fans take photos of ourselves around the world in Red Bulls shirts, and then post it in the fan group with the caption "PLACE NAME is Red." I did that, and linked it to Girls United. A few other fans read the web page, and one messaged me to find out how to get involved. He's now coming out in August.
Posing with my biggest fan.
Passing the ball to pass the time.
A good group that were keen to learn.

Saturday 11th June
What an idiot. Just as my previous sunburn was calming down, I went and got new sunburn. Anyway. Lubed up to the throat with aloe vera, it’s time to add some more to this blog. Socially, we have begun to make a few friends around town. There’s a sports bar just off the town square where we watched the Mexico game as they defeated Honduras 3-0 in a qualifier. It’s run by a nice old Canadian lady, who showed me, and let me touch her hockey scars. They were gruesome. Three of us went back again today to watch the ladies game as Mexico took on Venezuela in a friendly, which was another 3-0 win. Tomorrow I’ll be back to watch the hockey and Mexico v USA. In there today, we met another nice old lady, who was from Wisconsin. Kim (from Montreal), and Polly (Wisconsin) seem like they have life going exactly how they wanted. They seem utterly infatuated with Bacalar, and it’s hard not to be.

Joining in with the girls.
The locals are so very friendly. Walking around one evening, I needed sugar. And bottles of water. A hairy, shirtless man named Pedro was so grateful for my custom, and we had a long chat. People here genuinely seem to be well-wishers. Earlier that morning, myself and the American walking to the lagoon, we passed a family around noon, who were just chilling at the side of the road. Mum, Dad, son. The mum was incredibly drunk and shook my hand five times. They introduced themselves, asked where we were from, and gave us advice on where to get the best hot dogs and cheeseburgers. At lunch one afternoon our group was discussing the pros and cons of genetically modified food. 

After about five minutes, a man who was stood nearby, had to butt in and tell us where we were wrong. He and his father worked in agriculture, and he put us straight. We then began talking to him. He had quite a backstory, as many of these expat locals do. If I’m right in what I can remember, he said he was from Belize, although he has American nationality too. His mum was, I think, Caribbean, but from London, and his parents lived in Texas. His wife was Mexican, and he introduced us to his daughter, who can’t have more than twelve months to her, called (help me with the spelling) Malika. After the others went, the two of us discussed racial profiling in the United States, and how difficult it is to get through airport security if you look a certain way or hold a certain nationality.

And just this evening, before retiring to the bungalow and being smothered in aloe vera, I met another Brit. A guy called Rich from Bristol. He has one hell of an interesting story to tell, having spent time in Guatemala and Panama, volunteering, working on farms, going to tribal festivals, and just travelling the world. Forget about that nine-to-five life that your parents try to make seem so glamourous, and get on a plane to somewhere random. The more obscure the better. Bacalar certainly is obscure, as we found out the night before at the bar across the road, which was playing live music. We saw two Mexican bands perform. Standout performances go to the harp player from the first group, and the violinist and bass player from the second. Chilling with some cold drinks, moon light glistening off the lagoon, and listening to musicians improvise a song in a language you don’t understand, which was about chilli habanero.

The coaching course for the local coaches is relatively basic stuff. We’re looking at fun and inclusive summer camp type games, but with a social inclusion twist. A lot of the games and the discussions have focussed on drugs, gangs, and teenage pregnancy. Where that may not apply to us, it’s quite relevant for the British Council to be conducting this type of work in the areas in which it operates. The coach educator himself is someone who works in the streets with these vulnerable kids. Most of the exercises he showed us are good to use with kids, just with one or two tweaks, such as when playing bone tag, to actually stop the ball with your foot before placing your head or bum on the ball, or else the message you’re sending out to the kids is that when running at full speed, you’ll want to suddenly put your bum on the ball.

When the local coaches conducted sessions that they had designed, there were some that needed a bit more work. For instance, if you’re doing a session on shooting, and the players are only getting around four shots in ten minutes, it’s not providing the players with enough repetitions to be able to develop their technique. If players are waiting in lines, they will get bored, lose interest, lose focus, and won’t enjoy themselves. If players are doing things like jumping over poles, all shooting at the keeper at the same time, or doing dizzy spins before taking their shot, then it’s just not football anymore. When we, as coaches, have been partaking in these coach education sessions, we do become competitive. If all we want to do is run around and kick balls as adults, imagine how important that is for the kids. I am a little concerned that if the local coaches abide by what is known as “Mexican time”, which means showing up when you feel like it, often under prepared, or sometimes not showing up at all with no warning, then we’re not going to get on. I’m in the habit of showing up to sessions half an hour early. Setup takes five or ten minutes, but then we have to talk to parents, engage with the kids that are there early, and deal with any spanners that are thrown our way. There’s always a spanner somewhere. We have to give the kids a good service. We want them to come back, we want them to progress (as people first and footballers second), and we can’t do that if we scare them away. If you don’t care about something, or it’s not a priority, your actions will make it very clear soon enough. No one should be in this business if your first thought isn’t the kids.

New profile picture.
Myself and the American have been given some Spanish lessons this past week by a lovely lady called Lisa. She’s so vibrant and interesting. Her approach is simply to illicit conversational topics from us, or to talk about the day before, or what is in store for the day ahead, and then correct us along the way, or help us with gaps in our vocabulary. Naturally having lived here and being in a relationship with a Mexican for three and a half years, my Spanish is a lot better, but the progress being made by the American in such a short time is making me feel like an idiot. She’s not scared of making a mistake, and is taking any opportunity that comes her way to have a go at speaking. We won’t get anywhere if we simply stay within our shells.

We finally begin tomorrow. It’s very exciting, and we’re unsure of what is going on and what to expect. Our shirts arrived, which the others have all conceded is red, but I’m siding with orange (for the trim). There’s a big day ahead, so better get some much needed sleep to be fresh for the kids.

Yessica? Hehehehe.
Waiting for the players to arrive. Twisted my ankle in the final session on this field.
I rarely pose for photos, but thought this was cool.
Aren't they precious?
Less swarming and more deliberate actions.

Tuesday 14th of June
The others don’t seem too keen on my epic pranks. I stole the air conditioning remote control of the room next door, turned it off, and then locked myself in my room. There were some angry knocks on my door. It was night time, and the intention was they would have to sleep in their room with a hot stuffy temperature. They have yet to see the funny side. Perhaps they expect more from someone who looks forty. Tomorrow is shave day, so I’ll go back to looking thirty-five again.

Road trip to Belize.
American asleep in the back.
I now have three days of coaching to report back on. Sunday was our first time with the girls of Bacalar. Loads turned up, and it was chaotic. Not to worry. We handled it well. Lots of football was played, and gave us a great chance to examine and experiment. Quite a few didn’t have shoes, which was a new experience for me. Many didn’t even have proper shorts, and turned up in jeans, hot pants, or denim shorts. There’s some that are agile, and with a good degree of fitness and mobility, whereas there are others that don’t really have much of that at all. What’s evident is the lack of basic skills and understanding of the game. They have never played in a formal environment before. We’re starting from zero with some players that are teenagers.

For Mondays, we go a bit further afield. We split into two groups and went into more rural communities. We turned up at a pitch in the middle of a village about half an hour away. There were goats by the side of the pitch. These players mostly had shoes. We split them into two groups by age, and I took the older ones. It’s easier to take older players when you struggle with the language as opposed to the little ones. It was more of a reconnaissance mission than anything else, in order for me to find out what the players are like in terms of ability and attitude, and then work from there. The first exercise was a rondo, which the players struggled with. They couldn’t get the passing or controlling. After a minute or two, that was scrapped. No point trying to force them to do something they can’t do. We began to play handball. Suddenly, they came alive. Movement, communication, excitement. They demonstrated a willingness to play, and a game intelligence. I moved along the set list for the group, sticking to what I thought they could and couldn’t handle. By the end of the two-hour session, I felt that they had had a lot of fun. They were smiling, laughing, and out of breath.

After my final session.
The Tuesday session was back in Bacalar, with the girls who came along Sunday. We’re going to see this lot Tuesday through to Friday. With four nights a week, we should see plenty of improvement. Our first group were ages six to nine, and we had a growing amount, which was around twelve. Each coach did a little bit of work with the players within this session, but I quickly felt that we were crowding them out. Too many of us in there, and the girls had less space to run, and less space to feel was their own. So those of us that weren’t coaching, stepped to the side when we were not involved. This allowed one coach to lead, with one or two to assist. Much more appropriate than seven.

Unfortunately, we have too many delays. I think that’s part of the process of figuring it out. We are working with volunteers that have not coached before, and players that have not been coached before. Therefore we need to explain everything two or three times. Basic things that we might take for granted. Literally things like which team a player is on and how to score a goal. I suppose we have to view this first period of time as a breaking in period. Whenever I buy new football boots, I like to wear them round the house for a day or two to mould them to the shape of my foot. That loosens them up and makes them more comfortable. There’s a long way off being able to conceptualise the game and demonstrate a large variety of footballing skills and knowledge. That’s why we’re here.

Hard to take a selfie without at least one stupid face.
If you're of an average height (I am 6'0'') then come to Mexico and feel like a giant.
At times, it felt like no adult had ever been silly with them before. Always strict and intimidating.
This one would spend an hour and a half before training running round the track.
She'd then spend an hour and a half playing football. Always barefoot.
Excellent player. Very intelligent. It was her aunt that brought me the delicious cake on my last day.

Tuesday 21st June

A lot has happened in the last week. For me, especially, from a personal point of view, was the visit of my girlfriend, who arrived on Friday night and left Monday evening. There wasn’t much sun, but that didn’t stop her from getting sunburnt. Hers was nothing like mine though. Big horrible, yellow blisters. Eventually, I was able to raise my arms above my head in order to apply cream, after having to rely on the other housemates. We’re also a smaller household. The Spanish teacher has left, and she will be sorely missed. Such a wonderful lady that was always pleasant company. So wise, tolerant, understanding, and with a sharp wit too. My roommate left on Saturday, and now I don’t have a partner in crime. I am a one man mission looking to terrorise the three remaining girls with awful jokes and stupid pranks. I’ll find a way. I’m fairly resourceful, but have to be careful as I’m outnumbered 3:1. Meals are considerably quieter with less people around.

While my girlfriend was here, it gave me another chance to explore this place. We found some swings that hover above the water, and for the first time in a week, I went back into the water (covered in sun block, a t-shirt, and a baseball cap of course). A few visits to the quiet restaurants and bars, including two trips to the Timeout Sports Bar, where she tried real poutine for the first ever time, and she really enjoyed it. On Saturday, as a group, we took a boat trip from Chetumal, all the way round the backway, through meandering rivers, and along the Belize border, to come out on the other side of the lagoon. We dropped anchor at what looked like an old pirate hideout, and observed some of the competitors getting ready for their swimming race. The boat ride was quite relaxing. So much so that I fell asleep several times. We spotted iguanas, who definitely spotted me, with my bright pink sun hat, a necessary purchase as I had forgotten my own cap. It rained by the boat load, and by the end of the trip, we were soaked and wet. Considering the heat here, I did not think that could be possible.

Playing a game during coach education.
I am now covered in mosquito bites. There’s even some on my bum. I don’t expose my bum as much as I used to, so I’m wondering how the mosquitoes are getting to me. The rain hasn’t been fun these last few days. Last night our first session didn’t go ahead, and our second only had a handful of girls. We were able to play under the dome, which is a sheltered multi-purpose sports area. Naturally, we joined in, and had plenty of fun. The evening before, coaching in the community of Reforma, another coach and I joined in with a local game, which was men against women. That was a very closely contested game, and at six feet tall, I had a height advantage over everybody of at least three feet. It’s an odd sensation to be in full Adidas tracksuit, with brand new Adidas boots, playing against people in old clothes, and even some without shoes on.

With a week already behind us, we know far more about the players and what we can expect from them. Even in our short time here, there has been a large improvement. That comes simply from playing so much and in such a short time. I think four individual sessions spread out over four weeks would allow them to forget what they had learnt, unless they were playing or practising in between. It’s testament to the hidden potential within people, and the understanding that despite the age of some of them, they are not lost causes. For players over ten, we’re not going to have a massive effect on their technical development. We can help them learn a function range of technical skills. For the older ones, it’s more about intelligence, decisions, patterns of play. Not that technical improvement can’t still happen, just we need to consider where we pitch it, because they don’t have much skill currently for us to build upon. The younger players are more like blank slates. They don’t have so many wasted years. We can work on their understanding, but also make them technically proficient (in the years to come).

The team of coaches. Can you spot me?
There’s no legacy yet. What I want that to be is that because of our work and our presence, girls will continue to play football, even without us. They will play at school and in their free time. They will forever be footballers. There have been girls starting to turn up early for practice, and get balls out to kick around. Some of them are starting to come in football kit. It’s still the early stages, but we are convincing them that we are not clowns here for their amusement, but people who care about their athletic and personal development. We also provide a jokey side that I think they’re not used to from adults. I don’t know whether it’s respect or fear that they have for teachers and other positions of authority, but they are starting to realise that they can open up and be themselves around us. We’re not looking for them to conform or to become something specific. Football, and one’s experience of it, is incredibly personal. A player’s characteristics come out when they play and when they train. We obviously want to see hard work, creativity, and respect, always, but that can come from anyone in a whole variety of forms. Successful players adhere to such common principles, while also showing their personality. Take any top European club, and the players will have different languages, accents, will look different, like different food, music, movies, with different senses of humour. Those things change from person to person and should not be suppressed. All of these players will have worked hard and sacrificed to be where they are, though not at the expense of what makes them who they are.

Session presentations during coach education.
The team and our shirts. In a moment of hilarity, I banged my head on that projector.
The first day.
Team photo.
Addressing the parents.

Tuesday 27th of June
I’m on the final stretch. Earlier tonight in Bacalar, we split the older group by ability for the games. The first time we had done so. We had a weaker pitch and a stronger pitch. There’s a big difference. Although a lot of it was down to age. We have a wide range of ages, from ten to fourteen in this group. The ten year olds on the weaker pitch were doing well, comparatively, relevant to ability in Bacalar. They were probably four out of the ten players on the weaker pitch. One of them is a total space cadet. She even comes to the younger sessions and struggles there. The others are displaying good intelligence and a range of skills.

A roundabout in Belize.
As for the stronger game? Well. Decisions. The players actually make decisions. They look for passes, consider their options, and then look to execute an appropriate skill. On the weaker side it’s a case of shoot now, ask questions later. That’s the main difference. Football is a game of intelligence, and the only thing that is an absolute necessity is a brain. Don’t have feet? Wheelchair football. Don’t have arms? Amputee football. Can’t see? Blind football. Have a very low grasp of the English language? Scottish football. There’s a form of football for everyone, but everyone that plays it has a brain. A key sign of intelligence for players of this age and this ability is scanning. Look at their head and their glances in the moments before receiving the ball. And if they didn’t do that, do they hoof, panic, or assess, control, and then seek an option while protecting the ball? They are a group of football novices really, and what we are looking for are the ones that run away from the swarm. That’s identification of space, and invasion games are all about the creation and manipulation of space.

I feel my best work so far has been done with a group of girls around sixteen years old. They are preparing for a tournament, and train for two hours in the mornings, from ten until twelve. The sun was scorching when I took them. I always put a lot of time and effort into my session planning, but that is only the frame. You then need to coach during the session. Due to the language barrier, it has been hard to do that. I can explain the game no problem, but it’s the interventions, the praise, the criticism. It needs to be instantaneous, or the reference point is lost. I can do it in group discussions, but I can’t instruct. Making it up on the spot and responding to what happens in the game is still too difficult for me in Spanish. Unless I have had help to translate. With the tournament girls, I had help. And due to that help, I could say anything that needed to be said, and it would be translated perfectly in correct tone and context. They’re going to play 6v6, and it may be ambitious, but I wanted to introduce them to the fundamentals of juego de posicion. They will have eight training sessions per week for four weeks. I’m sure they can get the basics in that time. At no point did I have to stop and translate in my head and lose the moment, or even miss the moment completely due to lack of confidence and competence in my ability to speak, as it was all being relayed through another volunteer coach, who could translate for me.

Sailing under the border crossing.
Fortunately, I usually plan for my sessions to let the game be the teacher anyway. The rules and challenges manipulate the outcomes for me, so that the decisions and repetitions I want to see will be coming out naturally as part of the game or the exercise. The players are given their challenge, and I love watching them figure it out. It’s actually working, with little further input from me. Perhaps we are known to over coach, and thus remove the decision from the player. Not something I believe I have ever been guilty of, as many say I’m too quiet when coaching. Only in the first few weeks though. Soon enough, they see why I’m doing it, and the results come. Still, I’d like to be able to ask them a few more questions, and give some more detailed praise. Catch them being good. Do they know that Coach was watching? As novices, do they understand that was the right or wrong thing to do, and why?

Last week was so tremendously hot, and so exhausting with the coaching, that the three of us that remain needed two days of doing absolutely nothing to recover. I don’t drink, but still felt hungover from Friday upon awaking on Monday morning. The workload here is not too demanding, and nothing I can’t handle after eight years of coaching. It’s just that everything you do here, feels like you’re doing it while trying to fight through wet blankets. We’re now down to three. The other coach who was going to leave at the same time I did, for a brief vacation in Cozumel, decided to do it this week instead. A wise decision. We would have been four going down to two. Now, it’s three coaches and then three coaches. She’s definitely missed. As a three, we get on fine, just I think we need a fourth person to bounce off of. She was lovely too, and genuinely nice people are rare in this world.

Sunburn and blisters.
Yesterday evening, Monday, was my final session with the girls out in the sticks of Reforma. As per usual, we kicked a few goats. Literally, as they like to graze across our field. And just like last week, we played a game of men v women when all the kids left. The men were made up of thirteen year olds, and the women were all middle aged. A bit like Sons v Mums. It should have been 10-0 to the boys, but they kept messing up in front of goal. Just far too cocky. Indicative of a culture where appearance is everything. I swear my time in Mexico (approaching two years in total) has taught me that many here place more value in humiliating their opponent or looking cool, as opposed to actually winning the game. To me, and I may be old fashioned, sticking the ball in the net, and beating your opponent serves both purposes; the losing team is humiliated, and the winner looks cool. It’s the showboating. The Pogba Effect. They’re not quite all dabs and fifteen haircuts per week, but they’re closer to that than they are of the sensible English stars. Shirts tucked in, socks pulled up, black boots, and hair combed smartly and neatly.

The game was 3-3, and ended when one of the boys was 1v1 with the keeper, who took the ball. In the collision, the boy was unbalanced, and went flying into the goalpost. In doing so, he knocked the goal down. Everyone nearby rushed straight to the goal, which was handmade from local wood. A few moments passed before we realised that there was a teenager with a head injury on the floor. I reassured everyone by reminding them that the goal was far more important. Once it was determined that nobody cared, it was time for penalties. No coin toss to decide which net was needed. I stuck mine away like an expert. Bottom right, hard and low, rebounding back out the goal off the stanchion. That was first. It went to 2-2, and then we had six consecutive misses. 2-2 in sudden death, and eventually we came back to me. Same again, but a couple inches to the left. Almost a replica. The women duly missed theirs, and that was that. Sweaty and covered in bites, we returned to Bacalar.

The girls at Reforma, the one’s I’ve been working with, have shown a lot of improvement in three sessions. The game is now a lot slower, with far more deliberate passes being made. The ball travels backwards and sideways, rather than punted forward with no thought. Players are turning, dribbling, and communicating. But it’s a bit like cell division. Obviously, some will get it a lot better than others. And thus the divide. One group that has improved a lot, and another group (within the same group of players) that still think it’s funny to kick the ball away. The more improved group realise that it’s not a laughing matter to so easily relieve your team of possession. I don’t get what’s so funny about kicking a ball anyway, unless you’re hitting someone in the face. Or kicking it at a goat that is trying to eat your cones.

I have been trying to improve the Twitter presence of Girls United. Twitter is the place to get coaches. My social media efforts, including LinkedIn and Facebook have actually drawn up a fair bit of interest. Not bad. A fellow Red Bulls fan messaged me to say he fancied a temporary change of scenery, to do something good and get away from the corporate lifestyle for a while. I have also spent time designing a curriculum. I’m quite happy with it, but it is by no means professional standards. There are so many holes in it. It could not be applicable anywhere else. The problem is that I have had to factor in the demands. 

The equation looks something like this;
Novice players lacking in game understanding and motor skills + volunteer coaches with little understanding of how to teach football (and for some to speak Spanish). We also have four year age brackets, a lack of equipment, and random attendances. The curriculum has to be quite broad, yet it also needs to teach the basics to those that should have learnt them five to ten years ago. What are the most important things for them to learn? They can’t take throw-ins, but do we dedicate a session to that? Of course not. We teach that within their games at the end of practice. It’s not a difficult technique. What about passing, dribbling, movement? That kind of stuff happens all the time, and we need to isolate, expand upon, and repeat, repeat, repeat with those skills. I have left out defending topics with the older age group for two reasons; we shouldn’t be doing drills, but game related practices with transitions, so that both teams can score, and both teams will become attack or defence at any given moment (thus working on their defending), but also because they swarm the ball. The swarm is currently an effective method at defending. With a bit of practice, we can learn how to pass around the swarm.

And then, at some point in the next six months to a year, they can change and revise the curriculum. It has to be shaped to the needs of the players. Hopefully soon they won’t swarm the ball, and will be playing nice passing combinations. Then, whoever is here as head coach, can readdress and assess the current and future needs of the players, as they will be at that moment in time.

It’s also worth noting that I have not gone the entire month without Ketchup. Since a bottle was purchased, I have it with everything.

Chillin' with my homebouy.
Burger by the beach.
Do you want some...?
The large selection of fake shirts in the Belize Free Zone.
On the boat tour, I forgot my hat, so bought one at a local shop.

Tuesday 4th July 2017
I'm done. Back in Mexico City with a few days before I fly home to England. I can write about my last few days and give some thoughts about the experience.

In Mexico they have a special type of hairless cat,
known as an "iguana."
I can finally, and freely, admit to blocking the shower. After a particularly muddy session, I washed my boots in the shower. The grass and mud went down the drain, and from that day on, it prevented the water from disappearing. Overall, it was an incredibly positive experience. Even on a small scale, it was positive. The little things, the annoying things, weren't actually that bad.

Since finishing, and looking to keep busy while remaining involved in the development of the programme, I have designed curriculums, and come up with a document to help incoming coaches. I'll share those for your pleasure later. The trip back to Distrito Federal was a strange one. My taxi arrived at four in the morning to drive me to the airport. My driver introduced himself as Jimmy Vazquez. The kind of name you'd expect to find on Miami Vice. The plane, again, was great, and I had three seats to myself. I managed to sleep a little too, having not slept much the night before. I tried to stay awake for fear I would miss my taxi.

On Friday night, I said goodbye to all the players. They truly are a lovely bunch. One brought me a gansito, which is like a chocolate and jam roll. Another had her aunt bake me a cake. That was shared with the whole group. Everyone loves cake, and it was good cake too. I wish nothing but the best for this lot, and I will remain interested and in touch for years to come.

Jungle River Cruise.
Wednesday and Thursday of this past week, with just myself and the American, we split the older group by ability. I took the better group on both days. She was amazed at just how bad the weaker group was, and was visibly frustrated. It reminded me of my first time. All coaches have to start from the bottom (unless you are an ex pro with good connections). You have to work with the players who are completely clueless, and with little motivation to be there. As committed and passionate footballers, we can't understand why others don't know football, or don't want to know football. That's not coaching, it's babysitting. And we're not working for now, but for the future. For whoever their next coach might be. The next coach will come in and see a group of technically proficient and hard working players, and will be able to do good work with them. That can't happen if we don't do good work with them here and now.

I made a lightsaber out of
toilet roll tubes.
It was frustrating for her, and we originally planned to both take a stab at each group, but she insisted, and persisted. That's great to see. After the first session with them, the two of us got them together and had a chat with all of the players. I did the entire thing in Spanish without the help of a translator. The points were; it is free to be here, you don't have to be here, and if you are going to come here and not play football, don't come here. One girl was on her phone for the entire session. How can you play football while on SnapChat? We regularly take video clips and photos, and decided to keep the camera on her for a while. We thought it would be funny to see how long it took her to leave the frame of the camera. It took her a minute. That's one minute spent in the same space. Not moving. And as she is chatty and friendly, she'd suck other players in too. We didn't show the video. We didn't point any fingers. I aimed the end of session chat at the whole group. 90% of them seemed offended that I would even question their commitment and desire. Good.

Over the last few days I managed to lose a few pounds. I wasn't robbed. I mean that my stomach finished the trip rather unhappily. Oh well. I was able to watch Mexico's entire Confederations Cup campaign. It was amazing how they would always concede first, and then start playing after thirty minutes. That's mental, surely, even though I would bore anyone who would listen about where Osorio had gone wrong with his tactics. Although it is a football mad nation, after almost two years of living here, a lot of people say they are into football, but actually aren't that into football. We have that back home too. Football is such a powerful influence culturally that everyone knows it. But there is a difference between my interest in driving and Lewis Hamilton's interest in driving. I like to drive, but I know nothing about cars. We could not have a conversation. And I found that many people, although near a television, weren't actually watching the game. Their phone or their conversation was more interesting. I talk during games, sure, but it's about the game. The Mexico performances were disappointing, though we can't be too upset, as out of the eight teams in the tournament, Mexico are the fourth best. And they finished fourth. Could have been better, could have been worse. Oh well.

We tried to have our own Confederations Cup with the older girls in Bacalar, splitting them into eight teams, playing group stages, and then a knockout. This was to take place over two weeks. Our third and final group game was rained off. In the following week, we didn't have consistent enough attendance, and unfortunately had to abandon the plan. Attendances have been good, consistent, and will surely rise. In the absence of any formal or informal fixtures in the near future, it made sense to try to create our own tournament feel with the players. The ones that showed took it seriously.

Genuinely, there's a lot of enthusiasm and curiosity about the game. No one is going to be pulling up trees any time soon, but who knows, in ten years, Bacalar could be a hotbed for girls football. The players were so interested to learn. Apart from the one girl on her phone, the behaviour was immaculate. A real pleasure to work in such an environment. I only wish I could have done more. If they had better foundations, I could have been far more effective with my coaching. They had no reference point for football knowledge and were not used to training. Simple games, such as 3v3, with each team defending a goal, took so long to explain. Try something different like 4v2 or end zones, and it took ages. They almost seemed shocked that the exercise was so simple when they eventually figured it out. Perhaps they had been anticipating a mine field of cones, specific instructions, lines, and lots of shouting, like we see with the boys.

Best poutine in Bacalar.
Honestly, I fear that what we have, and what we have worked so hard to create, can become corrupted. Watching a game last week, we saw U8 boys playing 11v11 on a full sized pitch. If you don't know what's wrong with that, please stay away from coaching. I'll remind you of a quote from FA research from a U12 goalkeeper "Why do I have to defend the same sized goal as Petr Cech?" And the subs benches each had about five kids on it. So we're looking at thirty two kids and one ball. Can't we split them up into smaller groups? Three games of 5v5 would be far more appropriate. That would be logical, and my years of coaching in Mexico have taught me that's too much to ask.

Now, picture this. You're a young boy of seven years old. You like football. You play football at school and in the park. You play with your friends when you can. You joined a team to play proper football. But in a squad of sixteen players, you find yourself on the field quite rarely. And when you are on the pitch, the ball is often really far away from you. Whenever it comes near, no one controls or passes it, as the coach is screaming to kick it as far forward as you can. Your head moves much like a spectator at Wimbledon, watching the ball move back and forth, back and forth. You look around at your friends on the pitch. Some of them are so far away they look like ants. The goalkeeper is on his line, sat down. A couple of your friends haven't been near the ball for five minutes, and are now stood next to each other, talking. There's a girl on your team. You haven't seen much of her, but the coach doesn't seem to like her, and never gives her any praise or responsibility, yet she doesn't look that bad. Finally, the ball has bounced to you. You take a touch to control it, and now need a second touch, a correction touch, as it was quite a surprise that the ball had even come to you (probably not deliberately). As you take the correction touch, you begin to do what you always do when you play football. Your head is up, about to scan for a pass, a shot, or maybe a dribble. In the milliseconds that your brain is computing all this information you think you have found an appropriate action to take. Before you can finalise this thought process, your decision making is harshly interrupted by your very loud coach on the side line. Perhaps he has some useful information for you. You hear the sounds, which are harsh, aggressive, and panicked. It takes a moment to process it, and suddenly the words form in your mind. "Kick it!" he screams.

Kick it.

You're playing football. You like football. You're on a football pitch. The ball is at your feet.

Kick it.

Not something useful, like "time", "man on", or letting you know someone is free.

Kick it.

Well thanks, Coach. I had forgotten there for a second the very basic premise of playing football. Thanks so much for reminding me to kick it. It doesn't matter where, how, who to, or why. Just kick it.

Naturally, the kid panics, and kicks it, with the toes, forward, to no one in particular. The opposition chase it, retrieve it, and kick it back in the general direction it came from. Repeat the process until it's half-time, when the coach can criticise the players for not trying hard enough. Oh, the beautiful game. No wonder kids love it so much.

Every free kick in that game, both coaches insisted the taker kick it long. They can't kick it further than twenty yards. They can't kick it higher than their own head. Not once did they beat the first defender. They just need to try harder, surely? If they keep trying, they'll get there in the end. Just kick it.

Football is a game of intelligence. I must have said that to the players every day. I kept reminding them that everything in football needs a decision. It was my catchphrase. The difference between a pass and a kick is the thought that precedes it. And with the other coaches, my most used words were "decisions" and "repetitions." Over time, the players stopped just kicking it, and began looking for passes. I kept calling them out on it. "What was the decision you made then?" and they would look embarrassed as they admitted they didn't have a decision. I kept telling them that mistakes are fine, as we all do them, and it is part of the learning process, but there must absolutely 100% be a decision. Some of them even began to call the others out on it.

In the last few sessions, we could see a real difference. I want that improvement to continue. There were backwards and sideways passes. There were players running away from the ball and into space, instead of swarming like they did originally. I really wanted to see a deliberate pass into space, like a through ball or a split, but none happened before I left. The only time that happened is when us coaches joined in. Instead of being a fast paced, random, swarm, the games had become slower, with more deliberate actions, and more apparent thought processes. I love that. Please, please, please continue.

The above shows a slide detailing what I believe are the areas for improvement. This is part of a larger document detailing how to achieve this. This is step one out of one hundred. These are the most pressing issues that need taking care of sooner, and will allow the players to move on to bigger and better things. I have mentioned within the document that although throw-ins are dreadful, it's not something that needs a lot of time or effort dedicated to it. For instance, we don't need a session on throw-ins. That's a waste of time. Instead, when playing matches, be strict with, and demonstrate proper throw-in technique. Eventually enough of them will get it that they can begin to police themselves (a lot like how they did with my pestering about decisions).

It's also worth noting the difference in attitudes towards girls in football. I know we still struggle with it back home. Coaches (obviously male) tell me they'd never work in women's football as it's just not football. Girls can't make a career out of the game. They don't get good coaching or facilities. In fact, I have written a few pieces detailing my own point of view from my own experiences.
US Soccer Pay Debate. Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation of Young Female Soccer Players Transitioning from Youth to Adult. The Underlying Prejudice of Girls in Football. Anyway, following that selfless plug, to many, back home, the sexism often passes under the radar. People can't detect it or are blind to it. In Mexico, it's blatantly obvious, and is part of the culture. As the man, I was always approached first. They just naturally assumed I was in charge. Boys kept showing up at our sessions, getting in the way, and trying to steal balls. They would ask when the boys training was, and would look hurt when we told them there wasn't any. Reverse sexism? Hardly. Every football club is a boys football club. Every day is boys football training. Just let girls have this one. Reminds me of the people who are upset at gay pride parades. Gays would gladly swap their parade for a life of freedom without bigotry, hatred, persecution, violence, discrimination, and the ability to marry who you love. The final example I can give of this is that during a town festival, the two girls wanted to dance. So they did, and had a good time. Not wanting to embarrass myself, and loathing the opportunity for unregulated self-expression, I naturally hung back and observed. Some guys tried to dance with them. As the man, they asked me for my permission to dance with the two fully grown, independent, unrelated, adult women. Like they were my property. You can try to defend it by saying they were being nice or that it is part of the culture, but it has its roots in misogyny. Perhaps the guys themselves just assumed it was protocol, and meant no offence by it. Then that is sexism that goes under their radar.

When my Mexican came to see me.
Lastly, before I sign out, I must speak of my love, respect, and admiration for the other volunteers. In a world where horrible acts are committed in the name of religion, where people say they will do things but don't (like how they care about veterans and will make a donation, or that they care about coal miners and will bring back non-existent jobs), or a world where people only do good so that they can share it on Facebook or Instagram, it's rare to find truly good, honest, genuine people. I'm boring, miserable, and prefer my own company. The other volunteers realised that. But that doesn't mean I don't like them or think what they are doing is great. What Romina is doing is far greater than most religious people I have ever met, and there is not a hint of arrogance in her, nor does she give the impression it's all for show. This is genuine, altruistic, and she is motivated by giving something back. She wants to do the right thing.

Despite our different backgrounds and personalities, in four weeks, I had no problems with anyone, any no one with anyone else. We'll most likely admit to not being people we'd necessarily choose to hang out with in a more normal setting, yet due to the pure motivations and the absolute dedication of everyone at Girls United, we had no problems. Even when I was being boring or playing stupid jokes. Often I have found people that love credit more than they love the feeling of doing a good job, or making a positive difference. There are coaches, former colleagues of mine, that thrive off of the praise they receive, yet do very little to earn it. They bask in the glory shone upon them. That was not the case here. Everyone, without a shadow of a doubt, wanted to do right by these girls. We gave them our best, and will continue to do so.

Flipping the Vs underwater.
I've known coaches who would regularly turn up drunk, not plan, and be lazy during sessions. Many can talk a good game, so still received admiration from the parents (but rarely from the kids). There were times when we were busy, dehydrated, tired, or sick with stomach problems. We covered for each other without question. That doesn't happen in retail, as the staff are usually looking for petty ways to trip each other up. If I had to spend two hours with other coaches helping them plan their sessions, I didn't care, as it meant the players were getting a good service. If a coach was desperate for a rest and needed a drink, shade, sit down, or bathroom break, we didn't care. We were all pulling in the same direction. As any kind of team, and we were a team of coaches, you have to view it as one body. You do what is necessary, what you can, and you always do it to the best of your ability. I am right handed, so naturally most things are done with my right. My right doesn't complain about being overworked, and my left doesn't complain about being second best. Both hands know that we are all one, and working to achieve the same thing. Work and credit are irrelevant when working with selfless people, and due to that, the quality of work is better, and the credit is rich.

If I had a heart, these volunteers and these girls would always have a place in it.

Nos vemos, bromigos.

 Some slides from the coaching education presentations.
 Session plan in Spanish. 

 Some useful words and phrases in Spanish.
What the rain can do, and where would we sometimes go for shelter.

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