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.
|"Don't drop your phone!" - Thanks for the advice.|
|Posing with my biggest fan.|
|Passing the ball to pass the time.|
|A good group that were keen to learn.|
|Joining in with the girls.|
|New profile picture.|
|Road trip to Belize.|
American asleep in the back.
|After my final session.|
|If you're of an average height (I am 6'0'') then come to Mexico and feel like a giant.|
|Playing a game during coach education.|
|The team of coaches. Can you spot me?|
|A roundabout in Belize.|
|Sailing under the border crossing.|
|Sunburn and blisters.|
|In Mexico they have a special type of hairless cat,|
known as an "iguana."
|Jungle River Cruise.|
|I made a lightsaber out of|
toilet roll tubes.
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.|
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.
You're playing football. You like football. You're on a football pitch. The ball is at your feet.
Not something useful, like "time", "man on", or letting you know someone is free.
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.
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.|
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.|
If I had a heart, these volunteers and these girls would always have a place in it.
Nos vemos, bromigos.