Coaching the Tigers of Loi Tailang
"Football is war minus the guns," declared George Orwell in reflecting upon his lack of sporting prowess while attending Eton College in the early part of the 20th century.
For the hundreds of orphans residing within the male dormitories at Loi Tailang Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp in Shan State, Burma, football is the fantasy escape from the memories of conflict and forced removal from their family homes which has seen boys removed from the care of their parents. Encouraged to get an education as an alternative to joining the Shan State Army, the only lethal shooting performed by boys aged between 10 and 25 years would be achieved courtesy of their deadly accurate feet and an imitation leather ball on the makeshift dusty football pitch overlooking the dense forest.
While each student has more than likely experienced the loss of relatives as a result of the frequent incursions into their village homes by the Burmese military junta, not every person is an orphan in the strictest sense. Some have lost their mothers and fathers, some one parent and others have lost whole families. There are students that have simply been away from home for so long, their own relatives may no longer recognize them. The fate of some parents is unknown and some have gone years without knowing whether their mother or father may have been murdered or remain alive.
Parents shift from one village to the next in search of food and work in relative safety, trying to remain out of sight from the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) troops ruling Burma with an iron fist. The diverse ethnic minority residents of Shan State attending either the primary or high schools located on the Burma-Thai border three kilometers away have bonded together because without family support, all they have is each other.
The other attribute they have in common is a love of the world game, football. Every day after attending classes, studying for upcoming exams, and well as completing all required domestic chores, up to 30 students gather to play football on the large pothole-filled dusty track that leads up the mountain. If the ball happens to go out of play, there is race on amongst the players to prevent the ball from rolling down the steep hill and dropping approximately 200 meters down the cliff face where only one walking trail exists.
To the right-hand side, younger children have their own smaller pitch to undertake their games. And squeal with delight as they chase a ball around a pit 20 approximately meters long and 10 meters wide.
With all kindergarten classes finished for 2 months, and having recently moved into the teacher's quarters of the male dormitories, several older students approached me with a special request, one that took me by complete surprise.
"Teacher David, every night our school team plays here, but we do not have anyone to train us. Please be our coach."
Before I had a chance to even consider the request, I was immediately surrounded by 20 students of all sizes aged between 10 and 23 years old. The decision was practically pre-determined prior to me being asked, so I considered this as an honor, in spite of my lack of ability with the ball. However, my responsibilities now extended to being the most confident person anywhere near the ball, and this had to rub off on anybody interested in playing. Otherwise, there would be no interest.
In Loi Tailing, several males in their late teens and early 20s are still at school completing their basic education. Back in their homelands, attending school was considered impossible because of constantly being on the run from the military junta, or taking on the task of looking after the family farm, tending to the crops and buffaloes, or simply being disallowed from turning up at all by the SPDC. Shan language is banned from being taught at all schools in Shan State by the military authorities, but every student can safely learn their native Shan tongue. Each grade contains a great disparity in ages amongst students. Students can take advantage of the chance to go to school rather than move from their villages into towns, on the run from persecution and being captured by the SPDC to become porters and worked until exhaustion and death.
In the squad of players standing before me, a handful of students never went to school until their 16th birthday just so the family could continue to live. One squad member commented that his mother, if still alive, would not recognize him because he left his homeland so long ago and to risk a return would heighten the possibility of arrest and torture for being associated with the Shan State Army, or SSA.
Motivating a team that really does want to improve is not difficult. Football is a game that brings people of all walks of life together even in the most adverse circumstances. The challenge is to find effective strategies that assist with improving ball skills and fitness in isolation and gradually incorporate them into a fully fledged match. Also, exercises have to be fun. The life for students here is difficult and considering the hardships faced in living, attending classes, affording school materials and keeping abreast of all other tasks, recreational pursuits should involve learning and laughing. Nobody was expecting me to be a supercoach. The students wanted somebody they could enjoy their favorite pastime with. While teaching in the classroom requires measurements such as testing to demonstrate effectiveness of communication and teaching capabilities, sporting activities involve predominately listening and watching. However, in both cases, keeping and maintaining their attention is the key to a successful session. That means simple explanations, less non-essential talking, and short drills that constantly change before boredom sets in.
In a 60 minute session, the squad and I would open up with a warm-up lap around the perimeter of the orphan dormitories. I viewed my participation as a means of encouraging everybody to do their best, although I deliberately stayed behind the pack. We were all being watched by interested on-lookers, curious as to why a farang (foreigner) was barking out instructions in a fun nature like an army general. One group of students played rakktan with a bamboo ball and string for a net on a small makeshift court next to one dormitory; another group played a form of bocce with disused and leaking batteries, and men and women trudged up the mountain and cut through the open path, weary from their day in the forest hunting wild animals, and collecting vegetables, firewood and bamboo tree leaves.
Setting a maximum number of six exercises, each between five and ten minutes in length, I improvised for a lack of equipment that I would normally have access to. Any tasks involving running were shorter than ball control exercises because of the impact of the hard surface on players' legs. Everybody played without shoes, which to me represented resilience and aversion to pain. Also, there was no tackling. Firstly, the risk of injury was simply too great (although anybody who did fall and graze themselves or sustain a slight knock simply got up again); secondly, it went against the spirit of the game; but most importantly, for students to instigate confrontation and fight would make life in the dormitories exceedingly difficult and result in a loss of face.
In the open-aired environment, I felt no pressure to achieve miracles, as one would normally be expected when teaching English in a classroom. Whatever materials were available in the yard would become my coaching tools. To compensate for a whiteboard and marker, I would draw simple diagrams in the dirt with a stick, using x to represent a player, o for their opponent and a line to represent the direction of the ball or player in drills. This simple yet effective method provided the background for instructions such as "I want everyone in two lines", or to highlight positioning. I picked out team members that I observed were confident with English speaking to take my simple instructions and translate them in Shan language for the benefit of everybody else, and demonstrated key terms in English such as pass, cross, shoot, 5 yards, man-on and one-two. Logs of firewood substituted for orange witches hats to practice ball dribbling skills and older students voluntarily offered their shirts to be used as goalposts. Players were even encouraged to choose their own nicknames in English so I could call them out and remember their faces.
Consequently, the team contained three members named Rambo, whom I labeled Rambo I, Rambo II and Rambo III..
This makeshift football pitch on a mountainside located in a village barely recognizable on the map was my de facto open-aired classroom, and the team of orphans were my students. A few months before, I had been working in South Korea as an English teacher, using my laptop to design lesson plans, play DVDs and prepare Powerpoint presentations for multimedia displays. I could not have picked two differing scenarios.
Although my textbook drills were not always working out the way I had originally planned, one of the best exercises I came up with to reinforce agility and quick movement of the feet also ended up being one of the funniest.
Laying nine logs vertically one after the other approximately half a meter apart, players ran through one by one and returned to their original starting point, starting with a slow jog and then gradually increasing their speed. Then I changed the nature of the exercise by slowing narrowing the gaps and reducing the time in which everyone had to pass through. "If I see anybody move any of the logs, the entire team stops and the offender has to sing 'I Believe I Can Fly,'" I instructed, followed by an example where I deliberately tripped on one of the logs and proceeded to sing. Roars of laughter appeared from the squad, who were keen to see a foreigner embarrass himself and not feel so awkward in case they were caught out. Only three players made the same mistake as me.
Changing the emphasis to teamwork, everybody linked up in a circle and ran through the obstacle. Whenever somebody tripped up, squad members would quickly point out who broke the chain and subsequently call the guilty parties to the front to sing good-naturedly. This exercise created a bond between the players and myself, but in addition broke what I thought was a major barrier by overcoming hesitation to perform in public, a skill that is necessary for them to one day to speak out about the plight of the people living in the IDP camp.
The final 20 minutes before sundown would be devoted to a fully fledged game as a way of letting everybody play their natural game and serve as a reminder for everyone to feel comfortable, enjoy the experience and play their natural style. At the end of the game, I called everyone together for a group huddle.
I asked, "What do you want to call your team?"
Several suggestions came up, and finally everybody agreed upon Loi Tailang Tigers.
When I queried the choice of animal, 'Rambo I', who was 22 years old and completing high school, explained with the aide of a translator, "The Shan animal is the tiger. In life, we are tigers fighting the Burmese army. They have caged us, but we can still roar. One day, when we are free, they will run scared."
Another player added, "Tonight we all study for Shan language exams, so we feel proud to learn our language and history, and practice our culture here." I came to realize that everybody is making the best of their allotment in this less than forgiving environment that few people outside of their own village are aware of. Being part of this football team and partaking in drills and having somebody guide them, even if only temporarily, creates an identity that results in belonging to an association, much like the SSA band together for a common cause.
With a final shout of "One, two, three, TIGERS ROAR!" led by me and followed instinctively by the team, we all clapped to congratulate each other for finishing training, ran a lap together and then, with the sun fading behind the distant hills, the Loi Tailang Tigers transformed back into students, eating and washing dishes collectively, before settling down to study for the following day's exam by candlelight in their dormitories.
In an ideal world, football would be their beacon of peace in a land seemingly hidden from the eyes of the international community, where far too many young people have been exposed to a lifetime of war and the trail of physical and psychological damage left in its wake. For these young men, returning home to find peace, loved ones, and freedom is the cup of life.