From the Arizona Region

We’ve become so engrained with how indoor volleyball should be: nice gym floors made of wood or tile with shiny red or blue poles surrounded by thick padding and pristine black and white game nets in use because the practice nets might have a small tear in them or seem dingy. Uniforms splashed with color and screaming the name of the player underneath huddled around pre and post match acreage of food and snacks and more water and Gatorade than can be consumed by 12 players in a month. Inclement weather; hot, cold or rain affording everyone a chance to tell their stories of what a struggle it was to get there and get set up.  Officials smartly outfitted with navy blue pants, white shoes and colored shirt of the day overseeing score boards and deflecting the parent heckling of their miscues, whether real or imagined.  Players tossing a ball aside because it’s “too hard” or doesn’t feel right. The court living and dying with each point; mistakes magnified with gasps and catcalls and winners given rousing ovations from the crowd and bench alike. Players meandering through team cheers that seemed much more clever at the beginning of the season. Finally a match ends and one side, gripped with disappointment and anger, the other with jubilation and relief. A quick meeting with the coach and then on to the next one; an assembly line of recreation with the grandeur of a college scholarship at the end of the rainbow for some, and often a torrent of disappointment and excuses for those that fall short.

Two coaches from the world described above went across the globe and found another world. Seventeen hours into a calendar day disappeared and they arrived in the Philippine Islands: Manila to be exact. It was a discovery wholly unexpected but the kind of sojourn that can help define a person’s make up going forward: a recipe for maybe finding their better self.

These are the lessons of that journey.

They landed in a world of indescribable poverty:  a place where most of us would only be aware of because of pictures in a National Geographic or an ad in Us magazine asking for a donation. Small children being bathed on the street in a bucket, cardboard boxes used as building materials on a roadside or on the banks of a river keeping the relentless rain or merciless sun off a family or two…or three. Small children putting blank faces onto a car window at a stop light begging, their blank eyes looking through you and neighborhood after neighborhood built out of corrugated steel panels and makeshift wood and mortar. Many sheds in American backyards are constructed more soundly.

The journey began with many lessons to be learned for these two American coaches. They walked into their first clinic onto a high school campus and realized how Dorothy felt leaving Kansas. Two large security doors opened up and upon driving into the campus, students were busy: some heading to class but many sweeping the grounds, picking up the leaves and branches from the storm the night before, hauling trash and helping with the day to day workings of the school. There was no janitor, this was the student’s school and they were expected to keep it tidy. The gym was a metal roof supported by four beams, no walls. The volleyball net was intact but held up by the resourcefulness of a school PE teacher and fancy knots, affixed to metal poles sitting in a rounded piling of cement that made it easier to roll on and off the concrete  basketball court. Fifty students, male and female were seated quietly awaiting a chance to forget, if only for a few hours, some of the struggles their daily life presented them, by playing volleyball.

The coaches quickly learned that a gym doesn’t’ always need walls to make it a sanctuary for aspiring athletes and for some, a home. These students, who had to apply, write a paper and take a test for the chance to be part of this program, listened intently to the instruction given. English was spoken here but it was fragmented and oft times misused. The coaches out of necessity spoke less, showed more and kept the group moving, rep after rep. They realized that a simple rope strung across the court lengthwise and tied to basket supports and tape helped to untie the traditions of only playing over a “real” net and afforded all fifty students an exposure to game like reps.

An afternoon thunderstorm that would lead the local news in some parts of the country was a shrug and an inconvenience when the ball would roll out from under the roof and a player would wipe it dry with their hands and shirt and get back to their team. The heat and humidity was stifling at times but it never slowed anyone down: coaches or athletes. At the end of the clinic, the students would play: 3 on 3 or 4 on 4 across the rope and with every point would do a cheer which morphed into dances, songs and celebrations of pure happiness. From the first clinic, in a foreign land, two coaches had learned a most valuable and universal commodity: the power of play.

They took to heart how much everything they did was appreciated and not one minute, not one, was wasted or taken for granted by these student athletes or their teachers. The coaches brought an enthusiasm with them that mirrored that of the athletes they were helping and the reciprocity was a conduit for electric coaching and teaching moments. As the energy drew down a bit, the coaches thinking the athletes had hit their wall, were once again blindsided by a fact that permeates the poorer parts of Manila. School starts at 7 a.m. and goes until 1 p.m. and then another shift of students comes in from 1 p.m. till 7 p.m.  The players weren’t tired.

They were hungry.

They hadn’t eaten for 6 hours or longer. The program the coaches worked for fed every player and or coach at the end of every clinic. There was never anyone asking for more, no one taking two of anything. The meals/snacks were sandwiches and a banana and water. One clinic was a hard-boiled egg and a banana. No one took cuts in line, no one left trash behind. It wasn’t so much a treat but a necessity for many.

The week went on: two clinics a day, sometimes three. It was never a grind for the coaches, they summoned more and more from those they were with. One day was spent at a facility for girls who were abused, had issues with law enforcement or were trafficked. That word was used far more in one week than should be used in a lifetime but it is a stark reality in the Philippines where some daughters are sold into slavery for $20 U.S. by their parent. The facility, called appropriately “The Haven” was another outdoor gym with a roof that echoed the afternoon rain. With over 100 girls on the court in two different sessions, over 200 in all, the rope and inventive games were used to get the girls engaged and playing. Again, hunger became an issue as some faded toward the afternoon but the coaches saw an amazing array of human spirit and fortitude. Looking into the eyes, the faces and imagining what horrors these young women between the ages of 10-24 had been through, the coach’s souls were bruised a bit but their hearts grew outside themselves.

After the 200+ girls at “The Haven” were ready to head back to their dorms, they delighted the coaches and program hosts with a show. Several of the girls danced hip hop, another sang beautifully and a few others donned traditional costume and danced, making their ancestors proud. At the end, a giant hip hop parade with almost all the girls commenced and the “whip” and the “nene” took over the cement court. Looking at the scene, it was a clip from a movie a parent had taken 100 times on their iPhone at a local club tournament starring their daughter and her friends. While this was on the other side of the world, it still seemed so ordinary, so routine but both coaches felt what the girls felt at that moment: they were home.

The Americans took a flight mid-week to the island of Cebu and got a chance to work with students studying to be PE teachers. The coaches saw a chance to open minds and showed them sitting volleyball: not only as an option for schools without a volleyball net or poles but also an option when their students hadn’t had enough to eat and needed a fun game that required less cardio tolerance. Next up was Smashball and showing the teachers how to let their students hit a ball first and fall in love with the game, then add the skills as they went along. Finally, once again over a rope, they played. They laughed and just like the kids they’ll teach soon, they danced on points won, strategized on points lost and showed pure effort and passion with each serve. At the whistle, they stopped: labored breathing through toothy grins and smiles. The coaches cajoled them to remember what they felt at that moment: the power of play.

Toward the end of the week, the coaches spent time at an orphanage for kids once again abandoned, abused or trafficked by a parent. Like many of the other stops along the way, a group of the students sang the coaches and program folks a hello song, welcoming us to their home. The head of the site spoke and as she did, the remnants of the typhoon that had soaked the 7,100 islands that make up the Philippines the previous day cleared to blue, promising skies. The coaches unleashed the entire school onto yet again another outside court and watched as the younger and older kids mixed together all over the grounds, practicing their passing and attacking and serving. Some set for their friends and got to crank balls over a real net while others were content playing off a wall with a friend. They were finding their own path. The coaches, helping where they were asked, did what worked the best. They got out of the way.

The last day with coaches and players was a brutally hot and humid outing into a southern part of Manila. The youth coaches in the morning session took in all they could from the two Americans and learned not only skills but drills to effectively raise the amount of contacts in an overfilled but understaffed gym. They learned how to set up drills that the kids ran themselves so they got to do what their name tags said: coach. They learned more sitting and Smashball and how a rope can be a liberating piece of equipment. In the afternoon came the players of many of the morning coaches. They once again learned skills and played, ran drills and played, and played and played. If smiles were the currency by which the American’s were to use that afternoon, they were rich beyond their wildest dreams. With pictures, hugs and tearful goodbyes, the week was over; the coaches were heading to their home but felt like the entire week they had been there all along.

One thing through the eight days stuck out to both coaches: the people. Manila is a city of 22 million of them in a country of 110 million. Pollution, poverty, traffic that makes the 405 look like a bike lane in Houston and hot humid weather should have been a point of contention the entire week, but neither coach noticed…because of the people.

One of the programs directors told the coaches upon their first meeting that the Philippine people are resilient and unbreakable, just like the bamboo that blankets the islands. Those few words described every personal interaction the American guests had all week. Throughout all the humidity, the hunger, the rain and the overpopulated courts, not one complaint was uttered, not one player cried or took umbrage to someone else’s abilities or success. Often times, the older athletes helped the younger ones with no one asking. Often those that struggled looked to their peers who would stop what they were doing to help. It was the people; the beautiful, gracious, charming, polite and humble people of the Philippine Islands that were the success of this story. 

Two American coaches came to the Islands and left; humbled by what they saw, humbled by what they were able to be a part of and most of all, humbled by the resiliency of the human spirit displayed daily to them in the eyes and faces of those they spent the week with. These two grateful coaches were lead to their better selves over the week and will use it to make those around them better. It’s in the wind, between the bamboo stalks; humbled smiles.