Monday, January 7, 2013

The Art of the Possible Part 1

I happened across a photo off of Facebook recently that caught my attention in many ways.  It's from a small community on Baffin Island in Nunavut where I worked before moving to Alberta.  On the surface, it may not appear that interesting to the average members playing some traditional Inuit games to pass the time during the dark season.

What caught my attention was actually up in the rafters.  See that sports banner hanging up there on the right-hand side?  It has a story to tell.  And what a great story it is.  If you've ever thought something was impossible, if you ever thought you weren't good enough, if you ever thought that, despite your best effort, you just weren't up to the challenge, than this simple banner has quite a story behind it.  Its a story that bears repeating and I suspect I will one day sit my grandchildren down and recount it fondly to them as well.

Back in 2006 I was into my second year of teaching in the remote community of Arctic Bay (remote being a relative term for I never really felt that remote).  I had started coaching indoor soccer the year before as a way of honing my leadership skills and interacting with the kids outside of the classroom.  Unfortunately for us, the realities being as they are, the gym facility we had was far from adequate....freezing cold on some winter days and less than half the size of the gym we played in for our tournaments in Iqaluit.  Ultimately, all that didn't matter.  We built a great team.

More roadblocks lay ahead.  As one of the smaller teams participating in the Baffin Regionals, I'm sure we were often viewed by some as "that little team from the middle of nowhere that we have to climb over to get to the next round of play."  Indeed, during our first tournament in 2005, we had a few close games but also saw our share of lop-sided scores in favour of the competition.  The kids put in a lot of work and it was deflating to travel such a long distance, sleep 3 nights on a classroom floor and lose games by 6,7 or 8 goals.  Iqaluit, where we had to fly to for these tournaments, is about 1230km south of Arctic Bay as the crow flies.    That would be like flying from Toronto to the Tennessee/Alabama/Mississippi border....just to play one single tournament......within your own school district.

I returned from that 2005 with a lofty goal: 2006 would be different.  We wouldn't go there just to participate.  We would take the game to competition.  We would bring home gold.   We were fortunate in that we had among us a solid core upon which I felt a pretty competitive team could be built.  I upped practice times from once a week to 2-3 times a week.  In a small community with a gym that it used for several different community functions, this wasn't always.  I took any and every extra time I could find in the rec. schedule.  I looked up drills online, read articles and networked the best I could given our extreme northern location.  Finally, to show the kids I was serious and determined, I stayed that entire summer in the community without flying south for summer vacation.  I'm sure a few people thought I was crazy for doing this and indeed I found over the course of that year that the biggest negative I faced was the attitudes of some other adults.  Why the heck are you doing this, Darcy? they would ask.  It's not worth it.  It's just a waste of time.

I have to admit it wasn't easy.  Getting up for an early practice in the middle of winter  in -30C and        -40C temperatures to go to a cold gym (heat could be hit and miss at times) I did face self-doubt. I'm sure there were times when they tired of my seemingly endless drills. (But WHY are we doing THIS?  Didn't we do this last practice??)  I know I drove them crazy with stopping play to point things out or to work on different offensive and defensive strategies.  Up to this point the kids had just played.  I did my best to help them think about what they were doing and why and to anticipate opposing moves.  It was a new way of doing things for them and I could feel their frustration with me at times.  There were times when I grew frustrated too.  But regardless of weather, fatigue, frustration, nay-sayers or what have you, the kids kept I did too.

I did have to ask myself at times too if this was just something I wanted.  Was I just doing this for myself.  But no.  Over the course of the year, I began to notice a fundamental shift in the players' thinking.  I could tell from their demeanour, enthusiasm and hard work that this was something they wanted.  I like to think I can give some pretty good pep talks but that will only take you so far.  Heading into the new school year I knew they believed our goal was possible too.

That summer I ordered in brand new uniforms and worked with the rec. department to get new soccer nets....ones that were a lot closer in size to the ones they'd be dealing with in Iqaluit.

When's the next practice?  When's the tournament?  When are we going to Iqaluit?  I lost track of how many times these questions were asked.  In the end the kids didn't care what others said.  They didn't care the gym was cold (most days anyway).  They didn't care about how small our gym was.  They were too focused taking their game to the competition.  

While all the team players were great I do have to give credit to one young man in particular.....our team goalie.  Starting out, we actually didn't have a regular net minder and this was a real sticking point for some time.  One young lad, who I believe was 12 at the time, started showing up for practices before I drew up my final roster and quickly began to make an impression.  He had really put on a growth spurt over the past year but he was quiet kid and just needed more confidence in himself I felt.  He turned out to be pretty agile and initially he made a hell of a foreward, with great ball control, and he could make kids much older than him have to work pretty hard to keep on him to strip the ball away.  Eventually, he started playing defence.  And hi blocking skills blew me away.  Those kids can kick that ball pretty hard I can tell you and I know I wouldn't want to be the one blocking some of those shots.  This kid took it everywhere, stomach, shoulders and I don't know how many times he took a hard one in the face and kept soldiering on.  Eventually I took him aside and tried to convince him to play goal.  He liked the idea of scoring goals, as every kid does at that age, so he was lukewarm at first.  But gradually, as he got more comfortable in net and the other players began to see him as our goalie, I knew we had our man.

November rolled around, meaning tournament time was just around the corner.  Another challenge was that in such a small community, the kids all know each other and, having played team sports in school, they tend to know, and get used to, each other's playing style.  I wanted to get as much competition for them as I could so I even had practices where I played with them (don't laugh, I think I didn't do too badly) and I invited a few high school kids as well.  The last couple practices I put together a team of high school students, plus a couple girls that wanted to join in plus myself. They had fun but they also worked very hard.

Finally departure day came.  I was thinking a lot about this tournament but I was also starting to become distracted by the weather.  In a community like Arctic Bay, their is no radar at the airport, and the airport at the time was situated several feet above sea level in mountainous terrain. Low cloud basically meant no flight.  It was a cloudy morning so I knew it could be touch and go.  Sadly, the forces of nature don't care about things like soccer tournaments and we were told that there was no way a plane could safely land and take off.

I conferred with our rec. director who told me that if the weather cleared the next day we could still make it down on time.  I tried to think positively but I knew the kids were deflated to know they weren't going that morning.  Usually when inclement weather hits it sticks around for more than one day.  That was my experience at least.  Things didn't look good.

You had to be kidding me, I thought.  After all their hard work and all those hours, we get this?  We had to get there.  They had just put in too much hard work.  I knew there was always the following day.....but would we actually be able to get out?


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