Many lessons learned from Thai soccer team rescue

The Olympians are coming to Tiffin and surrounding communities in October. In the interim, it is great to celebrate the Olympic effort of a youthful coach in Thailand who saved the lives of his 12 players this month. There are plenty of other sport stories, including France beating Croatia in the World Cup, the NFL National Anthem policy debate, rumors of boxing and wrestling possibly being on the chopping blocks for the 2020 Tokyo Games, and Brent Musburger taking over the radio play-by-play for the Raiders when they move to Vegas. The Thailand saga, however, still is one of the best feel-good sport stories of the month — and year — with many lessons to appreciate.

There is no doubt that the tale of the Thai soccer team rescue will soon be showcased in a Hollywood-style movie and inspirational books. Producers and authors around the globe are vying for the rights to retell the story that captivated the world. Survival. Heroics. Sacrifice. Thailand. It is a proud and very humble country that reveres sport for its inherent value in contributing to society’s health and wellness. Sport in Thailand also has an acute social significance as an alternative to crime and truancy. More importantly, sport is viewed as an escape from the daily poverty and deprivation affecting much of the country and throughout much of southeast Asia.

The Thai soccer team was hailed for their tenacity to survive being lost for almost two weeks in a flooded underground cave. The distressing stories of the daily lives of the coach and some of the wide-eyed, innocent lads, however, is a reminder of the stark cultural and economic differences between the U.S. and Thailand, a Third-World country. Still, the military and political landscape is one that is highly supportive of sport as a tool for development throughout the impoverished nation. In the Thai district of Mae Sai on the border of Myanmar, home of the Wild Boars soccer team, there are many sport opportunities, thanks to the support of country’s Ministry of Sport and Tourism.

To learn that the 25-year old coach and three of his players are considered “stateless” is another interesting layer and lesson to the Wild Boar soccer team story. “Stateless” simply means that an individual isn’t recognized as a citizen of any country. A stateless person playing on a soccer team in Thailand has no access to socialized health care, cannot obtain a passport, and has limited opportunities for education.

The 25-year-old coach is rightfully being revered more than chastised for his role in the perilous expedition that killed one of the international rescue team members (a Thai Navy Seal) and almost cost his own life and the lives of 12 boys. After both of his parents and his only sibling died while he was a young boy, the orphan grew up in a Buddhist monastery. The life of a “millennial” monk has been described as playing basketball, praying for 12 hours a day, and adhering to 227 rules of conduct such as vows of silence. The coach’s demeanor and training as a monk undoubtedly played a role in tempering emotions for the nine days the team was trapped in a dark underwater prison during the monsoon season. Imagine the reality of having to lick the walls of a cave as your only source of nourishment.

It’s also difficult to imagine any 25-year-old in their initial moments realizing that the odds of making it out of a flooded cave were minimal, and then, having to deliver a realistic appraisal of survival chances to a group of impressionable youth. Meditation was reported as the saving grace helping the team cope, preserve energy, and process fear, doubt, and near-hopelessness. Case in point: The video from the British diver who initially found the team showed a group of frail young guys in their soccer jerseys chilling on a ledge. The boys weren’t jumping for joy or screaming thank you, thank you … they were just chilling, like they were taught to do beyond any other action, in a dark and miserable cave.

The former monk and community coach only wanted to engage in a team-bonding exercise by exploring a labyrinth of cave passages. There are all types of rituals for building a high-performance team culture. Pot-luck dinners, team sleepovers, adventure courses, game nights, skits, movie nights, escape challenges, scavenger hunts and puzzles are all examples of activities to facilitates trust, cohesiveness, and positive energy. There is a fine line, however, between innocent team bonding rituals and what is perceived as unacceptable hazing. The $12 million lawsuit in Alabama this year by parents of a high school football player who broke his arm after enduring the traditional locker room beating for making it up to the varsity level speaks to the seriousness of hazing.

Wearing a funny costume and singing karaoke or carrying the team’s bags to the bus or picking up the tab for a team dinner are all considered a “rite of passage” for some professional teams breaking in a rookie, but players are becoming more vocal in expressing their disdain for tradition. These types of acts push the boundaries of being considered hazing as opposed to team bonding because they are degrading and humiliating — two emotions that are not necessary to build a high-performance team culture. A 2011 incident at Clemson University is another example of the blurred line between hazing and team bonding. A female soccer player ran face first into a brick wall after being kidnapped, blindfolded, put in the trunk of a truck, spun around multiple times, and ordered by teammates to run down a field. What was once an innocent act that traditionally end in a good belly laugh among teammates wasn’t so funny after the face-first wall incident.

It’s the potential danger that should help someone recognize that team bonding may be considered hazing. No, the Thai soccer coach didn’t recognize the dangers of his expedition and his intentions were pure in his desire to promote team bonding. Forgiveness, not criticism, is the right response for the coach whose tale is about to unfold even more in the public eye after a movie producer screams “lights, camera, action!”

Plenty of action is already taking place this summer at the YMCA and library where youth can engage in free activities to earn a sport bag and picture with an Olympian at the Festival of Champions at the Heminger Center Oct. 23. Visit the library and YMCA for more information, look for the Elite Sport & Culture Week booth at the Farmers Market, visit the Elite Facebook page, and check out all the activities at www.tiffin.edu/elite

The Olympians are coming! Jon Koncak (USA Basketball), William Wuyke (Venezuela Athletics), and Steven Lee (Taiwan Bobsleigh) just committed their participation and more Olympians will be added soon! Be a part of history in Tiffin and Northwest Ohio. Stay tuned next month for more information about Elite Sport and Culture Week and to read a few interesting sport stories from around the world to right here in Tiffin, Ohio.

Bonnie Tiell is a professor of sports management at Tiffin University.

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