Not just volunteering…
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About three months ago I returned from South Africa. It has been thirteen weeks, since I have breathed South African air – the strong and surprisingly cold wind always promising that the weather will change once more. And on every single day – of the 97, which have passed by now – I experienced something, which reminded me of this beautiful country and especially its people.
Working for the Alster Grootbos Hockey Project was not the only volunteer work I did. I also spent some time in a wildlife sanctuary, where we fed an incredibly high amount of bananas every day to all the animals. You might ask why I am telling you this. And you are right to ask that question. After all it is not really relevant to explain how I spent half an hour twice a day just cutting bananas and putting them into different buckets, or is it? But my point is that every single time I did that, I could only barely resist singing the banana song we always used to sing with the children. Sometimes I did. And sometimes I just had to laugh out of joy, because of all the memories linked to that specific song. Thinking about it now, my co-workers probably must have been pretty worried about my mental health. Or at least confused.
It was almost two years ago, when I first considered working as a volunteer with children. In September 2017 I finally applied for Grootbos. Back then I felt that before I could actually start to study and then work I had to give something back. Just for the simple reason that throughout my childhood I received an incredible amount of love and support by my parents, teachers and also coaches. And I knew I was lucky with that. I knew I was privileged. Also I knew that I did not want my experience to be just that – a privilege. So out of gratefulness I went to South Africa, wanting to share, what I have received, hoping to provide the same love and support for others.
But nobody told me how rewarding work with children actually is. Even though they can be challenging. Even to the point that sometimes I just wanted to run away and hide behind a tree, so that they would not find me. But in the end they are the reason I just ended up being thankful again. For making me smile over and over again. Because after all there is no virus, no bacteria or parasite as contagious as children’s laughter. And because even now they manage to just make my day, when I receive a message just saying „Hi!“, or asking me how I am in Spanish, because that is what I taught them, just saying „I miss you“ with a lot of emojis. And if there is one thing I am sure of, then it is that I miss them too.
So in the end I went to South Africa, because I wanted to give back. But I returned to Germany, having learned and received way more than I could have ever asked for. Because today is not just the day, on which I left South Africa 97 days ago. But also it is exactly one year ago now that I was standing myself on a hockey pitch – at least as an active player. March 22 of 2018 was the day I stepped on a cone and fell. A cruciate ligament rupture. Crutches. Two surgeries. And one year without playing hockey. Back then I was really questioning my decision. How was I supposed to teach children how to play hockey without being able to play myself?
But through the Football Foundation South Africa I learned that you don’t necessarily need to be a good Hockey player to be a Hockey coach. In fact you don not even need to be able to play at all. Because being a coach in South Africa actually opened my eyes by teaching me what Hockey really is about. And what it means to me. Being an ambitious person and always in competition with other teams, other players, I sometimes forgot, why I even started playing hockey in the first place. But standing on that Hockey pitch, which can be hardly called a pitch, surrounded by laughing children playing barefoot and all trying to hit the ball with their precious sticks at the same time, I remembered. Of course I would tell them that they were not playing hockey, but rather behaving like chicken all trying to pick at that one worm at the same time. And of course I would show them how to properly use the entire field and pass the ball within their team, so that they could actually play. But still they would probably always lose playing against a European team their age with professional practice. But does that mean that they cannot play hockey? Am I a bad coach, if their technique is still only more ore less „clean“?
No it does not. Because the most important lesson I taught them was not how to hit the ball properly or how to use pulls in order to go past your opponent. But it was, what happens, when one child accidentally does not hit the ball but the foot of another child. Of course that is a foul, but unlike what most of the children would think in the beginning, you cannot hit that child back then with your stick. Also your bigger brother cannot do that.
So the most important lesson, which I had to learn, which I had to teach, and which some children still have to learn, is actually how to properly resolve conflicts, how to play together with other kids and not just against other kids and eventually how to become a team. And that is what I had to remember again myself. That is why I started playing Hockey in the first place. Why Hockey became not just my hobby but my passion over time. Being part of a team, part of something bigger, belonging to other individuals, who worship you and on who become your closest friends, learning how to fight together and how to stand up for each other, winning together but also losing together and most importantly having fun together, that is what Hockey is all about.
And that is what a good coach teaches his team. So you really do not have to be able to play Hockey in order to be a good coach. But you will have to learn this lesson to be a good Hockey player. And being a volunteer at Alster Grootbos Hockey Foundation made me remember just that again. So when I finally start playing again next week, because the new season of field Hockey starts, I will think about my kids, about South Africa and probably just be grateful again.