Mindfulness and Soccer in Armenia
I had the good fortune to recently spend 10 days or so in Armenia with Gabriel and Katie-Jay launching a soccer academy for coaches and kids affected by the war in Artsakh. My role was to bring the mindfulness piece of the puzzle and to share some simple practices and explanations in a way that could be useful and useable for the coaches, players, and our partner organizations.
We spent a few days in the capital city, Yerevan, meeting with our partner organizations, GOALS and the Aurora Prize team, but the majority of our time was spent out in Goris, a small town in the mountains, roughly five hours from the capital and close to Artsakh, a region where many folks have been displaced by the recent conflict.
In Goris, we brought together about 20 coaches from around Armenia, most of whom had never met each other, for four days of on-the-field and classroom training. Our ultimate goal was to choose a few of these participants to become Refugees United Soccer Academy coaches who could bring the iACT style of weaving social-emotional wellbeing, mindfulness, and fun into the soccer curriculum for a large number of boys and girls living in the area.
Although mindfulness is not something that is widely practiced, it is certainly a part of being human. As an intentional practice, it was new to most of the folks we came into contact with. As we began our training, and I asked the adult coaches to stand with their feet comfortably apart, feeling their feet contacting the earth, pausing and dropping attention inward so as to feel their breath, hear the sounds of the day, etc, it was clear that this felt a bit strange and at least somewhat awkward to most. Even in the newness, they hung in there for the few minutes that we stood together quietly. As we slowly transitioned back into our circle, taking a big breath altogether, opening eyes if they had been closed, looking around the field we had the good fortune to be playing on, and then looking around the circle to each other, we could see we were all a little bit more there with each other and a bit more ready for what would come next.
Each day of the training we practiced together at least four times throughout the day, and each time there was a little more willingness to experiment and see for themselves what they noticed, a little more feeling of the group coming together as a whole, a little more understanding of the power of turning inward and resting quietly.
So much of the training is intended to help the group come together as a team in ways that are fun, allow us to learn about each other, and support our soccer skills as well as care for ourselves and each other. In such a short period of time, this group came together with so much laughter, and a willingness to try new things such as mindfulness, fun games, and opening and closing circles where we are asked to share bits about ourselves.
On the third day of the training we had some of the coaches lead us through the whole practice, mindfulness included. In just a few days, they had begun to understand for themselves the power of taking a few minutes individually and as a team to pause and turn their attention inward, as the way they led these mindfulness exercises became their own. They were able to guide from their own lived experience and the group as a whole became quiet, still and more present.
On the fourth day, we had about 16 kids show up and the coaches split up into four groups, each with a few kids to lead through the whole academy training, including the mindfulness exercises. To witness them all guiding in their own words, and to watch the kids respond with willingness (some with awkward giggles and some dropping right in) was again, such confirmation of the deep power of resting together quietly, on purpose, just as we are.
I had such a beautiful time in Armenia. The generosity of the people, the natural beauty of the land, the food!! Not being much of a soccer player before coming, I was excited to participate in the whole of the training, not just my piece, and learned so much, laughed so much, and have a whole new group of friends that I hold close to my heart. iACT’s program of care and support for the whole person, be it player, coach, partner organization, etc. is working. The warmth, joy, courage, and vulnerability that we have shared will stay with us all and ripple out into the world to all those we come into contact with, hopefully bringing more peace. It is a huge honor to be involved and to see the fruits of iACT’s labor spreading out further and further into the world.
By the afternoon, the consensus was encapsulated by what one humanitarian worker in Bangui told us, “This is CAR. It is always high risk.”
Fr. Vazken Movsesian, from In His Shoes, interviewed Katie-Jay and Gabriel about their shared journey as anti-genocide activists and about iACT’s work, from its inception to our recent trip to Armenia to work with communities affected by the 2020 war in Artsakh.
We are excited to announce that iACT has secured initial funding for our team to return to the Central African Republic (CAR) this fall, for the first time since 2017.