Sports experts: Thai coach’s bond with 12 soccer players saved their lives

Published 7:32 am Friday, July 13, 2018

The wisdom imparted by coaches to players are well-known: Try your hardest, don’t lose focus, support your teammates, keep your chin up.

In the case of the 12 youth soccer players trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand, it may have helped save their lives. Everyone made it out alive, according to rescuers and sports experts, because they listened to their coach, Ekapol Chanthawong.

“The role of sports is that sports skills become life skills,” said John O’Sullivan, founder of the Changing the Game Project.

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The best in the coaching business are often those who master the art of subtly instilling habits that can carry over to different venues later in life.

“The lesson isn’t always the outcome,” said John Tauer, the title-winning basketball coach at Division III University of St. Thomas  in Minnesota, who also teaches social psychology.  “We talk about it all the time. We don’t control the outcome. We control the effort and how we play together.”

Chanthawong spent nearly a decade as a Buddhist monk and learned the art of meditation — a skill that may have conveyed a sense of calm to the boys, ages 11 to 16.

He had also spent lots of time with the kids before the harrowing trip. The team’s off-the-field adventures included cycling trips, river rafting, swimming in waterfalls and exploring caves. Those kinds of bonding experiences can also serve to establish the coach as a trustworthy figure.

“Trust isn’t just about his ability to coach soccer,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s about his connection to these kids.”