Imagine that you’ve traveled two and a half miles in an underground cave. You’re trapped on a ledge, surrounded by rising floodwaters. Imagine that you’re wearing nothing but shorts and a t-shirt and can’t stop shivering. Imagine that the snack food you brought with you has already been devoured. The clean water has all been drunk. Although you’re carrying a flashlight, you know its batteries won’t last long.
Now imagine that you’re accompanied by a dozen adolescent boys. It’s up to you to keep them calm and safe. You may very well be the reason they’ll live or die. And you’re only 25 years old yourself.
For seventeen days in late June and early July, the world watched, hoped, speculated and prayed as rescuers sought to free the “Wild Boars” soccer team from a cave in Thailand. Amidst the discussions about water levels and oxygen levels and how the heck some of the smartest minds and bravest divers in the world could possibly get these thirteen stranded souls out alive, all I could think of was what I would do—if I were the adult in that situation—to keep those kids and myself from going stark-raving crazy.
We know some of the things Ekapol Chanthawong, affectionately known as “Coach Ek,” did to help the boys he so innocently led into the cave for what was intended to be a one-hour adventure. When he realized they were trapped, he divided his own food among them. He instructed them to drink the water dripping from the cave walls rather than the water lapping around their feet. He warned them not to waste their flashlight batteries.
In the forty-something years that have passed since I became a grown-up, I’ve taught school and Sunday School. I’ve coached ball teams and led Scout troops. I’ve been a mama and a grandmama. And this I know: If you can’t find something engaging for kids to do, you’re in big trouble. Had I been in that cave, I would have had those boys huddled together in the dark singing songs. Making animal noises. Telling stories. Reciting poetry. Playing guessing games. Talking about what we’d do once we were rescued. And, yeah, saying lots and lots of prayers.
But it would never occur to me to do what Coach Ek, who grew up in a Buddhist monastery after he was orphaned at age 10, did. He taught his soccer team to meditate. Several of of them have said that’s what kept them calm and hopeful until rescuers found them. Meditation helped them during the ensuing days while an escape plan was formulated. Perhaps meditation is the reason those twelve boys, who swam and slogged their way out of what might have been their burial ground, emerged from the cave with smiles on their faces. And with prayer hands reverently folded in front of them.
It was Ekapol Chanthawong’s ultimate coaching success.
(July 22, 2018)