Autumn Sports Week - Building Leadership through Sports

The Free to Run team does stretching exercises before their morning run.

Before the Marathon of Afghanistan, Free to Run sponsored a very special event called, Autumn Sports Week. A group of young women, from multiple provinces in Afghanistan, took part in a week of educational events that was designed to develop both athletic and leadership skills. A very special team of trainers was assembled that included environmentalists, professional athletes, Free to Run Ambassadors, representatives from the UN, and more. 

The week kicked off with cycling lessons from Mahsa, a Free to Run Ambassador from Iran. Earlier this year Mahsa became the first woman to run in a mixed-gender race in Iran in 38 years. It was a grueling 250K race across the Dasht-e-Lut desert in Iran. At Autumn Sports Week, Mahsa and her colleague Alireza gave lessons on bike building and cycling to over 30 young women. For Freshta and many others, it was the first time they had ever tried to ride a bicycle.

“Before I had never ridden a bike, and I was nervous about it. But now I can!” said Freshta.”

Mahsa delivers cycling lessons to the team.

The Free to Run team went on two hiking trips to different mountains during the week. The hikes included lessons from COAM, the Conservation of Afghan Mountains. On the mountains, everyone learned about the history of the region and environmental conservation. Mahsa gave lessons on hiking and survival skills, and Free to Run’s Connie Schneider taught leadership skills.=

A group of unexpected visitors joins the discussion about the environment and water.

While hiking was a clear favorite among many of the participants, others preferred the running practices. The Marathon of Afghanistan brought a number of professional runners to the region and the ladies received training from some highly accomplished athletes. Martin Parnell, the famous world adventurer who ran 250 marathons in 365 days, provided a special training session on nutrition, and preparation for long distance races. Martin wanted to run a marathon in Afghanistan to support female athletes in the region. 

“My initial purpose was to run the marathon in support of girls and women doing sport in Afghanistan, in particular running, without harassment. I also wanted to be a role model for my 12 year old granddaughter Autumn to show her that girls and women all over the world face challenges and they must not back down to them.”

Afghanistan Country Manager and former volleyball player, Taylor, led a training session on volleyball rules. A small mixed-gender scrimmage followed, and competitive spirits ran high! Zach, formerly of Afghanistan’s Mobile Mini Circus, introduced the girls to juggling. It was a fun lesson in hand-eye coordination and Hamida picked it up very quickly with a record of 60 successful tosses. 

Taylor demonstrates how to hit a volleyball.

As the week drew to a close, the Autumn Sports Week participants attended an educational conference dedicated to developing their leadership skills.

Mahsa presented on women’s empowerment through sports and passed out motivational literature she had brought with her from Iran. “Women’s rights have been hard in Afghanistan and need more work. I want to become stronger in this, I’ve learned many things about the potential of girls in this country,” she said.

Maqsudi, of the United Nations Mission to Afghanistan, talked about their human rights work in the region. This struck a chord with many of the girls, as they have faced real challenges in their pursuit of sport. Kelly, from the United Nations Environmental Protection Agency, spoke about the projects going on throughout the region and the geographical importance of the Central Highlands’ mountains.

At the end of the conference, Cindy of the United Nations Mission to Afghanistan, led a pre-race yoga and stretching class. It was the first time any of the ladies had tried yoga, and although it was the most giggly yoga class to ever exist, it was extremely beneficial for everyone. Wafa said, “I learned new skills for running and hiking.”

The week cultivated a strong team spirit between these young women, despite their different ethnicities and provinces. There were long goodbyes and even some tears when the week was over. A number of ladies promised to share the lessons they learned from the Autumn Sports Week with other girls from their communities who are also interested in sports. Like Zainab and Nelofar, these young women could inspire a new group of female athletes in Afghanistan.

Free to Run’s Connie Schneider remarked at the end of the event, “I cannot think of a more powerful vehicle for social change than sports. You simply need see the girls’ hunger for movement, their iron determination to practice amidst harassment and threats, their daily request for more practice sessions, their fierce competitiveness, and their skillful negotiations to gain parental consent. They’re developing confidence, leadership skills, understanding and tolerance. The participation of women and girls in sports outdoors reinforces claims to public space and, we hope, will contribute to shifting gender roles in society.”  

Leah Anathan