Austistic team is coach's passion

Updated:2018-04-02 14:56:10

Luo Ben with members of the Dream Star floorball team at a training facility in Harbin, Heilongjiang province. ZHAO TIANHUA/FOR CHINA DAILY

  Former national ice hockey player says floorball helps physical, mental development

  Former international ice hockey player Luo Ben never imagined he would develop such a close relationship with 43 autistic youngsters when he agreed last year to serve as their temporary floorball coach.

  The Harbin Floorball Federation started a training course in floorball, a form of indoor hockey, for young autistic people on April 2the 10th World Autism Awareness Day.

  Luo, 42, who became a physical education teacher at a primary school in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, after retiring from the national ice hockey team in 1997, said floorball offered a number of benefits.

  "Floorball is easy to learn and can help the players strengthen their physical activity, promote their mental development and boost their coordination," he said. "I'm familiar with the sport because floorball is also offered at our school. Therefore, when I was asked to give some lessons, I agreed without hesitation."

  However, it was not so easy for the autistic youngsters to get the hang of the simple sport, and he spent the first two-hour lesson chasing them to keep them together.

  "Autism is a developmental disorder of the brain that affects an individual's ability to communicate with others," he said. "Nobody listened to me or responded to my instructions."

  The trainees' parents worried that they were asked to stay outside.

  "Those with autism lack the necessary capacity for regular social interaction and are unable to fully take care of themselves, so most of the parents can't leave their children even momentarily," Luo said. "I just want to make them get some freedom during my classes, even if it's really short."

  When the parents discovered Luo could call out their children's names and recognize their personalities, they began to relax.

  "I believe they can feel my respect when I call out their names," Luo said. "I want them to know that we are equal."

  Several lessons later, the first two coaches for the course quit, but Luo stayed on, volunteering to give lessons every Saturday morning.

  In July, Luo officially set up a floorball team and received more support from the Harbin Floorball Federation, including a larger training field and better equipment. He named the team Dream Star.

  "In China, 'children of the stars' is a phrase used to describe autistic children," he said. "In fact, my team members are age 16 to 30.

  "China has established a complete system to help autistic children, but when they finish the nine-year compulsory education in schools, they have no suitable place to go. They actually need much more attention," he added.

  Bai Tao, 49, returned to Harbin and has been kept fully occupied with her autistic 21-year-old son since quitting her job in Beijing in 2007. Her son was diagnosed with autism when he was 2.

  "I found that there were fewer suitable places and activities as he grew up," she said. "So when I first got to know of the course I decided to take him to join in, even though I knew nothing about floorball at the time."

  The team's performance did not disappoint their parents or their coach. After several months of training, they could stand neatly in line, follow Luo's orders and even take part in an intersquad match.

  The parents were also pleasantly surprised by changes in their children's daily lives.

  "He began to help me do some housework, such as sweeping the floor, washing dishes and he could even cook some simple meals," Bai recalled, unable to hide her excitement. "Saturday has become the day I most look forward to."

  It has also become the most relaxing day for the parents. During the training course, they can stop supervising their children and have a chat. Some even leave for a short time.

  "I've never seen an uncontrollable expression on Luo's face," Bai said. "We trust him."

  Luo said those he trained had also changed his life.

  "Actually, I have been changed more by my team members," he said. "In the past, like many middle-aged men, I spent most of my spare time at gatherings, playing cards or some other meaningless things. Now, besides the training lessons, I would like to pay more attention to doing something for autistic people."

  At the end of last year, Luo rented an apartment and opened a studio where his team members can study how to make easy handicraftssomething he learned in advance.

  "I will take them to sell their works," Luo said. "Maybe the handicrafts are not so delicate, but they can help them know they are useful to society. That's enough.

  "Autism is a lifelong disorder that cannot be cured. I just do what I can help them integrate into the outside world. I will be together with them until the day I can't stand up."