Aug. 19, 2015
By Brad Muller | More Features
Matt Figger doesn’t allow himself to be defined by wins and losses. The South Carolina men’s basketball associate head coach isn’t shy about his Christian faith, and it gives him purpose inside and outside the 94 feet of hardwood. He explored that purpose, as well as another country, as the head coach of an Athletes in Action men’s basketball team that competed in China for several weeks this summer.
“We were in China for 13 days, and the basketball was just a little part of it,” Figger said. “Watching the guys on the team open up and talk about their beliefs, learning each other’s stories, while also seeing how others have to fight to be able to practice their faith was incredible. There’s so much governmental control in China. Hearing a lot of the testimonials from some of the people there about the struggles they go through, that really moved me as a person.”
Athletes in Action is an organization that use sports as a platform for education about the Christian faith. The organization sends competitive teams of all collegiate levels around the world, creating an environment where individuals can grow in that faith.
“I wanted to strengthen my faith,” Figger said. “China is a communist country, and there’s no public mentioning of the Bible or any of that. So to see people there who are Christians and how they have to fight for something that we, as Americans, take for granted is really incredible.”
The team toured several parts of the country, playing seven games against top level Chinese professional teams. Playing conditions weren’t always what they were accustomed to, as the gyms didn’t have air conditioning and many of the fans smoke cigarettes inside the arena. While the Athletes in Action team didn’t lose any of its contests, the goals of the trip went beyond what was in the box score.
“Each guy was at a different level,” Figger said. “Some guys that do this are looking to find faith. Some kids are very strong in their faith. It was just a chance for all of us to bond with one another and to learn more about the things that we’re trying to accomplish, not only as athletes, but as stewards of our faith. That was a big emphasis of our trip.”
People in China love American athletes. It blew me away how much they love American basketball. That opened my eyes.
Team-building was a constant focus on the trip, and opening the lines of communication early on between the players was critical.
“The guys talked about where they are in life,” Figger said. “I watched how a group of guys, who basically didn’t know each other, stay together for these few weeks and come out of their comfort zone to really speak to each other. We have them talk about what we call ‘the five h’s’ - their heritage, heartaches, heroes, highlights and their hopes. Each kid had a chance to open up and talk about those five things. The bond that they developed was incredible and made them really easy to coach.”
Figger believes that a lot of what he learned about team-building could be applied to his work with the Gamecock student-athletes.
“It taught guys to depend on one another,” Figger said. “I think every team should be able to lock themselves away for a couple of days and truly get to bond with one another. That’s an incredible step. In the locker room and with teams, people always use the word ‘family.’ If you don’t know anything about the guy whose locker is to the left or right of you, how can you call them ‘family?’ Having that really allowed these guys want to fight for one another on the court.”
In addition to seeing his players grow as young men and learning about themselves, they also had an opportunity to learn from the people in China.
“I got to see how people in another country feel about Americans,” Figger said. “People in China love American athletes. It blew me away how much they love American basketball. That opened my eyes.”
The team had guides and interpreters to assist them, along with Luke Simons from Athletes in Action, who could also speak Chinese. Despite political differences between the United States and China, Figger and the travelling party never felt threatened.
“Believe it or not, we felt safe everywhere we went,” Figger said. “There was no crime. We walked around in these big cities with millions of people, and there wasn’t any fear of anything. In some of the provinces we travelled, we were the only non-Chinese people there. Our kids did a great job of interacting with the people there. We would walk to a park, and it was amazing to see the love the Chinese people had for Americans.
“Watching some of the guys on the team grow as people was the best part of the trip. After the games, a lot of the players from China wanted to interact with our guys to hear why they play so hard and what drives them. That gave our guys an opportunity to speak their opinions to those players. So I saw our players touch those athletes from another country and open their minds up to something they may have never heard before.”
The opportunity to walk on the Great Wall of China and visiting other sites also made the trip memorable for all involved.
While this was his first year coaching a team for the organization, Figger has been a sponsor of Athletes in Action for the last ten years. He knows that these trips are made possible through the generosity of others.
“They have to fundraise for everything,” Figger said. “Everybody on the trip had to do their own fundraising to generate the $4,000 needed per person. There were a lot of people who made donations, and I want to thank everybody who did that.”
While Figger is glad to be back home with family and ready to get the Gamecocks ready for the upcoming season, his trip to China was a memorable, and humbling experience.
“There are far better people than me doing causes in the name of Christ,” Figger said. “I learned so much from those people that were on the trip with us. It was just a privilege for someone to believe in me and my abilities as a coach to be a part of this and coach this team. I’m forever indebted to them because it was a great experience. The people at Athletes in Action make a lot of sacrifices. They’re just incredible.”
For more information, or to make a donation to sponsor future trips, visit www.athletesinaction.org/give.
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