The King of Katwe: In Praise of the Coach

10/31/2016 06:03 pm ET Updated Oct 31, 2016

I don’t know a single person who’s ever considered chess a sport.

As a teenager growing up on Long Island there were the kids who played chess and the kids who played baseball. I’m not saying there wasn’t the possibility that kids who played baseball or volleyball or who swam on the swim team, for example, like me, played chess. Just that they probably didn’t.

Even if my high school had a chess team, and I have no idea whether it did, the rest of us who played sports would have lumped it in with the debate club. No cheerleaders on the sidelines or any place else.

So it’s interesting to me that Tim Crothers thought to write about Phiona Mutesi’s story in “The Game of Her Life” in ESPN Magazine in January 2011 where he documents the teenager’s journey from the slums of Katwe, Uganda, to the Chess Olympiade in Russia and beyond.

“Chess is not a spectator sport,” Crothers writes. “During matches at the Olympiad, it is not uncommon for 20 minutes to elapse without a single move.”

Sport being the operative word here. 

But then I’ve never subscribed to ESPN Magazine and only started running and competing in races, albeit as a recreational amateur, a few years ago. After nearly drowning in the ocean during my first attempt to complete a sprint triathlon, I finally hired a swim coach to train for the one I completed this spring.

On the morning of the race, just before the start, I panicked as my wet suit had inexplicably disappeared. I nearly stopped breathing right there on the beach even before I stepped a single toe into the ocean as I frantically searched for the suit. 

“Can I do this without a wet suit?” I asked my coach, Ironman Terrence Oakley.

I didn’t have a clue whether I could complete the short ocean swim without a wet suit.

I know, really. I’m a Vassar girl. 

I thought about this almost as a flash as I watched Madina Nalwanga, who plays Phiona in Disney’s exquisite Queen of Katwe, based on Crothers’ reporting, during a high-stakes chess tournament.

It was during one of those silences Crothers wrote about in the ESPN article.

“You belong here!” Phiona’s coach Robert Katende, played by David Oyelowo, blurts out.

“You belong here!”

In the film, the contrast between the slums of Katwe and the pristine cricket fields of King’s College Budo in Kampala, where the children of Katwe travel for their first chess match, could not have been more stark or profound. You could practically feel the chalky dust settle onto your own skin as you watched Madina’s Phiona enter the church in Katwe where even very young children hovered over chessboards.

Yet the Queen of Katwe is not about poverty in Uganda even if the effects of poverty are felt deeply in one of the film’s most poignant scenes and make Phiona’s against-the-odds triumph even more remarkable and exciting. 

It’s about one girl’s willingness to expand her horizons, her journey to go look for her edge.

To permit herself to be coached.

While my own experience completing a teeny tiny triathlon doesn’t begin to touch Phiona’s epic success as a chess champion, I understand how difficult it can be to allow yourself to be coached, especially if you’re a strong-willed teenage girl like Phiona or a college-educated professional woman like me or a woman surviving day-to-day like Phiona’s mother, Nakku Harriet, played by Lupita Nyong’o.

At a critical point in the film, both Phiona and Nakku Harriet turn their lives over to Coach Robert. Phiona asks him if she can live with his family as she trains for the tournament and Nakku Harriet accepts for the time being that her daughter needs a coach more than she needs a mother.

Just like that.

Nike-sponsored runner Phoebe Wright said in an interview during the 2016 Olympic trials that throughout her career she’s relied on her coach to boost her confidence.

“I needed someone to believe in me so I wouldn’t feel silly having lofty goals,” she said.

It’s not that Phoebe isn’t a talented runner, because she is. Yet it was her running coach who saw something special in Phoebe long before Phoebe herself would ever feel any sense of confidence as a competitor.

In the interview, Phoebe talked about how important it’s been for her to surround herself with people who believed in her, especially when she did not believe in herself. 

It’s “You got this” before “I got this.” 

I’m completely inspired by Phiona’s journey and the story of all of the children chess players who came out of Katwe.

But Coach Robert.

There’s a scene in Queen of Katwe where Coach Robert finds Nakku Harriet, starving and living in squalor. He offers her a bit of food as he praises Nakku Harriet for being a great mother.

But he doesn’t offer to take in the rest of Phiona’s family.

That’s what we want him to do.

Instead, he walks that fine line beautifully between being emotionally invested in Phiona but detached enough so he can make the best decisions for Phiona as her coach. So she can achieve her goals. So she can overcome everything working against her to become a freakin’ champion.

Phiona may be Katwe’s #1 spice, the queen of Katwe, but Coach Robert is the king.

For more on the role of the coach in sport, see my Tapping into the Helper High.

Read about Coach Robert Katende’s sport outreach here.

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