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How to High-Five Your Way Around the World in Pickup Games

June 17, 2014

Pickup soccer in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Photo: Courtesy of Pelada)

With well over two billion people watching 32 nations compete for the World Cup, and with the NBA champion San Antonio Spurs boasting eight different nationalities on their roster, sport is now, more than ever, a universal language. Speaking the language of sport while travelling—by joining a pickup game in a foreign country—is one of the best ways to meet people and make friends around the world.  Whether it’s in a back-alley baseball game in Cuba, on a soccer pitch in the slums of Kenya, or shooting a basketball at a hoop on a coconut tree in the Philippines, a high five is a high five, and a “goooooooal” is a goal. Here are a few tips on how you can become a global pickup artist, without needing to be a pro.

Be a team player:  Gwen Oxenham spent three years traveling with her now-husband through 25 countries playing pickup games of soccer, making a documentary movie (Pelada) and a book (Finding the Game) about the experience. She told Yahoo Travel that no matter how foreign the country, she found that once you join a game, “you stop being a tourist, and you’re one of them. People are at their happiest and most relaxed when playing sports. They’re far more likely to join you for a drink or invite you into their home if they were your teammate during the day. But be a good teammate and don’t forget to pass the ball!”

The writer’s pickup volleyball game in Myanmar. (Photo: Bill Fink)

I learned the lesson of teamwork the hard way playing volleyball in a small village in Myanmar. As a former college player, I showed enough talent to be asked to join a competitive local game on a dirt court. Since I was about a foot taller than anyone, I blasted spike after spike over my opponents. The whole town was watching, but nobody was cheering—on either side. Surly men with piles of grimy kyat bills in their hands were gambling a lot of money on the game, and I had upset the competitive balance. The mood was turning sour—until I realized I should be setting instead of spiking. Assisting my teammates to victory proved to be the secret of success. In my supporting role, there were smiles all around, and I used my share of the winnings to buy both teams a round of Myanmar Lager.

The writer hooping in Belize. (Courtesy: Bill Fink)

The kids are all right:  I’ve lingered on the edges of local basketball games hoping for an invite for what seemed like an hour without anyone even looking at me—despite the fact I was a strange-looking foreigner in an obscure neighborhood.  Serious players on the courts worldwide are almost always too cool to pay attention to a visitor—the focus should be on them. But little kids don’t care about protocol. “Hey Joe, you dunk?” was a common refrain from street kids in the Philippines, who wanted to see if a 6’3” white guy could jump. In between games, I would show off a dunk to the kids, but I was really performing for the older players, who would then invite me to join the real game, as I had passed the audition. Just getting on the field and goofing around with some kids is usually enough of a goodwill gesture to be asked to join their older brothers or parents regardless of your talent.

Pickup hockey in Canada. (Photo: Bill Fink)

You Don’t Have to Be Good:  Even if you can’t dunk and haven’t played a sport past little league, it’s OK to join in all but the most intense pickup games. I have happily made a fool out of myself as a guest player in an industrial soccer league in Germany (where the indoor game had to be halted due to laughter after my errant shot knocked out a light—on the ceiling), and in a pickup outdoor ice hockey match in Canada, where locals took one look at my wobbly skates and said, “So you’re from the part of America that doesn’t skate, eh?” And I have raised the self-esteem of many basketball players worldwide who have taken joy in blocking the shot or stealing the ball from an American. The point isn’t to win the game, but to be part of the team.  And if you’re awful enough, people will take sympathy on you and buy you a drink—I should know.

Pickup basketball in Jerusalem. (Photo: Courtesy of Pelada)

Don’t Blend:  Come to a field wearing a jersey, hat, or shorts from your local team. Play up the foreign angle, and give locals a chance to use your colors as a conversation opener leading to a game invite. I was wearing a Sacramento Kings hat in Turkey when local product Hedo Turkoglu was starring for the team in the NBA—locals embraced my de-facto patriotism, and it opened up some doors. In the Philippines, people on the street would randomly engage me in debates about the Bulls roster when I was wearing a shirt from that team. Note: standing out in a crowd is a great idea to help you to get invited into a game, but a bad idea if sport turns ugly in a soccer riot. Then, as we wrote, it’s best to become invisible.

Pickup soccer in Paris. (Photo: Courtesy of Pelada)

Bring Your Own Ball:  Especially in the third world, equipment is at a premium.  I saw kids playing baseball on a street in Cuba using only a broom handle for a bat, and a bottle cap for a ball.  A pile of rags can become a soccer ball, and every manner of lopsided sack, or even a coconut has stood in for a basketball in games I’ve seen. Pack a deflated ball and an air pump in your luggage, and you’ll have instant friends in remote towns you visit. I recall some great volleyball games I had joined in a small town in Bali that had to be halted midweek because the town’s one ball was “broken.”  Bring several balls and leave a few behind as you go, and you’ll not only make friends, but leave a great impression of your country behind you. Not to mention getting invites to the best game in town—even if they’re only after your Spalding. 

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Pickup soccer in Nairobi, Kenya. (Photo: Courtesy of Pelada)