What I learned about resilience from the Thai soccer team rescue

thai soccer team in cave
photo: Royal Thai Navy

This blog originally posted on July 13, 2018.

Like many, I avidly followed the rescue of the Thai soccer team from the cave, perhaps obsessively so. I found myself grabbing my phone first thing in the morning to check on their status.  I may have tested the patience of my teenage daughter with the frequency of my texted updates. With the rest of the world, I was moved by the former Thai SEAL diver who died while helping with rescue operations, and I gave a cheer and a sigh of relief when all the players, known as the Wild Boars, and the rest of the rescue team were safely out.

The inherent drama, heroism and improbable odds of success kept me riveted. The story may have also been a temporary balm from the terrible news in this country about the separation of children who have yet to be reunited with their families. But the story also spoke to me because it is one of local resilience. Yes, international volunteers played an an important role, ready to put their lives at risk, and there were generous donations from overseas. But ultimately, the operation was led by Thai emergency managers and rescue workers, and with international support, it was Thai boots-on-the-ground that got it done. That included ordinary people who cooked meals for volunteers, helped pump out water, and searched the mountainside for alternate routes. Local children even volunteered to test the oxygen masks in a swimming pool to make sure they would fit the Wild Boar soccer team.

Most importantly, the Wild Boars themselves were instrumental to their own rescue. Every boy was brave in the face of mind-boggling adversity, in conditions that strike fear in professional divers. According to the New York Times, one boy, an undocumented immigrant from Myanmar, spoke English (and four other languages) and served as the crucial interpreter with the international diver team; the young coach, who had been raised as an orphan in a monastery, taught the children meditation to help relieve stress and get them through their hunger. The local doctor in charge of their recovery reported that their mental health was remarkably stable, crediting the coach’s management of the situation–teaching them skills to cope–and the way they took care of one another as likely factors.

Community resilience is the way we survive emergencies

In my role as part of Public Health’s emergency preparedness and response team, I’ve learned that this kind of resilience is ultimately what will get us through the worst disasters. People helping people is more fundamental than even government assistance, especially when resources are spread thin by a catastrophe. Several years ago I had the opportunity to learn about this as a member of the National Academies Committee on Increasing National Resilience to Hazards and Disasters. In New Orleans East, we met with the Vietnamese community to learn about how they had recovered more quickly and robustly following Hurricane Katrina than many other parts of New Orleans. This tight-knit group drew upon the resilience they had developed through their refugee experience to organize evacuation for their community, and later, to rebuild using their collective skills. As one young woman we talked to said, “We are all carpenters now.”

Building our own individual and community resilience

If we’re going to make it through something like a major earthquake or a significant flooding event, we need to have sound buildings and physical infrastructure and well-managed ecological systems. We also need to have strong social infrastructure. Robust community networks will help our region mobilize, share resources, provide input on decisions, and communicate with one another. Dense interpersonal networks among neighbors and friends will form critical support that will help individuals manage and cope with stressful circumstances. Like the Wild Boars soccer team, taking care of each other will make all the difference.

So, what are some ways to get started?

  • One of the most important things you can do to be ready for emergencies is to get to know your neighbors. If you need a catalyst, you can participate in National Night Out on the first Tuesday in August by having a block party or get together.
  • Talk to your neighbors and friends about checking on one another during severe weather, power outages, and other emergencies—this is especially important for elderly neighbors or those who are home-bound.
  • Do you have kids? Talk to the parents of your child’s friends at school about having a plan to help each other if one set of parents can’t get to the school during an emergency.
  • Do you have pets? Talk to other neighbors with pets about what you can do if something comes up and you need someone to feed or take care of your furry buddy.
  • Join a volunteer, civic, or social group. Get involved with activism, learn a hobby, attend faith services, or connect with like-minded folks–anything that helps build your ties to other people.
  • Be ready to help others. Learn first aid, CPR, or get trained for Community Emergency Response Teams. I’ll put a plug in here for joining the Public Health Reserve Corps, a volunteer group that supports Public Health’s response to emergencies.
  • Develop coping skills and practice stress management activities, such as yoga, exercise, and meditation.

Public Health has a role

Of course, just as the Wild Boars had the institutional support of the Thai government and military, Public Health has a key role in bolstering community resilience (search “resilience” on our blog to learn more about what we’re doing). Healthy communities are more resilient communities.


Originally posted on July 13, 2018.

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I am a risk communications specialist at Public Health - Seattle & King County.

2 thoughts on “What I learned about resilience from the Thai soccer team rescue

  1. Excellently written article. I agree that despite individuals wanting to point out how different we all are, we are all human beings with similar hopes and aspirations, and we can all learn so much from each other. During this near tragedy, it was lovely how so many individuals from all over the world came together to help out in so many important ways.

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