Get your kicks

Sepaktakraw, an Asian ballgame of fancy footwork, is scoring points in Minnesota

By Tim Montgomery, Pioneer Press staff writer

SepaktakrawInstead of going out to shoot hoops, try this sometime: Set up a badminton net, loft a large plastic Whiffle ball directly above your forehead, and do a half-twis flip to send the ball over the net with your foot.Now, you're playing Sepaktakraw. "Sepak" is the Malaysian word for "kick." "Takraw" is the term used in Thailand for a ball woven from strands of rattan. Put them together, and you're playing Asian kickball. It isn't like what you learned on the playground. It's more the imposition of volleyball rules on a furious game of Hacky-Sack. Head spikes and dramatic flying foot kicks can propel the ball at speeds greater than 80 mph.

"It's very popular in Thailand and Malaysia," explained Suriya Chitchulanun, a student at the University of St. Thomas who is originally from Bangkok. "There are regular leagues there, just like basketball here."

Indeed, there are both outdoor public courts and large stadiums built around the sport in Thailand. In its simplest form, however, Sepaktakraw requires only a net, a ball and six people with a lot of energy to burn. Participants van enjoy the game at any skill level.

A medal event at the Asian Games since 1990, Sepaktakraw (pronounced SAY-pok-ta-KRA) began some 500 years ago as a cooperative circle game. Players would try to keep a small woven ball in the air as long as possible without using their hands or arms. The game was fun and helped increase foot skills and agilty among players. It's still enjoyed in this traditional form throughout Southeast Asia.

Only in the past 50 years has the circle game adopted a more competitive format and caught on as a fast-paced action sport. That's when teams of three began facing off on a badminton-sized court with rules similar to those used in volleyball.

Players reacted by jumping, flipping and spinning about in creative efforts to slap the ball over the net and score points.

Toua Xiong, 31, is one of the people most responsible for the sport's development in Minnesota. According to Kurt Sonderegger, secretary general of the California-based USA Takraw Federation, Toua is the "grandfather of Hmong Takraw."

"When he first came to the Thai camps, the Hmong were not separated from the lowland Lao. Toua was one of the first Hmong to play the sport," Sonderegger says.

Toua and Yang Shoua "Der" Khang, who also has worked to introduce the sport locally, began playing together in a Thai refugee camp around 1982. Toua was a well-known server and setter; Der was a talented spiker. They formed a team that soon became competitive with more experienced Laotian teams.

The Hmong refer to Sepaktakraw as "kato"; the sport is also sometimes called "kator", from the Lao name for the ball. Whatever it's called, it continues to catch on in Minnesota and attract such skilled athletes as Pheng Vang. A former all-state soccer player at Minneapolis North, Vang has been instrumental in starting a winter "kato" league in St. Paul.

On Thursdays and Fridays, a dedicated group of about 30 players in their early 20s competes under the Inside Sports Dome at Rice and Arlington. They practice indoors at Minneapolis' Martin Luther King Park on other days. Come warmer weather, they will move outdoors to Como Park and Lake Phalen.

"If you want to be good," Vang says, "You need to develop ball control first. Have somebody throw you the ball and practice taking control of it. You have to learn to juggle the ball, keeping it up without letting it hit the ground."

Passing the ball around in a circle using only the feet is another way to develop ball control. Similar to playing a game of Hacky-Sack, the trick is o increase speed and develop split-second control.

So what about those twisting flip spikes and crazy flying foot kicks?

"Probably the best way to practice, if you want to be a spiker," Vang said, "is to hang a ball somewhere and practice jumping up to kick it."

Hanging the ball from a tree or basketball hoop is a good idea. You should start with the ball hanging lower. To practice a roll spike, jump up using your kicking foot. Swing your other leg up, then strike the ball and land on your kicking foot. Once you get the motion, similar to that of a scissors kick, move the ball higher. Eventually, you can have someone toss or set the ball for you on a court.

"You have to watch how other people jump," cautioned Vang, who runs and jumps wearing ankle weights to build strength. "You might think you can jump high, but you may not be able to twist your body correctly. Watch other people and try to imitate their movements."

While the dramatic roll spike is a patented Thai maneuver, the sun back, or bicycle kick is of Malaysian origin. As the name suggests, a sun back is done with the back to the net. It's a straight kick over the same shoulder as the kicking leg. Soccer players will relate to the sun back.

As a matter of fact, soccer players will find that the fundamentals of Sepaktakraw complement their skills quite nicely. Such skills as blocking and directing the ball with the head are important in both sports. It's no wonder Asian soccer coaches have included games of Sepaktakraw in their training programs.

So what are you waiting for? If you can't do a half-twist flip to kick that plastic ball when its over your head, just have your partner throw it to you for a service. Play three sets up to 15; two wins takes the match. Heads up, and don't forget to wear a bandana.

This story, published in the St. Paul Pioneer Press daily newspaper, was accompanied by 4 photos by Andy King and 2 graphics by Tim Montgomery.