Monday, October 1, 2012

New blog emphasis

In 2011 I stopped coaching with Bushido on a daily basis and moved to my farm in southern Ontario. That meant not thinking of water polo on a daily basis and less dialogue with athletes and coaches about the sport. Consequently, fewer coaching blogs.

Now that I have returned to active coaching there is a reason for me to have a current blog with coaching topics. That can be found here and it has a title to reflect my current role as Head Coach at Queen's.

Bushido Coach will remain as a blog in the event that I want to write on topics that are politically unfriendly to Queen's.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Playing Time; What is it Good For?

Another in a theme of LTAD influenced articles, this time using that framework to outline different phases of "playing time".

This is an aspect of sport that many struggle with. Young coaches want success, often like to win, and want to reward or display the ones they view as the "best" players (Ok, let's be honest, coaches at all levels usually want this). Parents want their children to play and if paying for a club sport then they expect that as part of a package of services or opportunities. Unfortunately early in sport is when playing time is most abused and it can be explained looking at LTAD and the first stages.

Young athletes should begin an activity in the Fundamentals Stage or where the focus is on Technical Foundations. This often takes them to the cusp of the PHV (max growth spurt) and the teen years of change. If kids are developing Fundamentals then they have to be given a chance to play as that is what they are working toward in game structure and in skill acquisition. Likewise with Technical Foundations, a skill can only be applied in a game setting ie timing, stress, external pressures when given a playing chance. Coaches who put winning ahead of player development at this stage do not understand the process and have the priorities wrong.

Does this mean all players should play equally? No, that is up to the program, the sport, the team, the organizational objectives. If a water polo player is learning to swim then asking them to do the same physical work as a player with aquatic physical literacy is misguided.
The next level of sport is where the big mistakes are made that turn off players with great future potential. In the Competitive Foundation stage an athlete is being asked to learn to apply skill under pressure as taught with a specific tactical objective. Players who do this can expect to get more reps in a game than those that fail, and fail again. The big mistake comes from parents who want their child to get lots of chances to play even when the failure of objectives has been demonstrated repeatedly in a game. Coaches have to find ways to let players try and succeed but the expectation is to do this with progress. Keeping a player in a game when they struggle can create problems of team rejection ie no passes or inclusion of that player in the team play by others. Coaches can manage this if they know the players and what they can do, where they can find success and how the team can have a focus that is not just "score" or "win" so any perceived error is not influencing the outcome as long as there is a progress made with that error/correction.

Usually in this stage the coach and the player have a very good idea of who plays and why, or why some don't. It's the parent, fan or outsider that might not know all of what is going on. Don't expect that a coach can talk to every parent, every game, every event to talk about every player. That is a huge burden when so much coaching or player management is already happening. However, coaches MUST be clear about how they approach playing time with teh team and make it clear to families as well if the sport is a club (or to school officials if it's an institution).

The last point to consider at this stage is that not all players have to have equal play time to be fair. A goalie might play a whole game if they are the only one, a centre forward might play less than others on the team due to the workload and constant corrections from coaches for what the 2M Guard is doing. Some will be better at coming off the bench when they have sen some play and relaxed a bit. Many things are being developed here and "fair" and "equal" are NOT the same thing.

There is one place that playing time does not have as much passion from outsiders and that is at the pro level or with the International game. Players can't play a whole match and be effective with water polo, coaches know that so player rotation is an art and if someone is in the water all game then it is a problem of team depth. The substitutions are for tactics, power, speed, recovery, defense, scoring - it's endless, so don't make the mistake of thinking that a coach is doing something right or wrong based on the subs if you don't know the team, the prep and the dynamic.

One thing to remember and that is "who is the most important person in this equation"? The athlete, they must know the playing time thought process - who plays and why, who doesn't and why. If they know their role and the team objective at each level then the dialogue with players and coach should be smooth and look to that to see if there is a misuse of this aspect of the game.

Monday, October 24, 2011

LTAD as the Understanding of Water Polo Matures

I am about to try and get back to regular blog writing after an intense summer of building a house. Sorry if you have been looking for ideas or research on water polo recently and had nothing new here.

One thing I have heard quite a bit about this fall is training aerobic capacity for water polo and how Canadians taught to coach in the 70's and 80's (and onward?) were expected to develop an "aerobic base" for their players. This aerobic base had many coaches developing yearly training plans that had Aerobic training as a physical priority for as much as 50-60% of the season. However, the game has never been 50% aerobic at the senior level so that approach to training was unwise at the outset.

If you are wondering how that developed, how we needed to create an "aerobic base" for a water polo player, it can be found in the LTAD framework for the sport. There are 2 things that confuse this issue. One is the aquatic environment where coaches often need to teach physical literacy and comfort in the water. You can't teach comfort if the players are not able to be active in deep water for 90 minutes so aerobic work often got kids to that point. The other difference is between how International players play with explosive anaerobic components and children play the game with less structure ie chasing the ball aerobically around the pool. Coaches in clubs would need to teach various levels and that began with teaching movement and swimming so patterns of training were established and intensity changed as players got older but structure remained.

So, what am I proposing here? Simply that coaches need to recognize that aerobic capacity is outlined as a physical development of all children clearly under LTAD and in water polo we need to look at this closely around PHV (peak growth periods for each player). Children need to develop aerobic capacity as they grow and this can be done well in a water polo setting if that is where their athletic interest lies. However, this does not have to be doing swim sets that a speed swimming club would do with back and forth freestyle!

One thing is very clear, we don't need older players to have 50% of their physical load in an aerobic setting. I am very aware that history can give us many examples of coaches that "ran teams in the mountains", or swam 4000m swim sets for days on end, while producing great teams. But let me suggest that if all teams were doing this similar training then it wasn't simply the workload that set the winners apart form the losers. It also has to be kept in context that some coaches only train part of the player and they may put volume of work as a measure of toughness while psychological training can be absent. Perhaps "excessive workload" is playing that role of psychological training in some macho settings.

One of the things that an LTAD framework can help water polo coaches deal with is developing whole athletes. There are specific windows of trainable development for all energy systems and strength gains with each athlete. Sharing these periods with complimentary sports as children develop takes some of the load off water polo coaches who want to accelerate skill development in the pool setting. Likewise, extending a water polo practice from 90 minutes to 120, or 120 to 150, by adding land work can also help this area. Both strength and aerobic capacity can be developed on land in ways that will benefit in the water. Let's hope coaches are now beginning to explore these avenues more as LTAD points them out and waves the concepts in our faces.

One thing is for sure, if a competitive team of water polo players over the age of 18 is swimming a set of "8 x 400 free" then the the coach is either uncreative, underachieving or not sure of what energy requirements the game has at that level. Sorry to all the NCAA coaches that learned a different approach but you must have way too much pool time if a set of 400 free is a priority!

Friday, May 27, 2011

Senior Women's National Championships

This week Bushido hosts the 2011 Senior Women's National Water Polo Championships at Pan Am Pool. There will be live webcasts of the games on Saturday and Sunday at the link included here.

Broadcast quality should be decent but won't likely keep up to the quality of play which will be very high.

There are only 5 teams involved but all are full of National Team, Junior National Team and NCAA players.

Results are also on the web at the second link here,


Monday, May 9, 2011

Old vs New

It's National Championship season in Canada so lots of games going on at various levels so hot topics are bubbling to the surface this month. Last weekend in Calgary I had the chance to hear our National Sr Men's coach (Dragan) present his ideas on a new Age Group Development League for boys 16-18. Great idea, just lots of politics and delivery issues that hang over it like a dark cloud.

Everyone loves the idea of standard competition, it's so close to what European Coaches who've come to Canada can relate to from home. It's a wild dream of Canadians who have never had such things as national leagues for age group or standard events. So, we are all excited to see how this will unfold as there is a significant chunk of Federal cash going into this project if we get enough clubs behind it at the outset. We are all happy about that influx of money to the men's side and how it will reach developing players and not just be the token funding that the Senior National Team used to travel in the past.

The few issues that exist as hurdles for this project to develop are geography and facility. Right now we have been presented with a draft format that has teams in Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton for the West (cities that can be seen from the top of the Rocky Mountains that separate them) and Ottawa/Hull, Montreal and Toronto for the East (Lake Ontario/St Lawrence River). The costs are acceptable with the games and standard of events but there is no allowance for trips to the prairie cities of Winnipeg and Regina which have a long history of producing National Team players for the country. When those cities are included in the calculations the league costs will jump unless there is a new Central Division (ie Edmonton, Regina, Winnipeg). Of course, a Central Division as a whole will have only the total population of places like Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver so making the thing work with that dynamic is going to be a challenge that will test the sport.

This is a super project to take Water Polo toward fully implementing the national LTAD and as long as teams are easily incorporated in to the league as clubs grow then this will be great for the sport. If new teams do not have easy access then this league will serve only to kill existing local club events and force the sport to atrophy or die on the Prairies and in the East Coast.

But, what is the option if the league does not grow and thrive? It's not "same old, same old" as some would want you to think. That is because the country and the sport landscape have changed drastically in the past 10 years. To give an example of what I am talking about I'll mention a conversation I had on Sunday in Calgary. I was speaking with a referee who had played against me in my generation when we were in our teens and in university. He asked me about how players were identified and developed now, in the 21st century, to be competitive at the U18 level. I mentioned that we developed them from U12, or had them join at 13-15 years old from school programs with multi sport backgrounds. If not that process then it was almost impossible to develop competitive players at U18. This referee mentioned how vastly different that was from when we grew up and started playing at 15, in high school.

It was possible to start playing at 15 in the 70's or 80's because of 2 things; lack of high performance training and competition in the sport (ie the country wasn't that great internationally) and the influence of an active childhood that created physical literacy. Today we do not see many kids leading an "active lifestyle" and physical literacy is lower than ever before. That means kids have to play sports that are related directly to water polo before the teen years if they want success; "Call of Duty", "Facebook" and "Glee" are not what we consider sports related to water polo so they aren't helping develop any Olympians.

I'll help Manitoba Water Polo target the age group and year that they are best able to enter the new Age Group Premier League so that players here can look forward to that challenge. But, I will also keep vocal about the need to have realistic avenues to enter this league for developing clubs so that it does not shrink the sport to 5 cities in 4 provinces.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Scrimmage, what is it good for?

There was a time, in the 70's and early 80's when water polo clubs in Canada had pretty dull and static practice routines. These involved a short swim set that looked a bit like a swim club, then some passing and a 30-45 minute game at the end of practice. That gave players a sense of the structure of the game but not much skill to execute it properly.

As practice frequency increased, sessions became longer and players started younger the skills naturally improved without too much of a format change. Then sport science became involved and clubs started to teach much more skill, different swim styles were trained and scrimmages were at a higher tempo. That was a standard formula even if some (most?) clubs did not change the swimming format enough.

About 5 years ago, after a long struggle with the city to improve our facility access, we were able to secure daily training space for our competitive players in Manitoba. That was great as a step in an LTAD direction with hours increasing in the water. But, there was a down side to the changes. To get the big blocks of time for water polo with other competitive sports (swim, dive, synchro) we needed to share the largest facility at the same time. That meant compromise.

Divers did not compromise diving boards, swimmers did not compromise walls or lines on the bottom and synchro did not compromise deep, open water. Water polo did compromise, no walls to set up a playing course and allow referees to walk alongside the "game". This meant daily "scrimmages" had to be confined in a half-court space during the week and only weekends were available to us to play a game with a water polo course set up.

A great deal can be done with a half court set up. But what can never be done properly is counter attack, transitional play, breakaways, restarts or extended game like swim set ups. This put increasing pressure on the weekend scrimmage as it was the only time that players played with a real view of tactical situations. We were promised that there would be additional space to make up for the weekly scrimmages when the prime time space was granted to us but that all materialized at the same time - Saturday afternoon - at all pools.

I've seen a big drop in tactical play with our teams the past 4 years, even if skills have improved in many cases with players. What was really interesting was the past 2 weeks during the Spring Break for school players (actually 1 week before and 1 week during). We had a scrimmage 6 days per week for 2 weeks. Not all players were there, some were on holiday, some just didn't bother. But those that were made measurable improvements as the days went by; counter attacks extended from 10m to 20m, advantages were recognized in transition rather just on an odd drive. Players started to create patterns on restarts that took advantage of progress from one attack to the next in a fluid game.

I guess I am writing this because I undervalued the scrimmage that we lost this fall with the PWPL games that took our pool time. I thought games could replace much of the scrimmage but these are not equal learning opportunities so they didn't. I counted, we had 7 scrimmages in the club for U16, U18 or Senior teams between the season start in September and the 2 weeks stretch of games in mid March. Seven scrimmages in 6.5 months and that is taking advantage of 100% of the pool space we had. Wow, no wonder the teams have taken some slow starts to games this winter.

We'll be sure that doesn't happen again, even if we have to create a Handball league to generate the game reps.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Referees Get Respect

In the past I have posted somewhat critical looks at local referees. I wanted to be sure to say something positive about that part of the sport when I saw it. This was made easy by our participation in the 2011 Alberta Open in Calgary in March.

Usually, with 7 divisions of play and 3 or 4 pools of games at one time, referee action can vary greatly. This was the first year where I felt the level of officiating exceeded the level of play from start to finish at the U12, U14 and even U16 levels. Sure, there were crazy situations in some games where parents, coaches and players saw things much differently than the referee. But, that is just sport and it can be expected at any time. Even at the U18 level the referees for the most part were totally in synch with the level of play.

There is a reason for that and I want to talk about it so people hear me say positive things about referees and so anyone looking for ideas can maybe see a way to make progress. First of all you need to understand that Calgary in particular has many regular league water polo games during the year. This is supported by league games in Alberta with other cities and clubs. These league games force a need for referee development and it is made possible by strong leadership.

Leadership comes in different ways in Alberta, probably most clearly the referee support comes from Mike Dykman. He is a referee leader that shows authority, fairness and civility while still being totally relaxed and approachable. This is modeled for all young referees emerging from the playing ranks. Even if Mike is not in charge, which he seems always to be, all the referees know who he is and how he conducts himself. That is the solid footing to begin a training program of mentorship.

With a role model it is possible to set expectations for young referees and they will see the desired outcome. This also allows coaches to see where the referees are going and to know that there is a model being pursued. It prevents the common problem of referees being developed 1 or 2 at a time and toward different ends ie a competitive stream, a community stream, a youth stream, a masters stream. These new referees all acted a similar way and what really stood out was how they smiled and interacted with others. In 2011 referees were relaxed and professional.

That may seem like a small thing, them being relaxed and professional, but it is not. I was so impressed with how they acted that a "bad" call I didn't agree with was never considered an attempt to "screw" my team so it kept me from showing players I was upset, because I wasn't (at least not at officials). For a coach to go a whole tournament with that view of referees is really nice.

It is interesting that we went 2 years between the 2009 Alberta Open and the 2011 event and with that gap there was a quiet evolution of referees in Alberta. I say "quiet" because we didn't see it outside as it was in their leagues. That is the key thing in consistent officiating - REGULAR GAMES at a set standard where performance is standardized. That simply can never be done with a stand alone tournament in a community 2 or 3 times per season.

Once again we see Leadership, Regular Games and Mentorship as keys to sport success. Surprisingly it is not in a discussion about athlete development but it does impact that part of sport in a very direct way.