Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Looking Inward to Change Perpsective

I have outlined lots of external pressures that contribute to struggles of our teams so now I will turn the light on to the players themselves. What I am about to write is not criticism, it is observation. Some of the things I struggle with as a coach involve knowing what I can change in athlete focus ie what is coachable, and what I have to move beyond and look elsewhere for.

High Performance sport is not well understood by many in our community. High Performance "anything" is not well understood; it goes against much of what North American society is teaching, marketing or supporting. This makes it hard for me to get players to understand that sport performance at a high level requires personal commitment to high level performance in many things. For example, diet and lifestyle, 2 things I constantly talk to players about. How can you expect an engine to perform its best when the fuel it consumes is low quality? You can't. How can a peak performance be called up on demand if the mental skill to focus has never been developed or is cheated by lack of sleep? It can't.

Players need to understand that coming to practice 75% of the time will result in less than 75% of the performance they want in games. Players that coast through 75% of practice, half effort in swim sets or drills, will have less than 75% performance when it's needed. Players who don't get proper nutrition before and after training will not get the most out of the workload they welcome in practice. If you don't do everything you can to prepare then you won't find the personal strength to outperform an opponent who HAS done everything to prepare. That's simple and it explains the 4th quarter losses at nationals to Fraser Valley, Calgary and York (Cadet Girls), York (Youth Women), DDO2 (Youth Men) and Regina & Calgary (Cadet Boys). Sure, lack of practice was part of it but did we make the best of what was available? No, not even close, and that will change for 2008-09 - even if it means smaller rosters of harder workers.

Club Under Stress

The past few blog entries have maybe sounded a bit like the sky is falling, "woe is me" sort of thing. I'll try to re-frame things a bit with this entry to keep perspective.

They are not praying, just concentrating!

Amateur sport in Canada is always operating with a level of anxiety from stress. That stress can be political, financial, lack of volunteers, poor resources etc but there is always something. What I am outlining this week is the blanket of stress that is over Bushido programs and then some solutions so those issues can be lessened and the club can thrive. We have to acknowledge obstacles before having solutions to them.

The obvious place to start when we talk of stress is with our lack of facility access in Winnipeg. I can say without much doubt that we are the best club in Canada with teams that train 3x week in a 12x20 yard space. That obstacle can only be removed with help from our PSO (Provincial Sport Organization) in a major lobby to secure more access to city pools and to protect the space that our club fought for so long to acquire. That simple problem, adequate practice space, could change everything in one short season.

How? Here are some ways;
1) more practice time ie hours, would mean more specific team practices catering to more specific athlete development stages.
2) better practice space ie 25yds with 2 end walls, this would allow multiple water polo nets in the water and many more game-like drills,
3) more practice time ie other pools, would mean more specific age group practices catering to neighbourhoods and peer groups;
4) more training hours would also mean the ability to properly follow the Long Term Athlete Development philosophy that I have been addressing piecemeal for the past decade.

That is a quick and simple overview of how pool access could help our programs. I have lobbied the city for 20 years to get better space for our sport. Those efforts in the 80's got us into Pan Am on Saturdays after closing; in the 90's they gave us access to the Pan Am Training Tank when it was off limits and then recently I managed to gain access to Prime Time space from 5:00-8:00pm. Taking it the next step requires the MWPA to support this initiative and make some bold moves. I shouldn't be fighting with the MWPA to improve training for the best athletes in the province, that's a stress that need not be there.

Imagine if Bushido secured more and better training space during a year when we have managed to arrange a 20 game prairie competition season with Team Saskatchewan and Calgary Water Polo. That would give us increased skills and fitness from practice and increased tactical knowledge from game play; all in under 12 months. That's pretty much what I am after, too bad it's so hard to get people behind that vision.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Impact of a Negative Environment

While in BC last weekend I had an interesting conversation with Gabi Vindisch of Saanich Water Polo School. For those that do not know, she is part of a club that has had some historical difficulties with lack of support from BC Water Polo that has resulted in lots of fighting, arguing and name calling. She was in pretty high spirits and I asked her how things were going - she said that things were great and there was now healthy dialogue with the provincial association and the clubs. Then, the interesting part, she also offered that her club registrations had doubled in the past year, up 100% since the fighting and name calling stopped.

Why is that important to this blog? Well Bushido has never had any measurable, intentional public support from the MWPA in it's history. Other provinces (and many Manitoba PSO's) give their top clubs money for their coaches, but Bushido is often criticized for being lead by a professional coach as if it were some terrible sin. Other provinces fund their top players but our players only see small grants ie $250.-500. if they make a national team and have already spent several thousand dollars representing the country. Our pool resources, that we have fought decades to gain access to, are constantly being poached - the MWPA has actually taken away pool time for the past 2 years to give to a competitor without replacing it or justifying the harm they do with reduced training hours. Can there be any way to interpret that action as supportive of the provinces top athletes and coaches? Breda is the only carded athlete in any sport in Canada who has had her PSO take training opportunity away from her! This certainly has an impact on the confidence of a developing player and asking them to stand up, be proud, be confident, bring attention to themselves, it's not consistent with how they are treated by their governing body.

That lack of obvious support is not the only reason why players don't have more offensive confidence but it is an underlying theme that must be acknowledged if anyone is to understand team performance. Certainly the loss of training time we negotiated with the city also has a huge role to play in team preparation. When we are forced to reduce the team specific practices and double up age groups it creates lots of practice time with 16-24 athletes and that is too many for a 12 x 20 yard training space. The crowding means that individual attention is reduced and communication is much more difficult.

So, overcrowding and lack of public support combine to harm confidence going into intense competition. I develop various strategies and partnerships to deal with this but none are working as well as I would like. It would make more sense provincially to have external public support that gives hope to more volunteers, coaches and athletes who could then provide the energy to make significant, broader changes. This would impact sport growth, pool access, coach recruitment and athlete enjoyment.

Trying to generate an understanding that would promote that community support is one of my motivations for working so closely with the Neptunes this season. I thought that giving freely of my time and energy would lead to more support for what we were doing, but I'm still not sure if that will materialize or not. The gift of my support and experience, for athletes from another club, seems to have been taken for granted.

That may all have sounded negative but that is not what I intended. I am just trying to get information out there so that parents who wonder why their children struggled at nationals, but who excel elsewhere, can understand why.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Lots to Say, be Patient

Now that I have finished an intense month of travel and competition I have quite a bit to say about competition, training and team performance. I'm going to try and be positive and non judgemental so the blog entries will be gradual and hopefully limited to simple, linear thoughts.
2008 Cadet Boys Nationals, Richmond BC
Hotel rooms with kitchenettes

First, I will say that it was a very frustrating spring to be involved in so many national championships for age group athletes that had a "elimination" format. What this meant was that every game was centred on a result standard less so than a team performance one. So, if you played well and lost by a goal your team was a "loser" and sent to a negative side of the competition bracket. This is 100% in violation of the principles being promoted by the Federal government (and Water Polo Canada) through LTAD, or Long Term Athlete Development, strategies. I don't want to discuss how that came about - the national organization promoting one philosophy of sport development but employing an opposite philosophy in competition structure. Suffice to say if leadership was strong and communication solid this would never have happened.

My preference for all of these events would have been to have small groups competing in a round robin to seed teams based on 2008 ability and not relying on 2007 championship placing. This would have allowed teams to have a strategy for developing team play, tactics and player involvement at a level that is new to a vast majority, especially at the 16& under category. Then secondary rounds could be judged on performance results that were based on teams of relative similarity and winning for some would be the obvious objective. I could write about that topic for a long time so I will stop there.

2007 Youth Girls Nationals, Richmond BC
anything familiar in the 2 pics?

I had no teams this year that were ready to win a championship medal, all of them were in the development phase, still learning how to compete. I am not too concerned about any teams placing but I am VERY concerned about some of the player and team performances based on their abilities. Only our Cadet (16& Under) Girls team has a significant number of players graduating next year, all others can return almost intact, so performance can quickly take a huge jump if teams embrace a common goal and train toward performance.

This training focus will have to be central to our 2008-09 program plans since the top 8 teams from the recent Cadet Boys Nationals all come from big centres with many seasonal game opportunities. Even Calgary, with a National Training Centre and a city league, could only make it to 9th place at this event in 2008. It's obvious that the winter games being played in Ontario the past 3 years have helped Ottawa, York, Hamilton and Scarborough all catch up with the Montreal based teams and the BC teams from the lower mainland, all of which have lots of play experience before nationals. Hopefully the Prairie plans that Team Sask and I have worked out for next year will counter that a bit and our local training intensity can be picked up with less tactical focus during the week.

My next blog will speak about team offense, sport psychology and why we can be one of the best defensive clubs in the country but have so few players that want to shoot or score.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Backlog of Topics

I am home for a brief 36 hour period so I can't possibly blog on all the topics that need discussion. Two that I am going to try and cover today and tomorrow are 1) the recent national events, their format and why teams are not finishing as expected and 2) the silliness and/or stupidity that I am dealing with around 2008-09 plans.

Cadet Girls at Nationals

I like the girls in the picture above; every one of them has a quality I respect and admire. Unfortunately I think a few adults from outside our club are going to poison their water polo futures and prevent them ever playing together again.

Bringing 2 groups together, a purely social club like Neptunes and an obviously competitive one like Bushido, is very hard to do. It was obvious from nationals how little these girls have trained together and how unfamiliar competition stress was to the Neptune crew. I took some learning opportunities away from Bushido Bantam and Cadet girls in favour of players with more years in the sport but these girls had practice experience not game experience. The doubt and insecurity I created with Bushido players I have known for years was not something I anticipated hanging around this long into the season.

Hopefully everyone can see now that I did not work with the Neptunes to "strengthen" our 2008 teams. It was an effort purely to bridge gaps, mend fences and provide a framework for the future. Our team performance for women has actually been hurt with this effort. That is not to say we prevented a top 5 performance had we played with a pure Bushido team, we just messed with team identity. So, I am hoping people now understand why the High Performance program in 2008-09 will be a Bushido club one and not a hybrid that blends coaches and athletes a couple of times per week from different training environments.

Maybe some Neptune players will be allowed to join that HP training group, some likely won't. But if their parents are more concerned about not "betraying" old club friendships by joining Bushido then we know what that says about how committed they are to Social Sport vs High Performance sport. They've had 25 years to initiate HP water polo and so far, no sign of it. Either way, we have shown how positive our teams, athletes, coaches and training environment are so that is not the obstacle to success.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Relax, I am not Giving Up

Youth Boys Nationals

Sorry if anyone was shocked that I posted a comment about Neptune leadership heading into the abyss. I am not giving up my vision for the sport, my passion or my energy; I am just not fighting any more. I have to redirect how I deliver programs in 2008-09 since a small angry group from the Neptunes, who have opposed Bushido for many years, will not allow peace in that club. They are driving their own members away, and it is the same troublemakers for many years, so I am not going to fret.

After the National Championships are done and I am back to some sort of normal life I will deal with the 2008-09 season. I will talk about this with any Bushido parent who wants to hear me talk about it.

So far I have set up a training cycle with Bushido and 3 Saskatchewan clubs (Weyburn, Estevan, Regina) for an Atom and Bantam competition series in Manitoba (Brandon/Nov and Winnipeg/Jan). Then there is a training series with 5 dates (3 Winnipeg, 2 Regina) for Cadet and Youth players, both genders, between Team Saskatchewan and Bushido. The Regina dates are also going to include a mini Prairie League for Youth Women (and hopefully Cadet Boys) that includes Calgary. That will be a 20 game season just on the prairies and we have bid to host a combined Youth Nationals next spring - Boys and Girls at Pan Am on the same weekend. So, lots of games for not too much cost to the families and that will allow me to include DartFish video tagging for the older players (very exciting) and team psychology for all the players. Anyone who thinks I am not busy building and planning doesn't know me so everyone can relax if they think I am running out of steam or being put off track. No way!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


They say that what you don't learn from history you are bound to repeat. That is certainly something the Neptunes water polo club should reflect on as they support a parent leader who wants to dismiss technical plans made by coaches from 2 clubs and replace them with some half baked "daddy plan" that takes Manitoba Water Polo back to where it was 30 years ago. I am all for working together and supporting common vision but when parents get involved with sport to stroke their own ego or give themselves a soapbox I am outta there.

2008 Youth Men's Nationals - Montreal

While on the topic of crazy things in water polo, here is a photo from the national championships I was at last week. This is in Montreal, location of the National Training Centre for women, where all our top females are sent to train. The game is mid day Friday against an Ontario team. Do you see the mass of event volunteers on deck or the fans in the stands? No, we didn't see them either. Would you believe the event program was a 2 sided photocopy of the schedule? It was very obvious this was an event site to deal with economics not celebration of the sport we train all year to play. Sad.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

simple lessons made difficult

Today was an odd day at the national championships. The Youth Boys have shown an ability to play solid defense, adjust to their mistakes from previous games, play the same for 4 quarters. However they also showed that defense is the easy part and the side of the game that invoves confidence, offense, is still not something they are ready to address.

Carson has been playing great and was the best player in the pool tonight. He stopped at least 5 breakaways, 1 poor guy had 2 shots stuffed on the same breakway after getting a rebound. He also gave an aggressive face to our 5 v 6 defense which we had to play quite a bit due to facing the "dive under" Storm squad. As solid as he ways, we did not support him with an enthusiastic offense.

The boys know what to do but they lack the confidence to put theory into action. That means the learning is not complete even when they say they "know" what they are doing wrong. We'll believe they know it when we all see it.

Brendan has been doing a good job taking all the other teams focus when setting 2m. His team hasn't stepped up to exploit what they are left with so he forces things his few times with the ball. When he reflects on that after the game he hears the problem but he has been shooting blindly out of frustration too much this weekend.

I hope the Cadet Boys are paying attention to this lesson on offense this week because I do not want to live through this again in BC in two weeks.

When I get home on Monday I will try to do a summary posting with some event photos that Phil has taken and talk about why the top 4 teams are from Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto-Hull.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Boys are really nuts

These Youth Boys are really proving to be more than I had imagined they could be. After playing terrible water polo, weak and timid in all aspects, all they can talk about is going shopping tonight. It's understandable that losing to the top seed would be a low point in terms of their excitement but I am at a loss to understand how little respect they have for themselves. They played a team they know well, and do not fear, yet played right into their hands turning the ball over at every opportunity without ANY pressure. So why do they want to shop for shoes and shiney clothes...... Weird.

Now we likely play a decent Scarborough team as we struggle to stay above the 9th place threshold and improve from our pre event seeding. Hard to get excirted for that prospect.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

montreal is getting old

It seems like I have been here forever. It was odd to not return home with the girls on Sunday and then to meet the boys on Wednesday but so it goes.

I was a bit worried about the girls and how they would play in terms of confidence. That turned out be a valid worry as they never reached their potential as a group. Players never played their best all at the same time or in the same game. With peak performance, mentally, from all girls it would have been a top 6 finish for sure and possibly a top 4. Of course, I have to keep in mind that the Neptune girls that had joined us in December had never won a game at a nationals until playing with us so I had to temper my expectations until they got a few wins under their belts.

The boys give me a totally different worry as I have no concerns about how they will play or if they will show up focussed. I only worry about what bone headed thing a 16 or 17 year old boy will do to make me shake my head away from the pool ie in a hotel or a store. It is hard to understand why we have a 730 game Thursday morning during a nationals but schedules never seem to be something I can be happy with at a Canadian championship.

Since I have limited computer access in teh hotel lobby I may do another blog entry while I am here to update on what kinds of things I see in the boys play.