Thursday, December 17, 2009

Teaching and Learning

I have been hearing quite a bit about "learning" the past little while as my wife has been completing her Masters thesis in Education (Language and Learning). That process is deep immersion and she often has to verbalize things she is writing about to help unload and shift focus to other mundane lifestyle things. My job is to listen and support but there are also times when a little light goes on when she mentions something about teaching or childhood learning, and it hits close to things I am thinking or dealing with as a coach.

This past weekend I watched some local school league games that I was not part of directly but that included many of my club athletes divided on several school squads. One thing I watched for was how Middle Years schools divided teams when they had 2 entries in the league. This "2 team" situation was allowed due to large numbers of interested players and no limit on participation. I took note of how the schools divided players since I had coached my sons school teams when they were younger and I had a specific way of splitting up students to make sure the focus of each team was right for the participants ie appropriate learning for all.

One of these Middle Years schools divided the players equally, or perhaps randomly and that ended up equal. They played each other in a semi final that went through overtime and to a shoot out. It was of great interest to me to watch these teams as I had half a dozen club players involved on these teams. They were split between the squads and this meant that players with 6 years club experience were on a team, in the water together, with kids who were learning to swim. Imagine how different their focus and expectations would have been all season and imagine trying to set a team objective other than "pass it to the kid who knows what to do with the ball".

What I saw was the same chaos at year end that I had seen early in the season. Teams had not learned much about what to do but had improved in their ability to find the star and try to get them the ball. My approach would have been different, and has been when faced with that situation in years past. I would have put the club players on the same team, with strong competitive students who wanted to learn from them. Then the focus could have been learning to play off the strengths and skills of each other. I would have encouraged each non-expert to find a way that they could use the skilled players to give them space, or get them the ball or set them up in front of the net for high percentage shots. As the season progressed they could have set some team goals based on what they had learned as a group.

Following that model I would have then had a squad of complete novices as a second team. They could learn skills from the stronger players at practice and focus on applying them in games. They could be subbed in during a game in lines, playing as a unit for the whole game and getting used to helping each other with correct passes, helping the ball, switching on defense etc. The focus could have been on their group improvement each week.

I think when teams are divided equally in a league like that we see some polarization that is not needed. Everyone has different needs and nobody has them met to the fullest potential. I would much rather those kids had structure that meant a competitive player could take the 3 month school introduction to water polo and turn it into a foundation for club play year-round. The non competitive players could then take their interest to a high school co-ed program and into a non threatening Sport-for-Life stream. The only way this string of acivities will happen is with integration of programs and new partnerships that are not really welcomed right now as school leagues see clubs as self interested rather than as strategic partners. We try to change that by supplying many of the school coaches from our athlete ranks, and volunteers from our parent group, but it is a slow process.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Mini Clinic

Tonight I changed the pace of things at practice a wee bit for the girls. This is a week that we are doing a bit less swimming as there is an intense 2 days of games in Regina for all our 16U and 18U players on the weekend. To make interesting use of the week I am focussing on a few individual skills that I want sharply focused for our team play.

That may seem odd, focus on individual skill as we prepare to play as a team. Not really, if you think it through. Last month we played some games at these same age groups and while the girls had skills to execute specific game strategies they did not bring these skills to the pool. That meant that what I asked to have them do was left blank and no execution according to team talks.

Here is a photo of part of the action tonight. I had the girls divided into 4 groups; A) lead by Heather, working on Driving, B) lead by Breda, working on controlling the ball under pressure and C) lead by Shae, working on how to get the ball from the other team (ie steals, blocks). This was hands on experience, right when they need it. Shae's group is not visible in the photo and neither are the goalies who were the 4th group and got most of my attention at this practice.

Heather played on the national team for 3 years and was a pro in the Italian women's league two years ago (Serie A). When playing pro she was drawing 5 or 6 exclusions per game with her driving so it was good to have the young players up close to that instruction in the water. Breda is about to play her first season with Cal in the NCAA after many years on the national team and having been a Jr Team captain in the past. Few players anywhere are more comfortable on the ball than she is. Shae was just named top 18U defender at the Senior Womens National Team League - CSL. She lead that league in blocked shots most of the season and had plenty of steals from much bigger and more experienced women.

This was pretty popular with the girls and will be repeated Wednesday. This will reinforce the lessons taught that were new information and it will give the overview to some 14U players who will be joining us in preparation for their play this weekend. I am really curious to see how this is applied at our games since it is just a small mental and physical adjustment to take their play to a much, much higher level.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Land Work for Water Polo

Tonight we had a busy practice deck at the pool since the city had allowed an NLS guard training session to go in our regular land exercise area. This meant I was able to catch a few quick photos of some of the work our strength coach, Satoru, is doing with the players. Usually I am dealing with water sessions and Satoru is in another area of the building with an opposite gender doing land work.

These pictures are a sample of what happens when an educated strength coach (Masters in Exercise Physiology/Phys Ed) studies the program of a professional strength coach with a water polo background (Mike Reid) and is given free reign by a professional water polo coach who is a colleague (me). Satoru is never put off course by limitations of his environment, he just modifies exercises. A good example are the "pulling" exercises he introduced today to cover for the lack of chin up bars at the public pool we use (ie 2 50m pools, 2 weight rooms but only 1 small chin bar available to sports to use).

Partner Towel Pull
resistance is adjusted based on strength of partner

This second picture is a pairing of sisters that would otherwise be an exercise done with similar size and strength of partners. However, when a young teen who plays in net is given the chance to work with her big sister who is a top NCAA goalie, home for US Thanksgiving, we can make exceptions to many normal training procedures. And, we happily do so.

Partner Towel Pull #2
another version that engages muscle groups in a little different way

This third picture is not really replacing any chin up exercises but adding variety to squats. We do lots of squat work with the players, and have done for years, but now it is stepped up as Satoru modifies and challenges in new ways. The buckets are filled with water, not much, just enough to add interest. This is variable and certainly much cheaper than spending $40.-80.00 each for half dozen different weights of kettle bells.

Doing a squat with a gallon or two of swishing water is also quite good for the abs as they fight to stabilize the weight as the players move. Learning to do this with a modifiable weight is interesting to the players and it is novel, so holds interest in a phase of training that keeps them thinking. Pretty much exactly what we look for when working with teens.

Squat with Weight
Plastic pails with various amounts of water

There are also some rope pulling exercises being developed that allow strength gains through a very broad range of motion. This is a really important sport specific type of strength work that could not be properly addressed in a weight room on a machine.

I hope to be posting more of a regular blog soon but have been very busy with club program activities and doing some book proof reading that I had not planned on but am quite enjoying.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

brief update

I've gone way too long without blogging, sorry if you are a regular reader. I have been swamped with other things and had my fill of water polo reading/writing in other areas. There are 2 events for my club teams in November, the first two weekends, so that takes some additional planning. This is an exciting time, but hectic.

Something interesting happened this week that was unusual and interesting so I want to write about that briefly. I was approached by the Head Coach of the largest swim club on the prairies and asked if I would lead his top swimmers through a practice session to give them an idea of what sorts of things water polo players do at practice. These are good swimmers, very good, all with national times and members of Canada Games teams etc. I am not going to waste any time explaining how to move forward or fast, they have a firm grasp of that!

It's interesting to think of what to teach a group of teenage swimmers who don't know water polo. These aren't California kids who have grown up doing both sports, no hybrids here. This is a carefully selected group of highly specialized individuals; for them vertical is for land, horizontal is for water. That will give me focus, I'll stay away from swimming other than to bend a few elbows on front crawl and teach direction change without a wall. Otherwise we will focus on moving with a ball, with a partner or working vertically.

Maybe I will write about how this goes once it is done, I could be surprised by what they show me. Having seen them play a bit of pretend water polo I know they are not masters of passing and shooting - an hour of instruction won't likely change that. However, they may pick up the movement more quickly than I anticipate so that will be interesting.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Cross Training follow up

In my previous blog I talked about cooperative LTAD planning between sports. It may have sounded like I was anti-swimming, that is not the case. It's just an easy example that comes up year after year. Truth be told, when Bushido was started as a club we named it "Bushido Aquatic Club" not Bushido Water Polo. It was our intent to offer water polo, synchro and speed swimming cooperatively. We did that with water polo and synchro for many years but gave up when the synchro community could not be convinced to support high performance sport.

There was a pretty good reason why we didn't offer speed swimming with the other sports. It was not allowed by the provincial governing body. In order to have formed a club at the time, and joined the organization, they would have to approve where we trained. Since our water polo and synchro clubs were training at the same huge facility we were going to offer all programs there. But, there was already a swim club there and they had the right to keep every other club out of that facility. So we could not join the swimming association and offer cooperative programs, side by side with athletes spending parts of practice on different sports.

Maybe things have changed now, it doesn't matter though, we are not going down that path. But that is too bad as we have some great examples of young kids that have done the 2 sports and excelled at both. Last spring I wrote about a provincial 12&U water polo championship where a young guy from our club demonstrated his 10 month development in the final game on a super breakaway, going a distance he could not have swum 6 months earlier. That was a success from a combined swim and polo season. His speed swimming allowed him strength to showcase his ball skills, awareness and competitive nature. We had taught him to change direction, handle a ball, jump & move vertically and to be aware of dynamic movement. Swimming had taught him to move quickly over a large area without stress. The 2 sports helped each other develop this player. However, it was a parent that juggled the schedules, not a master design of a multi sport club.

I didn't fully understand when I was a teenager how much my sport activities complimented one another throughout the year. Now that I know something about athlete development I can see the relationship between the training I did as a competitive dingy sailor in summers and the water polo and swimming I did in the other 3 seasons. Sailing developed core strength in hiking and trapeze work, grip strength in sail trimming (adjustments by pulling a rope against wind tension) and leg strength in hiking and various squat position movements when maneuvering the boat. There was definitely no plan in that sport development, just chance connection. I'd love to have more control over the progress and success of the players I work with in the 21st century. That is why I write (and read) about these topics now.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Planning, Co-operation & LTAD

This is the time of the season when everything is busy and much of what lies ahead is being settled. Players are registering and starting the practice routine while parents are sorting out car pools, meal plans and budgets. Families digest what we are asking in terms of training and they sort out conflicts. As a club we develop athletes under the principles of Long Term Athlete Development and, as much as possible, in line with what Water Polo Canada and Sport Canada outline in published LTAD documents.

We've used LTAD principles for many years. I began this path when first starting to coach young children, 10 & under, and had no experience with them as athletes. I needed to seek out research from other sports and other countries to see how pre-teens were developing and should have their training structured. I then applied this to water polo under a club plan as there were few programs in Canada doing what we were with young children (actually, only Saanich Water Polo School was similar). That has changed now and there are several clubs teaching very young children and the sport science for all ages has been clearly connected to most national sport governing bodies.

So the reason that I say in line with Water Polo Canada "as much as possible" is not because the plan is faulty. Rather, it is the uneven application of the principles nationally that make it hard to follow. The bulk of club water polo in Canada is played at the age group - 4x week practice - level; that's not recreational and not high performance. It is, however, a level that can develop physical literacy in youth prior to making a transition to Train-to-Compete/Perform programs. In provinces outside Manitoba (Ontario, Alberta, Quebec, BC and Saskatchewan) the transition to high performance is helped by either a National Development Centre or a Provincial team program; sometimes both.

There are a few reasons we can't use the Provincial Team model here and the physical explanation is there are not enough players training competitively to "select" an elite group to bump up training. This is complicated by a lack of financial resources that go hand in hand with limited programs and player numbers. We can't add more burden to families already stretched so far. I've talked already about why we don't have the numbers or program diversity here, even though I have clearly articulated solutions, so I won't go over that again.

What I do want to touch on briefly with respect to LTAD is how it is so slowly being accepted by others sports who are supposed to be cooperating with water polo. This makes planning for complimentary sports like speed swimming impossible as water polo does all the accommodation and swimming makes all the demands. For instance, we have a 12 year old female water polo player who began speed swimming to improve her game. She excelled at both sports and swimming is now demanding that she quit water polo and train 17 hours per week at swimming. This violates several key principles outlined in LTAD but the issue I have to deal with as a coach is how do I give her flexibility to do 2 sports, keep her involved in 3 practices per week with us and still not have her burn out? I have to solve this question because the swim coaches refuse to accept the 2 sport allowance that Swim Canada, Water Polo Canada and Sport Canada have all outlined.

It's not just the elite swimmers that face this pressure. Even athletes in 3x week swim club programs are pressured to do the "3 swimming practices they dictate" rather than work out complimentary training routines for players in 2 sports. That means I see kids drop from 3 water polo practices/week at 12 or 13 when they actually have way more potential in water polo than in speed swimming. Too bad, they could do both sports until the 16&U age group and be better prepared for whichever one they choose at the time when they must specialize to move forward.

I've asked to meet with one of these swim coaches to see if they will dialogue about a promising young player. I'm skeptical but at the same time hopeful, we'll see.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Manitoba Myth

This is the third blog that originates from dialogue at the Water Polo Canada Leadership Summit. It doesn't talk about a specific summit topic or theme, just things that arose from that weekend. It is about Manitoba and a few myths that remain in the sport community in spite of there being no basis in reality for these.

The first myth that I keep encountering is the belief that Manitoba is a province rich in teenage water polo resources due to a large high school league. It's true that there is a relatively large league of Middle Years and Senior High water polo in Winnipeg but that is NOT a rich resource.
The schools play a co-ed version of the game, a recreational level that hinders competitive development. This may help some club female players, in a small individual way, when they scrimmage stronger boys once a week at 14 or 15 years of age but it doesn't really add to the development of the sport.

A few coaches from eastern Canada asked if we recruited from the school league to our club programs, not knowing that it was a rec league. When they realized it was a co-ed set up they quickly saw the drawback that presented and how it could interfere with streaming players to clubs. We do recruit Middle Years players but it is not always easy based on their family perceptions. Imagine if you were the parent of a 12 year old speed swimmer who was being told to avoid all other sports while also being pressured to train 5-8x week for swimming. If your first intro to water polo was seeing a co-ed team of recreational play, and little or no formal practice, you would not be inclined to ask about a competitive water polo stream as an alternative to the swimming monolith.

That casual league play is not a problem if it is labeled as "recreation" or "participation" or "community" and exists alongside highly visible competitive club programs. But when it is the only water polo played in a city there tends to be a lumping of all the sport into that casual setting. This is a real dis-service to Bushido when you consider that our club produces more carded and national team athletes than any other aquatic sport in Manitoba. We could stand to have a bit more Manitoba Water Polo support for our programs in terms of allowing our vision and leadership for local leagues and events.

An example of that would be accepting our desire to have tiered 14&U play so there could be casual co-ed play and competitive developmental play in gender specific streams. That leads to another myth in Manitoba, that the sport is played co-ed at 14&U in other parts of Canada. It is not, other than in rural communities with small populations and no numbers for gender specific squads. The largest province, Ontario, has co-ed play for fun in the "Active-for-Life" stream but that is not how the competitive clubs are developing players when they follow the LTAD and its scientific foundation.

Fighting a myth can be frustrating. It creates obstacles when selling a sport or a program that has already been judged in error. It also means people who are in positions to offer support or advice are sometimes not able to since they see our landscape as something other than it is. Since these mythical images can be changed quickly internally it is even more sad that they exist at all. But, we keep pushing for things to change and maybe they will. I don't want to consider the alternative.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Leadership Summit, Part 2

I had said there were a few things of interest at the recent Water Polo Canada Leadership Summit and one I want to talk about today is land training. Specifically, extending practice outside the pool to develop strength, muscular balance and flexibility.

The key piece of this for me is muscular balance, not because it is measurably more important but because it is harder to develop elsewhere in a water polo training environment. This is a crucial piece of training in avoiding shoulder issues which can arise from an unstable muscle balance front vs back. I heard something in Montreal from Alain Delorme that is a bit of a sacred principle for me in this area and want to repeat it here. He stated exactly what Mike Reid has written in our club strength manual and what I am doing with our athletes - do 3 times as many pulling exercises as pushing ones. Simple; 10 push ups, 30 pull ups (chins). Try 10 of each and see what part of your shoulder you are using, one is front (like an overarm swim stroke) and one is back (balancing that stroke).

Alain said some other beautiful things, like keep weights away from the developing athletes. Not all weights, but heavy weights that are not part of the body. That is important when working with age group players because the proper execution of exercises; body positions, posture, range of motion, these are the keys to injury free gains for men and women who add loads in a weight room later in careers. Don't worry, there are 100's of exercises kids won't be able to do with just their body weight, long before you ask them to do a one legged squat. You can develop to a great level with what you were born with and a proper diet (more on nutrition as the season goes).

I have a few advanced athletes who are pretty well along in some of these land exercises and a few will have a load added to squats when we introduce them to a kettle bell this season. But that is the exception with age group kids, I'm just mentioning it to let you know I am not anti-strength as players grow.

It's possible that with Alain speaking to a wide audience at a national clinic we may see more clubs open to doing the sorts of exercises he explained on a nationwide scale. I am able to share our club land exercise program with any club coach who wants it, just let me know. This was developed by a professional strength trainer (Mike) and was created for age group water polo. It's really accessible stuff and can be taught by most coaches with experience and done by athletes on an independent basis once they learn the structure and how to use a log book.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Water Polo Canada Leadership Summit

This past weekend I was in Montreal to attend the 2009 Leadership Summit put on by Water Polo Canada. I was pleasantly surprised. There were interesting presentations by both national head coaches, Dragan and Pat and a very appropriate strength session by Alain Delorme. These sessions were very different but offered direction and purpose in their domain. I will write about some of the things we discussed over the weekend in this blog.

The place I will start is with Dragan and his primary message to coaches, "think about what you are asking athletes to do and how it is connected to the game they will play". That is not a quote, it was an underlying theme in each presentation he was leading. The reason I start with this area is because Dragan was asking coaches to change practice structure, alter what they had been taught, use new research to guide drills. That is EXACTLY what Mike Reid and I have been saying and doing (and writing about) for well over a decade so I loved to hear that come from the top of the coaching food-chain.

Of course, most coaches probably think they design practices like that but that is just not true. For example, at the Leadership Summit there were still coaches talking about doing an "aerobic base" at the beginning of a season, as if that were sound physiological practice. Dragan acknowledged that he does not do "aerobic training" on it's own ie swim-sets, only as part of games and drills. The "base" for water polo is not aerobic as that would imply that the energy system used in a game is primarily aerobic. It is NOT! I have had this discussion with athletes so many times over the years it was nice to have somebody else standing in front of people taking the blank stares when that information was presented. The primary focus of all training must be anaerobic endurance and if done properly that will also improve aerobic capacity. But, Mike Reid writes about this on the Water Polo Planet website and his Water Polo Strength blog so I won't dwell on it here.

Another thing Dragan talked about was the type of swimming being done ie head up vs head down. He stressed the role of head up swimming in the training centre workouts and how he is changing how the young men there are swimming on a daily basis. This was great to hear as club coaches need to send players to the National Team with the skills they will use when they arrive. There is one caution I wish he had given coaches though and will mention it here as it is a vital piece of the LTAD framework we have embraced.

Not all players can be developed as the men at the National Team level are. Skills must be taught in clubs but there is not too much complex tactical information given to youth. Rather, in clubs we focus on developing physical literacy in athletes as they grow. That means some age groups will do aerobic drills because that is what their developmental physiology is able to accept. We also need to develop many swim strokes, even if they are not used in a game the way head up front crawl is. So, while we emphasize swimming head up we also teach efficient movement with breaststroke, head down free, butterfly etc. These are the building blocks of physical literacy and help with muscular balance and flexibility by not developing a body that is too specialized too early.

I will watch with interest this season as some coaches try to follow the challenge that Dragan presented. Some will nail it, others will stumble.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Back to Routine

I am finally getting back into a water polo routine that involves daily computer use and coaching. The past few months when planning and coaching I have been in a remote rural setting that did not allow for internet blogging. Too bad, there were some great things happening with Bushido players, former Bushido players and Canadian players internationally.

Serena Bredin, who is the backbone of the University or Hawaii NCAA defense, helped Canada to a solid performance at the FISU games. This was a team that was only together a short time and that had not played together so all their success was worthy of recognition. It was also fun for Serena as she got to play with some UofH team mates who now have another level of common experience to build on in 2010. She also got to play with Coach Toth for the first time and it was really good for her to have a former pro goalie as a leader at this point in her career.

Keeping pace with Serena were Shae Fournier and Breda Vosters who played on our National Junior Team at the Junior Worlds in Russia. The team never found its rhythm and finished out of the medals so that depressed them with all their skill and hope. Our girls did well enough as individuals finishing with the 2nd and 3rd most goals in the event on the Canadian team. I know, it's not all about goals, but they showed they are at a world class level and can bring performance even when the team is not firing on all cylinders.

Liz & Shae Sitting Beside Coach Beeb

A curious thing that not many people may know is that the leading scorers for Canada at the World Championships, Liz Henry and Shae Fournier, first played on a team together at the 2006 Alberta Open in Calgary where they won a Silver Medal in the 14&U division. Liz was loaned to Bushido when her club was not able to field teams in all categories. I wonder if they remember anything about that weekend?

I'll blog more now that I can, be patient, there will be science, history, opinion and whatever else I am compelled to share.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Season Winds Down

The current club season in Canada is now winding down and plans are in place for summer camps and National Teams. I will have some down time before coming back with a vengeance in the fall, full of revised programming plans for all ages.

This summer we launch a new initiative in cooperation with the University of Manitoba where we take our successful summer camp model and help deliver it to a wider audience through a major institution. This may help us establish the UofM pool as a stand alone satellite program for our 12&U and 14&U teams in years to come. That is the goal, develop interest in camps at a young age, carry it through to a winter age group "foundations" program, stream it to school leagues (casual) or Bushido teams (competitive) and then back to the UofM as students and potential Mini-U instructors.

That goes hand in hand with a new Coach Mentorship Program I am developing to help bring a rural Manitoba program into the water polo community. That follows on our initiative this past season to hold games outside Winnipeg by hosting Saskatchewan teams in Brandon. That circuit will repeat this fall, maybe more than once, and by the following year we expect to add a rural Manitoba club to mirror the rural Saskatchewan teams.

Ideally these growth plans would be coordinated through the provincial association but that is not possible in Manitoba right now. There is a polarization of the provincial group that has it focussed on the needs of a single club, helping them understand the sport rules, policy and structure, finding them pool time, arranging teams for them to play with in other provinces, hosting events for them to play in etc. So, even when it seems nothing constructive is happening that is not the case. There is lots going on behind the scenes.

We are also building a new, vibrant, generation of coaches within our club. Next year we will introduce 4 or 5 new coaches who all bring different qualities that are going to motivate players in key ways. Some of these coaches are still players and will be mentored the way Breda was the past few seasons. Shae is already excited to give some very specific hands-on guidance to up and coming Centre forwards and Carson and Sandra are both ready to share knowledge and experience with young goalies. They will help bring new perspective to the coaching ranks and Heather and I will be pushing them hard to get as much out of them as we can.

For those that have wondered about what is happening with our National Team athletes I can give you a partial update. Serena Bredin has been named to the FISU games team and is training in Montreal as they prepare for the summer event in Serbia. Breda and Shae are both in Montreal with the Jr National Team preparing to help Canada make a serious challenge for a podium finish at the World Junior Championships in Siberia. Brendan and Carson Domoney are both still waiting to hear if they are selected to play with the Jr National Men's Team this summer. Brendan is also in Calgary training for a spot on the Men's FISU games team so he has opportunities on 2 squads that he is waiting to hear about. Carson is also a leading contender for the 16&U Boys team as a goalie.

We don't know when decisions are made for those boys teams. We do know that both the Domoneys will be playing in California with the SET club in major events if there are not solid National Team options presented to them here.

There is lots of positive stuff going on. Sorry if the recent Blogs were infrequent and sometimes dealing with negative issues that kept being thrown at us on the pool deck or in the board room. There won't be too much negative going on the next few months so any Blog entry should be positive.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Referee and Me

This past weekend we hosted the largest national championship in the 103 year history of Canadian water polo finals. It was 2 categories, 18&U men and 18&U women, held at Pan Am pool, using 2 tanks 25m x 20m.

The event was amazing, no issues of protest or violence, no minor official shortages or problems, no coaches yelling at the bench, none of the usual stumbling blocks at these sorts of events. This was a long weekend in Winnipeg, a traditional date to go and open cottages, so it was really huge that this was pulled off so easily.

There was one referee issue that really annoyed me though. There was a ref who really should not have been there, a guy that NO team wants at any event, ever. He has a strong negative history with our club and it shows up every time he referees us. Above is a picture of the kick-out board the first time he refereed our girls team. It shows 15 major fouls for us against 8 for the other team. That can happen, sure, but what tells the story is the game by game stats. He refereed a second game and it happened again, we were excluded twice for every opponent exclusion. That stands out since the 3 games he did not referee had us with the same number of fouls, or close, to our opponent.

That bias should never exist at this level. I am going to make some effort to ensure that he stops being sent to events outside his province as he gets too many people upset and plays too great a role in influencing game outcomes over the players themselves. I won't use his name as that is not what this blog is about. But I will say that everyone involved knows exactly who the ref is. The majority of refs, who did a great job all weekend, are not the issue!

The dialogue about referees and bias can go on forever. I don't want to do that here as it is best done with data, hard data, from game stats and I will let the referees do that themselves. Peer review is the best method to process this but once in awhile coaches have to vent so I touch on that here.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Ignorance is not bliss

What is the weakness that exists in people to allow them to feel better about themselves when they belittle others, is it insecurity? This practice has always been something that annoyed me and it was one of the things that Darko and I realized we shared as a common viewpoint soon after we met. These people have no place in sport. If you want to feel good about yourself then do something that can be appreciated and measured as a contribution; don't just put down others. This is important for my blog because Manitoba Water Polo is full of people who do nothing but never stop undermining those of us who are producing national team players, pro's and NCAA scholarship athletes.

I mention this now because of something I heard the other day about me, as a coach. It was a comment that a stranger made to someone that knows me pretty well. The basic statement I am referring to was that I was a coach she wanted to avoid since I had a "win at all costs" attitude. When I was younger this would have made me quite angry since I would have wanted to know what I did to earn that reputation from someone I had never met. Now it makes me smile before I get upset as I know it is based on ignorance and gossip by others who are insecure.

In this instance it was funny because it came from a parent with a child in another club that is recreational. When we were supposed to play a Provincial Championship with that club at the 14&U level this spring they refused to play girl vs girl and boy vs boy with their teams because they could not compete. Since we train all year as separate genders I was not prepared to combine my 2 teams into 1 co-ed group even though I knew it would result in a huge lopsided win, just like all our other teams. Instead of playing a championship I offered a series of "friendly" games with their co-ed team playing our girls and then our boys. I had a couple dozen players playing, all different levels and experience; they had 9 or 10 players, mostly veterans, they wouldn't let new, inexperienced, players play.

The games were all close, a tie for the boys and a 1 goal loss for our girls vs a team with the strongest 3 or 4 of each gender from the other club. They stacked their team to win, I kept mixed abilities together to develop 2 teams and 2 genders on a plan toward future growth and development. A player on that co-ed team was the child of the parent who said I have a "win at all cost" attitude. I guess people see what they want or, in this case, don't see what is there before them.

If this person had taken the time to meet me and talk to me they would learn what I am about, what I value. They'd learn things like I coach a young woman with Cystic Fibrosis, a 16 year old that I have coached for many, many years. And she is a starter on my teams at every stage, and will remain so as long as she keeps playing. She's a good water polo player but she will never be world class, her lungs will not allow it. However I value her contribution to our team so she will keep being a major part of it even if she sometimes "runs out of gas" in the middle of a counter attack. Certainly that is not something that is in any way related to "winning at all costs" and it does nobody any good to ignore reality in order to create fiction about what I value or teach.

If you are a person who likes to judge others but not to meet them or talk to them then you are not doing anyone any favours. Take time to understand what you believe and where the beliefs come from. Consider the bias of the people who tell you things to prevent you from forming your own opinion. If you are a parent of a child in sport you are not only hurting your own kid by being uninformed about coaches, philosophies and values - you are also damaging sport with uninformed opinions.

PS I don't know any athlete that has ever thrown a water polo ball at a net and thought "I hope I miss" or started a game thinking "I hope we lose this game". No, everyone loves to win, it is more fun than the alternative. I love to win too, it's just not why I coach, it's a product of a successful program. Usually the ones who focus on the winning of others are the people who never win themselves.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Exercise and the Brain

Being a coach, who writes a coaching blog, I felt I had to post a link to this CBC video clip about exercise and the brain.

The link probably will not work from "Blogger" so you may have to cut & paste the address in your browser address bar.


Congratulations to Serena Bredin for helping Hawaii qualify for the NCAA Championships in May. Hawaii was awarded an "at large" berth based on their record against stronger teams in the league. There is a very good chance the team will place top 4 and that will be quite an achievement considering it is the best league in the world for women's water polo.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


I want to deal briefly with professionalism in coaching and why it is fundamentally different than volunteerism. This is important for several reasons, one being that it is how I make my living, but I am discussing it today because of how it shapes Water Polo in Manitoba.

When someone accepts a professional coaching role it involves responsibility. It is a "the buck stops here" kind of responsibility that means you can't hide from it. This is very different from a volunteer coach who can drop responsibility and have little consequence. When most sport in Canada was run by volunteer coaches the difference between these two leadership functions was less obvious. At that time people viewed being paid to coach as a soft, luxury filled, lifestyle. Non professionals viewed jobs in coaching as being paid to do what they did for fun. But the roles are not the same, not even close.

An example of this is "obligation to attend" where a volunteer coach can say that their work ie accounting, teaching, bus driving, will not allow them to be at practice. A professional coach can't use this excuse to avoid leadership and their athletes know that they will see the same face leading every session all season as they pursue a common goal.

Another difference professionals must accept is that the hours needed to provide adequate training are "determined by program not personal availability". This is a huge issue for us in Canada as we make the change to LTAD program models. There is no way that clubs across this country will be able to provide adequate programming for athletes from 10-25 years of age who train 6-12 times per week with a few volunteers. It is foolish to contemplate that and as teenage athletes move their training hours closer to their weekly educational hours we can see why coaching is needed to be delivered professionally.

One problem we see here that is facilitated by volunteerism is "lack of responsibility for decisions". I work with a club that has professional leadership and coaches have clear authority to present plans for annual training and then obligate teams to attend events, play in leagues, go to camps etc. When the club geographically nearest to us has volunteer leaders we can see that a meeting where we agree on competition or training can have the program fail at time of delivery because the coach who agreed to it did not have authority to make decisions. This happens every year, over and over. Our local clubs have a dialogue, agree, then it all falls apart on delivery because some parent along the line, who has equal authority for program decisions, over rules a volunteer coach with the other club.

That different style of authority is the root of the Manitoba problems in high performance programming. Families that begin in a volunteer lead club that does not mandate training more than 2 or 3 times per week have a very hard time accepting that players need to train more than 5x week as they get older and that this requires trained professionals for leadership. This is really important to me now as I am planning the transition for when I move out of the main professional leadership role in Manitoba. I want there to be an expectation that this province will continue to be lead by a professional coach but there is very strong opposition to that from the Neptunes members.

That opposition is important because in the 16 years that I have coached Bushido professionally there has never been 1 penny contributed to my earnings from Manitoba Water Polo or Sport Manitoba. There have been carded national team athletes from my programs since the beginning but the MWPA has never connected that to my coaching and linked it to the grants available for high performance coaches. So, money has been available to pay coaches from government sources in Manitoba but only through the Provincial Sport Organization. That never comes our way since there is no recognition that professional coaching and high performance training are valued in the community. Hopefully I will see that change before I retire.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Pre Game Team Cheer

This past weekend I witnessed something quite remarkable at the Alberta Open Water Polo tournament in Calgary. It was not an event or a performance by a player, it was a psychological change that manifested itself in a team cheer. I will explain more.

The normal pre-game activities of our teams will always come to a conclusion with a team cheer, at poolside, right before the players line up to play. That is not unusual, most teams do that. Also not unusual is the type of cheer that we normally hear; a loud, intimidating scream. Something that says to the other team that they better watch out, we are ready to go. It is an outward sign of aggression to a large degree and a small sign of unity at the team level. After all, anyone can be taught to scream with a group like everyone else.

What I saw that was so different was our Youth Men taking their aggressive cheer and turning it into a quiet, introspective exercise that was a sign of unity. These hormonal teenage boys decided to touch fingers in a circle and very quietly say "Bushido" in a hushed tone. It could only be heard by those in the group or people standing right near our bench. Of course this turns the purpose of the cheer upside down, it makes the boys feel like they are talking to one another, rest of the world be damned. If you know these guys you will understand how very odd that is since they are quite often "in your face" guys.

That change in pre-game or quarter break "cheering" happened to coincide exactly with the change in the boys performance. They took their considerable skill and focussed it for a full 4 quarters to beat a very solid team from Fraser Valley. That team was between them and the medal round at the tournament so it was the right time to change their ways.

I missed the first time they did the cheer as I was coaching the 12&U team at the same time. When I first saw this during the second half I couldn't believe what I was seeing and I didn't know how it came to be. I asked Heather if it was her idea and she just laughed and said no. There is no doubt that having a woman coach influenced the boys a little bit, opened them to the possibility that a change to the way we have done things would be ok.

What I am curious about, and will study very closely the next little while, is the influence a female coach has on boys confidence. The boys skill level did not increase this weekend, what changed was an application of skills they have carried with them for some time. Exactly why they found the confidence to be different and play as a group against bigger, stronger opponents is very interesting. This is what the different cheer has caused me to review, how did Coach Heather get these long-time players to become the best generation of male age group boys from Bushido? How did they change the pattern of under achievement we have carried so long?

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Say Much with Few Words

A little while ago I was asked a question by a national coach, a guy who has been to the Olympics, a person who gives water polo pretty much all of his attention each day. What he asked was "should an athlete fit a program or should the program fit the athletes?" That might not seem like it has much to it, you believe one or the other and it's no big deal. But that is not what I heard in the question.

What I heard were the problems facing Water Polo in Canada right now put into a single question. National team programs that are geared to international success MUST be designed for that success. Meaning, of course, that athletes should fit the program. This is not how we have traditionally developed teams. Past success has come from coaches assembling the best players and designing a system for the team that uses their skills and abilities to greatest advantage. That never helped our men succeed and it only helped our women succeed when European countries did not put a priority on the women's game with a national system.

Now we have the organizational maturity to see that the planning must be long range, the skills must be foundational, the players must fit the design and have no serious flaws. This brings us back to the LTAD and how it is helping deal with this reality. But, LTAD is complicated, it is not understood by many and it is hard to summarize for people not familiar with a sport culture. That is why one sentence said so much to me, it is a way to explain what changes are coming in the sport.

If we look at the success over generations by the Hungarian and Yugoslavian/Serbian/Croatian/Montenegran teams, and the rapid success of the Chinese, we see recognizable systems. Players come and go but the systems are the root of the success. This is where we are going too and it was great to hear that question come from a coach leader who is trying to get us on that path and keep us there for generations.

Friday, March 6, 2009


I have the unique opportunity to talk to many people about every aspect of amateur sport. This involves discussion on development of physical literacy and character in young children all the way up to specific tactics used by national teams in major events.

Sometimes I hear things that resonate with me, sometimes I hear nonsense. It's all part of the big picture and navigating through theory, science and experience is what coaching is about. This week I heard something that I thought I would share because it speaks to a key thing that coaches often value - character. This is from the parent of an athlete I coach.

"The one thing I am usually struck by is that world class athletes in amateur sport are not prima donnas. Those who are selfish and out for themselves always get exposed for who they are. They don't become heroes."

I post this here because it might help others understand what it is they so often see in young athletes that sets them apart from pros with big 8 figure contracts. It also explains why coaches seem to have more time and patience for some players over others.

Time invested by a coach in other people multiplies its impact if the person being guided is apt to positively share that experience and knowledge with others down the line. This is a key point of my program design and why I always have mentor relationships in the training environment. Oddly enough I had that exact mentor dialogue with two promising young athletes on deck this week too.

One is a female that is being pushed in so many directions I wanted to remind her that there was also a bit of "pulling" that she could do to feel more connected to others. She is bright and understood exactly what I was saying. The other is a young man who others already look up to but who has not defined his leadership yet. I am helping him find a way to give as much to younger players as he genuinley wants but does not have the vehicle to do so yet.

Funny how these things that I deal with on the deck are also in the minds of parents in the stands at exactly the same time.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Frank Dialogue

Someone observed today that my blog lately has been quite blunt. There is a frank dialogue that openly states differences in the Manitoba clubs in a way that is usually danced around carefully. They wanted to know why.

Well, it is pretty simple really. We have tried long enough to get clubs to work together on common goals and it is not going to happen (for reasons I touched on yesterday). I have also tried to work with the MWPA on this, hosted an open meeting with the community to talk about how LTAD was going to impact us. It didn't make any difference, we still have one club that does not have an identity, won't embrace it's strengths and won't move out of the way of progress.

That last point is why I am being a bit more open in the recent comments about working in partnership. I am hoping that enough people have now seen that there is no partnership in long term development; we are on our own to go down this path. That is a big, big point to make as it means decisions have to start being directed at what we need, not how do we find a common program with someone else. And, importantly, when someone else is obstructing our efforts with chaos or nonsense we need to be quite blunt and say "get out of the way".

I have known for quite awhile this point had been reached but the LTAD is helping others see it much more quickly. Now parents can put their 10 year old in water polo in the fall and see by the spring how our programs go in a specific direction and that we are alone in Manitoba. They can see why I am trying to be in an Atom and Bantam league with 3 Saskatchewan clubs and why we have monthly games with 16&U and 18&U Team Sask squads. Next year when I am trying to get our satellite pools going they will see that we should not wait to see if the Neptunes want to play along or be part of the growth. Everyone will know we have to do it ourselves.

There is nothing wrong with any of that. We just have to start talking about our sport and it's programs in the right context. We have to see that if we are not following the Water Polo Canada LTAD much more closely as an organization that we will be lost forever. If the rest of Canada is running local leagues for 12&U and 14&U teams and having hundreds of kids playing in tiers, and the top ones practicing 6x week, we are behind already. In 1 short generation, no more than 4 years, the 14&U playing level will be where many 18&U Canadian clubs are now. The problem is that this level will only be in BC, Calgary, Edmonton, Hamilton, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal. That will fit the short term plans of Dragan and Pat, both want more hours spent on standard skill at a younger age, but it won't help any of the clubs outside 6 or 7 of our biggest cities.

That is our challenge now, figure out what we want and set local programs toward those goals.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Provincial Championships & LTAD

Not directly related to the topic, just nice Prairie athletes

My blog entry yesterday prompted a few people to talk in more detail with me about Provincial Championships today. Some coaches had an interesting conversation at the pool tonight when discussing another difference between clubs in Manitoba when we consider season ending games. We tend to look at a championship as a summary of something, an exercise in evaluation of progress made. Sometimes this involves looking at the win-loss outcome but slowly I am getting people to look away from that to the seasonal development.

By contrast, I always hear Neptune coaches talk about "getting games for the kids" as if that was the purpose of a championship. It is not, "getting games" is what the 10 month season is for, it is why we train athletes - to play games and measure growth or development. I don't want to say the other coaches are wrong, their perspective was common in Canada for a long, long time. It is just that sport evolution does not come from grass roots volunteers in Active for Life endeavors, it comes from professionals in comprehensive programs. So, we see things from a different perspective.

Last year I sat with the Head Coach of the Neptunes and talked about having 12&U and 14&U leagues this year with specific growth targets for each club. This would have involved developing programs in new neighbourhood pools (like we have at UofM) and bringing the kids together often for local games. This would have been a learning league where outcomes were measured against program goals. The main reason it did not happen, in spite of both head coaches agreeing it was needed, is that only Bushido had goals against which outcomes could be measured. Without these goals we could not convince Neptune leaders to see where this type of league could go.

What I had wanted was a 14&U league with a wide range of skills in 2008-09; players like Jaelyn and Erik playing with 1st year athletes. This would have been social for the very experienced players and they would have seen fun in the growth of the sport they love. Then, with the fun and enthusiasm generated, we would have had a broader base to deal with in 2009-10. That would have allowed us to remove the top 14&U players and have them play in a 16&U league, leaving the 14&U league to grow bigger again as a unified growth vehicle. I could see that but could not help others from another system see what we were talking about.

This type of league structure would really help growth and it would help every level of the sport, not just the entry. Having a broader base would allow the early maturing athletes to play up "age groups" which are not really about chronology in an LTAD matrix. That aspect of chronological age vs developmental age is something that people have trouble with. They can't see how we can use LTAD and develop athletes with a less rigid age group ie play according to actual development. Well, the easy answer is the early developers are removed from an age group and play up with older players. Once in awhile there will be a very late developer who could justifiably be held back to a younger age but this is not a central issue. More often than not these would be athletes who are too small for the physical aspect of water polo and should be doing a different sport. They will often have technical skills to allow them to play with "larger" players but the size makes parents want them held back for safety.

LTAD is supposed to be a blueprint for the sport growth and it is great to see how it is being used properly in Ontario. I'll discuss it whenever anyone wants, just let me know. Today I just wanted to follow up with some folks who have mentioned this the past few days.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Planning without Partners

If you are a songwriter or an author you might have some success looking at the world, reflecting and then putting thoughts to paper to share with others. If you develop a sport or a team it is pretty much impossible to do so without partners. Nobody plays alone for long.

The reason I am thinking about this today is I am looking at the competitions for the balance of the season and one of the gaps, or undetermined events, is a Provincial Championship in Manitoba. We chose a date last spring and competition categories and format were agreed on 3 years ago. What is missing is a team to play in most categories.

It's no problem for us to get people to agree that Seniors, Juniors and Masters from the other club in Manitoba can play against our 18&U teams, everyone is ok with that. After that it is very difficult to find game play since Bushido is developing athletes according to the LTAD framework with Technical Foundations, Competitive Foundations and then the more advanced training and competition levels. The Neptunes are offering FUNdamentals and Active for Life programs but under the label of Competitive ones. This is not always obvious to observers but it becomes clear when we sit down to plan events.

The Water Polo Canada LTAD documents are pretty clear but too often they are referenced improperly. For example the Master LTAD document we use nationally says "Combining male and female competition and training is not optimal after approximately 10 years of age..." But, in Manitoba I hear people say that LTAD suggests that genders play together at the 14&U level and, this is how the Neptunes want to play 12&U and 14&U Provincial Championships. That is just a simple contradiction of the sport science and all developmental research. So, we don't have common ground for teams to play and people tend to look at that as lack of cooperation. But, we can't cooperate when comparing apples to oranges.

Ontario deals with this in a way that we can't without considerable growth here. They tier events and allow Active for Life stream players to play a AA tier co-ed level with special rules. Their AAA play is still gender specific, for sure, and the top level of championship in that province for 14&U is boy and girl playing apart. Their AA rules limit players to be able to play only half a game in net (no specialized goalie), to not allow zone defenses, to prevent any holding away from the ball etc. This, clearly, is not a level for the 6 Bantam aged athletes that Bushido has invited to attend 16&U national championships. It sounds much more like our co-ed Middle Years school league.

Ideally we would ask 14&U players who train in a Competitive stream to play up on 16&U teams and not be part of 14&U programs. But, we can't grow programs without games so removing the 14&U players from those age specific teams would cut their game opportunities regionally by 50%. It might also mean there are no 14&U programs here as the numbers are so low in total registration as to not support 2 tiers. I'd like to introduce these concepts (tiered leagues) to this province but my plans have been shut down by our "partner" every time I propose them so we never grow in that direction together.

We are still trying to figure out how to have a 14&U championship between 2 clubs who train in the same city and have 14&U programs but only 1 of us can field teams for both boys and girls. Of course, if we were to combine into 1 co-ed group we would field a team that was unchallenged so there is no point in doing that. If we took the strongest players out and just had the beginners or 2x week kids play then the Neptunes wouldn't have a team. They only play if they can wrap a team around the 14&U female goalie who is an early maturer and has played for 3 or 4 years and trains every day of the week with women. We can't come up with a format that gives a meaningful game but has rules on age or experience.

Maybe if the Neptunes had agreed to a fall league with us it would have created a 5 vs 5 14&U division for both boys and girls or a coed tiered division in 2008-09 that was designed to grow into a gender specific league in 2009-2010. If we had a plan it would be possible to overcome many obstacles but as long as we are not talking the same language we won't make progress. Too bad.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Kellogg's, take a little heat yourself

Last week I had some fun on Facebook poking at the Michael Phelps bong story. This tale has now spun a few tantalizing sidebars that I want to use to breach the subject of nutrition and athlete health.

Today I read that Kellogg's dropped Phelps as a spokesperson because his actions were "inconsistent" with their corporate image. That made me wonder, "what is the corporate image"?

Should we immediately think of salmonella and tainted cookies when we hear Kellogg? Because they have done massive food recalls at least twice already this year. One was today when it acknowledged the link between salmonella and "Keebler Soft Batch Homestyle Chocolate Chunk Cookies". Talk about "making a mistake" and "letting down their fans". Phelps seems consistent with corporate image here because he gets roasted for a DUI after one Olympics (2004) then roasted for pot after the next (2008). What part of that is unlike Kellogg's repeated circulation of food that will kill?

Truth be told, when I think of Kellogg's I think of childhood obesity first. I fully understand kids eat the worst kind of sugar laced breakfast every day because it is marketed by companies like Kellogg's. Not just a subtle kind of marketing but full-on, multi-million dollar mind freeze marketing. It's marketing presented with a slick message that has the illusion of so much authority that you would be insane to question it. The kind that makes families think that not having sugar cereal on the table is "weird" or wrong in some way.

When I talk of sugar cereal I am not just referring to Frosted Flakes either. Here is the product ingredient list for "Special K" that supposed diet and lifestyle cereal (check out the 3rd & 6th most prominent ingredients);

Ingredients: Contains rice, wheat gluten, sugar, defatted wheat germ, salt, high fructose corn syrup, dried whey, malt flavoring, calcium caseinate, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), alpha tocopherol acetate (vitamin E), reduced iron, niacinamide, pyridoxine hydrochloride (vitamin B6), riboflavin (vitamin B2), thiamin hydrochloride (vitamin B1), vitamin A palmitate, folic acid and vitamin B12. To maintain quality, BHT has been added to the packaging.

As nutrition expert Mike Reid says "if you can't pronounce it, don't eat it".

But, if you don't buy the link to childhood obesity with Kellogg's processed foods because you just think kids are not "active enough" then maybe it's time to do some research into childhood diabetes as well. What role does processed food-in-a-box have to do with the amazing jump in childhood diabetes in North America in this generation? That is too much food science and nutrition detail for me to go into with a water polo coach blog.

So, ya, you can say that an Olympian like Phelps is not anywhere close to the image of Kellogg's as a company, but it has nothing to do with his apparent use of cannabis.

Sorry if you were looking for technical information on water polo today. I decided to deal with the "athlete machine" side of the sport instead.

Friday, February 6, 2009

California Dreamin

This is an odd weekend for me as a coach. Here I am in Winnipeg, running regular weekly activities, preparing teams for their upcoming club events. But my focus is split as I also follow the play of Serena as she begins a tough weekend of games at Stanford with her Hawaii team in the NCAA. Then, just down the interstate from Stanford I have 2 boys playing in the Winterfest tournament in LA. Brendan and Carson are both playing with their CA buddies in the SET club. Carson will be a goalie on the team in the 18&u A division and Brendan will exchange bumps and bruises with the teams in the 18&U AA division.

It's hard to explain exactly why Bushido has 3 players/former players active in California this weekend. To help put it in perspective there are 4 categories of play in the boys 18&U age at Winterfest. 78 teams in total in that one age group (24 AA, 24 A, 19 BB and 11B), that is the attraction for the boys. Soooo many games, sooo much variety in skill and style. If every 18&U boys team in Canada played at 1 event it would not even be as big as 1 of the 18&U Categories at Winterfest.

Serena plays in the NCAA because she can play 40 high quality games in a 3 month season, while getting a free education. She plays at Hawaii because, well, it's Hawaii (and they have a great Canadian coach). It is hard to explain the feeling an athlete gets when they are surrounded by 100's of players with similar goals and ambitions in the sport they love. That is quite different than a practice at Pan Am with 6 or 7 players of your age.

That issue of teams, games and sport growth is not one I want to deal with here. I just want to promote a few players who are busy at a high level this week.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Specific Training, Part #2

A little while ago I wrote about specific training, how it is related to goal based work. This was primarily directed at training gains - fitness, strength and skill development. But, there is another aspect of specific training that is also very often overlooked - that is tactical effort ie knowledge of scrimmage or game play.

In our club we play games, or use full court tactics, 1x per week for each age and gender. The balance of our training is directed to building the parts that are applied in a competitive team effort ie increase pass accuracy or shooting power and apply it in the weekly game. This means that the game day is completely focused on a competition. That is important as it puts a key emphasis on proper warm up and then on specific tactics. Every game we ask the teams to work on something specific to the opponent and teams for scrimmages are mixed in ways that allow tactical experimentation.

A funny thing happened last Saturday during our boys game (not HaHa funny, awkward funny). Our 16U boys were scrimmaging our 18U boys (with a few 14U add-ons) and the 16U boys were shutting down the older team pretty well. That is, until they stopped following coach instructions and started following the direction of the dominant 18U player. We had discussed specifically how to eliminate this dominant player (Brendan) and keep him out of the 18U offense. After he got too frustrated with his team he changed their tactics and that was a cue for the 16U boys to switch defense in response. When they did try to switch they were told to "play the same defense" by Brendan. Sure enough, they abandoned team objectives and blindly followed an opponent in their leadership.

That was a big turning point, not just because the team had abandoned what they were working on during their 1 weekly game. More importantly because when challenged on that departure from game plan they tried to justify their lack of team learning by saying they wanted to help Brendan show his team how to beat their defense. So, they were not focused on applying a team tactic according to an opponent but instead were focused on following an older team member when it hurt their game performance. When I explained how wrong that was the response was just "it's only a scrimmage, jeez what's the big deal?". Of course, the big deal was that they were working on tactics to eliminate Brendan from the 18U offense, not helping him beat their own team. Oddly enough, the 18U team has been working all season on not letting Brendan be the only one to lead the 18U team in the water so the 16U boys had ignored what we have been working on for months.

When the 18U team changed tactics, as we knew they would, the 16U team had a plan to counter it. They didn't follow the plan and further frustrate the older team, they gave up their united effort. Instead of the 18U going to the quarter break and getting instruction from Heather on what they had missed or done wrong, they went to the side feeling that they had figured out how to beat the 16U defense. In a real game the 18U team would never face an opponent that played the same defense no matter what they did on offense so the 18U had just taught themselves a false lesson, they created a situation in a practice game that they would never face in a real game.

That was a lesson in how NOT to train. Never create a practice that does not mirror a game. If you teach basic skill you do it away from a stressful, competitive setting. If you teach a skill under competitive pressure you do it in a training setting that isolates the pressure. Then, after that, you apply the skill in a game. The first game application is in a meaningless one, like a scrimmage, then a real one with a result that matters. That is what we are after, it is why we play games vs Team Sask every month pretty much all year. We are building on a foundation that the athletes are struggling to accept.

I hope that Saturday was a lesson learned, I know it was for some as they have already talked about the process. Others, we will have to see.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


Ok, odd title for a water polo coaches blog, I admit. However, it became apparent last night that I am now coaching many players from a younger generation that have not heard me talk to them enough about nutrition. One athlete actually went so far as to tell me I was feeding them conspiracy theories when I answered some questions about milk and how it has a negative impact on many people.

First of all, I am not going to tell anyone not to drink milk even though there is ample research to tell you why not to. I am also not going to tell you to drive within the speed limit, to not download movies or video from the internet, to not drink alcohol to the point of intoxication. Everyone can make their your own choices about lifestyle; I will just help with information that is current and applicable to athletes.

So, why am I saying that milk consumption is not necessary? Simple, we are one of the few cultures in the world that drink milk after infancy. We, in North America, are told we need milk for calcium as we apparently can't get enough from other dietary sources. We are told we need the calories and the nutrients. However, we have the highest dietary consumption of milk and the highest rates of osteoporosis and obesity in the world. Next time an authority (doctor, nutritionist) tells you that milk calcium is needed to prevent osteoporosis ask them to discuss that in more detail. Ask them what role exercise plays in osteoporosis (more or less important than milk) or if zinc is more or less important than calcium in that disorder. Ask them why cultures that do not drink milk have much lower rates of osteoporosis.

I don't want to dwell on this topic but I do want people to realize that Milk Marketing in North America shapes the image and consumption of that product. It places milk on a pedestal that it has not earned. The many calories from milk can easily be replaced by better sources of calcium, like green vegetables, sesame seeds and nuts. It never hurts to challenge existing patterns of behaviour and that includes food consumption.

Here is a really good place to start reading about milk if you have questions and are surprised to hear that it isn't a wonder food from heaven -

I won't even begin to discuss chocolate milk and why the addition of refined sugar just takes milk from unadvised to harmful.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Choice, or lack thereof

As the women's NCAA season gets underway I am thinking about the competition choices available to Canadians. Next year Breda will be at Cal, Brendan will be at a top 10 California school, training his butt off, and Serena will be a 3rd year starter at Hawaii. That seems good but only on the surface as it shows a disconnect with Water Polo in Canada.

I was asking one of my Cadet players today what grade she was in and she said "grade 10, you have me for 2 more years". It was said with a smile and an innocent voice. Heather, beside me on deck, had the same response as I did. Why just 2 more years? Why do Canadian players think the sport ends after high school when all around the world that is when serious water polo starts and national leagues are featuring their premier divisions? That's a big problem.

I am hoping that one day, before I leave the sport, there will be domestic choices for those beyond high school; some Intercollegiate leagues, club leagues etc. This will take a big, combined, effort but it is possible as we see parts of this emerging in Canada already (in Ontario at least).

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Specific Training

One of the things that I am finding difficult to deal with is the reluctance of athletes that I coach to follow sport science in training. There is still a great deal of "old school" training methodology in the water polo world and unfortunately much of this resides with the (Canadian) National Team as well. Too little emphasis is placed on specificity of training and too much time spent on generic direction to include a volume of work rather than a specific type of work that is goal oriented.

In December I had 2 national team athletes return from Montreal telling me that they had been directed to "swim more" by national coaches. My reaction was "more than what, how do they know what you do now" and "more of what, heading toward what goal"? It was odd that teenage athletes were told to increase swimming when their coach had not been consulted about how much they were already doing. This has happened before too.

That commentary is a set up, to deal with the conversation I had to process on Monday. One of my players insisted she had to swim "more" to get faster. That was frustrating because it is not a correct relationship between more and fast. The two can work in opposition if there is no plan and no goal. Young athletes need more volume in the water to develop specific aquatic physical literacy but once that is developed training must move to sport specific energy demands and strength requirements. And, to complicate this, there is no black and white distinction in water polo for these aspects of the sport. The requirements and parameters are different for children, teens, women and men so knowing what you are after is very important.

I am writing about this today because there is light at the end of the tunnel. Sport in Manitoba is actually putting money behind sport science now and I can access various grants (tiny ones) to do real research in water polo. This allows me to keep a close professional relationship with Mike Reid who is a strength and conditioning coach with loads of water polo experience. It also lets me keep close contact with Carolyn Taylor a biomechanics expert who has worked with us the past two years. She can help me direct work in specific areas while Mike can help me tweak things to be as precise as I need to be for energy and strength demands of the sport.

That science does not help the masses much since we have no land exercise space at the High Performance facility in Manitoba, but that is another story. What I am able to do is give specific feedback to high achieving athletes who are on National Teams or headed to the NCAA. Since I am likely to have 3 players at top 5 NCAA schools next year I am eager to help them in any way I can.

One of the things Mike is helping me with is to identify the mistraining that interferes with specific athlete perfomance at a high level. For instance, the random training that athletes do that can interfere with rest or recovery is mentioned so that I can help athletes replace that with added work that makes sense and is in harmony. To their credit, most of the players are welcoming when they get that support, even if they are not sure about "less is more".

I just hope I can get the next generation of coaches from Manitoba to see the important relationship between science and training before I retire and leave this place for a quiet rural life. If my recent conversations with Heather Carson are any indication I think we are headed in the right direction.