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.