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.