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.