Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Total Concentration

Not too long ago I wrote a blog that dealt with Talent. This outlined some of the things that went into the creation of talent according to author Dan Coyle. Last night I experienced a very specific example of how Total Concentration during practice can make a profound difference in a single practice.

This is a practice with 12U and 14U players and it was an unusually small group due to some player illness and schedule conflicts that resulted in having to modify what might have happened during the normal session at that pool. This allowed (required?) me to try some different things with a group that has a very, very broad range of focus.

We were doing some passing drills about 60 minutes into the practice that had small groups and mentor relationships. I created mixed age group pairings ie 12U player with 14U so that young athletes could be lead in the water by an older peer. To get the older athletes attention and focus I included a negative reinforcement for dropped passes - pairs had to swim about 15m to the bulkhead and back with each dropped ball. The older ones did not want to swim if they could pass so it became a project for each one to find a way to get their young partner to focus on the catch and pass routine.

The picture above shows some of the pairs along the wall passing, others are swimming and out of the picture. I had to switch partners after about 5 or 6 minutes when I could see which 12U boy was unable or unwilling to listen to his mentor. After that adjustment we had pairs that all found a way to cooperate on the task the older player set for them. The change in focus of the young players in this situation actually surprised me in a big way. Hanika, in the red hat above, has a good deal of patience and worked the whole time with the youngest boy, Aidan. At 8 he is not confident that he can repeatedly pass the ball in a pair and it took some time for Hanika to get him on task. By the end of the session he was able to do almost 50 passes without dropping the ball and that is about 40 more than he has ever shown us before.

The really amazing shift though was with Zacharia, above on the right. He really responded well to Sam who was determined to; 1) not swim at all, 2) not be outdone by any other mentor. Zach has a tendency when catching the ball to lay out on his back and wait for it to drop from the sky into his hand as he sinks. This makes his passing partner want to lob the ball more and more softly which negatively reinforces the poor catching position. Sam realized this and worked patiently to find the strength, power and arch of a pass that Zach could absorb without laying on his back. The end result, after about 15 minutes together, was these 2 passing the ball 300 times without dropping it.

I didn't hear a word out of Zach the whole time he was passing, the first 15 minutes of silence he and I have shared at the pool. Now I see what he is capable of with Total Concentration and my role as a coach is to help him find that each day. A big task with 12U players, for sure, that is why it's important to lead this group with a mix of knowledgeable, experienced coaches somewhere in their regular routine.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

An Island of Excellence

The past few weeks people in Canada have been hearing quite a bit about something called Own The Podium when there was talk of our Olympic athlete performance. This is a name that has not been properly presented to the public in it's sport context and it came under some heavy criticism, and even some ridicule, from outsiders and uneducated members of the public.

To fully understand Own The Podium (OTP) you have to know the context in which it is applied. I will put it in the framework of the Water Polo LTAD to clarify how it is used. OTP is the name used to describe the programs primary objective. The over-all program philosophy at that stage is Road To Excellence (RTE) and if you are on the Road To Excellence you might expect that a Podium is something that is part of your vision. This is in contrast to my daily coaching of the top level athletes in Manitoba, teens who are under a program philosophy known as Competition and having the primary objective Optimize the Engine & Learn to Compete.

Athletes need to "optimize the engine and learn to compete" before they move on. Once they are ready to place an emphasis on performance then the focus must shift from developing the engine and skills to using them properly. That is how the concept of "own the podium" emerges; if you compete, what is the target? In Canada we say it is the podium and if we see that target then we train to "own" it. Right now I am teaching teens to own skills, values and training goals; that is their target.

We have a pretty interesting example of Own The Podium in Canadian Water Polo right now. Our senior men's National Team in Calgary operates as a bit of an island, cut off from much of the rest of the domestic scene while pursuing intense training that focuses on team performance. Dragan, the Head Coach, has changed a great deal of what the players at that centre do in their daily training and the result was seen this past week in Hungary. The men played a very close game with Hungary, 10-8 loss, that would have been unheard of a few years ago. That was a championship game in a tournament that saw the team also beat the USA and Australia and that has not happened in my memory.

Canadian National Team - Volvo Cup 2nd place

I mention this here because Dragan had to change quite a bit of the training focus for the men that arrived at the Calgary Centre when he took over as Head Coach. He was looking for uniform skills that could be used in a tactical system that had base line performance that is world class. He developed that last year and is now bringing it to the next level. He tried to share some ideas about the training changes he has made for these guys when he spoke to us at the Water Polo Canada Leadership Symposium in Montreal last fall. He will probably have more to say next year when people hear what he is doing. This success will also allow Pat Oaten to push harder for standards of training as he redesigns the entry level programs of the female National Teams this year.

It was very interesting to me that the men had this success in Europe at the same time that our winter Olympians were performing so well in Vancouver and Whistler. There are some similarities in how they did things. For example, when do we ever hear of female bobsledders in Canada? Once every 4 years, at an Olympics, and only for a few cycles - so, basically, never. But, the women that won Gold and Silver in BC have trained hard, as poorly paid pro athletes, under the Own The Podium banner on the Road To Excellence while everyone else was pretty much oblivious to what they were doing. They had 3 things in their training that I talked about in my last post on Talent - Practice/Practice/Practice, Great Coaching & Total Concentration. Of course, great athletes too, but in a supported environment that provided services specific to the goals they had. That is what Dragan is providing too and it is why both are meeting lofty goals.

This is what the LTAD is supposed to do for sport in Canada and we are seeing results top down. That is exciting since the big changes will be when the program is fully implemented and it works bottom-up, giving national teams perfect young men and women with focus and a taste for success. I sure hope that Manitoba Water Polo will one day understand and accept LTAD so I can help push the performance standards in Canadian water polo with better supported young players.