Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Program Purpose

"Floating Star"

The image above is captivating, it was labeled "floating star" when I sent it to the parent of the athlete doing the beautiful back float during a game. The name has stuck as some of the older girls heard about the picture and love it's qualities. The parents and I chuckled at it because it captured a particular part of this young woman's character that we also see in other parts of her life.

The reason it is part of my Blog that has the title "Program Purpose" is because it shows that this group has a purpose in water polo that is NOT winning. This issue is something I spoke briefly about at the 12U practice tonight with another coach. He had mentioned to me that someone he had spoken with had recently measured my success as a coach by the number of national championships I had won (none). This had made him shake his head and laugh, thinking "how is that a measure of success"?

If I were hired to take an NHL team to the Stanley Cup, or a CFL team to the Grey Cup, or a National Team to a World Championship then winning would be my primary objective. However, never, ever, in my life have I ever set a National Championship as my goal or the goal of my team. In fact, only once in my life did I attend a National Championship with a team that I thought had a chance of winning and that should have had that goal in their sites (16U Women's nationals a few years ago in Montreal with Breda, Shae and Sandra all playing great at the same time). So for anyone to judge me by "wins at a nationals" they would have no idea who I was or what I was trying to do at the pool each day as a coach.

Did I say that winning was not important? No, nothing like that. However, winning is only important when it is a product and the program purpose leads to that point. For example, a national team picks the best players in a country, from anywhere, to make a very strong team that can consider winning. A club takes players from a community, sometimes far less than a team worth in each age, not often a group that can win.

When I first started offering 12U programs in our club, in the 90's, there were only a handful of clubs running programs at that age. Of those, only Saanich approached the athlete development holistically and used sport science to any degree close to what we were doing in Bushido. What ended up happening is that when we took the 12U team to competitions we overwhelmed the opposition. There was a point where we won 5 Alberta Open Championships in a row, and those kids went on to win at 14U too. It was because the program was better than the others and the kids didn't have to be better, or bigger or faster or stronger, just more skilled and better prepared. It was also a time when our club was ignored by Manitoba Water Polo, nobody cared about what we were doing because they "were just little kids".

That all changes as players get older. More clubs offer programs for athletes after they are teens, players mature - speed, power and strength start to become issues you cannot deny when skills catch up. That means clubs with positive environments tend to produce better teams ie bigger cities have a larger base of athletes and athlete selection, more opportunities for games, more resources to support athletes. It gets harder to win as you move up and the "National Championships" are only for the older ages. Imagine that a club like DDO with 3 girls or boys teams of 16U players at nationals has a better chance of winning than a club like Bushido that does not have 13 players on their team or has players from 3 age categories ie 12U, 14U & 16U. An "A" team is selected on skill, strength, size and commitment so they put winning as a priority.

Without at least 7 players who have the same goal, the same work ethic, the same type of skill set, you will not have a team that can say winning is their measure of success. Look at that picture at the top again, are they all on the same page and is winning the objective? No, nothing like that. So, what is their measure of success? Let me explain it from a position that we coach our club from.

I help athletes meet their goals on an individual level. Some want to play on National Teams, I've helped over a dozen meet that goal since moving to Winnipeg. Some want to play in the NCAA, last month Serena was the NCAA player of the week and Breda is a Freshman who is at the top of scoring at Cal. Some want to be a game star at a big event or to make an all-star team, we've seen lots of that over the years. Others want a healthy lifestyle, maybe to counter health issues like Claire and her Cystic Fibrosis or to address introversion or rage issues. Whatever the player wants, I try to create the opportunity to meet their goals. That is my objective, build people using water polo!

Winning at some level is always important in a competitive program. That is why we play in the events we do; Alberta Open, Valentines International, Ontario Championships, Alberta Championships etc. This gives leaders a chance to emerge, very strong players an opportunity to shine, less confident players a chance to succeed in sport when they might not alone. Winning these events is a goal because in that context it is a standard of performance our training can be aimed at and measured by. Learning to win should be placed where it is realistic, otherwise it is a foolish goal. Coaches must learn this, set goals that are real and embrace them, push athletes to those goals and they will quite possibly reach them.

If winning is possible given the stage of athlete development, and the breadth of your program, then EMBRACE it. However, judge a program and a coach by their objectives, don't put winning as a standard barometer when it is not one.