Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The League as a Virus

It's a funny title that defies logic. How can a water polo league be like a virus? Well, I will elaborate as this is a lesson in dysfunction that is good to take note of for anyone involved with sport.

During the 2009-10 season I worked with the Provincial Coach in Saskatchewan to develop a Senior water polo league on the prairies. We hoped this would be a way to energize our sport and challenge the competitive 18U players that we had in our clubs. There are several strong National Team athletes, of both genders, in our groups and having them play older players is very valuable.

This league was going to be regional so we made sure to involve all the clubs in our provinces, even if we had experienced difficulty working together in each province in the past. This was done and we created a 6 team league for both men and women. Wow, what an exciting way to start the season, with a 20 game league schedule!

What is the problem we encountered? There are several, but the main issue is a lack of organizational leadership. While there is a Provincial organization that governs Manitoba it has terrible, conflicting, grossly outdated policies. Add to that a lack of willingness to follow LTAD and, specifically, what is competitive water polo, and you get a recipe for disaster. When an organization does not function well in leadership it is wrong to give it a new league to manage. That is like giving matches to a pyromaniac!

Boy, did we see some nice fires this winter.

In our club we surrendered all of our fall Saturdays in 2010 to play league games with local opponents; that meant no scrimmage for over 2 months. I was expecting that could be positive and give weekly training a focus. The games ended up generating letters (from Sr Men) with complaints about rough play (by 18U boys). This is nuts, referees decide these things and when men don't get calls they want from other men it never makes sense to take it out on children.

That is the type of fire we are talking about and the league gave fuel to people looking for a fight. That is what I meant by the title; the jealousy and ill will was always there it just had a new flash point. Without a strong organization to handle governance and officiating there is no sense trying to bring diverse partners together in a competitive setting with egos on the line. I can spin the league any way I want, be a super cheerleader and supporter, but when the guys show up to a game and the referee is a player from the other team, or they hear about letters after the games complaining about what didn't get called; well, that is when people lose interest and enthusiasm.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Everything Is An Evaluation!

I coach a club that follows the Canadian LTAD format in sport development, in every way possible. In fact, I help lead this transition whenever asked and love the collegial approach to athlete development that is slowly emerging. One aspect of LTAD that is worth talking about is athletes that train in multi-sport environments, as is recommended for players 14 or younger.

A multi-sport foundation tends to develop better physical literacy, a more well rounded sport perspective and helps to delay burn-out from observations made to date on this topic. This week I heard a parent talk about a training benefit from another sport that was not in any way physical and I want to write about that so other coaches see the possible benefit of sharing athlete development in this way. Perhaps there are also some athletes or young coaches reading this who will benefit from the perspective as well.

This parent has a child who trains with me 10 months per year in a Canadian "winter sport" of water polo. The summer is taken over by a second sport and this is maintained on a complimentary scale while playing water polo too. This is common in our club with young athletes in participating in football, soccer, rowing and triathlon. It was in one of these sports that a young athlete learning about Competitive Sport got to hear a presentation from a national team athlete in that sport. It is the main message that was communicated that I want to share.

This national team member made all the young athletes in her presence know that in competitive sport EVERYTHING is an EVALUATION. She was talking about how coaches form opinions and the things that go into a coach impression of an athletes abilities and character. I loved hearing about that because this is one thing I have trouble helping 13-16 year old players grasp. Doing a drill perfectly is great, being the fastest or strongest is wonderful, but I look for so much more. I want to know how players interact, who supports a team member, who listens to a coach and helps implement team strategy. Is there someone who brings the team together with their presence, someone who divides them? Who leads the drills, works the hardest, puts their best effort into EVERY part of practice? This is what I am looking at each day.

Why is that important? Let me explain from a National Coach perspective. One of the first things a coach learns when selecting representative teams, from all over the country, is that the players you select are all going to be talented so you better pick ones that work together. How can you beat an opponent that is 13 players all doing the same great things at the same high intensity, for a whole game, if you don't also have 13 doing the same? You can't. Selection has to ensure the team dynamic is focused on the same goal and that starts each day at practice.

Professional coaches, particularly hockey, use this expression often "he is great in the room". "The Room" is the dressing room and "he" is considered great if he unifies the team, speaks to them with motivation when needed, with anger when appropriate; and people follow. A veteran that is good in "the room" will extend his career for several years and will often be sought after by coaches looking for a championship in a pro sport.

How does that impact teen water polo players? Well, if you want to play on a National Team, or in the NCAA on a schools tab, then you better want the coaches to seek you out rather than avoid you. If you play on a club team and it is small, your work habits will influence what people think of the group and influence who joins. If you think of coaching, or being a referee, the place to show the qualities desired will be when developing as a player.

So, there is a benefit of multi-sport training that has nothing to do with physical literacy or sport technical skills. Too many athletes learn this lesson after they have stopped playing, hopefully I can help a few learn it a bit earlier and pass this on to another generation.