Thursday, April 7, 2011

Scrimmage, what is it good for?

There was a time, in the 70's and early 80's when water polo clubs in Canada had pretty dull and static practice routines. These involved a short swim set that looked a bit like a swim club, then some passing and a 30-45 minute game at the end of practice. That gave players a sense of the structure of the game but not much skill to execute it properly.

As practice frequency increased, sessions became longer and players started younger the skills naturally improved without too much of a format change. Then sport science became involved and clubs started to teach much more skill, different swim styles were trained and scrimmages were at a higher tempo. That was a standard formula even if some (most?) clubs did not change the swimming format enough.

About 5 years ago, after a long struggle with the city to improve our facility access, we were able to secure daily training space for our competitive players in Manitoba. That was great as a step in an LTAD direction with hours increasing in the water. But, there was a down side to the changes. To get the big blocks of time for water polo with other competitive sports (swim, dive, synchro) we needed to share the largest facility at the same time. That meant compromise.

Divers did not compromise diving boards, swimmers did not compromise walls or lines on the bottom and synchro did not compromise deep, open water. Water polo did compromise, no walls to set up a playing course and allow referees to walk alongside the "game". This meant daily "scrimmages" had to be confined in a half-court space during the week and only weekends were available to us to play a game with a water polo course set up.

A great deal can be done with a half court set up. But what can never be done properly is counter attack, transitional play, breakaways, restarts or extended game like swim set ups. This put increasing pressure on the weekend scrimmage as it was the only time that players played with a real view of tactical situations. We were promised that there would be additional space to make up for the weekly scrimmages when the prime time space was granted to us but that all materialized at the same time - Saturday afternoon - at all pools.

I've seen a big drop in tactical play with our teams the past 4 years, even if skills have improved in many cases with players. What was really interesting was the past 2 weeks during the Spring Break for school players (actually 1 week before and 1 week during). We had a scrimmage 6 days per week for 2 weeks. Not all players were there, some were on holiday, some just didn't bother. But those that were made measurable improvements as the days went by; counter attacks extended from 10m to 20m, advantages were recognized in transition rather just on an odd drive. Players started to create patterns on restarts that took advantage of progress from one attack to the next in a fluid game.

I guess I am writing this because I undervalued the scrimmage that we lost this fall with the PWPL games that took our pool time. I thought games could replace much of the scrimmage but these are not equal learning opportunities so they didn't. I counted, we had 7 scrimmages in the club for U16, U18 or Senior teams between the season start in September and the 2 weeks stretch of games in mid March. Seven scrimmages in 6.5 months and that is taking advantage of 100% of the pool space we had. Wow, no wonder the teams have taken some slow starts to games this winter.

We'll be sure that doesn't happen again, even if we have to create a Handball league to generate the game reps.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Referees Get Respect

In the past I have posted somewhat critical looks at local referees. I wanted to be sure to say something positive about that part of the sport when I saw it. This was made easy by our participation in the 2011 Alberta Open in Calgary in March.

Usually, with 7 divisions of play and 3 or 4 pools of games at one time, referee action can vary greatly. This was the first year where I felt the level of officiating exceeded the level of play from start to finish at the U12, U14 and even U16 levels. Sure, there were crazy situations in some games where parents, coaches and players saw things much differently than the referee. But, that is just sport and it can be expected at any time. Even at the U18 level the referees for the most part were totally in synch with the level of play.

There is a reason for that and I want to talk about it so people hear me say positive things about referees and so anyone looking for ideas can maybe see a way to make progress. First of all you need to understand that Calgary in particular has many regular league water polo games during the year. This is supported by league games in Alberta with other cities and clubs. These league games force a need for referee development and it is made possible by strong leadership.

Leadership comes in different ways in Alberta, probably most clearly the referee support comes from Mike Dykman. He is a referee leader that shows authority, fairness and civility while still being totally relaxed and approachable. This is modeled for all young referees emerging from the playing ranks. Even if Mike is not in charge, which he seems always to be, all the referees know who he is and how he conducts himself. That is the solid footing to begin a training program of mentorship.

With a role model it is possible to set expectations for young referees and they will see the desired outcome. This also allows coaches to see where the referees are going and to know that there is a model being pursued. It prevents the common problem of referees being developed 1 or 2 at a time and toward different ends ie a competitive stream, a community stream, a youth stream, a masters stream. These new referees all acted a similar way and what really stood out was how they smiled and interacted with others. In 2011 referees were relaxed and professional.

That may seem like a small thing, them being relaxed and professional, but it is not. I was so impressed with how they acted that a "bad" call I didn't agree with was never considered an attempt to "screw" my team so it kept me from showing players I was upset, because I wasn't (at least not at officials). For a coach to go a whole tournament with that view of referees is really nice.

It is interesting that we went 2 years between the 2009 Alberta Open and the 2011 event and with that gap there was a quiet evolution of referees in Alberta. I say "quiet" because we didn't see it outside as it was in their leagues. That is the key thing in consistent officiating - REGULAR GAMES at a set standard where performance is standardized. That simply can never be done with a stand alone tournament in a community 2 or 3 times per season.

Once again we see Leadership, Regular Games and Mentorship as keys to sport success. Surprisingly it is not in a discussion about athlete development but it does impact that part of sport in a very direct way.