Blog Post #23 – Those who can teach……

How long has it been since you walked in the learners/athletes shoes? What was it like to be a beginner? As we get older we may take the small details for granted or we might realize that it is in the details where mastery is had? There’s a lot of technical wrestling information out there in the internet these days and as they say, “A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.” Einstein was said to be a terrible teacher and lacked an ability to relate information to his students. There is no doubt he had a ton of information. He could “do” but he couldn’t teach. In a week I start my 33rd year of teaching and 34th as a coach and looking ahead I am starting to plan for the year and how I’m going to constructively put to use the information I learned this summer.
Wrestling was hard for me but was science hard for Einstein? Our training experience as students in our respective fields was very different. I’ve written similarly about philosophy in the past and how we are influenced by who we were taught by, our coaches, parents and teachers. It is also true that how we developed and what kind learner, athlete we were effects how we coach/teach. Einstein was a prodigy who created and I was an overachiever who struggled as a learner. A compelling question though is does the prodigy make for a good instructor? Would World Champion Frank Chamizo make a good high school coach? We would all love to get in a room a try to break some stuff down with him but he can “do” what so few can and just because you can “do” doesn’t mean you can teach. Let’s face it that might be a tough comparison because he is not training to be a coach he is training to be a World Champion but the line of thought does lead us to the question of what makes for a good coach/teacher?
Communication of course is key to any form of coaching/teaching. There are however other very relevant aspects to coaching/teaching that leads to success. Coaching is not necessarily what Mike Mal does with his great “Behind the Dirt” segments on Flowresting.  It’s great information, a source of detail and food for thought but it’s the equivalent of a series of vocabulary definitions without sentence structure, grammar, voice and all the other ingredients that make for good writing. I will admit though that Mike does a good job disseminating the information and is a good teacher. But what I’m talking about here is the bigger picture. I have a number of technique books and DVD’s on wrestling technique but it is not what will make me a great coach/teacher. Teaching writing is not a series of definitions without context and so too is teaching wrestling a series of moves without a structure. Holistic approach is key here, seeing the big picture. This is especially true when working with a team of beginners, high school kids of varying abilities or a youth team. As coaches/teachers we assess where everyone is at in their development and determine the path that best meets the needs of that specific group. I have 65 to 70 kids on my high school team and to think we are going go in without a plan or to just focus on a series of cool ass technique that I picked up watching the word championships this fall would be negligent. Here I think is at the crux of this discussion: technique is just one facet of the greater picture and how that technique best fits into the daily structure of the overall program and the skillset to put it all together is what makes a coach/teacher great. Every great high school coach I’ve ever been around had a system. If you ever get a chance ask Jim Jackson formerly of Apple Valley or Jeff Buxton formerly of Blair if they had a system.  I know they had a defined picture in their brain how each day, week, season respectively would look. Beyond that they knew intimately how it all fit together who would benefit from what and what the weaknesses and strengths of each team were. It’s never a grab bag approach or doing something just because you saw Jordan Burroughs or Kyle Snyder do it. Sure you can learn a lot from the Einstein’s of the world but the art of coaching/teaching is much more involved. As coaches we need to get deep into our philosophy and why we do what we do before throwing out Chamizo’s single leg defense. The conversation we need to have with ourselves is about practice structure, economy of time, basics and fundamentals, individualization versus teaching to the team, assistant coaches and their roles, percentage of time spent in each phase, drilling, sparring, live, how all this dirge of technique fits into the program and on and on. What are you going to focus on the first week of practice and why? Who are you going to target your practice plan toward; the best in the room, the middle or the lowest. What is good teaching? Is good teaching throwing as much technique at the wall and see what sticks or does all the technique fit into a framework and than at some point it becomes individualized to meet the needs of a specific athlete? Also, there are other aspects that must be addressed like “fun” and as the coach/teacher if we do not make it fun I guarantee the athlete is probably not going to stick for the long haul. It also makes sense that learning anew and building on your knowledge base is industrious and enjoyable as both an athlete and a coach/teacher. When we learn we feel like we are getting better and it gives even the worst wrestler in the room hope for success.

I truly enjoy the Mike Mal stuff on Flowrestling but I’m also crazy enough to enjoy breaking down film on a Sunday morning for four hours. This doesn’t make me a great coach but it does serve to get me closer to what the Einstein’s of the world were thinking.Young coaches and parents make sure that you are using this very resourceful tool in the best interests of your program and kids. There is a foundation to be built and a system to be developed that will be enhanced by the great expanse of information available to us.  As coaches/teachers we need to be pragmatic with this information and use it to best meet the needs of our athletes and that in encompasses the entirety of our program.

Blog post #22 – You can be shaped or you can be broken.

Wow, what an NCAA Tournament. In the above picture is Jesse Jantzen (right, I’m the old guy on the left) a guy who definitely got the job done at the NCAA Tournament back in 2004. Jesse was so dominant his senior year there was little doubt he would win it. Most of the time it doesn’t work like that. The line between failure and success is so thin it’s hard to determine exactly what will give the athlete that fine edge for success on the culminating weekend. Penn State does what they do with a special spirit and resilience that is impressive. But let’s not forget how talented they are and getting it done in the glare of the lights has a lot to do with talent. I think what’s more impressive is the poise and grace of the two freshman champions. Granted, these young men have a ton of mat time and have performed on the world stage but there is nothing like the finals of the NCAA Tournament for intensity and pressure and being your best at that moment say’s something about their mental makeup. I have been fortunate enough to watch both of these young men win Cadet World Championships and their calm under pressure is something they seem to have mastered. I guess it’s only pressure if you see it that way eh?

Victor Frankl said, “Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued: it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.”

I would agree with this profound statement in part and add at the end “surrender to the process.” The “mindful” practice of focus is such a driving force on how we look at pressure, competition, emotions and the management of those components in the context of a very competitive and unruly world. I use the word unruly because as an athlete we may not control what is said to us by coaches, parents, teammates and of course the media but our filtration and reaction to those “unruly” events are critical.

As a high school coach I marvel at the skill and competitiveness of the NCAA Tournament and try to take a few things from it each year. It’s easy to be in awe of the high level of competitiveness and how incredibly tough individuals are. Everything is heightened at this level but in most respects the coaches and athletes are dealing with the same parameters as we as high school participants do at our respective high school state tournaments. There are, of course technical trends coaches see and want to emphasize back in their practice rooms. It’s easy to think just because we are coaches we see the sport as a coach. When we walk through the doors of the arena we most certainly become fans and as fans it’s easy to judge and critique without in-depth knowledge or understanding.  I try to remind myself that these guys struggle with the same stuff I as a wrestler struggled with and that my teenage athletes deal with. Getting athletes to that fine line when they step into that highly charged atmosphere of an NCAA Tournament or high school state championship is a product of good coaching and psychology.

At this year’s state tournament my team lost seven one point matches on the first day. This was the difference between making a run at a state championship and taking fourth. Since that weekend I have asked myself why on the daily. On the trip to Cleveland it was discussed between my assistant and I numerous times.  We are searching for answers. Some of it is coaching ego where we believe we can have that big of an impact and some of it has to do with talent. When we had really talented kids with great skill and preparation it was easy to say we peeked at the right time. But then there are the other parts of the puzzle we definitely have direct control over. Practice structure, competition structure and schedule, time off, individual psychology, focus, mindset and a myriad of other things come to mind when trying to break down what brings out the best in athletes on that final weekend of the season.

Teams and individuals that reach peak performance have some identifiable traits that coaches can strive to within their respective programs. Confidence, a keen focus on the task at hand, positive energy and a spirit of fun seem to be universal for those teams that reach or even exceed their potential at the definitive moment. If our focus on a daily basis is on these very same traits throughout the process I believe our mental approach will be better trained to handle the pressure down the stretch. My kids this year lacked some of these traits and I truly believe it helped determine some of the outcome. We need to look at that culture and ensure we are truly committed to the process and a mindful approach with our daily dialogue and behavior as coaches and teammates. Taking a snap shot of a part of a tournament is probably not the best way to assess overall performance and preparation but looking back it’s easy to ask the “what if’s” had we won all seven rather than lost. Just focusing on that one stat we cannot identify specific areas of weakness. My initial knee jerk reaction was “mental toughness” but it also behooves us to look at the psychological and technical aspect of what took place.

After taking a step back from it and trying to remove the emotion I could see that the majority of our losses were due to being deficient in the bottom position and a lack of mat strategy or what some would call “savvy.”

The problems on bottom are quantitative and a very tangible issue. This is preparation and comes directly back to the coach. I also believe we didn’t have that fun, competitive hungry spirit that peak teams have. This is an element that is not so quantitative but one as a seasoned coach I believe to be real and fixable starting with culture. In some way our culture of fun, ferocious competitors failed us. With that said, I leave you with a quote from the preeminent author of our generation.

“You can be shaped, or you can be broken. There is not much in between. Try to learn. Be coachable. Try to learn from everybody, especially those who fail. This is hard….How promising you are as a Student of the Game is a function of what you can pay attention to without running away.”

-David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

Blog post #21 – Father, Coach, Practice…..

Running into my office after school Burke says, “Ok if we’re going to do this let’s get it done I got shit to do.”

“Woe, what’s the hurry? Have a big date?”

“I have a life. I don’t spend every hour at work like you.”

Stripping out of his clothes he puts on a pair of dirty shorts and shirt lying in the corner. He grabs a pair of old shoes from a box in my office and walks out.

I like to sweat and get my joints warm when I wrestle so I pull on my long sleeve sweat shirt over a long sleeve t-shirt and step into a pair of sweatpants with holes in the knees. I grab my shoes from under my desk and slide them on, keeping the laces undone and loose like a pair of slippers. I look at the wall in my office and remind myself to stay positive.

I smile and say to his picture on my wall, “Today I break you.”

Jr WorldTeam Trial is less than two weeks away and he needs to be ready.

Burke could care less about sweating so he dresses lite but he likes to compete and win so he’s here because of that so am I.

As we walk into the dark, warm wrestling room he says, “Practicing with you sucks you’re too fat. I should be outside enjoying the sun.”

I mumble something about paying a price or not being lazy that he doesn’t hear nor cares too. We never turn the lights on during these workouts. I don’t know if we are afraid the light will expose what we are truly thinking or we simply like the diffused natural light that enters through the upper windows and the subsequent ambiance.

He’s been coming to this room with the purple mats, padded walls and smell of sweat since he was six. It’s a hard room, a room filled with tears and the brutality of combat but it’s also where we could forget our differences for an hour or two. A place where nothing else mattered but wrestling.

“We will go for an hour straight, start off drilling and work into live.” I say. “Let’s just jog to warm-up for 15 minutes and then go live.” He offers.

“How about we drill for 10 and then build into live.”

“Whatever, let’s just get it done with.”

“I’ll be the coach you be the wrestler ok?”

He starts to jog, rolling his shoulders I follow suit just behind him. None of his high school teammates are willing to come today so by default I’m his partner. It’s tough to find partners when the sun has finally clawed through the Western Washington cloud deck in what seems like months. At 42 years old I’m again his partner. When he was a toddler we would fake wrestle on the living room carpet. Much has changed since then. I no longer tickle him after rolling in each other’s arms and he doesn’t giggle in delight.

We stop jogging and face each other. He groans as I reach out and put my hands on his shoulders leaning into him. His arms react by coming up inside mine controlling my biceps pushing and then pulling. I move with him as if we are doing some rudimentary waltz.

We take turns taking each other to the mat than bounce back to our feet only to return again in a different way. This is give and take applying the right amount of resistance and look. Even though I have been wrestling since the same age as when he started this isn’t easy. I don’t worry about making it physically through an hour practice I worry about making it through mentally.

He needles me wanting to make me pay for having him come in and practice on a beautiful spring day. I could say ‘fuck it” and let him go but I trudge ahead holding him accountable. I think he said he wanted to be a champion not me. As we drill he delivers a constant critique.

“Jesus, that’s not how you do it. Don’t do it if you’re not going to do it right.” He scolds me. A year ago that would have been me saying the same thing. Just past his senior season in high school he feels license to talk shit. Something he has perfected to bring about the quickest degree of irritation in me. The ten minutes of drilling I worked so hard to convince him to do has quickly eroded into full live wrestling.  He scores the first mental takedown before we have even started. If he can for this small period of time minimize me to something other than his dad or coach or the guy in charge he has gained precious personal freedom. Our relationship now is so much about control.

I try to get my grip on him as he tries to dissect me like a surgeon. Our style of wrestling mirrors our relationship, me wanting to keep some kind of grasp and he staying away moving and sticking. Everything he does I taught him I know him as well as he knows himself. My composure gets him irritated as he slaps my ear. Like a bull I put my head in his face and stalk forward. He punches me in the shoulder bouncing away. I plod ahead squaring my stance and lowering my center of gravity.

“Are you too slow and old to shoot on me?” He laughs like a gambler who thinks he beat the house.

“Oh, tough guy wants to punch me?”  I taunt back.

“It’s wrestling don’t be such a baby.”

Now it’s about pride he has taken us here. I have taken us here. We are both suckers for foolish pride. I will give up takedowns to him, some charity some earned but never will I let him not be my son.

So much of this is pomp and some is just salt we pour on each other’s self-imposed wounds. Now, I laugh thinking how irritated he is. I am now under his skin, not my seventy pound weight advantage or my old man’s strength but my patience and composure has slowly slid into his psyche.

Shoving him on his heels he backs up continuing his stream of shit talk. He shoots low under my outstretched arms. I sprawl and land on him causing him to grunt. Before I can spin behind he circles back to his feet.

“Why don’t you do something other than try and fat me?”

“Why don’t you stand your ground and fight?” I say trying to force my will. I want to keep him here in my control for a while make him pay for all the talking and the attitude. But what I really want to do is make him work and just be close to him. I want to laugh with him and talk about wrestling with him like we used to when he was in fourth or fifth grade and begged his mom to bring him to practice right after school got out. I also want to make him deal with the strength the pressure of a 200 pound man. I also don’t want to lose him to all the things outside these walls? Our sweat drips down our foreheads as our chests heave for oxygen. Our words have become as choppy as our movements.

Thirty, forty minutes go by until exhaustion steals our pride. We lay on the mat. I can hear him breath.

“Are we done?”

“Yes.” I say my eyes closed.

He gets up and walks out the door.

“Don’t forget to do your homework.”

The door closes as I lay in a pool of sweat and he runs to the locker room.

I get get up head out of the dark wrestling room and I see his body jogging down the hallway toward the outside doors, jogging toward the sun, his friends and freedom. “Later Dad” he yells waving his hand.

Blog post #20 – It may not be what you think.

When I was a kid my dad told me, “Never pick on anyone because you just don’t know what they are going through and how close they may be to giving up.” That advice has apparently stuck with me and has served me well. My dad knew something when he told me that and I’m sure had an experience where you can’t always read a book by its cover.

This past weekend on our way to the Olympic Peninsula for our final invitational tournament of the season I loaded up the kids in the van at 6:00 am. We were behind the high school on the dark service road with the last of the nights rain falling.

It reminded me of a time early in my career. Like so many moments these days it hit me like it was yesterday. We were headed to some tournament, it may have been the same one as Saturday I can’t remember. It was a dark winter morning with kids slumbering into the vans, trying to continue what their parents had interrupted only minutes before. I distinctly remember one of my better wrestlers didn’t show up that morning many years ago. I waited and stalled asking if anyone knew anything but of course the half conscious kids laying in the seats had no clue. It started to get late and after a few futile phone calls to his house I left my office, climbed back into the van resigned to the fact he wasn’t showing up and headed out.

The young man in question was a quiet, smart, brown haired, hundred and ninety pounder that backed into the sport at the prodding of my assistants and I. By the time he was a senior he was pretty good. Not necessarily good enough to beat out our 178 pound kid in challenges but good enough to be a potential state placer. He was one of those kids you never had to worry about. A good student who was steady and always where he was supposed to be. That was the strange thing about him not showing up that morning.

I was still a young head coach, in my early thirties but having already had a fair amount of success I was hungry and driven to build a winning squad. Having one of my better kids not make the van for what I probably deemed as the most important thing he or I had to do that Saturday grated on me as we rolled down the highway. The tournament came and went and I remember none of it to this day. Couldn’t tell you who won or lost or even what our team placed. What I do remember is how irritated I was that this kid never showed and it festered all day Sunday during my day off. I planned the ass chewing I was going to give him Monday before practice with the possibility of collecting his singlet and sending him on his way. I was actually that upset. This kid had violated the basic foundation of loyalty I was trying to build and the concept of accountability to a team.

By Monday and our meeting I had calmed down a bit but still unloaded a pretty good verbal beat down. He had said his alarm clock didn’t go off or something to that nature. I bought his story as much as I could buy any seventeen year olds story (which isn’t much) and moved on. Nothing was ever said about it from that point on although I will admit I had lost a substantial bit of trust in him. I just couldn’t fathom why anyone in their right mind who valued the team and sport could be late or miss a van. Admittedly I was a tad tunnel visioned.

A couple weeks passed and like most issues when working with young people this too faded into the dusty annals of history. One random morning I was in my office and a teammate of his came in and asked if he could speak with me. He said he wanted to make sure I knew the truth about why his teammate didn’t show up for the van the other weekend. He went onto tell that the morning we left the one-ninety pounder’s dad came out and told him he couldn’t leave because he hadn’t told him the night before he had a tournament. A subsequent argument ensued and his dad grabbed a baseball bat and smashed the headlights of his car (he had paid for with his own money). In a panic, knowing he would be letting his team and coaches down he grabbed his gym bag and ran the four miles from his house to the high school in hopes of catching us before we left. Exhausted and cold he staggered into the parking lot only to find it empty and the vans long gone.

I was taken aback by the story and couldn’t wait to talk to the kid and apologize for ripping him for not showing up. His teammate however told me that he promised not to say anything as that was the hundred and ninety pounders wishes. I had really laid into him in the office weeks before and railed about the importance of loyalty and commitment but couldn’t violate the trust of his teammate. He was proud and ultimately didn’t want anyone to know his struggles at home. The three of us carried this giant elephant around for the rest of the season without saying a word. My respect and admiration for this kid grew daily while still respecting the fact that he did not want anyone to know the truth. He lived with me and his teammates thinking he neglected to make the bus to save face for his family.

At regionals that year he was sick with the flu and barely squeaked threw to state. As a fourth place qualifier his chances of placing were slim and I don’t think anyone expected much more than a couple handshakes and a few free meals for him. Astonishingly, with three consecutive wins he made it to the state finals. Ironically, his teammate he lost to in challenges at 178 ended up placing third that year.

For the first time in his wrestling career his parents came to watch him wrestle. As a three year starter and numerous home matches and tournaments this was the only time they took the time to support their son. He lost that night to a better wrestler.

After the season we talked about the morning he missed the van. I apologized for coming down so hard on him and he of course said it was ok and that I didn’t know. He graduated with honors and joined the military after high school. Many years later, just by chance I bumped into him and his fiancé walking on the boardwalk by the Everett water front the day before their wedding. I finally had the chance to tell him how much I appreciated him and told his fiancé she couldn’t have found a more loyal guy. It’s true she really couldn’t have.

I have not seen him since but he taught me a lot more than I ever taught him and I will never forget the lesson I learned from that cold winter morning so many years ago.

Blog Post #19 – Endeavor to Persevere

Does a team or for that matter an individual really get better as the season approaches its dusk? This time, the dog days of the season is what I’m talking about. Given that we are now in the heat of the competitive phase, closer to the finish than the start and the subsequent focus shifting more toward wins and losses do we actually get better? Last night Alabama defeated Georgia for the national championship in college football. Nick Saban spoke afterward of the “process” but the number of tizzy fits he threw during the game belie his “it’s not about the wins and losses” mantra. I’m a firm believer in the “process” also but let’s face some facts that sometimes it is about the wins and losses and the closer we get to our ultimate season goal that paradox becomes more apparent. So, how do we keep getting better in the light of all the influences and stresses that pile up toward the end of a season?

If we break improvement down into the most basic of areas and look at each individually rather than casting a flimsy catch-all net over a very complex sea of issues we may find the answer. I told my team last week, “Many individuals stop improving at this time of year, some digress and a small number get markedly better.” I believe that statement to be true but there are many reasons we stop forging ahead or continue to soar. Some of it rests in the structure of the season itself and how competition eclipses practice not only in mental time but in physical time. As a coach have you ever thought, “When are we going to have time to fix all these problems with all this competition going on?” I have and it is usually in January when that decision is actually made in April or May when I’m building the schedule. This year, simply by chance, our schedule was front loaded with a lot of competition and January is rather lite on meets and heavy on practice time. Depending on what we do with it this could be an opportunity to get better. It may also lull us into complacency. We will see. They say, acknowledging the problem is the first step to fixing it.

After deep reflection, limited television time and some luck I have come up with four basic areas where I believe I can make a positive change toward improvement: Technical (moves, position, reaction time, feel), Physical (strength, speed, health, body weight to strength ratio) Strategy (knowing your strengths, weaknesses, having a personal plan or box we wrestle in and adjusting to opponents) and finally, Mental (focus, attitude, resilience, toughness and belief). Of the four areas the mental state of the athlete is the most difficult to see and change. Creating an attitude of belief starts with trust, preparation and planting an idea at the very start that they will be better in the end than they are at the start. Once losses start to mount this can be a hard sell but one that is necessary for an athlete to reach their optimum performance late in the season. Rarely do athletes technically get worse although poor coaching and decision making can make it appear that way. There are times when an athlete makes a strategical digression which would more than likely be an error in judgement or lack of a strategical plan rather than an actual decline in a well thought out strategy but this also has a direct relationship to coaching or the lack there of.

If you are buying what I’m selling thus far what can, we as coaches do to make sure a steady flow of improvement exists? I have some ideas. First, we need a plan where the season schedule has a justification for what we are doing where and when. Building enough time into stretches of the season where you have significant back to back practice which can be used to address not only issues but actual broad themes both technically and strategically. Take care to take care of your athlete’s physical and mental wellbeing. Long periods of grinding live have a purpose but going about the distribution of it in a nilly willy fashion can lead to burn out and injury. This is both a physical and mental consideration as we want to leave enough time to build the athlete back up if we have significantly broke them down. This time of year it’s easy for all involved to press. Sensing a need for urgency with a limited amount of time left in the season it’s reasonable and encouraged to have a heightened value on time and effort. I think it’s important that our athletes understand from here on out there are no throw away days and we need take advantage of every opportunity to get a little bit better. Athletes and coaches, at least in our program, are acutely aware of this dynamic but as coaches we don’t always know what is being said or pushed at home by parents. Coaches being the advocate of the athlete need to be aware of what our athletes are dealing with at home and try and be a buffer to any unneeded pressure a parent(s) might be applying. Many times everyone’s heart is in the right place but it’s important that expectations are realistic and the ownership of the sport is squarely on the shoulders of the athlete.

From a technical and strategy standpoint this time of year is really individual athlete driven rather than team driven. Our focus really zeroes in on what each athlete needs to be successful down the stretch. This can be tough with 55 kids still showing up every day. This is where the head coaches’ ability to delegate to the assistants and come to consensus on what each athlete needs. Again, we are focused primarily on us and what can make us the best us, us can be. We talk about fitting each athlete in a technical and strategic box. Some boxes are bigger and more expansive than others. This process is finding out what works best for each individual and making sure those areas become strengths and doing things technically outside the box are eliminated. This is not to say we are not trying to produce complete wrestlers as we definitely are but in a way they can exploit their physical, mental and technical strengths.

A number of years ago I had kid who spent most of the season as the third string 103 pounder.  Ahead of him on the roster was the number one ranked kid in the state at the weight and a freshman who would go on to become a 3-time State champion and High School Senior National Champion. It was a pretty tough hill for this young man to climb. Every weekend as the varsity headed to some of the toughest tournaments in the region he would jump on the jv bus with our oldest most veteran assistant coach. What this coach did was make him feel as important as anyone riding down the road to the varsity tournament. He won all the jv tournaments he attended that season and was the star of the old assistants road show. In the last week of the regular season the old coach encouraged me to give this kid a wrestle off for the second 103 spot going into districts (we can qualify two in Washington).  In a best two out of three this young man earned the spot. Up to this point he had not beat the kid ahead of him and had not seen one iota of varsity time. Confidence is so important down the stretch. This young man with the old crusty assistant coach in his corner went onto win in the semi-final of the state tournament earning him the opportunity to wrestle his number one ranked teammate in the finals of state (or states if you’re from the east coast). Both he and his coach persevered and believed.

Endeavor to persevere

Blog entry #18 – Leadership and California Dreaming

My mother is an artist. She is an exquisite piano player even at the age of 86 but that is not her only art form. She is also a painter using oils where the layering and blending of color and texture is quintessential to the outcome of the final piece. She has had an indelible influence on my life and although I have not followed her path as an artist in the medium of oil on canvas I truly believe I bring the same layered approach to my coaching. Like the many techniques of oil painting where color and texture are deftly applied to give depth and richness mindful coaching can be much the same.

cali team

Our team just returned from an awesome trip to the Central Coast or more specifically Santa Cruz CA where we competed in the Pat Lovell Invitational, a 64 team two-day tournament. It was nice to go from 32 degrees and a chance of snow to 65 degrees and sunny skies but the weather is the least of the ancillary benefits of traveling as a team. We of course had a great time and bonded both as teammates and coaches and we experienced a little different style of wrestling which broadened our horizons on the mat but the most significant reward, in my opinion, was the evolution of our leadership.

I believe leadership can come from darn near anyone within your program but to have good leadership it must be an intentional pursuit with the teams best interest in mind. As the head coach I am naturally thrust into a roll of leader and could easily be viewed as the soul leader never fostering others to share in the process. Leadership does not have to be a plural condition within a team and frankly it should be the goal for the team to rise to a level of ownership where there are multiple leaders. I heard this quote a long time ago and it really rings true to me, “The team becomes a true team when the team members take total responsibility for the actions and outcome of the team.” If, I as the head coach take an autocratic approach to my team the development of other leaders can be stunting. Leadership style is rarely black and white and most leadership transitions between styles depending on the what, when and who. Leadership or the analysis of leadership should be a critical and continuous process. Even the naming of “captain” has to be a well thought out operation that at times can be difficult and even heartbreaking. During my career I have named captains who many of my assistants and athletes at the time didn’t understand why but in the end it turned out to be a stroke of genius. I have also went into the season not naming a captain waiting to see who would emerge and there have been seasons when I failed to release ownership to anyone else and I was the captain by forfeit. I do believe however, if captains and assistant coaches are puppets for the head coach the team will easily see through this and the buy-in and ownership will ultimately be stunted. Teams need to collectively develop a set of tenants that all members aspire to and the leadership holds everyone accountable for. Let’s face it autocratic leadership is the way most high school teams, businesses and organizations operate and their rallying call should go, “All for one and one for one!” Doesn’t sound right does it?

Going into this past weekend’s trip we had a void on our team in leadership due to injury and grade issues to a couple of our senior athletes. I have not been satisfied by the teams leadership up to this point even with their addition. This trip has been an excellent opportunity for others to seize the reigns and take on that roll. As a coaching staff I think we give ample room and guidance for this to naturally evolve but when a natural leader in the program goes down it provides an opportunity for others to grow into that space. It is always fun to see who emerges and being away from home where it’s just the team it’s easy to witness the transformation. My hope is when we get back home to the practice room some of our new leaders will merge with the others to form a new dynamic.

Our team leadership void was not the only issue in this realm nagging at me as I stepped onto the plane at SeaTac. I have been very aware that a couple of my assistant coaches were not where I wanted them to be, especially when I was present.  This was not only true at tournaments but very much so in the practice room. Our program needed more out of them. They had a propensity to take on the roll of support personnel rather than grabbing that coaching chair and using their voice. I believe we are stronger when all involved have the confidence to have both input and to challenge the status quo. This is not to say I want coaches running over the top of each other as that would definitely lead me to be much more autocratic, gurrrrrrr. What I do envision them doing is to have the ownership and confidence to assert themselves both in matches and practice. They need to develop a vision in practice of what needs to be done and verbally guide their athletes to success in a passionate and energetic way. This weekend I came into the tournament intent on changing our coaching culture a bit. When we arrived at the tournament Thursday morning I told them I wanted them in the corner for every match and really wanted them to focus on their craft and work on their relationship with the varsity athletes. For much of the season these coaches spend a majority of time with the JV and C-team kids and one of the reasons for bringing them to California was to improve our staff. This was an opportunity for them to get better take on some more responsibility and in the end have a little more ownership. It also provided my other assistant coaches and myself the ability to watch and observe which can be valuable to actually step back and get a different perspective. Sometimes when we are always in the chair we are so close to the forest we never see the trees. I was also able to read five chapters of a great book between matches on my new kindle my wife got me for Christmas, Bam!

It worked. I realized there was change the first night after the tournament when at dinner with the coaches we talked about the team and the days events. The conversations were much more lively and rich. Now the discussion included everyone and was technical, strategic and holistic and most importantly had a passion and ownership that we previously lacked. This intent to change culture will hopefully carry over into the practice room and lead these guys to take even a bigger roll. It can be a trap when the head coach writes and administers the practice plan each and every day with little input from others. I have always encouraged input from my longtime assistants but have been negligent to integrate our younger staff into the mix. We do however have an ongoing text thread for technique and practice planning where I ask for thoughts and ideas which I will take and build each days plan with. This morning I got up to find a text message from one of young assistant coaches with a tic list of things he observed from the tournament. This is progress and growth in leadership and another stroke of oil on canvas.

Blog entry #17 – Practice Toughness

This has been a long week for the Berzerkers. Our run started with a long trip to Montana featuring two days of tough competition and ended with back to back nights of away dual matches culminating with a late Thursday night arrival home after two tough team losses. I front loaded our schedule in December out of necessity to see some specific opponents and attend a couple key tournaments knowing it wouldn’t be easy. There is a level of individual and collective toughness that is necessary to compete at a high level over such a grueling stretch. This part of our journey is all a test regardless and the outcome on the scoreboard is insignificant compared to how we as a team handle these challenges and what we take from it in terms of growth. Going into this stretch is like buckling your seat belt because there’s going to be a few jolts getting from zero to a hundred in such a short distance. By Wednesday night I could see the teams tank getting pretty emotionally empty. Like any difficult endeavor wrestling requires passion and emotion to get to that fine line of excellence. We knew going in what the challenge was and what was needed but still didn’t have that extra “toughness” that was required. I can’t count how many times as a coach I’ve said you need to be tough or toughen up or this is gonna be tough without ever defining what I really mean when I use the term “tough.”

We define our sport by the word Toughness. As coaches and participants we drape ourselves in a cloak of perceived mental and physical rigor that we believe few others are willing to burden. When we describe a great wrestler we refer to them most often as “tough.” When we don’t succeed we usually reason that we were not tough enough or our opponent was just tougher than us. To be honest I can’t say if our opponents were any tougher than we were the other night but I can tell you they had better energy, intensity, in some cases technique and strength and ultimately more points on the scoreboard but I must admit I left the gym with the initial thought that we were not very tough. I’ve really contemplated this “toughness” issue and it’s led me to postulate on what the term toughness really means. It’s so much a part of our sport and our code as wrestlers we have three very visible references to it in our practice room alone.

Toughness by definition is:

tough

[tuhf]

adjective, tough·er, tough·est.

1 strong and durable; not easily broken or cut.

Pretty simple, but I think we or at least I put a lot more meaning into this one word, so much so I believe specific sports create their own individual definition of what toughness means. For example, I view toughness in part as the ability to toil or endure the monotony required in a sport where part of its practice requires repetition. In football you may use the term as how well a guy takes or delivers a hit. How about those individuals who are disciplined enough to set and live by strict priorities, isn’t this toughness? Is moral integrity part of toughness or how about the grit to keep getting up when you’ve been knocked down time and time again? Dealing with both success and failure in a way that continues growth requires both maturity and a certain level of toughness in my opinion. The human nature or psychology of “fight or flight” will contribute to wether we are perceived as tough or even weak. The caveman that hung around to fight the tiger was only as tough as a piece of chuck roast in the end while the caveman who ran and survived stakes his claim for toughness on being durable and a survivor. So, toughness is a broad term we throw around in the wrestling room like a Suples’ dummy and can mean many things to many people. The term toughness is like the concept of love – we know it when we feel it but it’s hard to describe. I do however, love toughness.

In recent years I have tried to define what I mean by toughness to my team. Good communication is good coaching and I want my charges to fully understand what it means to be tough in the Lake Stevens Wrestling Program. We practice toughness daily and I define to the wrestlers what this means. It means we come prepared to the wrestling room with the discipline to focus and be present. We wrestle through nagging injuries and practice dealing with hardship. We sacrifice for others and at times put our needs aside to assist others. We never quit no matter how bad the beating. We keep our chin up and refrain from self pity or feeling sorry for ourselves. We show self-control and poise in the face of extreme adversity or antagonism. We never make excuses or blame someone else for our failures. We do our best, exhibited by our actions (this is important – don’t tell. Show!) no matter what the situation.

That’s a lot of meaning for one word but since we should be transparent in what we say and what we say is usually what we think it behooves us to define exactly what we are thinking when we utter the word toughness.

Blog entry #16 – Counting coup….

Our travels this weekend took us east to the start of the Great Plains and ancient war fields of the Crow Nation. We wrestled in the Sydney Eagle Invitational in Sydney Montana a short two hour flight and five hour bus ride from Seattle.

Indian tribes from as far west as the Pacific Coast and east to the Missouri River Valley utilized the ancient practice of counting coup. Counting coup was a method Indians gained prestige as warriors by acts of bravery against the enemy. During the season individual wrestlers will take small steps in much the same way. I always evaluate who made a positive step toward improvement or becoming a vital part of a state championship run. It may be a kid who places for the first time in a tough weight bracket or knocks off a state placer. It may be as simple as competing for a hard six minutes or moving up a weight class and taking one for the team. Counting coup could also be an act of leadership or selflessness. Whatever the case these positive steps are a great teachable moment and chance to acknowledge when an athlete is making improvements. It’s easy to leave a long weekend tired and defeated if all you’re worried about is outcome but if you approach the sport from a process based focus the victory is in the learning.

This being the first weekend to count coup of the season I really boned in on some bright spots for our team. So much of the sport is mental and you hear people say that all the time but rarely do we have a concrete approach to improving the mental challenges of the wrestlers. Mental changes are also the hardest things to change in my opinion. It’s easy to except mental challenges of your athletes as “That’s just the way he/she is” or “they are who they are” and move on. What a terrible pigeon hole to put a kid in. I believe as long as a kid keeps showing up there’s always an opportunity to help them overcome the mental hurdles that may be standing in the way of success. We’ve all coached the kid who is talented, skilled, works hard and practices well but when they get in competition they can’t seem to be that person. Coup is so important for these types of kids. Little steps of confidence and moments of self actualization can go a long way toward overcoming what’s happening in their mind once it comes to competition.

In one of my early posts I shared my struggles with being a nervous athlete and how I came to coach from a process based approach. Even though I won more than I lost I really responded to steady acknowledgement of little victories to keep my head above the mental flood plane. One of my athletes this weekend who has battled confidence issues among other things I was really hoping would catch some coup. He works hard, is talented, has wrestled for a long time but just can’t get past himself to cut loose, let go of baggage and scrap. After his first match this weekend (a loss) I shared with him how he constantly looked over at me during matches. When something out of sorts took place like giving up a takedown or not cutting clean from underneath he would glance at me. I shared with him that I felt like he was constantly looking for approval or disapproval and that he was in a constant state of self analysis and self judgement. It’s an engrained habit for this young man and to simply say, “hey quit critiquing yourself during matches” is just too simplistic of an answer. During competition is not the time to go through a critique. Compete without judgement or the fear of failure. This negative behavior shows in his wrestling when the slightest thing out of the ordinary occurs he momentarily stops. He could take a perfect shot and in the battle to finish just let go of the leg. We ask why in the world would you let go of the leg when the guy just sprawled on you but for him it’s a series of math problems where he is constantly checking to see if he got the answer right mid-equation. So, in an attempt to find a way to help him focus through a sport that is not black and white but very gray and there is no time to stop and self-critique I came up with a mantra. I discussed with him what I was seeing in his wrestling and the momentary gaps. I told him a match was a series of problem solving activities. For many athletes who don’t suffer from this in-competition self analysis they just flow from situation to situation never thinking about what went wrong. It’s their fight instinct and survival take over. For others like my athlete they don’t respond the same the fly when faced with the adrenaline rush. It is probably unfathomable to even have some thought of analysis in their brain for the fight response athlete but for this kid it’s a real flight situation and a major hurdle in his path to success or even enjoying the act of the sport. My mantra from the corner this weekend was “solve the next problem.” In other words this is code for “focus on the here and now, don’t worry about what went right or wrong and let’s deal with where we are at right now.”

After the tournament I felt like this may be one usable mental warfare tool in what is a private and personal battle. He responded positively and in that counted coup. We talked, like we have so many times before that this issue was not going to be solved in a day or week and it will take more practice and diligence than learning a new move or wrestling technique but it is surly fixable. There must be hope.

According to ancient Crow tradition warriors who counted coup are permitted to wear an eagle feather in their hair. If the warrior is wounded in the act they are required to paint the feather red signifying their sacrifice. There are many red feathers earned in wrestling and this weekend we put a few red feathers in our hair.

Blog entry #15 – Lamb shanks and a good Syrah

For me, the early season is akin to crafting a fine wine. Good grapes, high quality yeast, new oak, a vigilant eye and a soft touch. It’s a slow deliberate process that takes patience and an understanding that the wine at crush will mature to be something totally different after it ages in the barrel for a year or three.

Today was practice 14 of the season and we are definitely getting the itch to compete.  One thing I feel good about is our intent during this period to really instill some good habits on position and general technique. Our ratio of teaching-drill-live at this time of year is somewhere around 40%/40%/20% and really that stat must come with a caveat that much of our drilling is also introduction of new technique through the natural progression many of our base drills use. Ha! You may ask how we get our team ready to compete with so little live and the answer would be pace of practice. I also don’t really give a rat’s ass if we are ready right now as I want to be ready in February and we will sacrifice now for later. Long bouts of early live lead to the reinforcement of the same old bad habits, increased chance of injury and late season burnout. This being the “comfort food” months let’s do a low and slow braise with these kids so at the end they will be very flavorful and succulent. Yummy! Our practice pace is very high and even though we are teaching a lot it is always on the run and wrestlers are hardly ever stationary for any length of time and that in itself will allow us to build a good conditioning base. I don’t like sitting or standing around in practice so we don’t do it much.  To instill good habits we need to have a good period of time where we teach-drill-situational live-re-teach-drill and on and on. Some research says that it takes 21 days to change a habit. I don’t know if that’s true but it sounds good and seems like three weeks is a great stretch early in the season to instill some good behaviors. We incorporate so much technique into drills that teaching and drilling are often interchangeable and hard to isolate. After Christmas we will actually ramp up the live and start to build both a better wrestling/conditioning base and mental toughness. Than at some point in mid-January we will revisit many of the base drills we did in the first few weeks. After weeks of long live-wrestling there is a natural loss of clean technique that can easily be recovered by revisiting some of the base drills we did in November. I liken it to the touch of lemon and seasoning you add at the end of a delicious Osso Bucco.

In high school wrestling with a broad base of experience in the room and large numbers (we are currently at 65 kids) it can be tough to meet everyone’s needs. We of course want to get our experienced wrestlers ready for the rigorous events in the coming weeks but we also have to be cognizant of the younger wrestlers and their need for remediation and a slower technical pace. If we treat the youngsters the same way we do the veterans we can risk chasing them off. So, how do we manage all this?

Morning practices are one way to separate the experienced group and focus in on their specific needs. Morning is also a great time to teach. We will run for 20 or so minutes before we hit the wrestling room and start instruction. This way they are awake and haven’t had an entire day of school beforehand to muddle the learning process. In wine tasting there is such a thing as palate fatigue and in learning there most definitely can be mental fatigue after a long day of school. When a kid gets to the wrestling in the afternoon sometimes it’s nice to just go and not have to be taught to. That’s why sometimes I like to just drink the wine rather than taste it. With this in mind we do a lot of hard drill and live in the afternoon on the double days. One negative with morning practices is kids in general do not change their sleep patterns and are exhausted after a couple consecutive days of two-a-days. To manage this we don’t have morning practices every day and when we do practice in the morning we generally cut the afternoons short for the older kids. I am a true believer in respecting our athlete’s time and making sure they have ample time to do their homework and take care of their needs outside the world of school and wrestling. In turn I ask them to respect the process and practice time by being totally engaged and present. Teenagers want to be treated with respect and fairness and by being acutely aware of the demands on our athletes it gives us an opportunity to foster a better work relationship. It’s also nice to walk out into the day light every once in a while as wrestling season can feel like you’re living in a dungeon for three months. Limited hours of daylight are especially true here in the Great Northern Hemisphere and home of the Berzerkers. Morning practice also allows us time to remediate and slow down the teaching for the younger kids in the afternoon when the older kids are released. On days we don’t have morning practice we will go a little longer and use some practice time to put the younger group in the weight room (all our older kids have  morning lift class) and we use that time to speed things up for the older kids (meaning a little more live).

I love practice and the start of the season with basically three weeks to really focus in on technique without weigh-ins and competition hanging over our heads every other day is very enjoyable. Almost as enjoyable as a nice Tuscan Roast Lamb paired with a Chianti Classico.

Blog entry #14 – Ch-ch-ch-ch, changes – Turn and face the strange.

One of the great things about being a coach is the new beginnings and influx of new athletes into the program each year. This also gives us the chance to evaluate what we do and where we are going as a program. I try to make small changes, additions and subtractions each year. These are usually technical or involve practice structure. Some years it delves deeper into who we as coaches are, our approach toward athletes and if we can improve that essential athlete-coach relationship. But, wow man that’s deep and takes some serious self analysis some of which can be uncomfortable. My wife has been trying to mold me for 36 years so I fully understand the toil and commitment it requires. Or at least she does. (The picture below has nothing to do with this post other than Ike Anderson is an awesome dude. I’m the dude on the left and Ike’s on the right.)

I think we owe it to our athletes to keep it fresh and improve our craft just as we ask them to improve their’s. Some of these kids, if they are in our club, will have seen hundreds of practices you as a coach have administered. If there is no change, improvement or addition it can get pretty darn stagnant for the athlete and possibly inhibit growth. Plus, it behooves us to stay current on technique and the ch-ch-ch-ch-changes of the sport. Good programs have routine, rituals and a steady culture that is driven by philosophy. This is essential as athletes learn best within a system. That stated, if you don’t change, adapt or seek best practices as a coach/program you my fine feathered friends will be left in the nest never to truly spread your wings and sore like the champion you were meant to be.

Ok, I went a little far there. As you know I’ve been coaching a while but even so I have been frustrated with my teams ability to attack offensively from neutral (feet). I’ve watched the Japanese woman for years now and their willingness to attack is impressive. They have great position and that helps but they are also willing to roll the dice a number of times in a match. Being a guy who loves Vegas I can appreciate this mind set. They may shoot 5-6-7 times in a match but finish only twice. How do they get away with this and why so many chances? Where’s the strategy in this crazy attackfest? Because they can. Haha, they finish twice and get on top the match may and probably will end in a leg lace. But, they can do this because their SHOT RECOVERY is exceptional and their CONFIDENCE IN THEIR ABILITY TO RECOVER from a poor position very high. So, I’m thinking they must spend a lot of mindful practice time from shot recovery positions. I’ve asked but I never get a straight answer. Probably because they’re speaking Japanese and don’t want me to know their secrets anyway.

You know the little kid wrestler who perfects the Olympic roll or cement mixer early on and never shoots because they learn its safer to cement mix than it is to go underneath their opponent on a shot? The same kid gets to high school and lacks a decent leg attack or more importantly the belief they can score on leg attacks. Confidence and trust is king and wrestlers learn by experience. With this in mind I decided to front load my teaching and drilling this year with shot recovery rather than penetration and attack like I’ve done in the past. In an attempt to get my athletes comfortable underneath someone on a leg I’ve purposefully emphasized this position prior to attacking. I don’t know if this will have a huge effect on my high school kids as many of them have wrestled quite a while and are already set in their ways to a certain extent. This is however, an example of ch-changes and attempting to improve what we are doing after analyzing where we need to improve. I am encouraging my middle school and kids coaches to apply this approach of teaching backwards to their programs and see if it positively effects their ability/willingness to attack legs. Lots of shot recovery and finish positions on the front end to build that confidence.

Hopefully, you can ask me in three months if this small ch-ch-ch-ch-change benefited our program.

These lyrics by the way are awesome – look inside RIP David Bowie.

I still don’t know what I was waiting for

And my time was running wild

A million dead-end streets

Every time I thought I’d got it made
It seemed the taste was not so sweet

So I turned myself to face me

But I’ve never caught a glimpse
Of how the others must see the faker
I’m much too fast to take that test