Outside the box and into the Potato Head – Blog entry #6

It’s summer time and time to think outside the box. A staple of high school wrestling is the summer wrestling camp. This multi-million dollar industry has served many a wrestler and forged the dreams of winter champions. Before we head out to camp this morning I wanted to put some thoughts out on opening our minds to change.Coaches are notorious for being set in their ways. Let’s face it not many coaches change the way they do things after the first few years of their careers. Sure, they add a little technique here or there and probably some drills to go with but do they truly make substantial changes? We have our core beliefs and we stick to them and there is nothing wrong with that. Having a solid foundation and system is not only “best practices” it allows us to change without everything going to shit. Being creative and thinking outside the comfortable parameters is tough to do especially when you’ve been successful but it is also something we need to consider to continuously move forward. The sport changes, kids change, each team is different and if you don’t adjust as a coach your program will stall and become stagnant.

I felt this stagnation about ten years ago when I took my kids to the Oregon State team camp for the fourth year in a row. We would wrestle our duals, the kids would sit with their clichés in the lunch room, hang out with a select few in the dorm rooms, the coaches would go off and do their thing and do it again for the next three days. I was bored, my kids were bored and ultimately we were not getting much better. This is not in any way a knock of OSU or their coaches who I consider friends. This had to do with us, the Berzerkers and what we wanted to accomplish.

I had to ask myself what do I want out of summer camps for our kids and how could we achieve that in a costly manner. Here’s the list of what I wanted: coaches to spend quality time with the athletes, specific control of the technique, a hard drill session each day, a hard live session each day, team building activities between sessions, great food, fun, alumni to come and give back, in a unique setting that was different from Berzerkerville with like minded coaches to share and have brotherhood all at a reasonable price. Whew! Not much to ask really.

The technique I could handle and if not me one of my coaches. I didn’t need to bring in a world class wrestler to show their favorite move and shell-out thousands of dollars for something I had already worked on with my kids or watched on YouTube. One of my former wrestler’s dad owned a really cool campground in George, WA (much different climate than Lake Stevens). They opened only for large concerts at the Gorge, a world renowned outdoor amphitheater. Scott, the owner, was very gracious and opened his arms to our vision. Not only is it a great campground the food they cater is world class. It was the first camp I had been to where the kids and coaches couldn’t stop talking about how good the food was. This doesn’t seem like a big deal but our kids are very food conscious all season long and it’s nice to be able to break bread with your buddies without the stress of worrying about making weight the next day.
I enlisted my coaches to come up with team building activities between wrestling sessions. We broke the kids up into groups of seven or eight strategically placing potential leaders on each team (no more cliques and no more sitting in dorm rooms). The kids were creating skit’s, building business plans, doing dance contests and a lot of stuff that not only was fun but helped them get closer to each other and develop leaders. It always amazes me who emerges from these activities that might have never been a leader in the room. Stars were born outside the realm of wins and losses.
I invited our alumni that were still wrestling in college and some that had just finished. This created a great connection between the past and also provided great practice partners for our best guys. In the evenings before bed we sometimes would have talks about life skills and some of our most memorable times were when former wrestlers shared their stories with the campers.
After bedtime the coaches would gather and talk of the day’s events and plan for tomorrow. These conversations became collective discussions where we all took ownership of the technique, schedule, activities and any other issues. This shared involvement was the icing on the cake and created not only an atmosphere of community but also became a vehicle for growth. Outside of technique, how many coaches walk away from a camp knowing they just improved their craft?

The biggest issue was where would we wrestle? We had the mats and could haul them anywhere but being in the middle of farm land there was not a gym nearby. We looked possibly going to the local high school but that would up our costs and not be unique. Scott came up with the idea talking to his farm buddies of using a potato storage shed. These large corrugated steel Quonset hut looking structures are actually built to stay cool in very hot climates. This area of Washington can have temperatures above 100 degrees so having a place that can stay cool is essential. They have a lot of space and we could fit up to four mats in one. Perfect!

We are now in our eighth year of putting on The Potato Head Camp and have stuck with our original ideals. There have been changes and issues to address but that in itself is part of the challenge to keep it unique and serve our needs. There will come a time where we will try something different, possibly go back to Oregon State or Oklahoma State camps as we have in the past. One thing I know for sure if we do go back I’m bringing my team building activities with me and my team will never again hang out in a dorm room between sessions. It’s more work for the coaches but the goal is not to limit the coaches work load, the goal is to get better. 

This year we have expanded our efforts to expose our wrestlers while still having fun. Beyond our weekly practices and weight training we felt we needed more. This group isn’t a strong freestyle group that is looking to go to Fargo. In the past I have had upto eight kids wrestling on our state team and it was great. For whatever reason it’s been a hard sell with this particular group. We decided this spring we needed more to get this team to where they need to be and came up with the idea of taking a week and training with another to-knotch program. A few years back we attended a tournament in Montana with perennial California program Poway. Through our booster club we’ve rented a house a couple blocks from the beach in sunny San Diego and near enough to Poway. In the mornings we will strength and condition on the beach and in the evening practice with Poway. The daytime will be spent hanging out and having fun. On the Saturday before we leave we will wrestle in their tournament and head home Sunday. Not a bad way to spend a wrestling week in July. It will be fun but these decisions are always based on what it will do for us in terms of wrestling first. This is a prime example of thinking out of the box to make our team better. 

Blog entry #5 – The meaning of life

This past weekend I drove Highway 2 through the wheat fields of Eastern Washington with my son Burke to go camping. I have driven these roads before but it’s been quite a while. Sailing through the rolling hills of wheat for as far as the eye can see reminded me of what really matters.

Like so many coaches I went into this career to make a difference. As a teenager I had some struggles and there were coaches in my life who helped me not only get through the tough times but be successful. When I graduated from college and went into teaching/coaching I wanted to have the same impact on young people that my coaches had on me. I also wanted to have a winning program. I envisioned a program that won many state titles, competed on the national level and where our town had one of those welcome signs that said, Lake Stevens Home of the 12-time State Wrestling Champions.  We eventually got the titles but not the sign. It’s ironic that there is no sign because in the end it is not the trophy’s, championships or welcome signs that matter it is something much deeper.

At the beginning of my career developing a successful program seemed so easy and winning our schools first state title was honestly intoxicating. I brought the trophy home and placed it on our mantle for a couple of weeks. There were nights I would get out of bed, sit on the couch and just stare at it having to pinch myself.  We did it I can’t believe we did it. Watching my dad coach for years and never win a title surly put some added value on the accomplishment. I know it may sound naive and simple but that’s what we are when we’re young. I truly wanted to just build a championship program never really  thinking about building a bunch of relationships. In reality that’s exactly what we do each every day is build all different types of relationships. 

Throughout that spring and into the summer I rode a high that spurred me to work even harder on winning.  My team returned some key members one of which was a kid named Matt who had placed 4th in a very tough weight class. Matt was named our captain for the upcoming season. Like me at his age Matt was a kid that struggled outside of wrestling. His dad Robert, a former wrestling coach had died in a plane accident when Matt was eight years old. Matt was searching for a male role model and found one in me when I showed up his freshman year. We hit it off and I couldn’t have been prouder of a kid for turning the corner and cleaning is life up.

At wrestling camp that summer we had some long reflective conversations about alcohol, drugs and the future. Matt had confided that he had been sober for a few months and that he was working hard to put that stage of his life behind him. He also told me he wanted to wrestle in college and become a teacher like his dad. I left camp feeling really good about where he was headed and excited for the upcoming season. The captain of my team had battled demons and was ready to lead. I felt this team, with this leader and the returning members could make a serious run at another state championship. On the way back from Idaho I dropped Matt off at rest stop in the middle of wheat country in Eastern WA. He was going to work his uncle’s wheat farm for the remainder of the summer. It was a very hot day when he shook my hand and thanked me. We hugged and said our good byes. I got back in the car, air conditioning on high and drove away waving to Matt.  He sat on his bag in the grass waving back while waiting for his uncle to come pick him up.

Coaching has always been a season to season endeavor for me.  Looking at each team as an individual entity I work to shore up the weak spots, fill the spaces vacated by graduating seniors and finding the right leaders to bring it all together is part of the craft I enjoy most.  I’m like that wheat farmer who each year busts his ass to make sure his crop yields the best returns.  Sometimes there are things out of our control like weather or maybe not having the right mix of kids to work with that affect the outcome. One thing good farmers and coaches do is to take care of all the variables within their control to ensure the best possible crop. We can sleep well at night knowing we did everything necessary to achieve the highest level of success given that years components.

It was now mid-July and with camp over summer vacation was in full swing. In the summer of 1990 Seattle hosted the Goodwill Games and I had a job mat side running the video for protests and reviews. Upon returning home from camp I was in a state of wrestling euphoria. The greatest wrestlers in the world were going to descend on Seattle and I would have front row seats. I knew many of the competitors from my college days and was looking forward to re-connecting with some old friends.  Things couldn’t get any better.

Enjoying an easy morning with no pressing commitments I had just finished a cup of coffee and the daily paper when the phone rang. I can’t remember now who was on the other end but if I was to guess it was probably my assistant coach Dean. On the other end of the line was news that Matt had died in a motorcycle accident going out to work the wheat fields that morning. I learned later he was following his uncle out to fields on his motor cycle. Matt didn’t see him come to an abrupt stop because of the dust cloud and rammed the back of the truck crushing his chest and dying on the spot.

Up to that point in my 26 year life, other than my grandparents I had never lost someone I was close to. The next weekend I drove the four hours to the small farming town of Harrington to attend Matt’s funeral. The air was bent by the heat and sadness of the day. In the middle of a field a small white church held Matt’s family, a minister, a group of twenty or so of his Harrington friends and a small number of people from Lake Stevens.  Stocks of wheat, brown and dry waved in the afternoon wind. Matt’s body lay in an open casket flanked by memorabilia of youth. Bouquets of wheat, handwritten notes, key chains, a couple cans of chewing tobacco and other fragments of shared memory.  I leaned over and again said my goodbyes to Matt and in turn much of my innocence. My farewells at the rest area just days before held hope and anticipation now were replaced with an abrupt finality of emptiness. On the lonely drive back through those wheat fields I sobbed like I had never before.  I couldn’t stop saying to myself, “we were just getting started, we were just getting started.” My feelings were only eclipsed by the pain I felt for Matt’s mom who had now lost both her husband and son way too early in life.

When I got back to my family that day I can remember how tired I was and how hard it was to look at my own little daughter and son without feeling a sense of fragility. Life could be so cruel and unpredictable. I cried for the first time in front of my son that day knowing full and well there are no guarantees that life will go just as we plan.

In the following weeks and months the hurt and loss was replaced by the great memories of Matt.  I went to the Goodwill Games and watched one of the greatest victories in wrestling history as the US defeated Russia in a thrilling and dominate performance. It was cathartic to get back to the sport and lose myself in the event. The next season would come and pass with a heaviness I didn’t know how to change or prevent. We all thought about Matt a lot that year and still do even to this day.

Ultimately, this tragic moment taught me the most profound lesson of my life and altered how I look at coaching. I realized on that day the State titles and championships won are truly secondary to the relationships we build. Working toward goals are great but the definitive accomplishment in all that work is rather shallow if we don’t create meaningful relationships along the way.  As coaches and teachers we may never really know the true value of the moments we share with our athletes and students. Losing Matt made me realize how his experiences on earth were highlighted by what he did in the wrestling program and the deep and meaningful relationships he developed in his short life. Every once in awhile when we are chasing down those titles and grinding away at the sport we need to remind ourselves of what is truly important as there’s no guarantee it will last for long.

Slicksters & Grinders. Blog entry #4

When I was a Jr. in college at Oklahoma State my coach, Paul Martin came to me and said in his “Okie” twang, “Barnesy your a grinder not a slickster. You need to bang people and not worry so much about being slick.” Being dumb and young and full of silly pride I took that as – you are not a very good athlete and therefore you are not going to be like some of these other guys. I wanted to be like Kenny Monday but what I didn’t realize is I didn’t have to be like Kenny to have success. The other thing I didn’t know at the time there was really no one quite like Kenny. It was incredibly short sighted of me and what Paul was telling me in so many words was, this is your box learn to wrestle with-in it and become very good at a few things. All I had to do was look at the success Iowa was having with a whole slew of these so-called grinders. This past weekend at the World Team Trials we watched a bunch of guys make the world team that could be considered grinders.

My team being really young and inexperienced the past two years we have spent more time in instruction mode than in the past. We have made a concerted effort to expose them to a plethora of techniques at the cost of wrestling a lot of live. It is a balance that must be reached and for the past month I have been feeling like we have been a little out of balance. I have even voiced this to my team numerous times how we need to get more mat time. I have an itch for live wrestling right now. One positive attribute of wrestling live is it builds mental toughness. Live wrestling is the fight we always talk about and you only learn how to fight by stepping into the fire. So, even at the cost of getting technically sloppy and forming a few bad habits it’s time to grind. I also know I can clean them up later. There is give and take with everything and coaching is about finding the right balance. It’s time to develop some slicksters that can grind and some grinders that have a touch of slick.

As a team I also feel we’ve reached the saturation point on wholesale group technique and controlled live situations and we need to start fitting guys into boxes and start developing a style, strategy and set of techniques that they will own. My team right now can drill a lot of stuff but we are not masters of any particular specialty.  The good thing is they are all about at the same level so forming these goals is relatively easy as it covers the bulk of our athletes. That said the combination of letting these kids wrestle and helping them figure out who they need to be to get the most out of their potential is a tough go with thirty athletes and three coaches. There are going to be some conversations like Coach Martin had with me and it is going to be followed up by an explanation of what and why.

Each of us as coaches and athletes have to decide what is essential to our success. We need to have a clear picture of what this should look like in action. After watching David Taylor this past weekend in the trials and comparing him as a collegiate wrestler it is even more stark the specific style changes wrestlers must make to have success at the highest level. As a student of the sport it’s fun to watch this transition.

I said on Saturday, like many others, this year’s trials rivaled ’96 in Spokane with Cross and Brands. That match-up was a very distinct example of having two contrasting styles and guys knowing the box they fit in. Cross couldn’t be more different than Brands and it’s probably what made the match-up so fun. Dake/Burroughs and Cox/Taylor are other great style match-ups.

Owning your style, being able to attack a single leg and finish it and owning the center of the mat were three things that I felt jumped out at me from this past weekend. On Sunday I watched some Iranians and their style and ability to not only own the center but push their opponents into the zone is another glaring example of having a technical/strategic box. They’re entire team seem to be masters at these basic skills. I’m definitely looking forward to Paris.

Coaching at it’s highest level is such a thoughtful and present endeavor. Not only taking the time to self reflect but having a “system” to fit the needed changes into it is essential for success. When we start to talk about all the aspects that go into forming a singular practice we have to consider our audience, philosophy, individual style, time of year, weaknesses, strengths, time management, what is essential and a huge number of other factors not to mention the silly pride of that one athlete who can’t see beyond his own nose.



“What do you want your team to look like today?” Blog post #3

“If dreams were thunder and lightning was desire this old house would have burnt down a long time ago.”  John Prine wrote this awesome line in the song Angel from Montgomery. I’ve had this lyric taped to the right of my work desk for almost twenty years now. Right below this is a fifteen year old post-it note that reads, “What do you want your team to look like today?”  Both of these speak to the subject of culture and are reminders for me to work on our culture daily.

After a three week break we started up practices again yesterday. Before practice I wanted to discuss our team culture and what coaching Guru Bruce Brown refers to as our core tenants. Improving our culture is one of my main ambitions this summer and something I have felt needs to be addressed. With each group that comes through it is a natural process to educate the new members of the team on the expectations we cherish and what we want our team to look like.  Creating a positive culture is as paramount as teaching good technique.

My best teams have always had a way of pulling each other into the practice room and holding each other accountable. It may be peer pressure, shared team or individual goals, social time or simply fun. At the program’s core it is the culture that has been created that influences much of its motivations. Culture is simply who we are, what we value and how we go about business. It is driven by the philosophy of the programs leaders which usually means the head coach (in high school sports). As leaders we can choose what is important to us and how that manifests itself in the team. We’ve all heard people say, “The team has taken on the personality of the coach.” In many ways that’s true. The ’86 Bears were a rough and tumble crew that definitely took on the personality of Coach Ditka. In recent years the Seattle Seahawks come across as a free spirited bunch that emulates their free spirited Head Coach, Pete Carroll. Regardless of the leadership style the head coach usually has an enormous impact on the culture of the program. That said, a team is only truly a team when it’s members share in the ownership of the core tenants and culture. If Richard Sherman has a beef with Head Coach Pete Carroll this could be a problem in the upcoming season. But since they share ownership of the team and a shared philosophy they will work their differences out and probably go on to win the Super Bowl. Just saying.

In what I call a “Conscious Program” the leaders and team members have a part in creating the culture which therefore leads to ownership. In an “Unconscious Program” the tenants are either not communicated with the team members or the teammates do not share the same values. Either way, in this situation the program unconsciously goes through the motions subservient to emotions and external influences neither owned nor chosen by the team.  An “Unconscious Program” usually does not have a solid philosophy driving it. As coaches the first thing we should do before ever heading a program is develop a clear and concise Program and Personal Philosophy.

What I Value.

My personal philosophy has always included giving even the roughest kids a safe place to fail. This has driven part of the culture in our program. I will give an athlete a second and third chance until they have become too big a burden on the team or they have proven they just can’t get it done. I’m not talking about failure on the mat I’m talking about failing to follow the tenants or expectations of the team. I have this philosophy because I was a kid who needed a second and third chance and without the sport who knows where I would have ended up. One of the functions of high school sports, (Public Schools) in my opinion, is to provide a place for success.  That one success may be the spark that lights the fire and changes the trajectory of a young life. This philosophy has to be understood in advance by the team so if and when the situation arises they know that kid who may have messed up royally is still here because we believe in second chances. Ultimately, this teaches one of our core tenants – compassion.

The Process is also integral to both my philosophy and therefore the culture I want to create.  A process focused approach (last week’s blog subject) embodies so many of the positive building blocks of the coach-athlete relationship it for me is really essential.  Our culture takes this into consideration and everything from goal setting, the vocabulary we use to how coaches and teammates handle wins and losses is subject to our process driven culture. It would be silly to leave this up to chance don’t you think?

A work in progress.

Before I met with my team yesterday I reviewed the characteristics I wanted to discuss with them. There are characteristic that are static that I truly believe are essential with every team– integrity, compassion, inclusion, work ethic, focus on the process and discipline. Then there are those characteristics that may be specific to a particular group. Because my team is young I felt that ‘mental toughness” should be a characteristic we strive to make our calling card. Ultimately, a team is a work in progress so therefore so should be the culture. We are always trying to improve our culture and instill a lofty set of characteristics. Culture is a work in progress and the core tenants are characteristics we aspire to daily. The next step in our process will be to define clearly what “mental toughness” looks like and how we can identify it. This will give the coaches and team an opportunity to identify situations where when a teammate exhibits a high level of mental toughness we can seize the teachable moment and make sure we point it out.

I have never been in the Penn State Wrestling room nor have I spent any time with their team. As a spectator and observer from afar it seems to me they have a great culture. They seem to enjoy what they do, have a positive spirit in their work and truly respect one another. At this past season’s NCAA Wrestling Tournament on Saturday before the medal matches I stood behind them in a cafe while waiting for our breakfast. I noticed a couple things. They were very considerate of others, were very humble when complimented by others, they seemed real comfortable around each other and they went out of their way to help each other. Isn’t that what great teams do? It left a mark on me and I couldn’t wait to come back and share my observations with my team.

Culture is a tangible element that can be felt, seen, heard upon spending time in your team’s environment. If you want to know a part of your teams culture walk into the locker room, sit on the bench, close your eyes and listen to the conversations. Than go into your office and ask yourself, “What do I want my team to look like today?”

Since your painting pictures in your mind I will leave you with these awesome ending lyrics of Angel from Montgomery.

“There’s flys in the kitchen I can hear’em  there buzzing.

And I ain’t done nothing since I woke up today.

How the hell can a person go to work in the morning

And come home in the evening and have nothing to say?”