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.

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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

Blog entry #13 – First and last we remember the most.

Today is the First Day of Wrestling practice at Lake Stevens High School yippee! The power is out due to a wind storm but School is still a go. An ominous start to the season.

Even though the first legal practice is today there was a ton of work by both wrestlers and coaches put in prior to this first day. Morning conditioning, off-season club practices, pre-season tournaments are all the normal activities but there is an ongoing educational process most great coaches and wrestlers partake in on their own to prepare. I️ read books that will give me some nugget I️ can use to enhance my craft. Most coaches attend preseason clinics to get them going and add to their acumen. I️ also try and visit a University program or the like, prior to the season to get some juice. This year I️ spent four days at the OTC working with Terry Steiner and the woman’s program. I️ am ready and excited to get this thing going.

One thing I’m a true believer in is having a plan. It’s not only best practice to have a daily plan it’s also a liability necessity. If anything ever happens within your program where a lawsuit is brought you as a coach need a record that shows you covered the essentials of safety and your structure sought to best protect your athletes.

This morning I’m planning the first practice of my 31st season at Lake. I️ have every practice plan I’ve ever written stored in my office. I️ keep last years plans close at hand so I️ can refer back to them on occasion. This is not just a technical tool, it’s a lesson plan and a journal or what we did, how we did it, when we did it, why we did it and what was talked about beyond Wrestling each and every day.

Beyond the daily plan I️ have a season plan and a end of the season plan for peek performance. These are great tools to provide direction and a resource for guidance.

Technically, I️ as a coach want to know what I’ve covered and in what detail. If there is a glaring weakness in our team technically we can usually refer back to the plan to see if we have been deficient in our instruction or focus.

One of the great things about this job is the new beginnings we get to experience. Each and every year there’s a new start and with that new start there is hope and wonder. The possibilities in front of us and the work building up to this day gives confidence that this year will be a success.

Blog entry 12 – What I talk about when I’m talking about wrestling. 

Just spent the weekend in Colorado Springs working with the woman’s program and spending time with a number of coaches. Anytime I’m with another wrestling coach there is learning to be had and the growth can be transformative. We should never stop learning and trying to hone our craft. I’m a true believer that if you don’t change you eventually won’t continue to maintain or build success. The subjects covered this weekend were as follows – technique (pressuring opponents from neutral, being purposeful with our hands, using fakes to pressure, shot recovery, go behinds, front headlocks, double up shots and a bunch of other cool stuff), practice planning, motivation, integrity/humility (Thomas Gilman), peaking, dealing with different personalities, the issues facing the elite athlete outside of the wrestling room, a need for a life class after wrestling for our  World and Olympic team members, beer, the process and being mindful and how to properly grill a steak. Whew! That’s a lot in two days and I didn’t even get to all the awesome friendship stuff and the bonding. 

Since we are on the subject of working on our craft this would be a great time to share my coaches reading list. So much of the sport revolves around understanding people. Reading gives us so much insight and reflection it is, I believe, essential to truly expand as a coach or teacher. 

I will warn you that my list is not your standard coaching fare. Here’s the list with a related blurb. 

My Losing Season by Pat Conroy – a real account of an athlete dealing with not only the struggles of attending the Citadel but also an account of having a toxic parent. 

Season of Life: A Football Star, a Boy, a Journey to Manhood by Jeffrey Marx – This is a great lesson in how to treat athletes, what a programs focus should be and how thinking out of the box can lead to success. 

The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance by W. Timothy Gallwey – If you are into focus, mental preparation, THE PROCESSS, applicable practice situations to improve both mentally and technically. This may be about tennis but it has so much information that applies to all sports, especially wrestling. I give this book to all my athletes who struggle with performance anxiety. 

The Water Is Wide – a memoir by Pat Conroy – If you’re a young teacher you need to read this. If you’re a teacher and work in a school of diversity this is required reading. 

Old Man and the Sea –  Earnest Hemingway – An epic struggle with incredible connections to psychology. 

A Sense of Where You Are: Bill Bradley at Princeton by John McPhee – A portrait of an athlete striving for perfection by a great author in McPhee. 

Trying To Save Piggy Snead by John Irving – Irving was a college wrestler and even coached his boys when they were in high school. In this book he has notes on pararalels between writing and wrestling. His description of Dan Gable is fantastic. 

Last but not least….

Man’s Search for Meaning – Viktor Frankl- What really drives people to survive in harrowing situations? You can choose a few things in life. 

Blog entry #11 – another beginning

It’s been a while since I last posted. A lot of things have kept me away from the blog including a shoulder operation, travel and the start of a new school year. 

In a week I start my 33rd season as a coach and 31st at Lake Stevens. I have never thought of myself as a creature of habit but teaching and coaching in the same school for 31 years is a dead giveaway. There is a history and rhythm to being in one place so long. A connection to the past links me to a time and people that are long gone but lives vividly in my mind. What they say about the first and last memories are true. I can mentally account for my first team at Lake Stevens like it was yesterday. When I arrived there were 800 students in four grades and now we have over 2,600. My schools size and demographic have changed but my mission is still the same – take each and every student/athlete as far as I can as a human being, student and athlete. This has been the opening salvo of my coaching philosophy from day one and it still is today. This past weekend I was inducted into the Washington Wrestling Coaches Hall of Fame. It was a fantastic honor and also an appropriate time to reflect on what I’ve done and who has helped me along the way. I have been fortunate to share this journey with my family and two assistant coaches who have stuck with me from the start. It’s amazing to think that the three of us coaches have plugged away at this for over three decades now. I believe the reason are many but one thing we all share is a common philosophical statement. We believe helping kids become good adults is paramount and trumps winning, losing and all the other outcome based accessories some people deem so important. Outcome is always a function of process and philosophy. Another reason I believe our staff has stuck together is ownership and having a roll. We all know what we best bring to the table and take ownership of the program. This great pride each of us has is a precursor to the toil and dedication it takes to be successful over a long period of time. If I was a young coach starting a program the selection of assistant coaches would be the biggest duty I would take. I was extremely lucky to stumble onto the guys I work with but there was also some training that occurred along the way. We have definitely grown together and our desire to continuously improve has been a hallmark of our careers. 

As we head into this upcoming season I look forward to working with my long time coaching partners as much as I do the great kids we have in our program. Our time together as a staff is precious and fleeting. I realized this past weekend that I am much closer to the end than I am to the beginning. Crazy how it creeps up on you. 

My goal is to post regularly throughout the season as an in-depth look at what a high school wrestling coach sees and thinks. I hope you enjoy the journey as much as I do.