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 well being. 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.