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