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.

“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?”