Month: August 2012

Attributes Unseen

Bill Parcells was a master of psychology and simplicity. He saw his job as coach as that of taking a group of men and putting them in position to win, not just games, but championships. He made it a point to speak to every player on the team every practice. He built relationships that extended beyond the game with his players, but had no shame in using these relationships to induce better performance.

In the 80’s Kurt Benson was an all-pro tackle for the Giants, and Gary Jeter an all-pro defensive end for the Rams. In a prior meeting, Jeter tormented the Giants. Before the next meeting, Parcells spoke to Benson personally for 45 minutes before the game about family and life, not a word of football. In the tunnel on the way to the field, Parcells walked up behind Benson and said “if Jeter touches Simms, I’m cutting you,” and kept walking. Benson dominated Jeter and the Giants won.

Parcells understood the relationship of motivation, manhood and competition. A relationship illustrated by one of his favorite stories. A story of a relatively anonymous fight between Eugene “Cyclone” Hart and Vito Antuofermo. Parcells didn’t see the fight hearing about it second hand from Teddy Atlas, but it resonated deeply in his core beliefs. (I have below quoted the story from a Parcells by Michael Lewis that appeared in the New York Times in 2006).

“Hart was a well-known big puncher heavily favored against the unknown Antuofermo. In the early rounds Hart knocked Antuofermo around the ring. Antuofermo offered no apparent physical gifts except “he bled well”. “But,” Parcells recalls, “he had other attributes you couldn’t see.” He absorbed punishment by Hart so well that Hart became discouraged. In the 5th round, Hart began to tire, not physically, but mentally. Seizing the on the moment, Antuofermo attacked and delivered a series of quick blows that knocked Hart down, ending the fight.”

“When the fighters went back to their makeshift locker rooms, only a thin curtain was between them. Hart’s room was quiet, but on the other side he could hear Antuofermo’s cornermen talking about who would take the fighter to the hospital. Finally he heard Antuofermo say, ‘Everytime he hit me with that left hook to the body, I was sure I was going to quit. After the second round, I thought if he hit me there again, I’d quit. I thought the same thing after the fourth round. Then he didn’t hit me no more.’

“At that moment, Hart began to weep. It was really soft at first. Then harder. He was crying because for the first time he understood that Antuofermo had felt the same way he had and worse. The only thing that seperated the guy talking from the guy crying was what they had done. The coward and the hero feel the same emotions. They’re both human.”

I spoke with my daughter Holland last night, and asked her what she wants to do with her life, a dad cliche if ever there was one, and she responded by saying all the really good jobs were unrealistic. It made me think of this story. The coward and the hero feel the same emotions, what divides them is not the emotions, but their action. Action makes reality.

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Cleaning Out My Closet

Let the record reflect that on the morning of August 27th in the year of our Lord 2012, I took a synedrex for the first time in over a month. Synedrex is to my experience a wonder drug. Ostensibly a fat burner that I got as a free sample at the Europa, it fills me with energy, mental focus and little or no desire to eat food. As of this writing, I am still alive and consider this a win.

With energy and mental focus to burn, I started to go through my closet to throw away junk and perhaps find something of value. In college, I started a quote book. I wrote down inspirational and comical quotes as I found them. This book was in my closet. The interior pocket contained two folded pages that once unfolded were revealed as the prologue of a book (title unkown). The prologue was an extended description of Clearcus the Spartan general, and speaks to combat and stress leadership.

“Clearcus was a man to be obeyed. He achieved this result by his toughness. He had a forbidding appearance and a harsh voice. His punishments were severe ones and were sometimes inflicted in anger….With him punishment was a matter of principle, for he thought that an army without discipline was good for nothing, indeed it is reputed that he said a soldier ought to be more frightened of his commander than of the enemy if he was going to turn out one who could keep a good guard, or abstain from doing harm to his own side, or go into battle without second thoughts. So it happened that in difficult positions the soldiers would give him complete confidence and wished for no one better. On these occasions they said his forbidding look seemed positively cheerful and his toughness appeared as confidence in the face of the enemy, so that it was no longer toughness to them, but something to make them feel safe…Once they began to win victories with him, one could see how important were the factors which made his men into good soldiers.” -Xenophon

Last week, I spoke with Little Wolverine, who is about to embark on his first head coaching job with our freshman. He talked about finding his voice, and I agreed that the voice must be his own. There is no hard template for leadership, but the measure of that leadership will always be the impact made on the troops.

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Golf: The Meltdown

I played golf yesterday for the first time in an Olympic cycle (four years). I borrowed a set of clubs from Mr. Charm, who conveniently didn’t include a putter, only the most commonly used club in the bag, and met with so co-workers to play 18. I do not consider myself a golfer. I find the game insufferably slow, dull and rife with obscure quirks of psuedo-gentlemanship that don’t comport with my general psyche. Being out of my element, I did my best to find some kernel of truth to expand upon in the blog.

18 holes, 133 shots, 8 lost balls including one with the Kentucky logo (which might not have happened if I had a putter) and enumerable profanities later, I came up with the following: Golf at the recreational level is defined by the Meltdown; a loss of mental focus induced, perpetuated and aggravated by the over-reaction to otherwise minor mistakes.

Each player in our group shown themselves able to strike a good shot, and even to rebound from a bad shot. The match was decided on the meltdown holes where one of us would string together 3 or 4 bad shots in a row, and reach the green with a mild case of post-traumatic stress disorder followed by a 4-put finish. It was a mental battle on two significant levels.

One, none of the three players in my group play enough golf to be any good. Specifically, none of us has committed the repetitions to develop myelin in our brains that hard wire the mechanics and feel of a golf swing. It is not a matter of physical ability, but trained mental and physical ability produces the circuitry to consistently swing a golf club.

Second, we failed to maintain a positive mindset while playing. Our mental weakness was exposed. From the outset, the three of us made pre-emptive excuses for bad play. This was self-fulfilling prophecy of our own failure. We did not manage our body language when things when badly. Slumping shoulders, dropped heads and muttering betrayed a lack of belief in what we were doing.

These two traits combined to make each of us susceptible to The Meltdown. At least one of which was within our control, and all three of us failed completely. We had the tools to control out mental state. Had we done so, we would not have shot par for the day, but we would have enjoyed lower scores and come close to playing our best given our level of expertise.

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A Full Day of Physical Exertion

I spent a large chunk of the last three days in Titusville, a town slightly less entertaining than the wake of a man with few friends and fewer enemies. I was engorged with pent up energy, and figured I would work out in the weight room with my basketball players. I was weighed measured and found wanting.

You can hide on the court or the field. There are shortcuts in the ebb and flow of every game, but in physical training you are naked. Your strength, speed, stamina and will are isolated and exposed.

I retired after a few drills, and watched a war of attrition. Voices lowered, smiles faded, as each player internalized the struggle to hold form and finish the drills. At 4:30, we walked out of the weight room and onto the court and started to smile and joke again. It was subtle, not jubilant, but it was clear we had been through a temporary hell. It was hopeful that it may have forged some steel.

At 6:00, I watched a group of soccer players from FC America go through a similar experience. The setting was a patch of grass between two soccer fields filled with cones. The trainer was former Olympian Ernest Wiggins. For over an hour the boys stretched, jumped, sprinted and crawled.

The internal battle the same. The player visibly struggled. It was undoubtedly the most demanding work out Bryson has ever had. The players were pushed beyond their known physical abilities to the point where the mind must make the decision to continue or give up.

It is here that I found the true purpose in physical training. Muscles will get stronger, muscle fibers quicker to react, but the mental part of physical training is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Reaching the question of whether to continue or not reveals the character and commitment of the athlete, trains the instinct to fight to the end of every game and conjure victory where all seems lost.

On the ride home, I asked Bryson what Ernest said during the drills. His most prominent quote was giving 200 percent: 100 physical and 100 mental. I loved it.

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Disney Preseason Locked and Loaded

I coached varsity basketball at Trinity Prep for three years. Every summer we would play at various team camps to gain experience. The experience consisted largely of beating bad teams and getting beat by good teams. These camps would have a tournament on the final day, and without exception we would play a game or two and go home without the vaguest idea of who might have won the tournament.

In the summer of 2005, I was coaching at Winter Park, and we took our team to Gainesville for team camp, a three day basketball orgy culminating in a tournament on Sunday. We arrived mid afternoon Friday and drilled two teams before hitting the sack. At the hotel that night, Matt Hixenbaugh and I agreed that it was nice to play two weaker teams to get going. On Saturday, we went 3-1 only losing a game that we purposely finished with bench guys to see how they would respond to adversity. At this point, we felt where were the good teams? It felt like we hadn’t played any.

On Sunday we won 4 in a row by over 20 to reach the final four, and came to the realization….shit we might be pretty good. Exhausted, but determined we won two incredible games to be Team Camp Champs. It was the beginning of a season that would end as State Final runner-ups. It was an experience that led me to see tournaments as something not just to participate in, but to win.

This weekend the FC America U-14 Sharks played the Disney Preseason Classic under new coach Alan Hough. Our team was selected in June, but until two practices this week existed on paper and not on the field. On paper, it was a formidable group of talented players, but as Sir Alex Ferguson says, “You can’t escape the field.” This weekend the team demonstrated what it can do on the field: 5 wins, 30 goals for, 3 against and 1 title.

We opened Friday night against Orlando City’s second team. From minute one we played at a lightning pace physically and more impressive mentally. We led 3-0 at half, survived a lull and goal at the start of the second half and won going away 7-1. Ruthless was the most apt description of our play.

On Saturday morning we opened against Wellington beneath a blue gray october sky. Two goals in 15 minutes before the blue gray sky gave way to a deluge of rain and several hour weather delay. It’s always a challenge to handle delays during a tournament weekend without losing a competitive edge. The game was suspended and the first half would be completed later in the day.

We took the field against MGU @ 3:30. MGU “parked the bus” in front of goal, and did not cross midfield with the ball through the first fifteen minutes. We possessed the ball, and kept pressure on MGU with no discernible sign of frustration. Midway through the half Austin D’anna broke the deadlock, and on the final kick of the half doubled the lead. The boy’s broke the game open in the second half and won 7-0.

The team sat around 30 minutes waiting for Wellington to walk over to our field and finish the first half. Every player was tired, many were nursing injuries and the prevailing sentiment was to stroke the ball around for the remaining eighteen minutes and prepare for tomorrow. Instead, the squad jumped on Wellington like Mike Tyson before Robin Givens scoring two qoals then coasting home 4-0.

This morning we played Jacksonville in the semi-final, who had yet to concede a goal in the tournament. The gave up 6 by half-time. It was scintillating football. As the tally ran to 9-2, I couldn’t help, but think how ridiculous it was to win a semi-final with that type of score line.

In the final, we played the Florida Rush, upset, over-time winners over Orlando City’s first team. The rush were well-organized and competitive. The game was scoreless through 60 minutes. I was impressed that we did not give into the frustration of not scoring for such a long spell or the pressure of a final, but kept attacking, defending and fighting as one. With about ten minutes left, Randall Congreaves, who had played sparingly with a groin injury, drove to the end line and chipped a cross to John Rivera for a headed goal. Five minutes later, Mikey Lynch and Bryson Pink pressed the Rush in the attacking third and won the ball. Bryson fed Rivera at the top of the box, and he scored. Game over at 2-0.

A brilliant start. Every player on the roster made a significant contribution to the whole. They hold in their collective hands the key to their future. If they avoid complacency and selfishness, they will enjoy a journey of success, memories and friendship for a lifetime.

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Go Hard or Go Home

“Its a shame when your not tired after practice..I go to practice to work my butt off and get BETTER every second I’m there..I don’t go to practice to sit there and guard people that aren’t gonna go as hard as they can every play..Practice is meant to help you improve..if you not gonna go hard don’t waste our time just go home!! #ImjustTryingtoMakeit I wont let people stop me!!” – AJ Coney

Last night I was checking my facebook timeline when I read this status from AJ Coney, a senior cornerback at Oviedo High School, and founder of Camp Coney, that I had the pleasure of coaching on my JV basketball team a few years back. AJ is a great athlete and recently earned scholarship offers from UMass and Memphis.

As a teammate, you have a duty to go hard in practice and commit yourself to doing your best. Your effort as a player facilitates improvement of yourself and your team. Every player regardless of ability can play hard and in doing so push others to do the same. To do otherwise is selfish and a breach of the duties of being a teammate. Nothing will undermine a team faster or more effectively than a lack of trust that each player in the team will give his best.

Every year much is made about high school athlete’s transferring to other schools for sports reasons. It is reality that for many of these athlete’s improving as a player and earning a scholarship is the most important thing in their lives. It is a personal choice for these kids to put themselves in an environment where they have the best chance to reach that goal whether it be by surrounding themselves with teammates who have similar goals, or to be coached by someone capable of making them better as players and competently guiding them and marketing them to colleges.

On the other end of the scale, a number of players each year will not make a team at their school, or have a minimal role and be unhappy. There is nothing wrong with these players transferring to a school that needs them as players and will allow them to enjoy their high school career as a significant player in their team.

Every player needs to make decisions that are in their best interest, but once you have committed to play, every play needs to go hard or go home.

The Death of the Dream Team, Coach K, Doug Collins and Where We Go From Here?

There is no person on the face of the earth to whom coaching the United States to a Gold medal in men’s basketball would mean more to than Doug Collins. For that reason, I do not believe that he would be a good choice to replace Coach K. We are faced with this question because after two gold medals and one world championship offset by a single loss, Coach K appears on the verge of ending his unprecedented tenure as National Team coach. In truth, he has been the first National Team coach the United States has ever had.

In the era of American college players, a college coaching legend was chosen to coach the team for the Olympic games, and a mass try-out was held over several days to select the team. The team played some tune up games, went off to the Olympics and with the exception of 1972 (world class and unforgiven injustice), 1980 (boycott) and 1988 (just plain inferior) returned with gold medals. It was a simple and effective process until “just plain inferior” slapped us in the face.

In 1992, The Dream Team was created. Chuck Daly, a well-respected coach and first rate man manager, was appointed coach, and all necessary (Jordan and Pippen) and ceremonial (Bird, Magic and Laettner) players were selected without the necessity of a try-out. With the singular exception of Laettner, every player on the team was of hall of fame, if not top 50 all time player quality. It was a fortuitous confluence of veteran and primed talent that appropriately bore the Dream Team moniker. The went to Barcelona as ambassadors, partiers and by a wide margin the best basketball team in history. Upon their return, the Dream Team died.

From 1996-2004, various professional teams competed in Olympic and International competitions under the United States flag and “dream team” name. These team’s featured a decorated NBA coach, and a hodge podge of marketable NBA players operating under the notion of invincibility. The “team” exuded the air of a NBA promotional tour rather than a National Team. Players were selected well in advance of the tournament. Many turned down their spots on the team causing a late scramble to replace them, and others remained on the team even though their present form no longer warranted their inclusion.
The United States placed sixth in the World Championships in 2002 and lost three games enroute to the Bronze medal in the 2004 Olympics. Things had to change.

It was at this point that Coach K became our first National Team coach. The premise was different. Coach K would stay on as coach through the 2006 World Championships and the 2008 Olympics. An extended player pool would be identified and maintained over time. Young players would be given an opportunity to participate in the Select team that would train with a scrimmage the full National Team. Full-time international scouting would be the norm. Coach K and Jerry Colangelo would personally recruit the best American players to participate on the team. Coach K established relationships with the best players Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, D Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Deron Williams. This is the foundation and under-rated aspect of his creation of a true National Team.

Coach K is a man of relationships. He cares. He cries everytime his Duke team gets beat in the NCAA tournament. I am quite certain he cries in victory as well. The tears are in the relationship, the respect for the time spent together in common cause. It comes vested at the end of the road, but the investment is made in many ways big and small that come before. In serving as our National Team coach, he has established relationships with all of the players that have worn the red, white and blue during his tenure. This is special given that the National Team does not live and train together as his Duke teams, or even these player’s NBA teams. He gets these players at the end of long NBA seasons that often end as this one did with Lebron James beating fellow National Team players Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden in the NBA finals. Two months later these same four men are hugging each other giddy in their golden accomplishments and forever bound by the experience.

There was a moment after today’s Gold medal game that was brought to my attention that spoke to what Coach K has meant to the National Team. Lebron James, the best player in the world, stood face to face with Coach K both filled with an immense sense of satisfaction and pride, and for a few moments more than an obligatory congatulations they locked eyes and spoke to each other. Under Coach K, the National Team is not a dream or promotional gambit, but a living brotherhood.

That brotherhood includes the aforementioned Doug Collins. He calls the games for NBC and his son Chris is on Coach K’s staff. In 2008, Chris gave his father his Gold medal. Today, every player on the team with the exception of Andre Iguadola publicly acknowledged Collins on press row during the celebration. Doug Collins is a basketball savant and phenomenal coach. In the fall of 2004, I attended Coach K’s clinic, and Doug Collins was the guest lecturer. He spoke for over an hour in what was probably the best speach I have heard in person. He spoke about his life, his career as a player and as a coach. Eight times during his speach, and yes I counted, he spoke of “the Gold medal being snatched from him”. Doug was on the 1972 Olympic team, and hit two free throws with three seconds left to give the United States a one point lead. The Soviets, against all that is right and just in the World, were given three chances to play the final three seconds of the game until they scored. Collins and his teammates refused to claim the Silver medals. Coach K deliberately included Collins in the National Team brotherhood as an emotional reference point for the meaning of the games and the negative possibilities that could occur should the team leave anything outside their own control. As evidenced by the recognition shown today, Collins resonated with the team.

As a National Team coach, however, Collins is a poor choice. He is too emotional, and truth be known, too intense for the duties of the National Team post. His singular purpose of avenging the ’72 Gold medal game would be a distraction and burden to the brotherhood.

It remains and probably is more likely that a loss or two will be coming to the National Team in the coming years. It will be apocolyptic. Collins might literally implode. Coach K lost, just once, but it was a considerable effort to maintain perspective and focus on the way to the 2008 Olympics. He succeeded. I believe Doc Rivers or Greg Popovic would be the best choices to succeed Coach K. Both are excellent man managers, who have a history of meaningful relationships with their players. By temperment they, unlike Collins, are well-suited to the limited time dynamic of National Team coaching. I hope Jerry Colangelo and those responsible for this upcoming hire will make a measured, rational decision and not a sentimental one. In doing so, they would honor the principles that have guided our first and only National Team coach.