Sunday, November 30, 2014

Roses, Tea Cups, Trees and Terps

Last Night, the University of Maryland volleyball squad finished their regular season with a 3-2, (15-13 in the 5th) win over Northwestern in the XFinity Center in College Park. It was a huge night for a couple of reasons: it was Senior Night and for the Terps of Maryland, wins have been as easy to come by this season as parking spots in front of a Target on Black Friday.

Steve Aird is the first year volleyball coach at the University of Maryland. To say Aird has had a memorable first season would be the Himalaya’s of understatements. Usually when someone says memorable first season, there are visions of upsets and unexpectedly deep runs into the NCAA tournament. Nope…this memorable is the kind that those with vision will look back on in five years, when they ARE pulling upsets and going deep into the NCAA bracket, and smile about fondly.

“We’re going to lose way more matches than we win this year.” Aird said back in August. “If I had a crystal ball, we might win 8, 10 matches this year.” The Maryland Terrapin volleyball team finished the season 10-21. They started the season 6-0 in an admittedly soft preseason then went into their inaugural Big-10 conference season, a graveyard for mediocre programs, and won just three of their next 20 matches. They played 14 ranked teams in their Big-10 schedule and did it with 5 of their scholarshipped players, including their best player, out from injury throughout the year and went to battle with a platoon of underclassman. It’s the recipe for coaching ulcers and hair loss.

There are a lot of volleyball programs in the country: college, high school and club that have seasons where wins are tough to come by. But the difference here is that Aird never once gave up on his vision. “People are looking and saying wow, you’re losing all these matches but they’re missing the trees for the forest.”

He’s constantly working on that a vision of what he wants Maryland to be and all of his energy is toward that goal. He stressed working hard, worrying about the next point and most of all, to compete; battle and fight and claw your way through matches despite being outsized, outmanned and outgunned!

“There’s no sense in saying to them we have to win a match, we have to have this. I told them we’re not going to win. We’re not going to win a National Championship; we’re not going to win the Big 10. You’re going to lose more matches than you win but what’s your approach going to be? Are you going to be a victim? I see that a lot on teams that know that the other team is better so they just don’t compete. They’re getting paid to play so to me, it’s their job to show up and represent their school as best as they can. It doesn’t mean they have to be better than the top recruiting class but you better fight like hell because you owe that.”

“What you tell them is that it’s just about the next point, just about the next match and you’ve got to fight like crazy because that’s the person you’re becoming; the player you become and the person you become.” He says unapologetically. ”A lot of life is like this: you think you’ve got stuff figured out and then you get curve balls and the ability to really battle and grind and fight is a great life skill. So it’s going to be a tough year in a lot of respects but I’m pretty comfortable with it. I think I keep coming back to the pillars of what this program is going to be and it’s going to be about how hard you compete, how much time and energy in the team and if you invest in it and you can’t be results based because a lot of that you don’t have control over.”

“It comes back to my philosophy that the wins and losses are fairly irrelevant at this point. It’s easy to fight and compete and be upbeat when everything is perfect. I think what they are learning is that who you are as a player and who you are as a competitor shines through when things AREN’T going well. It’s a program that when I got here, 9 of the 14 kids were hurt and we’ve lost our best player and we’ve got a lot of young people playing who don’t have any experience playing in this kind of spot light but that’s the beauty of it. I think anyone that plays us in 3 or 4 years is going to know it’s going to be a competitive situation. I want all the kids in the program to compete like crazy.”

Aird is also adamant about honesty. “I think people always want to coach to make people feel good.” He says. “You want to teach them how to win but it’s not real. There are 324 teams that start the year and some of them think they can win and some of them can win. But some of them can win but don’t think they can. I want to train them without giving them a false sense of confidence. Confidence comes from knowing you can do something so the drill doesn’t work or you don’t have the skill to finish the drill, that’s okay. You’ll come back tomorrow and we’ll work to get better at it. I think that’s a huge component of the growth of what has to happen because if you lie to them and you say don’t worry, we’re going to be fine and you get into a match and get your ass kicked, they’re looking at you like, you aren’t honest. We aren’t good enough. I keep telling them this but that’s okay because I’m focusing on getting better.”

Aird’s training and practices follow this mentality as well. He’s careful not to overload his athletes. “I think when a lot of people coach, they over coach. I see a lot of stuff in the country where there are 12 hitters in line and one setter and they toss a ball and you’re the 12th kid. I think what I have learned is it has to be game like: the game teaches the game, that’s an expression we use a lot and I agree with that. I think as long as the feedback is quick and it’s meaningful. I tell my coaches too, don’t over coach. If you have something to say, tell them quick and get back in the drill and get the reps going. We don’t have enough time in the week. I think if you are in Club and you practice twice a week, you don’t have 30 minutes to discuss concepts. You have to pick your spots about what you’re going to get better at. There’s a 100 things that we can get way better at. I’ll only have the opportunity to only fix 5 or 10 of them by the end of the year and that’s just the truth. I could pretend to coach my ass off and get better at all of them but we don’t have time.”

“Everyone has a certain capacity for learning or capacity for information. So a couple of kids on the team, if I was to tell them, ‘Hey, you have to block low seam and you have to land and get off the net and your footwork has to be this and your arm swing this and you’re late…’ There’s just too many things that are wrong but I can’t give them that much because it’s like a tea cup. My tea cup and someone else’s tea cup might be different sizes but as soon as you put a certain amount of information into it, you can pour liquid into it but it’s just overflowing down the sides. Your job as a coach is to try to make their tea cup bigger and bigger so they can take in more information. In life, I have some really smart kids in school but their volleyball IQ, their tea cups aren’t very big so I have to be careful about how much information I give them.”

Aird has worked with many great coaches in his career but none have had the impact that his Penn. State mentor Russ Rose has had on him. “Russ has obviously been my biggest influence over the past 17 years. Other than my family, he has had the biggest influence on how I go about my business.” He says.

“Russ is the best manager of people I have ever been around. If he was a baseball manager or a CEO of a company or a soccer club manager or whatever, he would be successful because of how he can manage people. I try to emulate it but I can’t recreate it. He’s just too good at it. He’s been coaching Division I volleyball longer than I’ve been alive. To put that in perspective, he’s got a pretty nice wealth of experience.”

Aird talks about how Rose treats individuals and the group, not only the team but also people around the program including administration and boosters. “That’s what I think I’ve learned the most is how to manage a program and how he does it is extraordinary because so many people want his time.” Aird says admiringly. “When we get better here and it starts to develop, I think it will be more and more like that. I know it’s not really volleyball but I think it can relate to club and high school: it’s how you manage the group. The goal is how do you make the group get to a place collectively that they wouldn’t get to without you and you get them to work hard and not be catty. It’s all of those things.”

Rose is also about honesty and Aird, being the Penn State assistant coach the last two Championship seasons has seen it firsthand. “I think Russ’s best skill was he would say some devastating things in practice: to an individual or to the group. When you would hear it, you were like whoo…that’s a really harsh thing to say and the kid could be really, really down but with one sentence he could pull the kid back up.”

In an early August practice, Aird’s best player Adreene Elliot was struggling in a 6 on 6 drill. He called her out and tried to get her to push herself. She continued to not play aggressively and finally Aird took her out of the drill. “In today’s practice, Ne is in full blown tears at the end.” Aird says after that practice. “We come together as a group and I said, ‘Hey, you’re going to be a pro. You’re our best player and you’re going to be a pro. I owe it to you.’ And she hears that she’s going to be a professional and all of a sudden she’s back. So part of that is psychology, part of it is honesty. I want her to feel uncomfortable. She’s always been a pretty good player but she’s nowhere close to where she could get. I think that’s the secret sauce.”

For Aird, his season is over but the days ahead are full. There is no down time for the vision at Maryland and Aird is the Coach to make it happen. “I am unapologetic about who I am,” he says. “I guess the most important lesson is to be you!”

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

151 Years Ago Today...

One hundred and fifty one years ago today, Abraham Lincoln offered up the greatest 272 words in American History. Only 139 days before, the largest battle in the Civil War, and in the history of North American before or since, saw catastrophic losses at the battle of Gettysburg. The final great battle of the war produced 23,043 Union and 28,063 Confederate casualties.  As the two sides rode off after three bombastic days, on July 4, 1863 toward reinforcements and impending encounters, the citizens of Gettysburg, only 2400 strong, had to deal with the aftermath and bury nearly 4 times their town in battlefield dead.

Seems strange to bring up the Battle of Gettysburg in a coaching blog, but some unmistakable coaching moments can be gleaned from this tragic time in American History.

Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart had taken his troops through four major battles in the 16 days prior to Gettysburg, having travelled without proper rations and literally no sleep for his men for two and a half days when they arrived. After being beaten back repeatedly, Stuart’s men were the last to cross back to the Potomac in retreat and were described as in “"wretched condition—completely worn out and broken down.

Out of the Box Thinking:
The Union forces held high ground and waited for an expecting charge from the Confederate Army on the third day of the battle. At 1 p.m. the Confederates let loose an artillery barrage that was meant to soften up the Union’s foothold on the high ground. The Union cannons answered back. After an hour though, the Union guns fell silent and the Confederates took this silence as they had knocked out the North’s artillery options. They had been fooled. The North wanted to lure the South into charging them and was saving ammunition. Only 5,750 Union soldiers defended the onslaught of over 13,000 Rebels but as the Southerners charged, they soon realized they had been duped. Northern canons once again fired and cut through the onslaught, taking out many of the Rebels in the first few minutes of what would now be called, “Pickett’s Charge.”
A good soldier could reload and fire his rifle 2-3 times in a minute so the Union stacked their infantry 4 deep in straight lines to ensure as one infantryman fired we went to the back of the line and reloaded so a continuous spray of fire was slowing the Southern forces.

Humility and Humanity:
General Robert E. Lee, carrying an air of invincibility of both himself and the Army of Northern Virginia into Gettysburg after repeated successful campaigns while heading north,  made some disastrous decisions based on sketchy intelligence, especially on the third day of the battle. Lee met his men on the field, beaten down and surrounded by bodies and carnage as they retreated, telling them, “All this has been my fault.” His men and historians considered this to maybe be Lee’s finest hour, displaying humility and his concern for his men. “He told one of his Generals, “”Upon my shoulders rests the blame.”  Days later, he wrote Confederate President Jefferson Davis and again took responsibility for his army’s defeat saying, “It is my fault. I asked more of these men then I should have.” The Confederate Army would never recover from Gettysburg and had to fight a defensive war the last 21 months before Lee surrendered to General Grant on April 9th in Virginia.

Simple is Better:
President Abraham Lincoln, suffering from the onset of smallpox, stood by attentively as Edward Everett, a popular orator and academic delivered his 2 hour, 13,000+ word speech at the dedication of the National Memorial Cemetery on the Gettysburg battle field. Then, a weak and pale Lincoln removed his trademark stove pipe hat and in 2 minutes, had encapsulated what Everett had spent two hours explaining. The crowd was stunned by its brevity and many in the days immediately after panned it but it stands now as one of the greatest speeches in American history.

Gettysburg is now an American icon. Travel to the town and enjoy lunch at the Blue and Gray Bar and Grill or the Lincoln Diner. You can buy Civil War replicas of uniforms and weapons on the City’s streets but the true history is sadly just a few blocks from downtown, in the National Cemetery that Lincoln dedicated with his Address.

Coaches can look so many places to find inspirations and lessons about how to be better at what we do. They usually come without a big price tag and certainly without body counts. On this day though, President Lincoln, perhaps the greatest “Coach” in our Nation’s history, said it so eloquently:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Abraham Lincoln
November 19, 1863