Thursday, January 5, 2017

Training. Let It Define Who You Are.

This past holiday season I had the opportunity to see and be involved with three different winter guard organizations. All three organizations are different in their membership, regional location, and competitive class. All three organizations have set high goals for their relative class and their staff is working hard to achieve said goals. These guards are World Class, A Class, and Regional A Class and all three have challenges that they have to overcome to achieve the goals they have set before them. Watching and teaching these three guards between November and December, allowed me to witness the different approaches and philosophies of training that spanned a distance of approximately 1,100 miles. I learned a lot. I thought a lot. I talked a lot. I asked a lot of questions of the staffs and performers involved. This blog post is about what I learned.

Training is important to all organizations. You never talk to a staff member who doesn't believe in training as a driving force to their program. When you speak to the performers they feel the same way, but there's an interesting side to the entire conversation and after years of teaching and judging, I believe I have found somewhat of an answer. In fact, I believe this is where we need to start.

We as an activity have not defined what training really means. We use various words interchangeably as if we are all speaking the same language. What is clear to me is that we are not speaking the same language and because of that, we create an environment where people are not really understanding what the other is saying. There was a time when WGI use to hold conventions. How many they held I'm not completely sure, but I know that back in the nineties I went to a convention in New York City, where we talked about ideas and listened to speakers who were experts in their area of the pageantry activity. We haven't had a convention since. Conventions and conferences help professionalize an industry. They open up dialogue and give people something to think about after they head back to their corner of the world. It's time again for us as an activity to dialogue about ideas and philosophy and no...the yearly conclave in Vegas with the white smoke after the proposals are discussed is not what I am suggesting. We need to sit down in a room together and talk about what it is we are doing in our gyms around the country. We need to find a common language that helps us find common ground.

When running flag block last week I realized something very important (at least it was to me). Training is not a statement, but a question. The show is the answer to those questions. Let me say that again. Training is not a statement, but a question and the achievement of the show is the answer to the question. It is an ongoing, continual question that the staff and student should always be asking. What are the questions? Well it starts with the big one. "Am I doing this correctly?" That is then followed by many other questions such as:

Is my body in alignment?
Are my muscles lengthening enough?
Are my hips correct?
Is my back straight?
Are my hands in the right place?
Am I breathing?
Where are my feet?
How is my flexibility today?
Is my flexibility better today than it was yesterday?
Where is my head?
How is my posture?

Training is a series of questions that get to the heart of what the body is doing. Training is how we hold the equipment and how we move with that equipment and at the heart of it all, is the question of what the body is doing to achieve the programs given technique. 

In my quest to understand training better, I asked performers what the difference between warm up and training was. What I found was that the performers got it right. Even those performers at the Regional A level got it right. The staff also got it right. Within 1,100 miles and three classes, everyone for the most part agreed on the difference. However, what we as staff members know to be right does not always translate into action. There are five words that are used interchangeably by performers, staff, and judges and these words must collectively be understood. To understand them, will allow for color guards to achieve at higher levels across the country and as they transition from summer to fall to winter. The five words are as follows:

Training 
Warm-Up
Technique
Cleaning
Practicing

So let's break it down.

Training

Training is what is asked of the body in order to achieve the chosen technique of the program. If I auditioned for a dance company such as Martha Graham, my body and mind would be expected to know and understand her chosen technique. Without understanding her technique, I would not be able to perform her choreography. Training is where we have gone wrong. We have created flag blocks and called them training, but to be honest, many are just grandiose warm-ups. We have taken for granted that a drop spin is a basic skill that once taught can be glossed over. We must always ask of our students, "Are you doing this correctly?"

So, when asking the question, you are also getting to the fact that training is also about the mind. Training is a process of body and mind. It is slow. It is deliberate. It is thoughtful. It is intentional. It is not standing in a basics block doing drop spins on the right and left side and then calling it a day. Training requires hard work on the part of both the student and staff. When you blow off the questions of technique, then you will be in a world of hurt when you try to clean the show. You will waste time and eventually it will show. Training is not the time for the staff to sit back and take a break. It's one of the hardest things you can do. Proper training sets the show up for success and cuts down on injuries. Training is your flexibility and stamina. It is training the mind to focus and pay attention to what the body is asking of it. Training is crucial and cannot be passed over. I once described training to a group of judges once as the Sunday to your Saturday. We see on Saturday what they have been doing since Sunday. However, many guards treat training like it's Wednesday. It's just something to get through to make it to Saturday.

Warm-Up

Warm-up is a process of the mind. Warm-up is the act of preparing the mind of the performer and the guard to think alike in the environment they have been placed into. Some might disagree with me on this, but it is not the time to train. If a quad is not understood in training, then it won't be understood in warm-up. When a performer drops a quad multiple times in warm-up before a show, what's going on there? Is it that they never could truly do it well or is it that their mind is playing tricks on them? The answer to that question lies in how you have taught them to train themselves. If a staff member allows half catches, catches in wrong body positions, and catches that are just plain wrong during the training process to get to the idea that catching just to catch is important, then what you get in warm-up is the performers body and mind questioning if they can really achieve under pressure. The performers should be trained to do the skills correctly, but also trained to handle the pressure. If they can't, then someone has fallen down on the job.

While I'm here, let's discuss stretching. Stretching is probably one of the most important things that you do with a color guard. Yes. I said that out loud. Staff members blow off stretch as a "take a few minutes on your own to warm up your body and then set it up in flag block," are missing valuable teaching time. Most of us have done it. Stretching if done correctly is where flexibility comes in. It's the movement of the muscles based on YOUR chosen technique. However, most programs take one approach or the other. It's either "stretch on your own," which most kids are not fundamentally trained well enough to do or it's a musical stretch routine where the staff often walk away to drink their coffee or check their Facebook feed. If done right, stretching should go under the category of training and can actually change your movement score for the better.

That 15 minutes of stretch could be the movement class you never have time to do.

Technique

Technique is your program's chosen identity. What was that word? Identity? Identity is what sets your guard apart from the guard next to it, but if you look around you will see a very homogenized activity. Ask yourself this question. When was the last time you went to a guard show and saw a significant variation in the look of the units as the classes progressed? Did they spin differently? Did they move differently? If you looked closely, chances are they even had the same choreography. If your answer is, "For the most part everyone looked the same," then part of the reason lies in the technique programs within each organization. No one has ever said that a drop spin must be done with the hands at the naval, elbows out, and feet in first position. No one defines the tempo of those drop spins. The way you choose to teach your students drop spins is what is considered your program's technique and nothing says that it has to look like the guard across the street. No one has ever said that you even have to do drop spins. What makes drop spins important is how you as a technical director define them and how you want to use their purpose in the context of your show. Personally, I do drop spins as a focus on body alignment. That's me. That's my purpose. What's yours?

Your technique is your identity. When you send kids out into the world to audition for other programs they take with them your technique. As an instructor of independent guards since 1996, I've seen the result of poorly taught technique through training programs that were ineffective. Kids have walked through the doors with medals and finalist patches, but cannot stand up straight or understand the purpose of the "and" count. World finalists have walked through my guard's door and don't understand the concepts of basic flexibility to achieve kicks and leaps. That is a result of undefined technique and half ass training programs. 

*I understand that the judging community plays a hand in this. When we as judges allow poor technique, then we perpetuate the concept that as long as they "catch" then it's o.k. Judges reward what often should not be rewardable and then the audience cheers for it.

Cleaning

Cleaning is simple. Cleaning is the staff's job. Cleaning is done at rehearsal and requires the staff to analyze and consider all aspects of the phrase and the ability for the phrase to be achieved by all performers equally. 

As instructors we often mistake cleaning for training. We spend time in rehearsal fixing a quad of an individual, when that individual should have been trained well enough in the program's chosen technique to achieve during the cleaning process. Designated cleaning time must be used for just that. Cleaning. If the staff or students have fallen short of training, then rehearsals get cumbersome and confusing as the staff try to fix what the performers weren't trained well to do. Fixing posture during the cleaning process? Why? Why don't they understand posture at this point? Taking time to address flexibility of a battement when you should be cleaning the hip angles of that battement? It all comes back to training. If you know that there are three battements in the show, then they must be a part of your training program. Period.

As a judge I often hear staff members say that they didn't have enough time to rehearse for the show, but I often wonder if that's just their excuse for not using their time wisely and correctly. The evidence of that should be a well trained guard, but poorly executed show. That's a guard that didn't have enough time to rehearse for the show. Technique can always be practiced whether the guard is together or not.

Practicing

"Practice at home."

I agree. But what the hell does that mean? Is practicing at home the same for you as it is for the kids? Practicing is the act of an individual performer working on a specific skill or phrase to the point of personal achievement. If the performer practices correctly and often, then the staff should be able to clean the show during rehearsal and move through that process faster. 

Most performers need to be told what and how to practice. Take a football player for example. Do you think that in the good programs the coach just says, "Go out in your back yard and throw the ball a bit?" I doubt it. My guess is that there is a program set up for the player to work on body conditioning, strength, speed, and agility in his off hours. Dancers will often work their technique in their bedrooms while holding on to a make shift barre. A gymnast might work the flexibility of a specific muscle at home as the coach has prescribed for higher achievement. 

Practicing should be required of all students who want to participate in a competitive program and should be prescribed by the staff. Blanketing a statement of "Go home and practice," does not give guidance. However, saying that you want the performers to spend 15 minutes a day on their hip flexibility, 10 minutes a day on triples and 15 minutes a day going over a specific phrase, is prescribed and sets expectations for the week. If you want to go even further, set individual goals. Not all kids come to the table with the same skills. Some need flexibility. Some need strength. Some need stamina. They all need to work on something.


My suggestion is this. Talk with your staff. Are you all speaking the same language? Define the language you use and then define your technique. Talk about each exercise and ask why you do it. If it isn't beneficial to the show, then throw it out. Stop wasting time on what doesn't bring you greater results. Go to critique and talk with the judges and ask them what their definition of training and technique. Be able to describe your process and back it up with results. Stand out from the other guards in your class. Be better trained and then back it up with results. Don't make excuses. All guards have gym problems, weather problems, and yearly performer turnover. Find new ways to train the body and mind and then back it up with results. All guards, especially at the Regional A level struggle with time and personnel. Not enough time in the gym and the students don't always stay more than one year. Stop that as an excuse and you will succeed even with turnover and limited gym time. When the kids understand their technique and are trained well in that technique, then the show naturally comes together and guess what...you will begin to have an identity that looks different than every one else and that identity will be called "well trained."

Thank you and good luck this winter.



Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Best Way to Achieve Low Box 4 and Stay There!

I hate low Box 4. Let me tell you a story.

Every year at Premier I play a game and try to predict the opening score that my guard will have. You see, I'm somewhat of a psychic. I have these premonitions where numbers just come to me. No, I haven't chosen the lottery numbers yet. (If that was the case, I wouldn't be sitting here writing this blog. I would be on some island with Logan the hot cabana boy serving me cocktails with little umbrella's in them.)




I'm derailed. Anyway, I have a knack for being able to predict things with numbers in them. Flight numbers. Start times. Grocery bills. I do the same thing with scores. I can get really close, if not exact with scores and not even think about it. What will we score at Premier? 65.6. 

"And in first place with a score of 65.6..."

It isn't hard for me. In fact, It's somewhat of a mixture of intuition, experience, and remaining objective of my own color guard's strengths and weaknesses. Low Box 4 is the perennial score of early season shows as the judges try to fit 5,000 guards into this little sliver of the sheet that says, "Frequently Understands." Box 4 is the box that almost every guard ends up in by the end of the season, putting virtually every guard inside of a thirty point window. Most guards start close to or in Box 4 and stay there all season. The majority won't ever reach that little ten point section called, "Always Applies," and at some point during the season, guards that started in that heinous ass annoyance box called, "Sometimes Knows" ( dark music plays in the background), finds that by the end they frequently understand. Box 3 sucks and mid-Box 4 is like a mosquito that carries some exotic virus because you can never seem to get rid of it. 

Box 4 is easy to enter, but difficult to get out of. Most teams hover around the 62-75 range of the sheet the majority of their season and cannot figure out how to reach the 80.0 we all crave. There's something about that sigh of relief that comes from breaking 80.0. Once achieved, the world gets slightly more comfortable when it becomes clear you have left the majority of your competitors behind. To be honest, my guards tend to get stuck at 79. Then the next week we score a 79.3. Then the next week we score a 79.7. Then, when we think we're going to do it, the scores come out and it's a 79.95.


(The face I make when they announce a 79.95)

This post, however, is about low Box 4, specifically in the A Class. Low Box 4 the score that hovers somewhere around a 60-68(ish) and the message from the judges is that "you 'sometimes' achieve aspects of this sheet, but your aren't consistent." Many guards get stuck there. Most A guards on the A Sheet stay trapped in low box 4 well into March. There are four captions and five judges and your score is the sum of those five judges. It isn't difficult to achieve a 60.0, which is the opening number in Box 4, but to get past it takes hard work and discipline on the part of the kids and the staff...mostly the staff.

It's December and most of us have dismissed our kids for Christmas break with this phrase, "Make sure you practice over the holidays." With that expression, you have clearly placed expectations on your performers, but I ask you this. What expectations have you placed on yourself? What will you do over the holidays to make sure that your guard doesn't hover around a 63.0 all season? Are you watching videos taken of your technique program to analyze what skills are needed to be worked on once they come back after Christmas? Are you watching the 1 to 2 minutes of drill that's been staged to identify future problems? This is your time to analyze the sheets to figure out how you and your staff will take your guard from a 55.0 (Box 3) to a 65.0 to a 75.0 and beyond. 

There are words and phrases that you need to know that will get you out of the pit of hell called low Box 4 faster than others and while you spend this much-needed break planning for the weeks leading up to the first show, I want you to think about how you are setting your guard up for success.

Broad and Well Understood

How are you developing your book to coincide with the training and skills of the performers? This is two parts. Is your book challenging enough that will raise the score above a 70.0, but not so difficult that phrases with lack readability? What are you asking of the body in tandem with the equipment? Do you move underneath the equipment? Do you ever move into the floor or bend at the waist?

Mental Development

I often call this mental stamina. Let me ask you something? Can your kids stand in a basics block without looking around or fidgeting, while you count 5,6,7,8? Can they get through longer phrases without forgetting the book or lacking the ability to recover in a count or less? Can they all focus on an entire run through or just a few? What about their ability to stay on the floor needing fewer and fewer breaks at each rehearsal? Do you ever challenge your kids with random choreographic exercises to challenge their thinking and ability to memorize?

Training to Support 

How are you training the kids? Did you use your time wisely this fall or blow off training and turned that time into a grandiose warm up? Did you let the kids warm themselves up, while you drank a Starbucks latte' and called it training? Are your kids flexible? Do they understand the core strength it takes to stand with good performance posture? Do they move well? How often do you make them do across the floor exercises? Are you developing their muscles throughout their musculoskeletal structure to include the latissimus, shoulders, trapezius, and gluteus maximus or are you only focused on doing a few push ups, because it seemed the right thing to do? Do they have strong or weak wrists? How are you working their stamina?

This stuff matters! If you can't answer, "Yes...I do have a plan to truly and genuinely train the guard every sing day of the season," then you will stay in low Box 4 and possibly Box 3 for a very, very long time.

Effort Change

Does the choreography that has already been written and in the planning stages have written effort changes in them? Your choreography should explore changes in effort. Speed changes are the easiest to write in, but with a little planning, you can add changes of weight and flow. As an equipment judge, I get excited when I see effort changes consciously written into the book and if achieved; I reward it. Not many in A class think about efforts, which will make your guard stand out in a field of hundreds.

Pacing and Planned

Have you planned the effects to a point that they offer variety to create interest? Do all of your effects involve equipment moments such as tosses? Is your show one long run on sentence without breath? Are you actively planning to create moments of pause to create interest? Think of a movie that you like or a book that you can't put down. What makes it interesting? What makes you want to read that book again? Without knowing it, the author has put you the reader on edge while you wonder what is going to happen next to the characters you love so much. A writing coach once told me that to create interest in a novel, you have to put the characters into positions that make them uncomfortable. You have to challenge your main characters and give them choices that go against their moral grain. Katniss in the Hunger Games had to make choice after choice that went against her belief system. It's why we all held our breath when she and Peeta chose to eat the poison berries at the end...forcing all of us to hold our breath and pray. That is pacing and no doubt it was planned well before the book was finished. You can bet that Suzanne Collins didn't just stumble on her effects. She planned them out and she kept the audience questioning every trap Katniss fell into in the games. You too can do this. Through your planned effects you can keep the audience questioning and wanting more...even in the A Class.

Logical Transitions

I would like to give you a hint. If your ultimate desire is to stay at a 62.3 the entire season and only inch up to a 65.0, just because it's championships, then put very little thought into your transitions. Better yet, if your goal is to end the season with a 59.95, then just run the kids from one end of the floor to the other to exchange equipment. Make everything you do functional. God, I hate that word. When I hear functional on an audio file, it's as if someone put a Michael Bolton song on repeat and glued headphones to my head...for life. A functional transition has no purpose. It doesn't set up the next section or phrase and often looks like an afterthought that the design staff threw together just to get to the next section. Don't be functional.

So here's the thing. I get asked every year by countless instructors across the country why their score is stagnant and hovering in the low 60's and without a doubt, the reasons I listed above are almost always the reasons why. Training. Poor transitions. Overwritten choreography. Inability to focus. You know what it's usually not? The color of the floor. The special zig zag you put at the top of the uniform that only you know why it's there. Dark blue flags vs. light blue flags. What many people think matters isn't heavily weighted in Box 3 and low Box 4. It isn't until your show exhibits good training, seamless transitions, pacing, and a color guard that can come out onto the floor without dropping their equipment and looking as if someone stole their equipment for three weeks and only returned it during their official equipment warm-up, when the color of the floor and the zig zag on the uniform starts to matter.

Happy Holiday's everyone and make sure you use this break wisely. I know I will. :)




Monday, October 10, 2016

How To Work Better With Vendors and Consultants for Pageantry Based Services

This has been a topic I've been thinking about for quite some time. To be honest, I haven't found the best way to broach the subject. When I think about it, my mind plays this duel game with itself. On one hand, the marching arts is a business and many people are making money off of programs all over the world. On the other hand, the people who are running these businesses are our friends. It's a serious catch 22. The reality though, is that friend or not, our first priority should be to the kids in our programs and not our friends selling us flags, drill, or consulting services. So what do we do? How do we go about making sure that the services and products we buy are solid businesses and professional business people?

Last month I rented a car at Payless Rental. Upon returning the car I found myself in an unbelievable game of bait and switch tactics. I was charged more than agreed upon and the customer service was beyond deplorable. (BTW...don't ever rent from Payless Rental...Don't! Don't! Don't!) I'm telling this story to highlight that when as a consumer we feel cheated, then we take action. We can call customer service, demand refunds, post negative Yelp reviews, Angie's List, Better Business Bureau, etc. Which by the way, I did all of the above. After numerous phone calls and some yelling back and forth, my money was refunded. I will never use them again and I will make sure my friends know to never use them again. They are a business and not a person and I felt no love loss for going after them.

So what happens when in the world of pageantry similar events happen? What should we do when the drill writer you hire doesn't get the drill to you in the specified amount of time? What about costume companies or silk design companies? What about the consultant you hire who clearly isn't invested in your program, but only in the check you can write? They are out there.

I've gone back and forth on this issue as I'm both a consumer and consultant. How would I want people handling issues they have with me? The reality is that the people we hire in the pageantry arts aren't corporations, but real people and from my view, the problem we are having as an activity are people who over extend themselves and don't grasp their ability to turn a product around when the entire country needs their costumes, drill, and silks within the same two week period. I consult with a small program in Florida and last week was told that the silks we ordered had not even made it to print yet. It was a big deal. We had to scramble and make a decision to cancel the order, as we couldn't justify paying for one set of expensive flags for one show and homecoming. Additionally, those silks were the crux of the entire show. It told the story. So...I got mad. Very mad. Communication in the beginning of the process of an order is crucial. Picking up the phone and returning emails is not just important, but just good business practices. We had issues with all of that.



As I seethed throughout the week, I thought of every evil, vindictive way I could possibly go about ruining them. I was coming off of the Payless scenario and had to take a step back and realize that we weren't getting screwed over, but just a victim of an overwhelmed start up company. However, it was important to me to make sure that people knew about the situation and I did it as professionally as I could, as I went back and forth on the wording when posting it on Facebook. They are still a business and we are still consumers and my guard was negatively impacted by the situation. I wanted others to know that they too, could be in similar scenarios for winter guard or the following band season.

Over the week I thought about the implications of starting a sort of "Angie's List" of pageantry. I thought that people have the right to know when they got less than professional services from those they hire for their band and guard programs. My brain had it worked out perfectly, but after a glass of wine and a Xanax, I realized how an Angie's List would never work. I thought about the drill writer who writes drill for a band and the band is not happy with the product. I think we all have a right to know who that person is, because they all can't be great. Then I thought, "Wow...what a witch hunt that would become." Drill is often written and the band it is written for doesn't teach it correctly or doesn't clean it in such a way to make it effective. I thought about the consultant who is hired for a rehearsal and doesn't deliver the services promised. Then I remembered about a time I was flown in and paid to work with a guard for one camp and got less than 5 total hours in front of them, as the director failed to alert me to the fact that they brought me in during a weekend of a parade and a fundraiser. So my Angie's List idea didn't last long in my head. It would be a lawsuit waiting to happen and make me one of the most hated people in the activity and to be honest, most services out there are pretty good. Really they are. I've worked with a lot of drill writers, consultants, designers, music editors, and costume companies and have rarely had an issue. Usually, the issue when there was one, was ours. We failed to get purchase orders in or communicate with our drill writer in a timely manner. We failed to get contracts written appropriately, if we bothered with contracts at all. I've noticed that when designers were hired out, then problems arose when those designers were not effectively communicated with. It's often a 50/50 problem on both sides, but it's rarely an all or nothing scenario like my rental car issue was. (By the way...Payless Rental really sucks)

So, I decided to simply put a list together of the best ways I know to work with those who we buy services from as it seems that the issues often fall on the side of the consumer. It's not always the case, but often it is. The flag scenario with my guard was about  80% their fault and 20% ours. We were offered a solution, but the solution was not appropriate for our situation with only one show left to show off very expensive silks. So here are my recommendations:

  • When contracting services, contact those companies and individuals very early and communicate often. 
  • Sign contracts that outlines dates of delivery for both parties when appropriate. When the drill writer states they need your performer numbers by a particular date, then you need to get it to them by that date. When the costume company states that production doesn't start until a purchase order is received and then they say it will be four to six weeks after receipt of the purchase order, then you need to get it to them early...very early. If you do your part, then it is on the company at that point to get the product to you by the specified date. Once you've done your part, then and only then, can you get mad if delivery is late. They however, the company that is, needs to be upfront at all times in the process of production.
  • Communication should be an expectation of hiring services of any individual consultant or company. If a person or company won't return phone calls or emails, then run fast and run far. Your band or guard is on the clock and everyone knows that problems occur. Kids quit. Shows change. The people you hire should be willing to work with your issues to a point, but if you don't communicate those issues or they don't respond to those issues, then the relationship as consumer and business is clearly broken.
  • Make sure who you are hiring is reputable. Ask around. Call your friends. Ask questions. 
    • Did you have an issue with delivery time frames?
    • Did you feel they were invested in your program?
    • Were you just a number to them?
    • Did you feel like you were treated as good as a national program would have been treated?
    • What is their experience?
  • When hiring a designer, drill writer, or consultant ask to see a website or resume. Ask to speak to previous clients. 
  • Ask about process. What is the process of the person you are hiring? How do they like communicating? How do they like dealing with snags and changes.
Finally...when you find the costume company you like or the sales rep you work well with, then stick with them. Build a relationship over time. When you find the right drill writer or designer, work with them to help you build your program. These people need to make money, but most of them are still in it for the kids. They want you to be successful. They want your program to grow. They want to help you work through your problems. In fact, I don't know anyone out there who sits around and says, "Well thanks for the check...now go away." Communicate in an open manner about what you need, but also what your strengths and weaknesses are. I personally like working with Algy. (No, this is not a paid advertisement) I have found over time that I really hate designing costumes. I don't really care if the color of the leggings are lycra magenta or red. Seriously...I. Do. Not. Care. You know what I do? I call my rep and the conversation goes something like this:

Me: "Hey it's me. Yeah another season. We are doing a show about trees. No I don't want the kids dressed in green." 
Them: "Oh girl. You're a mess. So what type of trees?"
Me: "Big ones. Like the ones that change colors in the fall."
Them: "Good Lord. What about costumes with different fall colors?
Me: "Yeah. I like that idea."
Them: Still have 15 kids on the field this year?"
Me: "No. We added two."
Them: "That's great. We'll start working on this."
Me: "Awesome. I'll await the design."

Is this a little simplistic? Absolutely. What I've learned though over time is that they know me and I know them. We have a relationship. I won't work with anyone who doesn't show an investment in my kids. I won't buy someone's Mercedes's for them without a personal investment in my program. 

Keep in mind that the people and companies you are hiring are getting paid by the money the kids pay into the program and come from hard working families that trust you to make the appropriate decisions. They expect the guard program their child is performing in to use their money wisely. Their money is not a place for your friends to take without proper vetting, just because they are your friend and you wanted a place for everyone to make a little side income. We know this happens in the activity and we know that money is wasted. My mistake in the flag situation with my program was that I didn't vet the company appropriately. I didn't ask enough questions and I take that responsibility on. THAT was my fault and I will never make that mistake again. In the end, when we are hired to work with a color guard and given the responsibility to spend the money, then we need to take that responsibility seriously and give it the due process it deserves. I believe that companies and consultants who are good will survive and those that aren't will go under. We are an activity that talks and word of mouth is important in our world. I guess that's my advice to any consultant, drill writer, or sales rep out there. People talk. Make sure what they say is nothing, but great words. To the programs out there...do your part. Communicate frequently and be up front with what you can pay, what you expect, and where your program is in the process of growth. Finally, when you get great service, give that person or company a shout out on social media. It goes a long way in building those relationships. Oh and one more thing...DON'T EVER RENT A CAR FROM PAYLESS RENTAL! 

Monday, September 12, 2016

Behind The Scenes of Being a Technician

I've been thinking a lot about this post and trying to figure out the best way to express how I feel at times when I think about where we are right now as an activity. I have found over the years that tough conversations in our pageantry world often offend and anger people, when the status quo is challenged. In our activity, you have to be careful when you say anything negative about a color guard or drum corps, without someone's sensibilities taking offense as if we had killed their puppy. There are people who are afraid to talk openly about our national organizations for fear of retribution...as if they were the mafia and would leave an old bloody guard uniform in your bed as a symbol to shut you up. There is an absurdity to it all at times that shuts dialog down, but to me...I'm not afraid of uncomfortable dialog. In fact, uncomfortable dialog is what keeps us moving forward as a species.

So here's the thing. Have you ever noticed how we as a collective whole promote, celebrate, compensate and applaud the design aspect of our activity over the technical side? I've written about this numerous times, but I believe the conversation needs to be taken to the next level, because to be honest I'm kind of pissed off. It's the time of year when grand staff announcements are made, like it's the NCAA at the end of a football season. Who will be writing their show? Who will be arranging their music? Who are their choreographers? Did you hear that such and such is leaving this place and going to that place? Oh my God! Let's all stop the rotation of the earth and acknowledge the designers and arrangers as they move from place to place or lend their name to a program. And you know what? It's fine, because I get it. You cannot clean a show that has not been written. You cannot play music when notes have not been put to the page. When a movie is announced in Hollywood and you watch the trailer in the theater, it's not the camera operator that is announced; it's the director, the producer, the actors. I mean, you never hear the phrase, "From the camera operator of Titanic comes another epic water adventure." It just doesn't happen, because no one gives a rats ass who the camera operator of Titanic was, but he/she was there. So I get it. When Cameron Mackintosh lends his talent and name to a play, no one cares at that point who is sewing the costumes or who is the vocal coach for the artists. We only care that the guy who created Les Miserables is involved with another project.

So what do we do? Let's first start by acknowledging that this isn't Hollywood and none of us are Cameron Mackintosh. Let's also acknowledge that even the best of the best in Hollywood have duds. I enjoy Woody Allen movies, but I find that over half of them have the same feel, themes, and concepts. Sometimes I feel like these directors recreate the same films over and over with just different actors. Yet, there we go buying our ticket and spending money, because our favorite directors and actors have signed on to a new movie. I remember back in 2000, when it was announced that Sally Field would be in a new film. It was called, Places in the Heart. I was excited, because I just love her. She was given top billing at the time and in the end, her part was a minor role in a bad movie, that basically seemed like a two hour advertisement for WalMart.

In the pageantry arts, we await the start of each new season to see which designer has created what production. Many of the shows end up being recreations, rip offs, and sometimes out right plagiarism of something they have done in the past or something someone else has created from a different genre of art. Often times choreography for color guard ends up being a regurgitation of the same phrases, tosses, body rolls, and dance moves repackaged for a new season. Sebastienne St. Jacque has become somewhat of an icon of our activity as having created an online persona of a really bad designer and color guard director of the worst color guard in the activity. His Facebook posts make light of what is often taken very seriously and is able to put a mirror in front of our faces of the absurdity, so we don't lose sight of who we have become and where we have come from. His role is important as angry as he can make us sometimes, because he doesn't let us forget how ridiculous we all can act.

So what is it like to be a technician of these shows and of these designs? It isn't really talked about is it? Rarely is there a grand announcement of the newest flag tech to join the hottest winter guard or the visual tech who joined some top 12 drum corps. Those people are there, though. Many are great technicians, who deserve more than a pat on the back at the end of the season. Many are not great and they serve as filler staff while the grown ups discuss next steps. That's a reality, too. Just like designers and choreographers, we have good technicians and we have not so good technicians. Even the good ones though, struggle to stand out in front of name recognition and the money that should be demanded of through the role they play. We are discussing this more and more as an activity, because we are finding that training at the lower levels and the perfect execution of a phrase is becoming harder and harder to find, as we continue to push the design envelope.

So what is it like to be one of the good ones? What is it we do that deserves top billing?

In today's new world of the additional responsibility of synergistic choreography, we are finding new ways to train. We are figuring out new ways to condition the muscle groups so success is guaranteed. We are having to relearn how to clean phrases through the new exploration of wraps and rolls. We are rethinking how to discuss character and role development with the performers, in shows that don't always make sense, while new technology of sound and lighting come to the forefront. We look to add effort changes into phrases that were watered out by the kids,  in their desperate attempts to learn work that didn't even exist 5 years ago. We are the extra set of eyes you may need to help you figure out a difficult moment. We are there to push the kids beyond what they ever thought possible.

So what is a good technician not?

We are not the coffee runners. We are not grunts to fill time in between days when the design team is not there. We are not just a flag tech or foot tech. We are not the punching bag of the ego's of the activity when the show doesn't turn out the way it should have. We are not bitches when the heat of cleaning gets turned up. We are not void of creative thought and ideas. We are not to be lectured to as if we were a performer in the guard. We are not to be told what the show will be, but offered a voice in the process based on the role we play within the staff ensemble.

Have you ever been a part of these scenarios?

The Interminable Task of the Counts 

Tech: "When does this toss release?
Performer 1: "Count 5."
Performer 2: "No. Count 5&"
Performer 3: "I think he said it's 6."
Tech: "You mean he didn't tell you when it releases?"
Performer 4: "We were told when the note hits its peak"
Tech: "Shit. Seriously? Alright then. Make it 6."

Two weeks later.

Choreographer: "Why is the toss going up on 6? It goes up on 4& when the peak of the music goes, "AHHHHHHHHHH!" (Storms off in fit of toddleresque temper tantrum)
Tech: "Fine. Make it 4&" (Secretly knows that by the end of the season it will be count 5, but says to herself, "whatever.")

Design Meetings

In a perfect world, all key staff would be involved in design meetings, but we don't live in a perfect world and more often than not, technicians are left out of the design process. It's actually rather foolish to be honest, because a technician is the person or people who will often be placed on the front lines of bringing the production to life. Hearing their thoughts on how they believe the performers will respond to a particular piece of music or the training that will go into bringing that music to life is crucial in the process of becoming successful. Here's another thing. Technicians aren't idiots. They too are creative and have ideas. We listen to music and envision effects and ideas. It's just not our expertise to bring that idea to life in a pageantry sort of way, but just because it isn't our expertise, doesn't mean the idea isn't a good one. It doesn't mean that a technician can't look at a storyboard and realize when the story doesn't make sense. A good technician must be creative, because it is their creativity that oftentimes allows them to add efforts into phrases that were left out or fix drill that ended up not looking as good as the design team thought it would. The chief technicians need a seat at the table, because playing devils advocate should be part of their job and it helps them understand the original vision as they clean throughout the season. When the vision isn't clear, then the cleaning process becomes very difficult and often the show ideas become bastardized.

How about this for a conversation?

Designer: "At this point in the show we are going to introduce the sabre line in the back corner stage right, while the rifles enter stage left 8 counts later."
Tech: "Are you sure that won't pull focus?"
Designer: "Of course not. This is why they are entering 8 counts later. Don't you hear the ding off in the distance in the music?" (Designer says in a condescending voice)
Tech: No. I really don't hear the ding in the music.
Designer: Well you will in the arena.
Tech: Ummm. o.k. I guess. I still think it will pull focus.

Two months later at some show in the middle of nowhere:

Judge: "The rifles pull focus from the sabres when they enter stage left."
Designer: "You know, I see what you are saying there. We'll look at it."
(Eye roll from the technical staff standing behind the design staff sitting at the critique table)

These things happen! They happen all the damn time. 

A personal favorite of mine is this conversation.

Choreographer: "I sent a video of the show to such and such and they said we need to look at the choreography of the flag feature. It doesn't have the impact it should."
Tech: "Ummmm....yeah. I believe I said that a month ago, but o.k."

As a technician, I accept my role of bringing the vision of the design team to life. As a writer, I know what it's like to have a vision of a story and the struggle I put into each paragraph, so the characters or the idea comes to life the way I want it to. I don't let anyone read anything I write, before the idea is correct on the paper. Before I even write these little blog posts I conduct research, check to see if anything is inadvertently plagiarized, and I have a cheat sheet where I identify mood, tone, key points, character names, and other pertinent information that helps me bring the idea to life. So I know what it's like to create something and have others I trust critique it. I've had people say they hate something I've written and I've sent articles to magazines and publishers just to have them rejected without even being read. It's hard, but having others read what I write before the story goes live is crucial to the success I hope to have one day. It would only make sense that the design of a show takes the same approach. You have to trust your technicians, because if you don't, then what are they there for?

The post I'm writing about comes from years of working with multiple designers and being on the receiving end of cleaning something incorrectly, challenging a thought, or flat out saying I don't like something. I've been yelled at, kicked out of the gym, and flat out told that when the design is finished then I can have an opinion. I'm not the only one either. These stories in the activity are very common, but even with the abuse and lack of recognition we continue to work to bring that designers vision to life. We know that when the staff announcements are made, that it's the designers and choreographers that get top billing. Yet, we show up to the gym to place counts on choreography that we ultimately won't get credit for, even if we have to change that choreography to make it fit the staging or music better. We know that a designer is getting the majority of what is allocated for the staff budget, as rarely do technicians see the bulk of the staff pay line item. Rarely is there money set aside for good technicians to be flown in to help a guard fix the bullshit of crap that has become of a show in March.  Designers and choreographers are flown all over the country to design shows in the beginning of a season, but it's often the end that matters and who is there in the end? It's the day to day technicians trying to undo in October, what should have been done in August.

We celebrate and compensate the designers of the activity. It happens all the time and in ways people don't even realize. It happens in critique when judges ask, "Who wrote that show?" It happens behind the scenes when a director asks, "Who are we going to get to design the show?" It happens in the stands when someone says, "Oh look at what such and such did this year." Have you ever thought what it would sound like if a judge said, "That's a great show. Who is cleaning it?" What if from the field the audience witnessed a flawlessly executed phrase that brought the crowd to its feet and the first question was, "Who techs that color guard?"

That's not how it works though, anymore than when we watch a new Quentin Tarantino film and make a judgment on whether we like it or not. If we like it, we hail Mr. Tarantino as a genius and if we don't, we say, "Well...another flop." We don't blame the costume designer for the bad film...we blame him. There's one caveat to this argument, however. This isn't Hollywood where everyone is getting paid something, is unionized, and have contracts in place from the director to the caterer. At the end of a movie, the costume designer is mentioned in the rolling credits. There are even Oscars for those behind the scenes and although that awards ceremony takes place out of the public eye, they still exist. I was once told that when the show is bad it isn't my name that has to stand up and take responsibility. Well you know what I have to say to that? Maybe it should be. Maybe if we celebrated the technicians and cleaning staff like we do the design staff, then there isn't anyone who has to take the fall for anything, because in my scenario everyone wins together and everyone loses together. If we compensated technicians, then there would be more of an incentive for technicians to hone the craft of cleaning a show. If judges asked the questions of, "Who is the primary technician responsible for cleaning this...I want to talk to them," then we would start to grow a community of technicians who are brilliant at what they do...which is to make the vision of the design come to life.

A color guard, drum corps, or marching band is just a microcosm of the work environment and one of the number one reasons people don't stay at a job is because they don't have a voice. Money is rarely why they leave or why they stay. People leave their jobs because their passion in some way or another isn't being fulfilled through a lack of recognition in ideas or ability to grow that passion into what it is they truly love. The leave because ideas aren't utilized. They leave because credit isn't give where credit is deserved. Pageantry is no different than the workforce. As we move into the competitive marching band season and make the grand announcements for winter guard and drum corps, try to figure out a way to recognize the talent of those behind the scenes of the design. It will go a long way as we help to build the program...I promise.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Stonecutter and Color Guard

Do you ever think about analogies when you teach? I love analogies and the way you can take one lesson from another aspect of life and connect it to a current situation. Japanese philosophers do it all the time. Taoists will connect stories from thousands of years ago to a current situation to better make sense out of what seems nonsensical. There is a famous story about a stonecutter who is building a wealthy mans house. He longs to have the power and money of the wealthy man. He seeks to become that man and then realizes once he achieves it, he wants more. He wants more power and more money. He achieves it, but realizes that he still doesn't have all the power he desires. He wants to be the sun and then the clouds and then the wind. He wants to be the strongest and most powerful within all of the universe. One day he realizes that the most powerful force is stone and he wants to be stone. Nothing can move it. Stone withstands the forces of the elements. So that is what he becomes. He becomes a stone and see's that he is more powerful than even the wind. One day a man with a hammer cuts the stone in half to build a house. He is devastated, because he was once that stonecutter. He learns that within all of us is the power to find happiness with who we are and the circumstances of our environment and most importantly...what connects us to one another.

So why do I tell this story? What is the analogy? It's that time of year again. September is in full swing and that means that the first of a season of competitions is upon us. It's the time when we find out if all of our summer work mattered and if we ventured down the right path or the path filled with roadblocks and weeds. Some will leave September frustrated, while others will leave it confidently and prideful. There are some people who have already given up and are just waiting for the clock to tick by so they can start what they are really planning for, which is winter guard season. Some have been looking across the street and saying, "I want to be there instead of here." I want more performers. I want a better designer. I want more money. I want a better staff.  I want it to be winter guard season. I want this season to be over. I want it to be cooler. I want there to be less rain. I want. I want. I want. In the process of the "wanting" many of us lose what it is we have. We lose the present and the kids involved. Wanting something else is an easy trap to fall  prey to and a hole we all fall into at one point or another. Some people can't get out of the hole and they never will. They never see the daylight of the present, because there is always seems to be something better on the horizon.

I spent years of my guard career wanting more. I wanted to be seen standing at the top of the national stage and among the pageantry elite and within that, I often lost the present hoping for more. I became relentless at cleaning phrases and trying to prove that I was better than others. Now to me, that is how I thought you became part of the elite. Becoming relentless in your goals is how I thought the elite did it. There's a catch, though. Being relentless only works if you understand that you will only ever achieve your goals by not trying to achieve the goals of someone else. To stand among the elite, requires that you know there really isn't an elite. There are people who are better than others. There are people who make more money at this than others. There are people who sit on the Boards and who judge the shows. There are people who wear the medals and collect the trophies, but none of them are the elite, because it simply doesn't exist in the way we want to believe it does. It is simply a game that cannot be won.

I know guard instructors who believe that the better they costume their guard, the better they will be and the higher they will score. There are people who think that because a name is attached to their program, then the better their kids will become. Then there are the people who think they don't have the right type of kids to be successful. There are people that bitch about the parents and the lack of money. I have learned over time that no matter how my guard is dressed or who I teach with, it won't make the kids happy and doesn't necessarily make me happy. Names, medals, costumes, and fancy silks only look good on the surface to those who think you are better than them. Those things only look good to the people who don't realize what they have and in the end, all of those trinkets end up in boxes. Time passes and what we did with that time had nothing to do with the "what."

Teaching a color guard is a gift and within that gift is the ability to give it back to young people who have yet to unwrap the package of pageantry. It doesn't matter how much money we spend on the costume, because in the end it won't make us happy if we aren't living for who we are and what we have, which is today. All we have is today. We don't have next season and tomorrow isn't guaranteed. I think the happiest I ever was in the activity was with my very first high school guard and I didn't even realize it. It was 1994 and our fall budget for uniforms, silks, and poles was $500. That was it. The school was a Title One school and there was no more money for the show. With that $500 I learned how to find uniforms at the Goodwill and borrow silks from other bands. I learned how to paint flags and use old make up to bring out the costume. I knew that the guard was up against programs with more money and a better staff. The only thing I knew to do was keep cleaning. I needed to make them untouchable from a training and technical standpoint. At the age of 24, I knew that if I could make them spin and dance well, then we might have a shot at beating our competitors. We had nothing fancy to hide behind, so we had to be the cleanest and most visually stunning spinners in our class. Not one moment was taken for granted...not one transition...not one count. With my 13 kids, I spent every moment with them living in the present. I made them great. In the end, we won color guard and the effect caption at every marching band show we went to. That was when I learned that shiny toys don't make you great. Living for what you have and in the present is what makes the elite great. With that ragtag guard, I learned what made me great. It would take me another 15 years or so however, to start to appreciate the power that made me who I am.

Some of our greatest instructors in the activity have never worn a medal and they don't seek to attach their guards to big name designers or spend ungodly amounts of money on powerful consultants. They learn their craft. They read. They ask for help. They take the kids they have and they seek to know them. They don't look to the other side of the road at greener grass and they find the gold nuggets within the coalmines they work in. And you know something? They are perfectly happy. It isn't just instructors either. Judges do the same thing. Who are you judging? Where are you judging? What panel were you assigned? Are you "going in?" More. More. We all want more. To be where you are and value the road you are travelling is one of the hardest lessons those in our activity have yet to learn. 

As we start this competition season let us all remember one thing. Whether you have a guard of 45 or a guard of 5, each one of those kids deserve a guard staff who care, who live in the present, and who don't mind being the stonecutter. When you look back on this season, will you see someone that used their time wisely and prioritized that time or will you find a person that made excuses to avoid the lot they were given. Will you find a person who enjoyed buying costumes more than they did spending time with the kids? Will you find that you were the instructor who presented a facade by living in a past that didn't really exist or ruminated on a guard yet to be? Who will you be? It doesn't really matter I guess, because whether you have the ability to reflect on yourself or not, the kids you teach have already been doing it. One day when all the scores have been posted and all the medals have been put away, those kids will be grown and they will think about you and what you gave back to them and it won't be the costume or the show they will think about, it will be how you carved stone into art and made them feel great through the lessons of hard work, discipline, and love. Teach wisely my friend. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

You are a Colossal Bitch!

You are a Colossal Bitch!

That was the phrase said to me at a rehearsal once. I can still hear it. I can still see the rehearsal site. I remember every single detail of that day. It doesn't matter where or who, but that's what a color guard instructor said to me when I was perceived as not paying attention to the staff. The reality was that I was and am a perfectionist and already knew what my mistake was and was already beating myself up for the error. They saw it differently, when I rolled my eyes at what was really myself and what I interpreted as a stupid mistake. I was exasperated at the error and rolled my eyes. They thought I was being disrespectful toward them. 

This post is about how we talk to performers and how they perceive us and if we aren't careful, how our outer voice becomes their inner voice...for life. Today I see color guard members I taught in a number of places back in my twenties and almost want to beg for their forgiveness in how I ran rehearsals, spoke to them, and some of the things I made them do. I was young. I didn't have anyone telling me I was wrong and when you've spent a lifetime being told that you are too intense and a bitch, well...you tend to become that. Kids don't need to be coddled, but they certainly need to be encouraged and most definitely don't need to be berated. I don't think we do that enough as youth coaches. I know I don't. Sometimes I'm so caught up in getting the show finished or the phrase clean, that I forget that somewhere in count 8, are kids looking to me to lead them. They watch me and they hear me. 

The adolescent brain is not developed at the level the adult brain is and a teenage brain's perception is often based on emotion as opposed to logic. This is where much of their drama comes from. This is where misinterpretation comes from. What we say is misinterpreted, because the kids respond to emotion first, while we as the adult are trying to use logic. It's a skill that adults need to acquire if you want to be effective while coaching teens. What we say, how we say it, and how we stand while we say it is all up for interpretation.

When I was in high school, I was a gymnast. It's Olympic season and we've all been following our favorite athletes or sports. Gymnastics always brings back memories of how that although I was a fairly decent gymnast, I hated my body. Kids at school often said that my legs looked like a man and once in marching band, a staff member said that I didn't look like most girls. As an adult, I realize that his comment was meant as a compliment of my muscular build. As an adolescent, what I heard was that I wasn't feminine. When girls walk onto the playing field of the marching arts, they carry with them a lifetime of insecurity. How we talk to them and what we say, sets them up for success or failure. How we costume them and how we present that costume to them is crucial in how they will feel when they stand in front of a crowd or even more important...their peers at the football game and within the band itself.

Have you ever thought of that? Most girls are more self-conscious at the football games than they are at a competition. We as designers and directors costume for the competition, but the girls see a costume as something they have to stand in front of their peers in. Does it mean that you change the costume to fit the football crowd? Absolutely not. It means that you show that you have an awareness that the costume you put them in, will be seen by their friends and community in places that aren't necessarily as friendly as a band competition. They will be seen in that costume in parades, pep rallies, and of course football games.

The words we use are crucial. It's beyond important here in 2016, where we now know more about psychology and the human brain than ever before. I follow coaches of all types and in sports I don't even like. I like to learn how great coaches get their players to perform by what they say and even how they stand on the sidelines. Some of them I completely disagree with and I don't care if they are coaching an NFL linebacker or Major League pitcher. Berating, humiliating, and throwing tantrums are not just unprofessional, but completely ineffective. They are foolish. One of my favorite coaches comes from a sport that I actually despise. Just because I hate the sport, doesn't mean that the coach isn't brilliant. His name was John Wooden and coached basketball at UCLA and he once said that you need to find little ways to show your players that you care. "Small gestures make a big difference," he said. He won multiple NCAA titles, but his life as a coach was one of compassion. He created a pyramid called, The Pyramid of Success. When one of the best coaches of all time gives you a model to coach by, well then...you need to follow that model or at the least...study it. So I did and I do. The model he used is too much to take in and not my place to replicate in a blog post, but there are important takeaways. He believed in building cooperation, enthusiasm, team spirit, and confidence. 

Confidence. Think about it. How well do you build confidence in your performers? Really think about it, because we all can't be the greatest color guard coach of all time. Sometimes we are great designers, but terrible motivators. Some of us are great techs, but awful leaders. Some of the best pageantry coaches are the ones we've never seen or heard about, because they stay behind the scenes and let their performers do the speaking for them. Some only coach at the local level, because that's where they know they can make the biggest difference. Not everyone can be a great designer or technician and many aren't great leaders. They are all skills independent of one another and being great at one does not mean you are great at all three. 

So I write this today to ask you to look at your coaching style and ask yourself what your outside voice is telling the inside voice of your performers. Are they overweight? If so, it is most likely a given that they are concerned about costuming. They probably struggle with conditioning. How do you approach that? Are they tall and somewhat awkward? Are they they only gay male in your program? What about the one girl who doesn't have the same skin color as the rest of the guard? 

When was the last time you said these phrases?

Great job. It's getting better.

Let's come back tomorrow and get even better. 

I'm looking forward to seeing you tomorrow.

I care about you and what happens to you in your life.


What about the pat on the back? When was the last time you went to that one girl who is shy and uncomfortable in her body and walked up behind her on the field and said, "You are doing great. Keep it up." What about the girl who can't throw the toss with the rest of the guard or the one that learns her work slower than the rest? Have you told her that you see her trying or see her progress? By doing this we aren't building weak humans who can't handle life, we are building young adults who grow to become parents, professionals, and coaches who take our activity to the next level, filled with empathy and compassion. With each new generation we learn a little bit more about coaching. The stories of throwing music stands, rifles, and calling names sound barbaric and ridiculous in today's world. It's because we are growing and learning. We have more information today. We take from other sports and other coaches and learn. Do you remember how at one point Bobby Knight from IU threw chairs and tantrums and we as the public ate it up as if that was how you best reached kids? Now...well...it is frowned upon, because we all learn and really...who in the hell has ever responded out of fear over compassion? When I went to boot camp with the Navy I expected to be yelled and and cussed at, because that's what I thought happened. That's not what happened. The military learned that yelling and cussing does not create a better soldier and does nothing for retention. They changed and grew. 

I am not a colossal bitch and never was. I believed it, though. I look back and I wonder how that day influenced my teaching. I wonder how it impacted my self-esteem. I wonder if at any level it impacted my string of bad relationships, especially the one that hit me and the other one that told me I was a fat cow. I wonder what would have happened if someone on staff, just one person, had asked me how I felt about myself. If they had, they would have found out that at that point in my life I felt like I had an awkward body and that I didn't feel pretty enough around the other women I was performing with. They would have found out that I was a perfectionist and was very hard on myself for every drop and mistake and believed that I alone, created the drop in score based on my pathetic mistakes. These are things kids think about and getting to know who they are is where coaching is at and where it is headed. 

I sometimes want to call that instructor who called me a bitch and tell them that I can still hear the words in my head. I'm still haunted at times when I'm teaching others and am very aware of how I may be perceived by the kids I coach. However, I don't blame that staff member anymore than I blame myself for the stupid things I said when I was in my early years of my career. It's called being ill-equipped. We lacked mentors. We lacked the science of coaching. We lacked the knowledge of how the brain works. We weren't aware that men and women have different societal influences that create who we are on the inside, thus creating different performers. We didn't know. Now we do and there is no longer excuses for not bettering yourself.  I don't care if I'm liked by the kids I'm in front of, but I do care if I reach the kids and I do care if my words resonate with them at a deep and internal level that will ultimately make them better people. I do care that they know I care, even if I have to raise my voice for impact.

Today as you head out to the field to work with your young performers, what will your voice be?

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Sexual Predators and Our Youth Activity

Here's the elephant in the room. The question, the issue, the problem that none of us like to discuss. How many youth in the marching arts activity have been preyed upon by those who teach within the marching arts?

The answer is simple. We have no idea. We have no national data base of coaches, instructors, designers, or directors. Basically, we really don't know who is on the football fields and in the gyms around the country. We don't know where these people have taught or why many of them have left multiple programs in short time frames. We don't know how good they are and we don't have a mechanism of safety put in place for the reporting of suspected abuse. The answer we get when this is brought up is the phrase, "liability." We often are told that it's up to the local school districts to manage it. I understand this actually. I don't agree, but I understand. I guess then I wonder why other national organizations have these mechanisms in place. Why did they at least attempt the certification and identification process? As we start the Olympics, USA Gymnastics is on the front line of a scandal that has allowed abusive coaches to move from gym to gym, when USA Gymnastics knew of the abuse. Many will point to this case as to why we as the marching arts should not get into the business of policing the activity for abuse and coach certification. Why are we different? Well, we aren't different and mark my words, one day we will be on the front lines of this debate as other sports have been, because the more international we go, the more problems we will face and the more media attention we will get. Regardless of the answer, every one of us knows of the stories or even knows the person that preyed upon, got caught or is serving time for preying on the youth that trusted us most. Some of us have been around long enough to know first hand the skeletons of the pageantry closet.

This post is an attempt to address what has not been addressed at the national level in a public forum. It's the conversations we hear through the internet and text messages that start with,

"Did you hear about such and such?"
"No. What happened."
"Got caught sexting a girl in the guard."
"Wow. Eye roll."

Here are the stats from the U.S. Department of Justice

An estimated 60% of perpetrators of sexual abuse are known to the child but are not family members

It is estimated that one in every five girls and one in every seven boys are sexually abused by the time they reach adulthood

Only 30% of all sexual abuse crimes are reported 

15% of cell-owning teens (12–17) say they have received sexually suggestive nude/semi-nude images of someone they know via text

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Criminal Victimization Survey, in 2012, there were 346,830 reported rapes or sexual assaults of persons 12 years or older.

Youth activities and sports are a breeding ground for sexual predators. For a predator to flourish, they must be able to gain trust of not just the youth victim, but their parents as well. They need access to the youth out of sight of other adults such as "voluntary practices," locker rooms, travelling, and special events off of school grounds such as after game gatherings. Predators know that most parents can't attend all events and will use that concept to their advantage. Sound like marching band?? Sound like winter guard?? 

Predators know that when children participate in competitive sports, their most trusted person is the coach. They know that the child seeks to please the coach through their performance. They know they are dealing with many hours together and the emotions run high. They know that the child longs to hear, "Great job today!" With that great job, comes a pat on the back, a hug, a whisper in the ear, a grope, or a fondle. It happens that fast and it's that easy. However, sexual predators are great at what they do. Chances are they have done it many times before. Predators are patient and methodical. They must first groom the victim, their family, and their community. They know what they are doing. 

So what is grooming?

Grooming is the art of slowly and deliberately gaining the trust of the child and family, so access of future time alone becomes very easy and difficult to monitor.

The whole purpose of grooming is so a coach earns trust. That trust then makes it difficult for the victim to report. If the victim reports, then they are told they will let the team down. The team in turn, blames the victim. When the trust is gained, the victim can believe they are actually in love with the coach. This allows the defense on the side of the predator to say that it was equal consent and although that's a weak defense and won't hold up in court in most places, it's still used. The grooming process can be so sophisticated that the adult parents of the victim or adult parents of other team members can start to believe the coach over the victim, thus leading to victim blaming and victim shaming.

"He's such a great coach. Everyone loves him. She must be lying."
"She is an amazing person and coach. This has never happened before."
"The victim was angry he didn't get the quarterback position."
"The victim is provocative and started the relationship."
"The victim is just as guilty."

These are actual statements from parents of teams where the coach was ultimately found guilty of predator behavior.

The following steps are used quite often in the grooming process:

1. Target the victim
2. Gain their trust
3. Fill a need (offer a ride home, an ear to listen, money, etc.)
4. Make the relationship sexual
5. Gain control

They most likely will attempt to fill a need before anything else happens. 

"I'm here for you if you ever need to talk about your problems at home."
"Don't worry about the money. I'll take care of it."

Grooming is a slow process, but it's extremely effective and often, the staff around the offending coach can see it, if they are willing to admit what it is they are seeing. If you are on the guard or band staff with someone who is grooming, then look for these signs.

1. Are they often talking to the same kids privately?
2. Do they state that they "understand" the problems of the kids, thus isolating the rest of the staff from access and from managing personal issues with the kids?
3. Are they sitting on the bus with the kids or the same kids...alone? 
4. Do they frequently state that they alone make the program what it is?
5. Are you starting to see a divide in the team dynamics for no reason and then the offender decides that "they will handle it?"
6. Do you get the creeps when you think that a grown adult enjoys sitting next to, hanging out with, and talking to the kids at shows, after show dinners, and other events more than the adults on staff?
7. Are they finding reasons as to why the rules of the program don't apply in "this situation?"
"But her mother was going to be an hour late to pick her up. She needed a ride home."
8. Are they offering to pay for, buy things for, and come up with reasons as to why a certain performer all of a sudden has the money for a particular item?
9. Are they having private meetings with kids without the rest of the staff, insinuating that they alone can manage this issue, because..."it's a confidentiality thing."

Now be careful here. Any one of these above items in isolation does not mean you are dealing with a predator. It's the patterns you need to look for. It's also not o.k. if one of these things occur for you to not bring to the attention of the person committing the act that it looks bad and could harm the kids or program. Their behavior puts you at risk as well. 

In the victims, the predator will often find that the easiest child to abuse, is the one who has family problems, low self-esteem, disengaged parents. You will start to see victims who are often isolating themselves from the team and who knows just a little more about the coach in question than they should. In these victims depression can set in. They may start to miss practice. They may quit the team, but say it's for personal reasons. Sometimes the victims will drop hints to their teammates. However, make no mistake. Fear drives their behavior. Predators exist in a world of power and control and that power can be intoxicating for the kids and even more so if the coach is successful competitively.

So what can you do? How do you protect the kids, the program, and yourself?
  1. Don't be alone with the kids behind closed doors without another staff member present. 
  2. Don't be afraid to have a parent or two at every one of your practices.
  3. During costume fittings, there is no need for you to be in the dressing room. Let them come out fully clothed and make sure all fittings have another adult present, especially if you will be touching the child.
  4. Report suspicious behavior. I don't care if they are your best friend from high school. A predator needs to be gone and brought to the attention of the authorities as soon as possible. 
  5. Know that if you feel that you cannot go to your direct superior, who is most likely the band director, report anyway. Let the police deal with it from there. This is difficult, but the victim of abuse will spend a lifetime recovering and you might have just saved other children from similar abuse.
  6. Document the behaviors that you find suspicious.
  7. Be vocal and insist that the staff follow the rules of practical boundaries and already set program guidelines.
  8. Don't text the kids. Don't text the kids. Don't text the kids. Don't text the kids. DON'T TEXT THE KIDS!  Find a different way. Just do. Text messages can go awry very fast and be misinterpreted for its intent.
  9. Find public ways to communicate electronically and make sure the parents know how that communication would take place. Additionally, once that method of communication is chosen, stick with it and make sure all staff follow that method of communication.
  10. If you are going to hire someone, check references. Physically get on the phone and check references. Do your due diligence. In these reference checks, you might want to call a program they marched at, a program they taught, and a professional reference. Put a procedure in place for reference checks and make sure it is used consistently for all hired staff members. Oh...don't forget to ask for a resume'. 
  11. When hiring a new staff member, ask questions about continuing education. How are they bettering themselves as a coach? Do they have any other certifications? These questions are important as the more CE's a person has or certifications, means that other governing bodies have engaged this person, which gives them more visibility. Predators don't want visibility. 
Recently, someone mentioned to me that youth sports have a bad habit of "kicking the can down the road." What does that mean? It means that we often take this tone of, "As long as they are not here, I don't care where they are." So the person never got charged, but they were fired and maybe even investigated. Good.  However, "They are no longer at our program. Our kids are protected." What about the next group of kids that person works with, because they will work with another organization. The argument exists within the idea that "well we couldn't prove anything." Ok. Let's go with it. So, they were fired at your program. You certainly must have suspected something for that firing to take place. "Well, we just didn't ask them back." Well then, shame on you for putting the problem onto some other program to subject another group of kids to predator behavior. This is where HR departments come in handy. Use them if you can. Protect yourself. Protect the kids. Document everything.

So what can we do as a whole? What's the answer? I'll tell you this. Youth organizations around the world have been grappling with this and putting safeguards in place for years. The horrific and disgusting situation at Penn State put everyone on alert. Most organizations conduct background screenings. The problem with this however, is that most predators haven't been caught as of yet, so they won't show up on the check. It's still a good start, though. Other organizations such as the National Council of Youth Sports, to which I'm a member, attempt to push out information on how to run a safe youth program. Virtually every national sports organization is a member from USA Cheer to USA Volleyball and just about every sport in between. None of the marching arts are a part of this impressive list of national organizations, but yet they should be. It shows that we as an activity understand that we are a part of a larger world of youth activities. If you go on any national sports websites, most (not all), but most have a portal to their websites just for coaches. USA swimming for example certifies its coaches as members through maintaining a database that says that at a minimum the coaches have been background checked, CPR certified, and have taken a number of courses on safety and coaching techniques. I looked at the Field Hockey national site, which is a sport I know zero about, but could find what it takes to become a certified coach and if my child ever decides to play that sport, I as a parent can find that there are steps coaches have to take to gain certification as an approved coach.

Will this stop the predator behavior? No. What it does do, is show that we care and make it our priority to get these people who prey on the performers out of the activity. The larger problem is our failure to address it nationally as an on going dialog. At the minimum we can put out white papers on the topic. Why don't we have conferences like every other sport once a year or once ever two years? Regionally? Why? And no...Spin Fest doesn't count unless it is turned into a half spin and half research based, speaker based, information based environment where coaches, kids, parents, administration, and vendors have an opportunity to present information that impacts the children on the whole from the standpoint of research, statistics, and best practices. 

If at any level you doubt anything I've said or feel defensive or challenged, then just Google the phrases, 

"Youth Coach fired for..." 
"Band director charged with..."
"Color Guard instructor charged in case involving..."
"Youth coach caught on tape..."

The list of pages goes on and on and on.

I've been training nationally on this topic for years and without a doubt someone always tries debate me. One of the most common arguments lie within the concept of, "How do you know that person isn't innocent? Aren't we innocent until proven guilty?" I always answer the same way.

"No you aren't innocent within the eyes of the press and social media platforms. Do you really want to test this theory while your face or the face of your program lies scrutinized on the front page of your local newspaper?" I then end with this, "Which is more important your friends and colleagues or the child you are responsible for and integrity of your program?" 

If you struggle with this answer, then maybe you should contact the ghost of Joe Paterno and ask him the question.  

For information about how to protect yourself, the Marching Roundtable has released a number of podcasts that discuss boundaries, ethics, and instructor insecurities. There is also a new Mentoring site for those looking to be mentored and soon, will come and ethics course. Knowledge is power and we shouldn't fear it, nor should we run from it. Making our activity safe is an undertaking, but it's a necessary undertaking, because it will catch up to us. It always does.