Friday, January 8, 2016

To Publicly Answer the Questions of Coaching and Training and What's Going on With the Kids



Just recently, WGI sent out an email by Shirlee Whitcomb asking questions regarding training and requesting a response from the community about what methods work and what methods don't work in terms of managing the performers in a rehearsal scenario. The email seemed sincere and in the best interest of the activity and in response to her request; I would like to answer her questions here in an open forum. 


I have been writing this blog for a little over three years and in that, I've discussed on multiple occasions the issue with training, rehearsal etiquette, and a new millennium of  kids raised in a different world and of a different time. In my professional life, I'm a youth development expert. I work for a funder of children's services that gives millions of tax dollars a year to organizations that serve children in a variety of capacities. As the youth development expert at my company, it is my job to know kids. It is my job to know parents. It is my job to read research and then read and read more research. It is my job to conduct interviews and listening communities regarding issues surrounding adolescents. My days are spent trying to get a handle on the influences of children from media to school or church and neighborhood. It's complex and it's complicated, but the following is what I have learned and hope to pass on to others in my professional capacity. 

In the letter sent, there were four points stating current dilemmas that instructors are facing today. They are: attention span of students, retention and comprehension of verbal instruction, application of direction forcing more and more repetitions, and retention from rehearsal to rehearsal. 


These aren't new dilemmas. They have been discussed in open forums at education, youth development, and workforce conferences for over a decade. Research on these issues is off the chart in terms of the amount of research that is coming out of places like Harvard, Pew, Aspen, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and as reported in places such as Child Trends, Youth Today, and the Journal of Youth Development. My argument for years has been that we as a multi-million dollar activity with thousands upon thousands of young men and women participating every year throughout not just winter guard, but marching band and drum corps as well, are not doing enough to ensure that the instructors have the knowledge base to effectively coach youth. I see attempts, but many of those attempts...most in fact, have more to do with design of a show and competitive aspects of the units, than the coaching of the child. 


Kids today are raised different. Like it or not...they are. When as a coach you accept that, it's easier to work with them and to respond. Kids today are inundated with media. It's not just social media. It's music, video games, television, the internet; with access to unlimited amounts of porn and violence. The average child receives their first cell phone at the age of 10. By the time they get to us; let's say as a freshman in the local marching band, they have had approximately 4 years of unfettered access to the world around them, often times unmonitored. They are also immersed in a world where they are learning in the classroom through media. We now have kids educated solely on-line.  This generation of kids is a generation of access. Let me repeat that. They are a generation of access. This is not their fault. It's a fact of the world we live in today. It is 24/7 access to anything and everything they want by the tap of a phone or click of a button. They can fast forward through commercials and don't have to wait any longer to binge watch their favorite television shows. They have 24 hour access to their friends and many believe they should have that same access to the adults in their lives such as teachers and coaches. Their ego's flourish within a world where they grew up on-line with their first photo shown to the world before they were even born. Their world has existed with unlimited amounts of photo's and video's taken of them since birth, but the online ego counters the natural ability for the adolescent's innate low self-esteem and within that comes the dilemma of us vs. them.


Kids today. They have been tested and tested and tested to death. Their world exists in a time of political rhetoric that sets them smack dab in the center of the yearly shifts of political madness. They are raised in a time of school shootings, stranger danger, the elimination of much of their free time, and the slow eradication of opportunities for creative play. We know through research by PEW, that parents are monitoring and organizing the free time of youth at the highest rate ever in U.S. history. It's a result of parents who feel they have to create a "resume" for their children at young ages, so they will stand out during college admissions. Right or wrong...it's happening.


Finally, the past decade has seen a significant shift in how many children are actually participating in extra-curricular activities nationwide. This issue has come to the forefront as research out of the Aspen Institute reports that more and more activities are becoming less community based and more private; forcing poorer students out of mainstream activities. This shift took its toll on families, especially during the recession. This impacts a child's ability to learn to be coached; so by the time they do find their way to the local marching band or winter guard, some are being coached for the very first time in their lives. 


So how does this answer Shirlee's questions? Knowing the research and knowing the trends helps guide the direction of training for instructors. I have written over and over in this blog that without proper data collection we cannot as an activity see where we have been or know where we are headed. Knowing for instance the percentage of boys vs. girls in the activity can help us guide instructors in what's called, "gender specific programming." Female based sports associations have been training coaches for years on the best ways to manage teenage girls and how to foster their growth, because girls respond differently than boys and many of our instructors are male.We as an activity have not actually had an open forum of discussion for this particular issue and it is an issue. In fact...there are grants out there that are looking for programs that are specifically targeted at girls. We also haven't openly discussed the higher propensity for young males to be gay and how that impacts their lives within the school. Many boys in guards across the country for years have been removed from color guard, because of parental disapproval. Open dialog on this topic would help the local guard instructor manage that situation with the parents or the bullying that the child might receive for being in a female dominated activity.


Do kids have attention span issues? Do they have communication issues? Maybe. Maybe not. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has been looking at this question for years. In the world of youth development research, those questions go back and forth and the panels of debate at conferences are fascinating. We know this. We know that the the Millennial's, which encompass the ages of roughly 18-34 are the largest generation since the baby boomers. The field of youth coaching is being profoundly impacted by youth coaching youth. Those new coaches need guidance that is strong and intentional in its direction. 


So what do we do? What's the answer? Well, this is my solution.



  1. Begin what's called "Listening Communities." Create a culture where instructors and directors can get together to learn from each other. This can be actual live conferences, webinars, conference calls, etc. They can be local, regional, or national. 
  2. Create panel discussions with experts from the fields of education, coaching, youth development, and behavioral science. It's important to bring outsiders to the table as it raises awareness that we as an activity are a part of a larger community of youth development.
  3. Soundly acknowledge the fact that our mentoring of young instructors in this age of strict risk management, social media, and educational shifts has been weak at best. 
  4.  Take lessons from other sports or sports associations that have been looking into the issues of effective coaching for the past decade. 
  5. Invite other sports experts to the proverbial round table to share expertise and lessons learned.
  6. Create a culture of discussion where our talking points are no longer primarily centered around how to write a show or understand the criteria.
  7. Read research and push that information out into the community with ways we can incorporate that research into our daily practice of coaching color guards. 
  8. Work closely and openly with the local circuits in creating a strong education program for young instructors. Oh...and make it cheap. 
  9. Learn and share information that impact youth such as current trends in media, education, and free play. 
  10. For the love of God! Collect data and make it public. We are a multi-million dollar industry. Surely we could hire an analyst.  We need to know who the instructors are, experience levels, pay, hours spent in a gym, turnover rates, and the qualitative information such as "what does training mean to you?' Did you know that anytime any judge mentions "well trained" it is a language that has yet to truly be defined by the activity? Well trained for me is very different than well trained for you. What your tolerance for let's say...tossing and catching...could be very different than mine. We won't know without the open discussions and formal collection of information.
The Aspen Institute reported that retention of kids in youth sports has more to do with fun and the engagement of coaches as mentors, than it does with competition. In fact, in their ground breaking report released last year, it is stated that 9 out of 10 kids state that "fun" is the main reason they participate in sports. Winning and getting medals is at the bottom of the "why" in sports participation. With this knowledge and research to back it up, we can teach instructors how to set goals with their students as opposed to for their students, so program retention is higher.

We need a better form of communication when it comes to understanding what is happening in the gym. How we teach. What we say. How we coach. What is training. How we retain youth from season to season. How we manage parents. How we interact with administration. How to advocate for your right to gym time. These are all important and necessary conversations that must happen in open forums. We must bring people to the table who are the local guard instructor, the national choreographer, the flag sewing band mom, the costume making vendor, and everyone in between to discuss what it is that is important in the training of our kids. The judges get 3 minutes IF THAT with a young instructor. Most circuits are strapped for cash and time to really make a difference in effective training and data collection. This is a collective effort that needs collective impact guided by a strong backbone of an organization. 

And to answer her questions she poses at the bottom of the email?  Here are my responses.
  • Have you experienced this type of response from your students?
    • Yes I have. 
  • If yes, how did you handle it?
    • One. I grew up and realized that it wasn't just about the competition. It was about the kids, the program and the parents and what they wanted. I took my ego out of the gym and set the expectation that the kids would achieve at the highest level, but I was no longer going to push them based on my goals. I let them set their own goals with guidance from my history in the activity.
    • Two. I work closely with the parents in fostering a better relationship so they may be my advocate for more time in the gym. I listen to them and respect their time and money. This in turn puts the parents center stage in encouragement and support.
    • Three. I studied. I studied coaching techniques from other sports such as baseball and karate. I watched coaches interact with my son through his activities and I learned from them. I took what I liked and threw out what I didn't.
    • Four. I set rules in place and live by those rules. No cell phones during rehearsal...even on breaks. I got the buy in from the parents (which was super easy), who in turn helped me with the rules. 
    • Five. I use technology to my advantage and as a tool. I try to bridge the gaps between my world and theirs. I use coaching apps and even the stop watch on my phone to time how long staff members spend talking to the students as opposed to running reps. 
    • Six. I don't fear repetitions. I fear staff who talk too much. More reps and more reps is my motto. Build muscle memory and teach the body how to consistently achieve. Martin Gramatica was once a kicker for the Tampa Bay Bucs back in the 90's. He was a great kicker. Once, he told a reporter that since a small age, he spent hours upon hours kicking the same kick day after day. He made goals to repeat the same kick from the same distance at least a thousand times a week. Then he moved the ball further back. Repetitions. They are crucial in the training process.
  • Does this have any impact on our expectations of students in areas of achievement in competition?
    • No. If students believe in themselves, then they will believe in the program and will have support at home. This will then encourage them to push themselves to achieve at the highest level possible.
  • How, if at all, should judges be involved in this situation?
    • I'm not sure they should. Their job is to evaluate what was presented, place a number on that presentation and then offer feedback.
  • Does the growing focus on demand play into this subject?
    • Absolutely it does. Rehearsal time has stayed roughly the same for decades based on the individual classes. The books/choreography however, have gotten harder. We gained no time, but increased the skill base. We recognized as an activity that stamina and strength were crucial to the training process so much so that many guards have added strength classes such as weight lifting or crossfit. As the books got harder, training got less so we could teach to the book as opposed to the skill. We see this problem when the kids come out of their high school programs and enter independent programs with the inability to throw basic tosses, but the ability to do something strange under the leg and through the nose.  
    • The impact of dance layered with equipment seems to increase in its synergistic qualities each year. With more dance comes more dance training. With more dance training comes the need for more fitness based conditioning...and we haven't even begun to discuss the equipment.


Here's the thing. We are no longer a cute little activity waving flags and guns in a gym. We are an industry. We are a multi-million dollar industry where CEO's are making 6 figures, and where costume companies, equipment companies, and consultants are selling their services at a premium. We ask parents everyday to entrust us with their children's well being and safety. They give us money to produce a product, but they also give us money to look after their kids for the few hours a week we have them. We are no different than the teachers in a classroom, the youth worker at the YMCA, the little league baseball coach, or the dance teacher with her own studio. It's time we take coaching seriously and to the next level. We are an activity of intelligent and well educated individuals. We can and should make this happen. We need to look at ourselves and figure out how to adapt and merge our worlds with theirs. It doesn't mean we give up our values, but it means that we try to reach into their lives and build a partnership.

I would like to close with the words of my coaching hero Pat Summit:

“It wasn’t just a job; it was my life, my home, and my family, and the players were the second-deepest love of my life.”