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.



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