I had an interesting experience last Saturday. I took my guard to the local show here in Florida and had a miraculous and eye opening revelation. I’m watching the guard in warm up. High energy. Positive mindset. It was a beautiful night in the middle of Florida. What could go possibly go wrong?
This guard is a pretty good nationally based A guard, with a staff that’s been together for over a decade in and out of world class, open, and A. We know each other. We can calculate the other’s moves without blinking an eye. We aren’t new to the world of color guard and in fact, we have easily 200 years plus teaching experience between us. That’s a lot of years to get it right. It’s a lot of years to learn and grow. Too be honest, it’s a lot of years to become too confident. From the moment we walked into warm up, something changed in the guard. The energy fell flat and the body language changed. It was the sound of the first drop. One rifle hit the ground and then it started. A sabre went down. Then another rifle. A flag. Another rifle. The performers were feeding off of that one drop. They were dropping like flies so to speak. However, it seemed o.k. actually. I somehow made myself believe they would pull it together. I gave the right speeches. I mean, of course a speech would make the show go well. I’m that powerful. I’m the great and powerful Oz. With one flap of my gums, I can make the guard catch their equipment. We had trained them well. Phrases such as, “Trust your training,” “Breathe,” and the ever positive…”You go girl,” flowed like syrup from my tongue.
Warm up ended and we headed to the gym. They would pull it together. I was sure of it. The gym was the size of my living room. It was like performing inside a box, with its 8 rows of stands and sound table practically serving as an additional prop. The crowd was loud and it made the performers excited. The music started and I was unusually calm. For some reason I just thought they would pull it together. I mean…I gave a speech. Then there it went. Our first GE moment…a sequential 5 on rifle. BOOM! The drop deafened the crowd almost instantly. Then another drop. “Here we go,” I thought. The show had its ups and downs and in the end wasn’t really that bad, but the guard never quite recovered from those initial rifle drops. There were other problems. Half catches, a sabre drop here. Flag sail there. The show was o.k. Well…except for that fun moment when that one flag fell out of the hands of a girl on the 50…in the middle of the flag feature…and rolled on the floor. Watching her crawl to get it was fun. I enjoyed that moment immensely. The crowed cheered. The crowd liked it, but remember that this gym was the size of a dog house. Three people screaming would sound like a Dayton standing ovation. We pulled the floor out of the gym and threw equipment on the ground. We thanked the 87 guard kids helping us off the floor and proceeded to talk to the guard. I thought about the words and tried to get the right blend of positive attributes and phrases for “room for growth.” When it came time to speak, I opened my mouth and what came out was something that sounded like I was speaking in tongues. I don’t remember quite what I said, but I do know the phrase, “…AND TOMORROW EXPECT AN OLD SCHOOL 1977 MEDIEVAL BUTT KICKING TO OCCUR!” I was angry. Throughout the night and next morning I thought about what had happened. Mostly though, I thought about what training actually means today for the A class. How do you marry ideas of blended body elements with the equipment into one training program, with rehearsal time that pretty much hasn’t changed in decades? We’ve been training these kids all season and our technical staff is strong. Many of the performers are veterans. So what happened and how do we keep it from happening again?
I thought about it and realized that yes, we had trained them all season, but we made one fatal mistake. Once the season got here and we got past Premiere, we turned training time into just warm up and the cleaning of the show took priority. I broke my own philosophy. Training is an ongoing process that never stops. You cannot do enough reps, because what we call muscle memory is also a training of the mind. When they needed us the most, we let them down. You never stop the training process. Never! Professional athletes never stop training, so why would we?
Sunday morning came and as I drove to rehearsal I tried to get in my mind what an “old school 1977 medieval butt kicking” would look like. I texted a few friends and decided that we were going back to the old days. You know those days….like 1988. I call them the days of David Baker. David Baker was my high school guard instructor and had no problem putting us up next to a wall to spin or on our knees to throw quads. I even think I remember a rehearsal when we were told that we would toss until our hands bled. Awesome. In my mind I had images of David wearing the executioners mask, while he drank coffee on the side. Those were good days. So I went to my partner in crime Mike Palau and said, “Mike…we are going back to the old days today. I will need some pliers, thumb screws, and farm implements with sharpened edges.” He asked me how far back in the old days we were actually going. I said, “Far. When we all walk out of the gym today, they will understand why catching is important.” I told Ben, the designer, that we were going to toss today. Cleaning and design of the show would take a back seat to training…and so it did. We removed the flag line from the gym to go outside for a sectional and left the rifle line in the gym. I simply told them that they we were going back to my day and I dedicated the day to David Baker. We threw tosses for 2 and a half hours. We threw them standing up, on their knees in the bleachers, by themselves, and on their knees on the ground. We tossed and we tossed and we tossed. Nothing was off the table. It wasn’t just about drops. Half catches were not allowed. Moving was strongly discouraged, hence the knee tosses. Free hands and timing were addressed. Fidgeting of the fingers was addressed swiftly and harshly. Subdivision of counts was mandatory. The bar had been raised and it wasn’t being lowered. Two and a half hours of tosses. That’s a lot of tosses.
Two and half hours of tosses does more than train the body. My goal the entire time was to train the mind. They needed to understand that catching correctly and with intent was always within their power. They had it the entire time, because there was nothing we said in rehearsal that they hadn’t heard before. It was their mind though, that needed the training. So I proceeded. I took a risk. The risk was that we were giving up precious cleaning time in the middle of the season to go back in time and fix their hands and mind. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, “The show is nothing without a strong foundation of training.” With that philosophy we proceeded to go old school and stop the drops. That was the phrase I used over and over and over.
Stop the drops!
In this rehearsal there was, what I believe a good mix between constructive information and simply, “Do it again. It’s not good enough.” At one point I went behind the block and laid on my back and closed my eyes to simply listen to the clicks of the straps and aggressiveness of the catch. I cleaned by my ears only. I made them subdivide and when they didn’t…I did it for them. When they got tired, I kept going. I say I, but it was a staff effort. Kara Brady the consummate tech, clapped until HER hands almost bled. Another thing I did…I eliminated that silly phrase, “You got it,” yelled by the entire guard when someone drops. Clearly they don’t “got it.” I understand the team spirit behind it, but it forces a break in character and a break in the count structure. I told the performers to focus on themselves. The guard needed to be toughened up.
You can toughen up a guard without extreme anger.
When the sectional ended and we moved to cleaning the show, they threw the first big GE toss, the one that fell apart the night before, and low and behold…the equipment hit the ground. I was livid. Two and half hours wasted, but it wasn’t wasted and that’s what 200 plus years as a staff gets you. Perspective. The first thing that happens after a rehearsal such as the one they just had, is that they put so much pressure on themselves that they almost will always drop. The pressure is good. They need to put that level of pressure on themselves, so they understand what pressure really feels like…such as the type of pressure at WGI prelims. I just said, “Do it again. You are better than this.” I got mad here and there, but for the most part we as a staff just kept saying, “Do it again. You are better that this,” and you know what? They got better. You could see it in where they placed their hands in the air and you could see a count structure coming through the tosses. They weren’t perfect, but their minds were stronger. I could tell.
I offer three pieces of advice at this point of the season for training.
Manage the Time
Only you know how much time you have a week to practice and only you know what your show schedule is. Manage the time based on those two criteria. In every rehearsal decide to devote a percentage of time to training. NOT WARM UP! Warm up is not training. It’s not. It’s not. It’s not! Train. Decide that one day will focus on body and one day will focus on equipment. Spend one day doing nothing, but tendu’s. Spend another day doing nothing, but tosses. I don’t know. It’s your rehearsal and your show. Know what your kids do well and don’t do well and go from there. Whatever you do and however much time you spend, the kids must know that poor training is not an option. When I don’t have enough time, I choose one element of the training program and spend my time doing that one element. Sometimes it is body and sometimes it is equipment. Additionally, I don’t waste time. Don’t waste your time. Remember, the clock is ticking and whoever manages their time the best will win in the end. We all have the exact same amount of time between now and championships. Don’t waste it. If you get snowed out of a rehearsal use technology and make the kids show you a particular skill through posted video’s. Address technique from home if you have to.
Don’t let perfection be the enemy of good
Your kids will never be perfect so don’t ask them to be. However, expect them to raise their standards at every rehearsal and don’t accept quality that is less than the day before. One of the strongest aspects of being a good coach is understanding that kids want you to raise the bar and they want to strive to reach it. Don’t be afraid of raising the technical bar at each rehearsal. As the season goes on, you should continue the mantra, “It can get better.” I love football and my favorite player is the kicker. I love hearing how kickers challenge themselves to get further and further back from the goal. So today they can do a 35 yard field goal, but tomorrow that won’t be acceptable. Continue to force the kids to get further and further away from the uprights. It can always get better.
Technique is a game of the mind as much as it is of the hands and body
When you are training your color guard, it should always be intentional and direct. Ask yourself, “Why are we doing this exercise and how does it help the show?” When the kids stand in a basics block to throw tosses or do a set of spins, they are training more than the hands. They are learning to train to your expectations and they are learning to form a unison identity. In a nutshell, they are learning to think alike. Training programs don’t have to complicated. In all seriousness, you can literally spend 20 minutes at a rehearsal focusing on posture only and the show will go up in points by at least 2 tenths in each caption. Why? Because now they are focused on control of body and breath. That will carry into the equipment and drill. They will be thinking about it. When I don’t have time in a rehearsal to spend on in depth training, I gravitate towards posture. Posture can be worked on and focused on while you clean the show. You know all those kids standing around while you figure out how to get the three sabres off the ground without looking funky? Have the rest of the guard stand up straight and think about posture. Boom! Training in the middle of design. The worst thing you can do is say the phrase, “Everyone needs to be spinning while we figure this out.” Why? Because, young performers don’t practice well on their own. They reinforce their own bad habits. Give them something very specific to do from your training program.
To close, I offer this to you. If you have not trained your guard properly up to this point, then you have an uphill battle ahead of you. If you used time and snow and lack of space as an excuse to not train, then you have no one to blame when your kids make excuses for dropping. Many of us have had the same kids since band camp and the same problems of space and snow. Many of us have programs with 2 and 3 year veterans. Not every guard out there has 20 brand new, never spun members. Don’t make excuses. Figure out who you have, the time you have left, and where you are at and go from here. There is nothing at this point that you can write into the show that will make your show better if they kids can’t catch their tosses. Your score will flatline. With this, you have to know the difference between cleaning the show and training for the show. Many guards I consult with in critique don’t know the difference. I always ask this question. Are your kids cleaned to the show or are they trained for it? The answer to your question should guide you for the rest of the season and if you feel you can’t spend time training, then figure out where things went awry and learn from it for next year. I believe that you can train. I believe you can always find the time to train your guard if you are prepared in advance and know how to NOT waste time. With this final thought I say this. I don’t make excuses for my guard. I don’t make excuses for myself. I look in the mirror and figure out how to fix the bleed. I am calculated in my rehearsals and I’m prepared. I’m not always right and I don’t always do things right, but I don’t make excuses for their drops, bad catches, and dangly bodies lacking control. Are you sure you want to take me on as a competitor and just hope that your design beats mine? Let’s decide as a nation to raise the bar and #stopthedrops!