Friday, March 11, 2005

Day Five: Pursuing Excellence

I'd been thinking about this group of guys and how they were different from all the teams I'd seen as a freshman through senior. Certainly the senior and junior leadership was rather lacking. These guys inhabit the gym, but they don't own it. They're on the team but it isn't their team.

I thought about the skills and information that somehow was no longer transferred from seniors down to juniors and sophomores and freshman. These upperclassmen didn't even know that they were supposed to be molding the next class. And they certainly weren't putting in much effort to pass along their knowledge.

But worst of all and as I've written previously, I got no sense that any of these guys were really pursuing excellence. They were attempting to learn enough skills to do a good routine. But nothing more.

So I asked coach if I could talk to them about that in the opening meeting. He turned the floor over to me and I went into it. I told them that the goal here is Excellence. To pursue it, to achieve it, to exude it, and to understand it. I told them that the real world has very little opportunity for excellence. That in the last three years I'd achieved excellence in my professional life about once. That I had to desperately seek out my own means of achieving excellence since my life was so lame and uninspiring without it.

I told them that Adrian was going back to school because his current professional life couldn't satisfy his need for excellence. I asked him, "how often do you achieve excellence at work?" "Rarely. If it happens, it's more likely to be something that happened here, at practice." And that's why he's been an assistant coach for Steve for seven years now.

So I told them that they were lucky. They had this great sport that was designed for excellence. That demands excellence. They have the chance to achieve excellence every day they come to the gym. They can achieve it - and be duly recognized for it - at every competition.

I told them that gymnastics was just the lesson. Gymnastics was just a means to an end. And that end, that goal was Excellence, whether they knew it or not. That's why they're in the gym. That's what they're supposed to be striving for.

I had coach's son, Rich, stand up and show them his salute to the judges. He was the only one that caught my eye with his demeanor and confidence out on the floor. I made them look at him, study him. I asked them, "what do you see in his eyes when he salutes?" I could hear it in their voices, they started getting the idea immediately. They rattled off: Confidence. Poise. Determination. Strength. Excellence. We take for granted and assume that people will observe a thing and learn from it. That's not always the case. This time it had to be pointed out.

I told them that that's exactly what everyone should be projecting out there - and not just during the meet. Take that same attitude and apply it to practices, to strength, to everything they do. Pursue Excellence.

I don't know how much of that will sink in. I know it made a strong impression on the kids and even the coaches. It at least opened their eyes, opened their minds to a whole new take on the sport. Whether or not they can take it and run with it is up to them. Coach had told me that after I left there really wasn't anyone to pick up the mantle and carry on the tradition. No one to instill in the younger classes that drive for excellence. Ten lean years without much leadership. After my speech he pulled me aside and said, "maybe this is the year we get them back, get it all back on track." I certainly hope so.

Tomorrow's meet will be very telling. It's a six team invitational and will be crowded, chaotic, and confusing. I hate being disappointed and I so very much want to see that edge, that steel creep into their performances. I don't expect perfection, but by gods I hope I see improvement.

Day Four: Where's the form?

Thursday I targetted the varsity and JV parallel bars team. They all compete a variation on the same trick, called a cut-catch. Except none of them do it right. And all of them bend their knees and get further deductions.

So we worked the cuts - sometimes focusing on proper technique, sometimes on good form. It was amazing that about eight of the ten guys just couldn't do anything with good form. I told them I didn't even care if they made the trick, just don't bend their damn knees! And they still couldn't do it! Drove me crazy.

Eventually a few of them got the idea. And overall the cuts are better now. But a long way is left to go.

Then I went out to Floor Ex. Nobody had told the floor guys how to present their routines, to show them off and eliminate any awkward or inelegant moments. I did a simple press to handstand - but with proper presentation - and they were blown away. The press was nice enough, but it was the transitions into and out of the press that made the whole thing sing.

I decided that Friday we'd spend more time on this with the whole Floor Ex team.

Day Three: Giants, giants, giants

After the somewhat abysmal high bar performance by the varsity in last night's meet I told coach Foerch that I wanted to take on the varisty high bar team. Two of the five guys compete giants at all, and they do them in one direction only. I took them to the strap bar (where you lash yourself to the bar so you can't fly off - for better and worse) and told them, "I wouldn't ask any of you to do anything I wouldn't do." So I hopped up and busted out some sweet giants.

I had done giants in the straps on the beach in Santa Monica last summer, but I was still a little nervous. I survived just fine, but my back was making all sorts of cracking sounds each time I'd swing through the bottom.

By the end of the day we had three guys swinging giants on the real bar (i.e. no straps) and one at least going over by himself in the straps. As I've said before the guys have talent. The best part was when they started encouraging each other: "it's scary at first but it's not that bad after that." "Just do it, they're actually pretty fun."

Then during the strength workout I took the varsity and JV rings team and looked at their sorry crosses. I asked them, "what's the proper technique for doing a cross?" They all just shrugged. So I taught them - the way Josh Reznick (4th in state on rings) taught me.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

A quick visit with my baby cousin

Had dinner with my cousins last night and their 13-month-old son. While he enjoyed the duck stuffed animal my mom got him for Easter (he even successfully said "duck") he was completely fascinated by the colorful Sesame Street bag it came in.

Then later in the evening I took out my WhiBal white balance cards to take a reading of the color of the light in the living room and he was so interested in them I just hung them around his neck and let him play with them. He couldn't seem to decide if he was more interested in the white-gray-black cards or the neck strap attached to them.

At one point he started getting tired and kind of stumbled over to me and hugged me with his head on my shoulder. I think I was more a comfy leaning post than the recipient of a heartfelt hug, but I was happy all the same.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Day Two: A few pics of old friends

Coach Foerch and his oldest son, Rich, a senior captain on the team. I'll have to grab a shot of Andy, coach's younger son, who is a freshman on the team.

My old teammate Adrian - Coach Adrian to you - from the class of '94, talking shop with one of his guys.

Louie (aka "Coach T") and Gary. Coach T is the diving coach and was an assistant gymnastics coach during my day. Gary was one of his great diving protoges and was a sophomore gymnast on the team when I was a senior. Gary is now an assistant diving coach for Louie.

Day Two: Oy Vey

The guys definitely have talent, but almost none of them have put it all together into a well-polished presentation. There are whole levels of concentration, determination, and drive that are completely unknown to them. They have some skills and are able to put together a routine, but they don't know how to achieve excellence. They don't even know that they're supposed to be achieving excellence.

Myself and all the gymnasts that came before me had upperclass leaders to look up to, to learn from, to emulate. The expectation of excellence and the ability to pursue it were passed down from year-to-year-to-year. But what happens when that chain is broken? Is an understanding of excellence such a tenuous, slippery thing?

Struggling pro sports teams always talk about bringing in a new player who "knows how to win". It's the same idea. I saw one kid with some of that razor-sharp focus and determination. Some of it. And only the one.

The varsity team lost the meet. Their team score was terrible. They have realized so little of their potential that it's almost appalling.

The coaches gathered at a local bar after the meet and talked it over. They cleared the way for me to step in and do some full hands-on, intense coaching tomorrow. Now that I know exactly what we're dealing with I can actually get some work done. I came in expecting to be an extra coach in the gym and that starts tomorrow in earnest.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Back with the Niles West Gymnastics Team: Day One

I'm back in Chicago and will be spending the week working with my old high school gymnastics team as an assistant coach. My coach, Steve, is still there and his assistant coaches are all old teammates of mine. And Steve's two sons are both on the team this year - one a senior, the other a freshman.

I hadn't caught up with Steve in probably seven or eight years. I feel terrible for not staying in contact with him for all that time. He was a huge influence on me. He helped me tap into this incredible reservoir of potential and nascent leadership that I never knew was there. I've always said I never would have gotten into Princeton if it hadn't been for gymnastics, and it's true. I had the brains but it took gymnastics and Steve's guidance for me to develop character. An enormous part of who I am today, ten years later, was forged in those days.

Coach told me that he speaks of me often to the team and that, in his words, he's made me into a legend in the gym. Now I wasn't the best gymnast the school had ever seen (that honor is reserved for Olympic gold medalist Bart Conner), but I could legitimately be in the running for being one of the best leaders. Our team had some incredible bonds, wonderful friendships, and excellent work ethic. I can't take credit for all of that, but it was most definitely my team, my creation. Previous squads had their own dynamics and their own styles of leadership, but my squad was something special. And I think we all knew it.

Anyway, with all the familiar faces still around, this being the one year both of Steve's sons would be on the team, and with coach building my legend and legacy I felt it was time for a visit.

Also I had a free flight on Southwest and I contrived a plan to do this without taking any vacation days, so really there was no reason not to.

They gave me an incredibly warm welcome. Coach introduced me to the team and told them "he's the finest gymnast - and person - I've ever coached." It seems terribly immodest of me to write this, but those were his words. My former teammate, Adrian, added his own testimonial and it nearly made me cry to hear him speak with such admiration about my gymnastics and with such warmth about our cameraderie and friendship.

The introductions were, in a way, like hearing my own eulogy. If nothing else, this trip was well worth that ego boost and recalling those fond memories.

  Even got a free shirt!
However, this trip is really about working with the team. And the team is quite good this year. We'll see how they perform at tomorrow's meet, but I saw a lot of talent. At a glance I'd say they could easily defeat the squads of my junior and senior years. The coaches all say, and my brief observations agree, that they're also a great bunch of kids. No jerks, no slackers, no one with attitude problems. We'll see tomorrow how they do in the other aspects - team mentality, leadership, cameraderie, toughness, maturity.

  The back side
I worked mostly with the freshman and sophomores - they're the easiest ones to help. Say five words to them and their scores can jump by 20%. Later in the afternoon I started working with this spectacular senior tumbler. His technique in certain areas is absolute rot but he's got so much talent and potential. And he listens. He may not pull off whatever move you ask, but you can tell that he's trying.

Anyway it was a good start and it felt great to be back in the gym. I'm anxious to see what these guys have really got and to see what they might be missing. I'm only here a week, but I'm determined to leave my mark.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Wine Tasting: Yellow Tail 2003 Merlot

Yellow Tail
(South Eastern Australia)
2003 Merlot
Rating: 6/10

Not very deep or intense, but enjoyable with modest black cherry flavor. Finish has a slightly sharp alcohol note. Too mild overall to be paired against food, but reasonably good by itself. Teases the palatte but never quite fully delivers.

$5 on sale at Pavillion's.