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The sense and folly of an annual plan

My lessons in coaching a top waterpolo team

September 24, 2015 – by Rob van de Blaak &samhoud consultancy

This year I was the head-coach of Polar Bears, a top league waterpolo team with a long and successful history. Our club is named after the Canadian Polar Bear division that liberated the city of Ede at the end of WWII in 1945. Since 1987 the club has been playing in the highest division in the Netherlands. In 1990 we became Dutch champion for the first time, and I was a player in that team. Over a period of six years we became national champion five times and reached the semi-final of the European champion’s league twice. Last year the team needed a coach for one season, an ‘interim pope’, and that was me. I would like to share my coaching lessons with you.

rob_waterpoloLet me describe this season at a glance before I share my lessons learnt.
We had some major changes in the team: 4 players had left and 5 new players (among 2 Greek players) joined the team. We had an experienced team with 6 players who had played in different countries as former professionals, 3-4 solid, experienced ‘citizens’ and a group of 6 young players with a lot of future potential. We won the Top-4 tournament before the start of the season and had a fantastic training camp in Greece in October. We lost the quarter final in the cup competition, but in the regular competition we were winter champions (#1 mid-season). We were on schedule to become champions and the team was very happy, with themselves and with me. From January onwards we were confronted with the setback of losing three important players due to injuries (43% of the team). This resulted in losing a few important matches and ending the regular season as #4. These results also led to problems in the team, problems between players and problems with me. In the play-offs we lost in the quarter finals, so the season came to a sudden end. 

Here are my lessons learnt:

Coaching competence is built with playing and coaching experience

I was a clever waterpolo player. I was always the shortest and lightest player in the team. Being clever and talented technically and tactically can compensate for the disadvantage in kilos. In my teams I was usually a leading player, sometimes captain and always the playmaker. That is why people expected me to be a good coach (also thanks to my professional experience in coaching and teambuilding). Many of my former teammates stopped playing and became coaches, but I kept on playing, and still do. I was asked several times to become a coach but never wanted this – I wanted to play myself. But finally I said “Yes, ok, I will do it, but only for one year”. And I experienced that coaching is hard. Having to make many decisions, observe and act at strategic-tactical and operational levels in a split second in a non-native language (in a hot swimming pool J), is not easy. So I pay my respect to my former and colleague coaches.

waterpolo_GreeceA coach must be an entrepreneur

Before I became coach, four players in the team left. Salem Samhoud, my employer, offered to become the main sponsor and I suddenly had possibilities to improve my team. I spend a lot of time finding new players and, among others, was able to contract a Greek player who turned out to become the top scorer in the Dutch competition. It took a lot of effort to convince him, but with this player we were suddenly one of the candidates for the title. With the new team we went on a training camp to Greece. We did not ask for permission from the club, and financed and organised it ourselves.It was a great teambuilding event.

You must be able to switch leadership styles, from participative to very directive

In my first speech to the team I shared that I wanted them to take responsibility for themselves, their personal goals and the team. They were used to a more directive leadership style. I wanted them to take their own responsibility, and not be dependent on the coach in all situations. We would figure out our tactics together, and of course I would give them guidance, but not in a command and control way. With this participative approach, we developed a very effective defense system that was completely new in the Netherlands and hard to handle for most teams. However, the majority of the team wanted to be told what to do when, and to punish them if they didn’t do it. So there was a mismatch between what I wanted and believed in and what the team wanted. And I must admit that I was not able to direct them at the level they wanted. So in the final stage of the season my assistant coach became a much more directive assistant, and took over my role as head-coach in the final games. Everything for the goal to become champion…

As a coach you have to help your players develop a correct self-image, by giving them a good example, lots of feedback and clarity about their role in the team

We had several feedback sessions with the team, and I gave continuous individual feedback. Most of the time they deserved compliments and my vision is to give my players self-confidence and trust, especially the younger ones. But, in hindsight, some players I should have given much firmer treatment. I overestimated their self-awareness, expected them to look in the mirror before looking at others and also to speak directly with those they had a problem with, instead of gossipingabout them.

Become champions requires luck

We haven’t been very lucky this season, not lucky with the referees sometimes, unlucky because of three injured players in the second half of the season, and even two additional injuries before the start of the play offs. The team that eventually became champions was third in the regular competition in which we did beat them at home and played a draw in their swimming pool. But bad luck is a poor excuse from the losing team, I know.

Play with the referees, never against them

I have never seen a referee change his decision after you complain about it. As a player I have always played with the referees. They were never against me, firstly thanks to my innocent ‘babyface’, and secondly because I never protested against any decision. I wanted my team to become the referees’ favorite. We set this as a goal, but only succeeded the first couple of weeks. After that Greek and Dutch emotions took control over reason and ratio. And when you have the feeling that all referees are against you, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. My Greek players expected the Dutch referees to change, they themselves didn’t want to change and were not able to. Despite the many times I drew attention to this, we definitely did not succeed. This has to change in the future in this team.

The tension between short-term goals and long-term learning

After the first successful weeks with the team, we all believed that we were able to become champions. So it became our goal. For some older players, who wanted to finish their careers, it would be fantastic and for me as their ‘interim -pope’ also. This goal became dominant in my decisionmaking. In conflict situations I could have been tougher and set boundaries more clearly. But we had already lost 3 players due to injuries and I simply could not afford to lose more players because of conflict. So the goal was more important than punishing unacceptable behavior. In hindsight I would have made other judgments. Knowing that I would do this job only for one year also affected my decisionmaking. I regret this and will tell the players to whom this applies.

How much feedback and teambuilding is enough?

We did a training camp that included an extensive teambuilding and feedback session. Every player shared their individual goals in waterpolo and the ‘rest of their life’ with each other, there were several feedback sessions and role clarity was created for everyone. But in the end it was not enough and when we lost matches, the most important reason was always that we were not playing as a team. The cultural differences in the team and languages issues were a problem. In hindsight I think that I should have let the conflicts happen, get them out in the open, and try to make them constructive.

Always start a game at 100%

This probably sounds like a no-brainer to you and it is for me. I always liked to jumpstart a game. Let your opponents feel that there is nothing for them to take. But in my team I had several slow starters. We decided to switch the starting team. So not the best players were starting the game, but the best starting team. It worked. Players who never started wanted to show us that they could start. And the usual starters were also eager to prove that they were the best players in the team.

Always first look at yourself before looking at others

This article obviously describes my own reflections . Besides bad luck it was also my lack of competence that we did not succeed. After the season we had a nice day of outdoor activities and a BBQ at my place. I gave a short speech in which I shared some of my lessons learnt and gave some advice to the team and the new coach. In my opinion, the most important lesson for the team is: when you point one finger at others, three fingers are pointing back at you.







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