Thursday, June 12, 2014

Influential Coaches #6: Michael Minthorne

Previous entries:
Series Overview
January: Paul Westphal (basketball)
February: Tara Gallagher (basketball/softball)
March: Robert Joseph Ahola (rugby)
April: Rickey Perkins (swimming)
May: Bob Smith & Mike Craig (baseball)

This sixth entry in the yearlong series is the first of three in which the profiled coach is actually someone who is a contemporary, and not only that, but younger than me. Michael also happens to be a rising star in coaching, someone who has made the most out of the opportunities he has gotten and who should receive more (and better) opportunities in the future. And because of the work he does, he has the ability to affect the performances of many more athletes than most coaches.

Michael is the only person in this series who doesn't coach a particular sport; his specialty is strength and conditioning performance, and it's something he does very well. He grew up in the DC area and was a soccer player at Marymount University in Arlington (perhaps it was the Bolivian heritage, although he clearly gets his height - 6'1" or 6'2" - from the "Minthorne" side of the equation). He had visions of playing professionally until a back injury late in college scotched those ideas, and so he turned to coaching, and working with athletes on their basic athletic performance.

I first met Michael during the summer after the 2008-2009 school year ended, when he became the director of strength and conditioning at National Cathedral School. He had come from DC United, and before that from Velocity Sports Performance, and the school was fortunate to get him. His soccer background gave him instant credibility with most of the school's better athletes, who had more or less all played soccer up to some point in their NCS careers. And he was an instant hit among the lower school girls to whom he taught PE; I would wager that only Richie, the soccer coach, surpassed him in popularity among the students.

Michael has always been deeply committed to learning as much as he can about how to improve athletic performance. Each year he looks forward to a week-long sojourn to Arizona to take direction from the best and brightest in his profession with an almost childlike glee, then immediately returns to implement new and improved methods for making athletes stronger and fitter on those in his charge. He also was able to get most of the girls at NCS to work harder while keeping the environment comfortable and fun for them.

I have coached, across a dozen years, both boys and girls for an almost equal amount of time. There are many differences between the two in general, but I would say that one of the biggest is how they approach the weight room. Boys, in my experience, are eager to try anything, and to push themselves harder more quickly with anything weight-related. Girls, again in my experience, enter the weight room with much more trepidation and are far more reluctant to try new things, which applies not just to them in general but even to many of the better and more serious athletes among them. I would posit that there's an innate reaction towards weights (especially free weights) based on the stereotype that using them will make you huge and muscular.*

*That innate reaction definitely applies to boys, too, only that's exactly what they want to happen.

I think Michael was particularly brilliant, while at NCS, in devising plans for the 20-60 minutes that he had with any given team or teams, to build circuits for them that focused on movement, usually using light equipment (if any) and keeping them moving through drills. He was also able, while anywhere from twelve to thirty-five girls were going through a multitude of exercises, to keep his eye peeled for people making mistakes and to immediately let them know to correct them. The athletes in question might not have always been able to apply his corrections promptly (or not have always cared), but that didn't stop him from continually putting forth his best effort to make sure that everyone performed well technically and avoided injury. Along with that, he was very talented at demonstrating and explaining exercises in a concise manner while still hitting all of the important technical points and telling athletes how NOT to perform a certain exercise or drill, knowing ahead of time the likelihood that the girls would not pay close enough attention to how they were doing something.

Fall is always the biggest athletic season at Cathedral. There are the most sports available (a giant cross-country team, plus varsity and JV soccer, field hockey, tennis, and volleyball), and I would estimate that about sixty percent of the high school girls play a competitive fall sport, as opposed to twenty percent in the winter and twenty-five to thirty percent in the spring. So during the first two weeks of fall sports practice (before school started), Michael developed programs for every team, each of which would see him for an hour a day before or after their practices/tryouts.** Included at some point during the two weeks were a series of five athletic performance tests (20-yard dash, vertical jump, kneeling power ball toss, an agility test, and an interval training run) that would then be re-tested at the end of the season. I don't know that the girls ever fully bought in to the importance of the performance tests, but the idea to standardize performance testing across the school was an excellent one.

**This system predates (and postdates) Michael's tenure as strength and conditioning coordinator; Paul Berry, the Grover Cleveland to Michael's Benjamin Harrison, operates a similar model.

In my mind, the best thing Michael did for Cathedral athletes was, unfortunately, the one that the fewest girls took advantage of. To NCS alumnae reading this (especially athletes who played/are playing in college), unless you are one of about six girls (and you know who you are), the following statement is 100% true; you missed out on a golden opportunity to push yourselves (and be pushed) to be the best possible athlete that you could be. Michael created a personal fitness class designed for serious athletes to get better, with individually tailored exercises and extra sessions (that went into the summer as well). I thought it was a brilliant plan, and encouraged several of the athletes from my teams to do it, but none of them ever took me up on the suggestion. Regardless, the girls that did choose to put in the extra work were rewarded by getting faster, stronger, and more agile. Michael has a way of working with athletes that both pushes them to work harder but at the same time is a "soft" approach that never really comes across as domineering. He combines excellent technical advice (and the ability to explain drills and exercises) with strong motivational practices.

Michael also knew how to make the atmosphere fun, with the ability to crack jokes and get the kids to relax, and also to relieve the boredom of the long empty hours in the summer. Today happens to be the day of the 2014 World Cup opener. The one full summer that Michael and I happened to work together in the weight room was 2010, and because the Cup was in South Africa, virtually all of the games were played during the time that we were both in the athletic center. While I played the Spanish broadcast on the computer in the weight room (in case people were in there), Michael hooked up a projector in the next-door conference room to play the English version on a big screen, which wound up being where we (and whatever soccer players happened to be working out during the summer) watched most of the games that year..

I'm excited to see where Michael's career in coaching takes him. He's already shown considerable talent in the profession, and has plenty of room for additional growth seeing as how he's still in his twenties. He has worked hard to make the most of the opportunities that he's been given, and bold enough to take a chance on a job halfway across the world (he is currently working with EXOS in China). Along the way he has inspired hundreds of athletes to get better in their chosen sport, not to mention several coaches (such as this one). In an area of sports where it can be difficult to achieve a high level of recognition, Michael has already become a serious presence, and should continue to do so for many years to come.