Go With What You Know (Gun Fu #4)

“Mistakes are always forgivable if one has the courage and character to admit them” – Bruce Lee

How many times have you thought to yourself, “Man, I would be good at that?” or perhaps “I bet if I were to apply what I learned over here to that thing over there, I could make it better.”  Have you ever taken something you heard or learned and applied it to paintball?  I do this all the time as there are much smarter men in this world (and no longer in this world) than me, especially regarding leadership qualities, processes, and teamwork.  In addition, there have been several instances where I applied elements from my career or job or education.  And, surprising (or not depending on how you look at it) they bore fruit in the paintball team arena.  Using what you know and have seen work, well, that just makes good sense.

In this episode of Gun Fu, we are featuring a gentleman I know who has successfully done just that.  He is the Lead Technical Project Manager for a university in the northeast and his strategies and tactics have proven to work.  He also owns Warzone Paintball & Airsoft up in Rhode Island.  Ladies and gentlemen, since Gun Fu is about getting sage advice from those in the paintball world, I give you Jeff Stein.

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Jeff Stein’s signature move

Jeff started playing paintball as a freshman in high school.  He had come across a paintball magazine and wanted to give it a go. So he convinced his neighbor to take him out to the local field.  Of course, it didn’t hurt that there was the added pleasure his younger brother, a talented athlete, couldn’t go.  Later, when that same younger brother was old enough to go with Jeff, Jeff made it an experience his younger brother would never forget.  He snuck up behind him and put one on the back of his brother’s melon.  The brother hasn’t played since.

When you ask Jeff about his sports background, you will find he played sports here and there recreationally and in youth leagues but what is truly fascinating (and makes sense) is he was more of a Chess Club guy.

Now, those of you not in the know, Jeff started the former professional team New England Hurricanes.  He started the team in 1998 and played with them until 2002.  He transitioned to team manager in 2003 and remained in this position until 2009 when the pro team folded.  He eventually retired the team name in 2011 after two seasons in D1.

“Dave Adams (Coach DA) handed me the reigns of a local team – Team Green – when he went off to serve our country in 1995. In 1999, the NPPL was coming to Boston (Slam Paintball on Cape Cod). I, and some of the guys from Team Green, wanted a team for the Boston NPPL so we went out and recruited people. I mean, a super grass roots effort (if Jeff Stein from 1998 messaged me today, I’d probably tell him not to bother, I didn’t know shit about shit). But we got lucky, we grabbed some good players and we practiced all the time. We reffed a tournament series to help raise money and we made it happen. Took 6th place.”

Afterwards, the team ended up sticking together and went on to compete at the World Cup.  Now, Jeff mentioned to me a story about being summoned to South Boston to meet with an alleged mob boss.  I want to hear this story and will to its full extent when I speak to him next.  Needless to say, the team moved on and prepared for the next season.

“For the most part, I was figuring things out as I went along. Roster changes, good events, bad events and learning through doing. Mistake-driven learning. Lotta mistakes.”

Read that last part again Zen crew. “…learning through doing. Mistake driven Learning”.  Love it.

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Photo courtesy of Sonsini Media – Jeff surrounded

“At some point – 2002, I think – I got elected to the NPPL Steering Committee and that gave me access to team owners in higher divisions. I started peppering anyone who would talk to me with questions. Rosie, Mooner, Lane Wright, Glenn Forster, Chuck Hendsch, Paul Alders, Frank Watson, Phil Dominguez and, the big one, Rocky Knuth. I’d spam the hell out of these guys with questions and anyone foolish enough to answer would get spammed even more. Rocky, he was nuts, he’d get on the phone with me and talk through issues. After practices, I’d call him and we’d go over what happened and what I should do.  Part of the reason I do the JeSSoP page* is give back because without all these people taking the time to help me, NEH probably would not have been what it became.”

*The JeSSoP page (Jeff Stein’s School of Paintball) is a private FB page where coaches, players, etc. come to exchange ideas and concepts

Before Jeff and the Hurricanes decided to embark on the Pro Circuit, they did a little scouting.  He and two of the players flew out to the NPPL Championships in 2003 to see what skill level they felt they would equate to in 7man.

“We decided we’d be pro (we were young and full of ourselves), hooked up with Redz and made the jump. I’m generally somewhat risk adverse, so I don’t know what I was thinking, but it worked. We avoided relegation in 2004 and from there we learned and started to grow.  We stayed pro until the end of 2009, always playing NPPL, sometimes playing NXL either as NYX or as NEH. We took a handful of top 4’s in NPPL, ended the 2008 season ranked 4th. Then the NPPL folded, we had a miserable year in the NXL – we sorta sucked – and I shut down the pro team.”

But the story doesn’t stop there.

“I picked up a bunch of D2 players with a few returning Hurricanes or D1 kids from NEX and created a new roster to play D1. We played 6 events between 2010 and 2011, winning one and taking top 4 two other times. Then I shut down the team and took a year and a half off. It didn’t end well. That’s probably my fault. I don’t play well with others.”

It is worth mentioning who was on that roster:  Billy Bernacchia (X-Factor), Matt Darula (187 cRew/Tampa Bay Damage), Keith DeVit (formerly Heat, currently in contention to join the Ironmen), Thomas Mantoni (187 cRew), Benny Carroll (New York Outlaws, also in contention to be an Ironman). From the looks of things, that team certainly had the talent needed to compete.

“We just couldn’t put it all together.”

So what did Jeff learn?  What did he do after this?

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Photo Courtesy of Mike Oates – A Stein Monster in it’s natural state

“… I use what I learned in running the team every day at work. Managing people, managing situations, remaining in command even when you are not in control, setting expectations, communicating.”

Coaching a paintball team and managing a paintball are not necessarily synonymous.

“I’m a manager, not a coach.”

What’s the difference?  Jeff lays it out for us:

“Coaches need to play the following roles:

  • Game Manager: Manages the clock (knows when to concede a point, when to call a timeout)
  • Head Coach: Calls plays & lines in match. Deciphers what the other team is doing and counters it.
  • Scout: watches other teams to learn what they do, or try to do, what their tendencies are
  • Trainer: works on individual skills, comes up with drills, conducts drills.
  • Administrator: sets goals and expectations, enforces accountability and follow through. Sets agendas and tracks performance

As far as traits… general organization, communication, the ability to understand people and get through to them. Anything you’d look for in a leader.”

When it comes to questions regarding success in paintball, Jeff is point blank and lets it go with both barrels.  When I asked him what he thought is the one thing a team or player needs to excel in our sport, he didn’t mince words.

“Money. I mean, I agree with drilling. I’m a big fan of drills, both individual and team. There are a ton of factors that go into it. Discipline, commitment, drive…. But paint is the lifeblood of our sport and paint costs money. If I have $1000 to spend on practice paint and you have $500, then I can shoot twice as much paint. If we assume equal organizational skill (you and I can both set up practices that are value-add and move the team forward) but I have twice the paint, I’ll get better faster.”

I appreciate the way Jeff cuts to the quick when it comes to team dynamic and improvement.

“All the other stuff are table stakes. If you aren’t committed, you don’t belong on a team. If you don’t have heart, you don’t belong in sports. If a player doesn’t have the things my team needs, I can find a player who does. So the PLAYERS need those things. The TEAM needs money.”

But again, the story doesn’t stop there.  Jeff has been managing the now Division 1/Semi Pro team, the Bay State Bandits.  They were the 2016 NXL Division 2 series title winners.  Again, that full bore honesty is on display when you ask him about how they plan on tackling the semipro division and what his feelings were regarding the series win last year.

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2016 NXL Division 2 series Champs

“It would be a lot better winning the division with two 1st places and three 5ths. Not getting that event win sucks.”

Now pay attention to this part Zen readers –

“Contributing factors? Well, I guess, to start with, we have the “four foundations” of a team – management, ownership, coaching and players. We had great practices with the New York Outlaws at Matt’s Outback in CT and with REVO and A-Team (and others) out at Paintball Adventure Park in MD.  We have a great deal with GI Sportz that provides us with a tech in the pits during matches. Half the time Alfred was just hanging out (I even remember one time he was filling pods because there wasn’t much else for him to do), but just having him there provided peace of mind for the guys. Having the All In tents, too – just little things to provide a sense of normalcy and familiarity when you are traveling.”

Summation?  My interpretation of that is the following: They are organized, have descriptive understood goals, everyone pulls their weight, the have a support structure, and they are all pulling in the same direction.  They are all on the same page.  Something 90% of most paintball teams are not.

But it was his answer to my next question that really made me understand his approach as I share this same mentality and have been preaching it for a long time.

“You build success over time. You lose in the moment.  What I mean by that is, winners overcome. Every team, every season, something is going to go wrong and you either take that and learn from it, overcome it and become better for it, or you let it overwhelm you and beat you and maybe it starts you down a death spiral.”

Bam!  See Primates and Zen followers, it ain’t just me who thinks this.

“So a winning season requires a team that is comfortable with failure-driven learning, that can deal with setbacks without losing their composure. It requires faith in the organization and the people involved. Winning is the easy part, staying the course when you don’t is hard. Look at the winners of the NXL Semi-Pro division, PCK. They took a 7th, a 4th, two 2nds and a 1st. That’s actually a tough season. If they got discouraged early, they never would have been champions. Bay State took a 4th, 5th, 3rd, 2nd and a 9th. Looking back, it’s great to have won the division but living through it, that season sucked.”

Now, those who read my blogs know how I feel about drilling.  Jeff agrees and feels that there is an “overemphasis” on point driven practices.

“I think, in general, teams should be doing more drilling. At least local to me, there is, in my opinion, an over emphasis on playing matches versus running drills.”

Addicted to Jeff’s whiskey and cigar approach, I couldn’t resist and asked him what was the best advice he had ever been given regarding our sport.

“The best way to make a small fortune in paintball is to start out with a large one.”

This stuff never gets old.

“Yeah, it’s a joke, but it’s also not a joke. If you are in this for the money, you are in the wrong sport. If you think you can break even playing tournaments, you can’t. Either do it because you love the doing or don’t do it.  I’m going to go with that. The fact is that Ronnie Butler had a profound impact on my approach to life and Rocky Knuth spent a lot of time teaching me about how to run a team, but those things didn’t break down well into soundbites.”

As we were wrapping up the interview, I wanted to understand how he was preparing the Bay State boys for the jump to semi pro division.  Which, in itself prompted another question about where we thought the biggest jump between divisions is most difficult.  This is an interesting discussion and one I have had with many.  Jeff, in the Stein way, had an opinion on it as well.

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Photo Courtesy of the NXL – Bay State on the break

“Semi-Pro to Pro is a big jump. The skill of a D1 player versus the skill of some of those top players is huge. Hell, the Bandits hire people to come give us clinics that we could conceivably be competing against next season. Then you add in the infrastructure of those top pro teams – the professional level coaching, the experience of players, the money. You aren’t just stepping up against better players, you are taking on all the inertia and establishment of the pros. BUT, I would actually say jump from D3 orD4 5-man to X-Ball. As with every transition up, you are now facing better players but with this one, you just went from an individual game-based format to a match-based format. You are introducing the idea of coaching and pit crew. You are introducing the pit. You are introducing the need to turn around quickly. That’s a lot to ingest, especially when you consider that majority of groups making that jump are younger.”

So what about the Bandits and how they will approach the new season and division?

“The same thing we’ve been doing, just hopefully doing it better. We may make some roster changes – since 187 broke up we have some local options that could help us. We’ll adjust our practice schedule. Part of my role is to be constantly evaluating things. Are we getting good practices? If not, what can we change? Are events running smoothly? If not, why not? We are lucky in that we have the independence to make changes on the fly if we feel we need to.”

Excellent.  And there you have it… a look inside the mind of a team manager. Does any of this sound familiar?  Or maybe some of this is completely new to you?  Either way, take a look at your own house and see if these comments and ideas could help make yours better.

bruce-lee

Be water my friends.

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