Here’s a truth bomb for you; to get better, you need to be honest and you have to recognize what it will take to make improvements. In other words, be honest with yourself, be honest with your teammates, be honest with your coach and then put in the work. In being honest, by operating in an environment of accountability and where truth and fact are the main drivers for improvement, you have created the ultimate atmosphere for growth. But you have to follow that up with action! You have to put in the work but not just any work. You have to be willing to work harder and harder each time you practice. You have to want it more than the other guy.
“You said you wanted the truth. Now what are you willing to do with it?” – Zen
Sometimes the truth is obvious but then there are those times it is a tough pill to swallow. As a player, as a coach, the first step to improvement is recognizing the weakness in order to defeat it. That isn’t always easy. Egos and pride can get in the way. There are those who flourish in this type of environment and then there are those who wilt like Kentucky bluegrass in southern Alabama. You have to be willing to have these conversations.
I have played and coached for, with, and against all manner of player and coach. There are two personalities that jump to the forefront and who I thought ideal for this edition of Gun FU. I know this because I have played for them, with them, and against them. Our relationship goes back to 2008 where we were all three part of the Red NRG program.
Kevin Fillers and Adam Smith have been around. They rose through the ranks and earned their spots on several prominent rosters in the mid-2000s. Knowing that their work ethic is similar to mine as well as their dauntless approach to drilling, I decided to ask them about their successes, their attitudes, and their drive.
But first, a little context. Kevin and Adam’s paintball careers began back in Maryville, TN at a place called Foothills Paintball in the late 90’s. This is where Kevin and Adam met and joined their first team together. Kevin explains, “As our friends started to lose interest during high school, Adam and I decided that it was our dream to go pro and we made a pact to stick together as teammates for the entire journey.”
They learned how to win under the tutelage of Shawn Terry in 2001. Shawn was the captain of the Saints at the time. The Saints were comprised of mostly former motocross racers.
“They understood a lot about preparation and infrastructure so that was the first time we had access to a private practice field and really started basing our practices on drills rather than scrimmages. The team broke up in mid-2003 (real life caught up with the older guys) and Adam and I went to Precision in 2004 (a team out of the Chattanooga area they had known for years).”
During that Precision season, they met Todd Adamson of Aftershock. Through Todd, Kevin and Adam got a tryout for the ’05 Ironmen.
“We made it through the tryouts and got brought out for a few more practices leading up to the 05 LA Open, but we didn’t make the final roster. Todd and Billy (Ceranski) were planning on playing 7 man with Bad Company, but the Ironmen weren’t having it. So Todd invited us down to a Bad Company practice at his field leading up to the HB 05’ event and Tom Cole signed us. We played 7 man with BC and guested with random X-ball teams throughout ‘05”
They loved playing with BC but they wanted to play X-Ball. So they ended up leaving Bad Company and joined Team Ultimate for the 2006 season. Both Kevin and Adam, along with their good friend and former protege Zack Wake, left Ultimate after the Chicago event in 06. All three ended up on the Naughty Dogs professional team. In 2008, Kevin and Adam left the Naughty Dogs and returned to BC. Zack Wake would stay with the Dogs for a few more events before leaving for San Diego Aftermath.
And here’s where our paths would meet (we actually met on the playing field in 04 when they were with Precision and again on the practice field in 2006 when they were with Ultimate but this is really where we met and started our friendship). They played with Red NRG’s D1 team and coached the other Red NRG divisional team (I was on that roster). And here is another Kevin Bacon moment…
“After balancing our coaching time between CEP and Red NRG in 2008, we received what would turn out to be a ‘too good to be true’ offer to switch to coaching Red NRG full-time and build a Birmingham Alabama based pro team. After the funding fell through on that team Craig Williams from CEP made us an offer to coach all of the CEP squads and play on the D1 team in 2009. We had a very successful year as a program in 2009.”
Kevin would hang up the cleats and move to coaching while Adam would continue to play. They both went to San Diego Aftermath in 2010. This would be the first time since 99’ they weren’t on the field together. They dabbled about a little after that (including a stint playing with Birmingham Prime and coaching PC Katana). They now play in the mechanical movement that is gaining, or rather regaining, popularity.
I have worked hard at Zen to create formula’s for continuous improvement. I have based these formulas off talks and practices with several different pro players and coaches over the years but mostly off my own experiences. Kevin and Adam did the same:
“It wasn’t unusual for the two of us to spend an entire Saturday with a scuba tank and 1 case of paint just grinding it out on an uneven patch of grass by Adam’s house. That’s where we developed so many of our ‘low-paint’ drills. We’d run the length of the field doing 1-ball running and shooting drills until we couldn’t pick our legs up. We’d practice reloading and shooting 10 balls at a time, then refill the pod out of our hopper paint and do it again. Sliding drills, snake crawling drills, anything that we considered a critical movement in paintball.”
This sort of drilling really prepared them for X-Ball. X-ball required more athleticism, more emphasis on fundamental skills, just more of everything really. Their approach appeared, for the most part, specifically geared for that new type of skill set. They had a notebook full of drills, some of which are in my notebook. It was this mindset that helped them prepare others since they had lived it.
So if you ask them what they think a young player needs today, they are quick to respond.
“There are three big things a player has to have in order to advance quickly in paintball. Those three things are athleticism, mental toughness, and resources.” Adam says. Kevin just smiles and shakes his head in agreement.
As a coach, you have to be able to recognize the strengths and shortcomings of your players. That equation isn’t easy. But there are certain factors you can find in players that make it easier. I asked Kevin and Adam what they thought are the skill sets a successful paintball coach should possess.
“An acquaintance merely enjoys your company, a fair-weather companion flatters when all is well, a true friend has your best interests at heart and the pluck to tell you what you need to hear.”
Kevin leads off, “I think a successful paintball coach needs 2 traits beyond anything else. One, an in depth understanding of the game and two, the ability to articulate the information to wide range of personalities. Paintball is such a strange game in the fact that there aren’t clear measurables for what makes a ‘great’ paintball player like there are in traditional sports. If you are a football coach, the best running back is probably the fastest, the best lineman is probably the strongest. In paintball, it’s a blend between paintball IQ and athleticism.” Adam quickly adds, “Sometimes a slower guy that is a great communicator and survivor is a better fit situationally than putting the 5 fastest guys on the field. I think being able to figure out how to push the right buttons on each player to get the most out of them was a big part of our success as coaches. Some players need to hear ‘Get me that kill on the break or plan on riding the bench for the rest of the event’ while others need to hear ‘Shake that point off, you’re my guy and I want you on the field.’
“I know some of the people we coached are probably thinking, I don’t recall ever getting the gentle version from Kevin & Adam in practice, and in a lot of ways, that is true.” Kevin says with a grin. “No one got the carrot at practice; we preferred the stick. And that was by design. With the mental toughness required to be competitive at high level paintball, we always wanted practices to be a pressure cooker. I’d much rather have someone melt down at practice so we could create a teaching point than make practice all rainbows and butterflies then have our weaknesses come to the surface at a tournament. It was always our intention to push people to that edge because the great players shift into 6th gear and the weak players blame the coach and quit. And if anyone doesn’t believe that, let me know when someone new starts winning pro because last time I checked, it’s primarily the same ice in the veins, take no prisoner, ruthless play that has been on top since the mid-2000s.”
I’m inclined to agree with that last assessment. I am often quoted as saying “I will take the team that shot 100 cases at practice over the team that shot 20” or “The other team is grinding still, why are you thinking about leaving this field?” It requires time, determination, and a bank account. But besides that, what else do they think are skill sets most players these days are overlooking?
“Communication is a bit of a cliché response, but it couldn’t be more true,” says Adam.
“Going a step further though, I think it is being a complete student of the game. It still blows my mind to watch pro players make decisions with seemingly no regard to the score, body count, and time remaining in the match. If you are in an X-ball match, and you don’t look at the clock and score before every point you play, you are a moron. Just taking that moment to understand all of the related variables, you can cut your decision making down to a fraction of choices,” adds Kevin.
Authors note**Now THAT I can get behind since that is part of my equation in the pit as well. Glad these guys are bringing their A game to this talk…
But that is only a finite part of the calculation. And they know this so I asked what they thought an individual player’s biggest hurdle in competitive paintball was. They cut to the quick on this one.
“For youngsters, it has to be resources. Lets be real, paintball is an expensive sport like racing, and if you don’t have the financial support to be out there most weekends, it will be very difficult to climb the ranks young. Same reason why most NASCAR drivers come from money. It’s a lot easier to get your 10,000 hours if you can start early and someone else is footing the bill. Despite the economic hurdles that will always create an uneven playing field in luxury sports, there has never been an easier path to advancing through the divisional ranks than today. When we were coming up, there weren’t BKi, Youtube channels, and GoSports streams of the events (or Zen bloggers for that matter). We had to piece it all together in a time when the sport was rapidly evolving. Now, since paintball strategy and format has somewhat plateaued, any player has access to relatively the same amount of knowledge. It’s just up to the player to put in the sweat equity and hold themselves personally accountable for improving their game.”
Recently, I had asked Kevin and Adam to come say “hi” at a recent CEP off weekend practice. I thought it would be a good idea to just bang on a non-layout weekend in a fun environment, do some team building, eat some good food and remember why we do what we do. The Kevin and Adam part of the cocktail was to make sure they were grounded in reality! And it didn’t disappoint. I asked them to say a few words to the current iteration of CEP and they did great. So, for this Gun Fu article I thought I would ask them what they believe is the one thing most divisional teams are missing today. There was no hesitation in the answer from Kevin.
“Personal accountability – we hate to be the guys piling on this generation about being ‘soft millennials’, but we just don’t see the same level of intensity and accountability when we’re around lower divisional teams. We don’t think it is possible to advance in this sport without being able to accept harsh criticism. So my advice to any up-and-comers is the next time you receive criticism in practice, don’t make an excuse or try to explain away what happened just say ‘That’s on me’ and don’t make the same mistake again. Own your mistake, learn from it, and evolve as a player.”
This! This times 1000!
Okay – I went into a quick lighting round but if you have ever been around Kevin and Adam for any amount of time, drinking a beer and shooting the stuff – that can turn into an all-day affair. So here we go!
Tell us more about the Mechanical league you guys are competing in now? How did all that come about?
Kevin – “Oh man, we love some mechanical paintball. We definitely prefer mounds over hyperball and woods, but I’ve found the format as a whole to be extremely refreshing. When Tim Montressor re-packaged this classic format in 2017 with the Iron City Classic, we didn’t have any idea it would create this amount of momentum, but I decided to play it with Bad Company just as an excuse to get a break from the 2v2 training and visit with my old teammates. Needless to say, I could have done without tearing my hamstring in the finals, but I still really enjoyed the weekend as a whole. We’ve played all 3 ICC’s with Bad Company and we competed in the inaugural ICPL with the Saints (a reboot of Shawn Terry’s old early 2000s squad).”
“We are curious to see how this goes over the next few years though because this classic movement is like watching the evolution of paintball happen again at 10x the speed. At the 2017 ICC, every team was a throw together team and everyone was playing with either electros at 5.5 or antique auto-cockers. By 2018, you were already seeing the teams traveling to practice on the field, playing with their own private-label modern mechanical guns, and by 2019 I don’t think you can deny that it is considerably harder to field a competitive throw together squad. What I hope is that the level of play doesn’t increase to a point where it starts to scare away the weekend warriors.”
As players who played prior to and during the advent of X-ball and now playing mechanical, what is something that has remained consistent?
Adam – “For me personally, it’s the love of just putting it on someone. I don’t care if it is on the NXL center court or at a local scenario game, I just don’t think I can ever get tired of unloading on someone and watching them have a meltdown. The bigger the meltdown, the better!”
What is something you think paintball helps teach? In other words, what’s something a player/individual can learn from the sport?
Kevin – “One of my biggest takeaways from paintball was just learning team dynamics. Little things like understanding what the good vibe feels like when you have the right team built and conversely understanding what toxic attitudes look like and how they can be cancerous to a team. When I got into business consulting was when I really realized how much my paintball coaching was going to apply to “adult life”. It’s funny that the same *^$%y attitudes that got people cut from teams are the same attitudes that get people fired. It makes me think of those memes you see ‘un-coachable kids become unemployable adults.’ 100% true.”
What were your thoughts on the whole Damian Ryan/NXL feud? He is returning to the NXL and the Ironmen for Chicago.
“Man that’s a tough one. As a player, I consider Damian to be one of the most talented and dynamic people to ever play up the middle in the Xball era so I hated to see him step away from the field, but I think he made one hell of a miscalculation with how he voiced his displeasure with the current state of the industry. There are only a few ‘power players’ left in the industry and throwing a digital middle finger up to their joint venture (the NXL) pretty much ended how I thought it would.
Believe me, as two people who committed a lot of years to this sport, we would have loved nothing more than to have seen it end up as an X-Games sport with the financing power to make a lot of people full-time athletes, but that just wasn’t the hand we were dealt. Between some bad financial choices by the big companies pre-2008, a global recession, the end of paintball gun innovation years, the creation of airsoft, and a hard to watch sport for the casual spectator, the industry was destined for a significant setback after that many years of exponential growth. Personally, I would have preferred this happening a few years later (not at the peak of my playing career), but it was coming none the less.
I’m sure a lot of people will consider me a ‘homer’ since I played with Bad Company, but I think Tom Cole is doing a lot of things right for the current state of the industry. Would I like to see $50,000 first prizes for pro again? 100% yes. Tournaments held on Huntington Beach, 1000% yes, but that was just a different era and unfortunately, I don’t think we will see those days again. For people that don’t know Tom, they need to understand that you will not find someone who has invested more years into the growth and improvement of paintball. I think that’s what rubbed me the wrong way about the internet kids going after Tom/NXL. People want to complain about cities and venues, the NXL is in Vegas and back in Kissimmee. People want to complain about prizes, the NXL offered $50,000 for a 2-man event and hardly anyone had the balls to play it.
My suggestion for anyone who wants to create change in the industry is to start a dialogue not a flame thread. Compile a list of questions and lobby Matty to do another interview with Tom. Tom has never been afraid to stand at the podium and face the hard questions and I’m sure he’d be willing to do it again.”
What was the best piece of advice you received related to paintball and who gave it to you?
“It’s funny because probably the most influential words of wisdom that stuck with me were given to a teammate after he got bunkered at the Memphis Indoor in 2001 or 2002. Someone from OBR or Farside had just dropped the hammer on him and gave him a few extra right in the back of the head. He of course was pissed off and wanted to fight the guy when he was told ‘You know why I shot you so many times?, so you’d be thinking about wanting to fight me rather than spinning on me and arguing to stay in the game’. My friend shut up and walked off the field. I never forgot that and called it a good policy.”
What is your favorite drill(s)? Why?
“Run-Dive-Slides: Start on the baseline of a field, run 3 steps, dive like you are diving into the snake, crawl about 10 ft, jump up as fast as you can, repeat for the length of the field. At the end, you stand up. You never lay on the field.
Without a doubt the worst drill to end practice on and that’s how we ended every practice. It did 2 things. 1 – it was a message to all of our teammates that we don’t consider practice over until the tank is on empty 2 – it was a reminder to ourselves that we want it more.”
And there you have it people. Take it from guys who have been there and made it happen. Have the right attitude, have the right drive, put in the work, and make it happen.
Thanks to Kevin and Adam… who knows, maybe I’ll get out there with the Ole Auto-Whopper and play some mechanical with them…
Be water my friends