George Mason men's basketball coach Dave Paulsen watched as his team dealt with a literal “sink or swim” moment.
Removed from the friendly confines of the hardwood, the Patriots plunged out of their comfort zone and into the swimming pool at the George Mason Aquatic and Fitness Center on Wednesday morning. Here each player wrestled to get off their sweatshirt, switch with a teammate and put the sweatshirt back on as quickly as possible.
With varying levels of swimming experience, reliance and trust of their teammates were key. Freshmen helped fifth-year seniors. Guards came to the aid of 250-pound power forwards. A different arena perhaps, but as Paulsen watched his team adjust to adversity and work together, he saw intangibles he believes carry over to the basketball court, especially when in unfamiliar territory.
“You're scared. You're tired. You're anxious. You're in a hostile environment,” Paulsen said. “You have to trust your teammates that they've got your back. They are going to make sure you don't drown.”
Team building and leadership development were emphasized to the Patriots over a 12-hour period that stretched two days. Paulsen and the Mason coaching staff implored the services of The Program, which, since 2008, has been helping professional and college sports teams across the country gain valuable, personal and leadership development through physically and mentally challenging, team-building exercises.
The Patriots got a taste of The Program's Judgement Day exercises this week. With The Program's Sam Cila, a retired U.S. Army Staff Sergeant, and Bryan Sabatella, a former minor league baseball player, leading the way, the team was run through a variety of workouts and drills that started on the softball field on Tuesday night and ended in the swimming pool on Wednesday morning.
“They are basically trying to get at the exact same things we're trying to (as a coaching staff) get at but in a really different environment,” Paulsen said. “It is really physically demanding and emotionally draining. It is a new voice. I couldn't be happier with it. I think it was awesome.”
On Tuesday night, they worked for more than three hours on the softball field, running through a series of calisthenics workouts ranging from pushups to jumping jacks to mountain climbers to flutter kicks to build their core with bridge exercises. They carried logs and lifted sand bags across the field, not calling it a night until 11 p.m.
They didn't get much shut-eye, waking up well before the crack of dawn on Wednesday and arriving at the Aquatic Center at 5 a.m. Over the next three hours, Cila and Sabatella put the team through strenuous workouts in and out of the pool. They swam and sprinted 25 meters across the competition pool – while wearing their hooded sweatshirts – and then jumping out of the pool to engage in more calisthenics exercises.
“It was tiring but you have to keep fighting through it,” senior guard Marquise Moore said. “It was mentally tough, especially being up this early, going from last night straight to the morning time. It is a grind but that is what we want.”
Cila, who had his left arm amputated after he was wounded during a tour in Iraq in 2005, said he was impressed with the energy level the team brought on Wednesday morning after less than six hours of sleep.
“We ended really late (Tuesday) night so to come in with that energy and to continue it early in the morning, I think that was kind of the turning point of this team saying, 'Hey, we're willing to do different to get a different result,'” Cila said. “We went 25 meters. Usually, we go (swim) across the pool. This team, just because of the situation of the pool, they just worked harder than every other team in America.”
Added Sabatella: “Right from the beginning, it was evident – the buy-in was high. There was no pushback. Every once in a while, we'll get some teams that are a little reluctant to buy in and go all out. Sometimes we have to earn their trust. These guys were bought in right from the beginning. The coaches obviously do a great job with the culture of the team. Over the two days, you need that to see the maximum outcome there.”
The morning was capped off in the deep end of the competition pool. With the team thrust into water 13 feet deep, they were charged with an exhausting workout to end the two days.
Timed as a group, each player started in the pool, took off their sweatshirt, switched with their teammates and tossed the sweatshirt back on. They had to keep afloat by treading, or holding onto the railing of the pool deck, and were not allowed to put rest their feet on a foot hole in the pool. For many, it forced them out of their comfort zone, especially those with minimal swimming experience.
“Some of the better natural leaders on the basketball court were the least capable in (the pool),” Paulsen said. “So they had to overcome their fear, which they did to varying degrees of success. But then some other guys who are maybe not as prominent on the court had to take a leadership role and help because they are better swimmers, more proficient swimmers. So it was getting them out of their comfort zone.”
Paulsen first learned about The Program when he was the head coach at Bucknell. He watched Bucknell's men's lacrosse team participate in the exercises but had never put one of his teams through it. Newly hired director of basketball operations Ted Rawlings brought up the idea to Paulsen this summer and the Patriots decided to give it a try.
Paulsen, the rest of the coaching staff and the entire team hope the two days with The Program will serve as a catalyst for the upcoming season. Cila stressed that in order for The Program to have an effect, they must continue to strive to be better teammates and leaders long after Wednesday.
“For me, being a leader, it was really helpful,” sophomore point guard Otis Livingston II said. “I learned some new tools to help me be a more effective leader. I'm very grateful that we went through this program. It has helped me a lot and, for the team, we really built trust in each other. We built a new relationship with each other.”