USBC Prep: Just Keep Practicing

Illustration by  Alabaster

With 4 days until the USBC, our Barista Training Camp Series writer, Ashley Rodriguez,  discusses her approach to the final prep

Editor’s note: For the 10 weeks before the U.S. Barista Championship Qualifying Event in February, competitor Ashley Rodriguez  wrote a series  for our blog that was outrageously popular with readers. She was completely candid about every step she took to get ready, from choosing her coffee to writing her speech. And she did great ”she qualified and will be competing at the  United States Barista Championship  in Atlanta in ”gulp ”9 days. Ashley reflected on the Qualifying Event in an article she wrote just after it was over. I asked her to update it for the 4-part series of which this is the second  installment. You can read  the first installment here, and the second installment here.  We hope you enjoy following Ashley’s adventures in barista competitions as much as we do!

BY ASHLEY RODRIGUEZ
SPECIAL TO BARISTA MAGAZINE

I attempted to make a schedule for myself after I got back from the United States Barista Championship (USBC) Qualifying Event in Kansas City in early February. Much as I had prepared for  that first round of competition, I wanted to break down every week leading up to the USBC ”the preliminary round for which is this Friday, April 15 ”with a different theme or topic to explore and break down. However, I was at a loss as to what to write. Eventually, I just wrote, œKeep practicing. 

There’s nothing more valuable than practicing your routine. Talking about the motions versus going through them proves a world of difference, and even just during  my very first run-through of my newly-edited routine, I noticed a bunch of things I needed to change or adjust. From the fundamental stuff to the tiniest details, I found myself with way more edits than just the thought exercises I’d put myself through deciding where everything should go and how I should say things.

Sometimes, doing a full-on run-through can be challenging. It’s not easy to set up every single part of your signature drink, or move all your smallwares around. What I’ve found helpful in this regard is to practice portions of my routine, but to practice them fully, as if I’m in front of the judges. Today, for example, I practiced my milk drink, which I was able to do at least 20  times over because resetting for each run-through required minimal prep time. Do a run through, clean the milk pitchers, clean the cups, do it again. And concentrating on one succinct portion allowed me to really hone in how long things were taking. When I began practicing, the milk-portion took all of 4 minutes from start (setting up shots) to finish  (serving the last drink to the final judge), but by the last trial, I had it down to 3 minutes 30 seconds. I figured out ways to be more economical with my movement, and think naturally about what steps followed each other.

Ashley's competition coffee, hanging out in the office bathroom at Sightless Coffee since it's the coolest room in the building.
Ashley’s competition coffee, hanging out in the office bathroom at Sightless Coffee since it’s the coolest room in the building.

There’s also a huge difference between doing your routine for yourself, and doing it in front of people. You know that feeling when you say something in your head and it makes sense, but then you say it out loud and no one knows what you’re talking about? Practicing in front of people forces you to demonstrate clarity at every stage, and you can’t make excuses for yourself. œOh, I’ll do it when the presentation actually happens,  is one of my trademark excuses. Small details also fall under this rule ”I’ve been lucky enough to see friends do their routines, and we talk about small phrasing choices, and why they went with that particular sentence structure, or how they thought about what information they want to tell the judges. It’s easy for something to sound good in your head, but when you say it, and you say it to a group of avid listeners, the reality of what you’re trying to say becomes clear, and it either works or it doesn’t. If it does, great. If it doesn’t, then you need to make a change. Regardless, it’s difficult to make these determinations without being forced to present in front of others. You always know what you mean. But others won’t. What’s cool is that when you tell other people your ideas, you can usually tell pretty quickly what didn’t work.

On that note, watching friends practice for barista competition is helpful for a number of reasons. Just today, I got to watch my friend, Kelly Sanchez of Blue Bottle Coffee, do his full routine. Kelly and I didn’t know each other before competition, but we scored 10th  and 11th  place in the Western division, respectively, and because he’s based in the Bay Area like I am, we’ve been helping each other out when we can. Kelly’s routine was so incredibly sharp and thoughtful, and it’s inspiring me to sit here, computer screen on one side of the desk, and notebook full of wild and sometimes random  ideas on the other, scribbling notes that keep popping into my head while writing this article at the same time.

Ashley found it helps tremendously to watch and work with other competition competitors, like Kelly here.
Ashley found it helps tremendously to watch and work with other competition competitors, like Kelly here.

I get to tell a lot of people my ideas through this blog series, but that doesn’t mean that the lessons land. In the lead up to the Qualifying Event, one of the things I wrote extensively about, but still wasn’t successful in, was the importance of your prep time, and why practicing your dial in and set up time was crucial to success. After competition, I talked to a lot of first-year competitors, and most of them mentioned how restricting or surprisingly quick the 10 minute prep time was [Editor’s note: The Qualifying Event competition was abbreviated from the traditional 15 minutes prep-15 minutes performance-15 minutes clean up schedule of the USBC]. I mentioned in one of my articles how I felt that this was secretly the most significant change that occurred in the whole rules shake up, and I still stand by that. So yes, practicing your routine is important, but it might be more beneficial to practice your set up time. It’s easy to feel confident if you’ve had time to set up your station  and have all your things and your coffee to where you want it, but if you’re not there, it sort of doesn’t matter what you do during your actual routine. If you’re not secure in your espresso, if you don’t know where things are or what they taste like, then all the work you do is for nothing.

Getting ready to judge Kelly in a run through.
Getting ready to judge Kelly in a run through.

I say these things like they’re easy to implement. The truth of the matter is that nothing is easy. At this point, nothing really should be. When I asked Kelly how his competition preparation changed, he said that he worked less hard but smarter. That’s probably true of a lot of competitors, but that doesn’t mean we’re completely clear of stress, or that anyone has figured out a magic way to put together a perfect routine. In fact, we probably all are stressing out about even smaller things, or about tinier details that we never considered before. I thought a lot about flow, for example, but I never thought in a detailed manner about what order I would execute all the steps to pulling a shot (Which was quickest? Which ensured the least amount of waste?). I think about that more now, but who’s to say that something else won’t come up if there’s another round of competition (doubtful for me, but this will be true of one lucky winner of the United States Barista Championship).

In a text to Kelly, after he asked me about my competition prep, I said I wasn’t ready to do this, but that I’ve never reached a point where I thought I was ready to perform in any sort of high-stakes situation. I think that’s the best thing I can admit to myself. I’ve been very crazed out about this whole competition, but it’s because I’m never really going to feel 100% ready. I’ve tried preparing for all types of situations (what if I spill something? What if I forget something?), and it does make me feel more at ease to feel I have solutions to these problems in my back pocket. But that feeling of not quite being ready doesn’t ever go away completely.

As I talked to first-year competitors at the Qualifying Event and learned of their accomplishments and struggles through this blog series, one competitor, Marcos Iglesias, talked about speaking truth. When we think about it, only five people really get to taste your drinks, but hundreds of people ”in the audience, on the livestream ”hear what you say. When I get nervous, it’s because of the things that contribute to the former ”the part where I have to serve drinks and score points. But in the USBC, I have a national stage. That’s something I won’t get very often, and it’s more important than ever to remember my message and why I’m here to begin with. This is something I say both plainly and with some selfishness. Being able to remember that my message is important takes some of the heat of the nitty gritty, and allows me to focus on the things that matter.

Ashley-Rodriguez

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ashley Rodriguez  thought that she’d take a break from teaching middle school science and putz around in a coffee shop for a few months. She ended up digging it way more than teaching (and was vaguely better at it). After spending 5 years making coffee in New York, she now works for  Sightglass Coffee  in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter at  @ashcommonnam

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