Category Archives: Coaching

The Best Decision I Hated

After high school baseball practice my first spring as a Rule 10 coach in 2000, I dropped off a book to newly promoted head football coach Paul Lane and assistant football coach Matt Brenzikofer as they talked outside Coach Lane’s classroom. The book was COMPLETE CONDITIONING FOR FOOTBALL by Mike Arthur and Brian Bailey. I’d bought the book several years earlier both for personal enjoyment/education and to help a high school kid I knew to get in football shape and to convince him to play the game. 

Out of the blue a few weeks later, Coach Lane and Coach Brenz stop me after baseball practice. I thought he was just going to hand back my book with that “go away, kid” dismissal one would expect from Nick Saban or Jim Harbaugh. As I mentally prepared to take the book back, say as few words as possible, and slink out the door trying to save a little face, Coach asked if I wanted to be a freshman coach and strength & conditioning coordinator.

I froze.

He asked me if I knew what was in the copy of my book he waved in front of me and if I knew how to implement any of it. I nodded yes. He said that I was the guy then. I told him I didn’t know anything about coaching football. He smiled and said something along the lines that I would surprise myself what I knew and how I could teach the game of football.

After a little wrangling at work to rearrange my schedule to a 6:30 AM to 2:45 PM work day, followed by an eat-your-lunch-while-driving-back-for 3:30 practice trip from MHK to CC, I took the job.

Being a Rule 10 baseball and football coach was one of the top 5 greatest decisions I ever made.

After a summer of winging it through a successful inaugural summer conditioning program, August rolled around and time for football. I was assistant freshman coach to Eric Burks and I am very grateful and very lucky to have started coaching football with him. What little football knowledge I had was on the offensive side of the ball, mainly blocking and running the ball. That was what I had my heart set on coaching for the freshman. Coach Burks had spent several years as varsity defensive coordinator and was now down at the freshman level. On our first meeting to plan the freshman program, he asked me what I wanted to coach.

I said “offense” before he even had a chance to finish his sentence. He looked at me. He smiled. He said that he thought he’d like to do offense because it would be invigorating to change sides of the ball. To his credit, he still gave me the choice. Me! The newbie idiot who knew only enough football to fill Coach Burks’s left pocket.

I thought about it.

I remembered the lessons my parents taught me about starting at the bottom of the ladder and working your way up. Keep your head down and your nose to the grindstone. I thought about Coach Burks. He was very excited about being able to dust off his offensive football coaching skills. I admit it now, I was scared. I didn’t know defensive fronts from storm fronts. I didn’t know the first, the second, or the last thing about secondary coverage schemes. Blitzes might have just as well have been spritzes. I was clueless. I was scared to fail.

Even though it went completely against my heart. Even though I knew it would knock me completely out of my comfort zone. Even though I knew I could completely look like a fool in front of my adopted hometown, I made the decision to be the freshman defensive coach.

Turns out, it was the best decision I’ve ever hated in my life.

I hit the books. I knew I couldn’t fall flat on my face. I couldn’t risk being the sore thumb which stood out on the stellar coaching staff Coach Lane put together. I didn’t want to embarrass my family or let down the high standards of the CCCHS community. Most of all, I did not want to let Coach Lane down. I knew he took a giant risk hiring me. I also assumed he took quite a bit of crap from the above high-standard, CCCHS community about hiring a nobody with no experience.

I studied defense. I read articles. I watched film. I asked questions. I tried to soak up everything I could from the other members of the staff. Slowly but surely, I fell head over heels for defensive football. And you know what else I discovered? That part of being a defensive coach is…studying the different offenses! Kaboom!

The strategy. The fundamental techniques. The intensity. The contact. The physicality. The schemes.

It was like a door to a new world was opened. I crawled through the dark, wardrobe door and found a football utopia. Defense. I learned the defensive fronts and gaps. I learned the linebacker techniques and schemes. I even learned about three-deep zones, squats & halves, bracket, zone over, zone blitz, and man coverages. I was like a kid in the candy store.

Defense.

I found my football groove.

Found my groove by being shoved out of my comfort zone.

Found my groove by doing the job I was given instead of doing everyone else’s job.

Found my groove through discipline and knowledge.

I found my football groove seventeen years ago through the best decision I ever hated making.

Do the work. Do your job. Every man, every play.

Even for the coaches.

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Leaders

An often overlooked fundamental of good organizations is leadership. By overlooked, I don’t mean ignored. We have leadership out the ying yang in our society. Presidents, governors, mayors, superintendents, principals, head coaches, captains, student councils, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. We have leadership coming out of our ears, but still, often experience poor leadership.

How does this happen? We spend so many resources and time and effort in order to set up our leadership structures. It should work, right? It should be easy, right? All the proper offices are set, the job descriptions were written, the people hired and trained, the team roster set and fully prepared, so why does the system fail?

Leadership void is how I always referred to it. But I was never really able to figure out a logical explanation to why this happens and/or how this happens. Until now. In the “Leaders are made, not born.” listing of the Ideas for Work blog post from altMBA.

Here’s the quote:

Leaders are made, not born.
Leadership is for other people, it seems. Leadership is for someone who has unusual amounts of courage, insight or perhaps arrogance.
Except that’s not true. That’s a myth perpetuated by folks who’d rather have you comply with their instructions.
Leadership, as we have seen over and over again, is reserved for people who care. Who care enough to see, to connect, to make change happen.
As our economy shifts to one based on connection, not industry, there are more slots reserved for those that seek to make change happen, who will stand up and say, “follow me.”
Your organization (big or small) needs more leaders like this. Are you open to making that difference?

Reading this was an “Aha!” moment for this old coach. It gave words and meaning to the random thoughts on developing leaders I’ve struggled with for years.

Leadership is reserved for people who care.

Wow. So simple. So “slap you in the face I’ve been standing right here in front of you all this time!” As I say to my people when they lose something and it’s sitting out in plain sight. If it was a snake, it would have bit you.

Leadership is reserved for people who care.

The trick as a coach is to identify who these players are in your program and provide them with enough space and safety to become the leader their deep investment in the program deserves. That means not going with players for leadership roles merely based on their age (seniors only), their position (QBs, catchers, point guards), or their popularity. Leadership is about caring for the program. Leadership is about showing up every day to make the organization one cares about a little better off than the previous day.

That type of leadership works. That type of leadership is work. It’s not easy. Especially with high school kids. Caring for something can’t mark you for an attack. Caring cannot be something that earns ridicule.

It’s okay to care.

It’s okay to want something to be better.

It’s okay to care enough you piss people off.

The first step to effective leadership is to care about the organization and its well-being. If you’re in a leadership role, closely examine how you care for the organization you lead. Do you need to make changes? Do you need to swallow your own ego and arrogance to show your people your care? The job of a coach is to allow this to happen. Sow the seeds of emotional, physical, and mental investment early and often. It’s an integral part of team-building as we talked about in the post, Culture.

First and foremost, allow people to care.

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Culture

I ran across this list, 17 Ideas for the modern world of work from altMBA, and it has me thinking. Dangerous, I know. But it’s summertime and my head is less likely to explode sitting on the back patio listening to the birds chirping. I’ve read this list several times. I know it’s targeted to the business world, but I see many parallels to the sports coaching world. One thing on the list caught my eye from the very first time I read it; it is the idea of culture. Here’s the quote from the altMBA list:

Culture defeats everything.
We accept the culture as something fixed, immutable, impervious to our efforts to change it.
And because it feels so permanent, we also begin to ignore it. A bit like gravity.
But culture is the deal maker, the deal breaker, the energy that changes everything.
Do culture on purpose. It’s worth it.

Out of the list of ideas, I like this one the most. Culture is a game changer. In sports, we call it things like team chemistry, coaching philosophy, captain’s councils and the like. What these really do is to establish the culture of a team. Whether you’re coaching T-ball or kid’s tennis or club basketball or small town high school football, you must establish a culture of success. I guarantee there is not a highly successful program out there which doesn’t have a well-established “winning” culture.

As coaches, we were more than likely players at one stage in our life. When deciding what type of culture you want in your program, I always like to start looking forward by looking back.

First, what program culture would I have liked playing in? Recall the good and the bad from my experiences. Incorporate the good but also use the bad as well. Design your team culture to best avoid the things you considered pitfalls from your experiences. Do not repeat crap! 

Second, look back on what worked and what didn’t work in your previous campaign. Does something need to change? Do we need to adjust what we did in the past with what we think the future holds? Ask yourself the hard question and delve deep to find the answers. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT, think everything is peachy perfect. Even an undefeated, state title team has issues. Be honest and be better. Most importantly, make the changes!

Next, look forward.

What is your dream as a coach? What’s holding you back from these dreams? One of my favorite little life snippets is, “Dream it & go do it”. Take the first step on your dreams. It’s like writing a story, or a blog post rant; it’s all a blank page until you start laying the words down one by one. Build the dream. Brick by brick.

What are your players dreams? Ha! I got you there, didn’t I? How many of us coaches ask players for input on their culture? Kids in this 21st-century world are smart. They may seem to care more about snaps and contacts and followers, but they are smart. Include them. Include their dreams. Sure the team is run by one voice or a few voices, yours as the coach and the voices of the coaching staff, but doesn’t that ONE VOICE sound a whole lot sweeter when it rings of many? The culture needs to reflect the team with all its inherent roles and positions included. The team becomes the culture, the culture becomes the team.

Take a hard look at your personnel for the coming season. Evaluate, evaluate, evaluate. If you think one kid would be better playing a different role on the team, sell it to them. That’s right, you have to be part salesman to be a coach. Not only do you have to inspire team members, you have to convince them to do things they don’t often like to do. Getting the pieces to fit, sometimes takes a bit of maneuvering and wiggling and not hammering. Sell it. And sell it within the scope of the culture you are creating.

Success begets success. Perhaps the hardest part of this team culture idea is the passing down of its principles and customs to the next generation of players. I’ve struggled in the past both with highly talented upperclassmen caring for what comes after them and incoming newbies who know all and believe they have “arrived”. It’s hard to convince 17-18 year-olds they will carry their home pride with them when they move to the next step in life. It’s hard to fully convince kids of any age to buy in and fully invest their physical, intellectual, and emotional self into something where there’s a chance one might fail. Peer to peer influence is so much more effective in establishing this facet of culture. Failure is an option. Never accept failure. Fail and regroup and come back stronger as an individual and as a team. Keep swinging, as the baseball coach in me likes to say.

I do like this idea of culture. It rings true and plays a huge part in the success of an organization. If you are a coach or a player, think about these things on the altMBA list. Let them rattle around in your head a bit. See what develops and then get busy.

I will continue to ponder the list, for sure. (You should hear the rattling in my head right now.)

Until next time.

Now, go get yourself some culture.

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Dear Juniors

Dear Juniors,

Graduation Day. A day of celebration and a day to honor the graduating seniors. When I coached high school, it was one of my favorite days. No, it wasn’t because kids I’d been around for four years were finally leaving. It was because the kids I’d been around for four years, kids who came in as immature, raw, smartass freshmen, had accomplished tough things and were now mature, almost fully developed, smartass seniors ready to make their mark upon the world. It was a great honor to be a small part of their journey, so the day was special to a coach.

Today the spotlight is on the seniors. They deserve it.

U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Daniel J. McLain (RELEASED)

But I’d like to turn the all-seeing eye on you juniors. In a few short hours, after the final note Pomp and Circumstance fades into the dusk, YOU will be the seniors. Your final journey down High School Lane begins. Like it or not, the next step you take will be as a senior. Father Time has turned the hourglass over and the first grain of your senior year sand has fallen.

My question to you, Dear Junior.

What are you going to do?

It is your time. Time to step up and push the wagon. No more riding along, going where the previous few years’ wagon went. It’s time for you to shine. Time to dig your heels into the ground, roll up your sleeves, and get to work. Every second you wait after the sun sets on this graduation day results in more sand disappearing from your own senior year clock.

Tick, tock…

What are you going to do?

As seniors, you will have expectations. Accept them. Don’t turn your back on them or default these responsibilities to others. Take the challenges head on and with an intent on fulfilling the expectations with your own talents. Be a leader. A good leader. Be someone that the younger kids want to follow. Don’t lead through threat, fear, or intimidation. As the saying goes, “You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” Help the underclassmen and show them the way we do things within our traditions and community. Pick them up; don’t stomp them down. You make yourself better by making those under you better so set a good example. Be a leader.

What are you going to do?

I challenge you to sit down tomorrow morning as you start your last week of class as a junior and write down what you want to accomplish. Academics, activities, sports, work, finances, etc. Make a physical list. Take this list and put it where you can see it when you wake up each morning. Put a copy in your school locker. Remind yourself constantly of your dreams.

Next, make a plan. List the things you need to do each and every day to accomplish your goals. Carry this with you. Make it part of who you are. Do the things on your plan consistently. Make them a habit. Fail. Step back. Strategize. Attack. Succeed. Challenge. Repeat.

Success breed success.

Tell someone else your goals. A friend. A family member. Heck, you can even send your goal(s) to me. Merely having the ingrained thought in your psyche that someone else knows your goal(s) is a powerful motivator. There is power in sharing. You and your buddy are less likely to sleep through summer conditioning if your buddy knows you want to hit opponents like a cannon shot on the football field and you know he wants to rush for 1,000-yards.

Today, speeches will be made wishing the graduating seniors good luck in their future endeavors and celebrating a milestone in their lives. We all wish them well.

But Juniors, come tonight at sunset…

  • Your life will change.
  • You must vacate your seat in the wagon and start pushing it.
  • Your time has come.
  • Make the most of it.
  • Leave your mark.

Juniors, it is your time.

What are you going to do?

My eye is on you and I expect great things from you.

Hard work is the magic.

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Compete-ly Lost

On more than one occasion the past few years, I have heard coaches, parents, and general old-ish folks like me complain about a common youth sports observance.

Why don’t kids seem to compete like they used to?

99% of the answers I soon hear following such a complaint seem to all revolve around a common causative element.

Video games.

I agree with the observance, but not that cause. I don’t see the same competitive drive in many young athletes. When I first began to notice this trend a few years back, I thought it was just grumpy-old-man me trying to compare everything to a gold standard of my selective memory. Then again, maybe the kids don’t seem competitive in comparison to the competitive level of the adults you see around any modern kid sporting event?

I disagree with the 99% of us pointing fingers at video games. Video games IN MODERATION aren’t such bad things. It’s when they take over the majority of free time in a kid’s life that they become a problem. (And that’s total SCREEN TIME, not just video games.)

A few weeks ago, I heard a sports radio talk show where this subject came up. The guest was a well-known former area collegiate athlete, turned sportscaster, who is also a father of athletes. He may have put his thumb on the competitive fire loss observed all too often.

Volume.

More precisely, volume without meaning. Multiple competitive events crammed into a short period where the outcome and performance take a backseat in the very rear of the station wagon to participation. No, don’t confuse this with my usual ranting and raving about everybody “winning” by simply participating. This concept is different. Much different.

Let’s called this “AAU Syndrome” or “Weekend Warrior Effect”. These are the unintended curse of the modern youth sports movements. Multiple game tournaments played weekend after weekend after weekend after weekend. Tournaments aren’t an all-bad thing. It’s a good way to get a change of scenery and see some new faces playing across from you. But these tournaments have become a business. Name your sport. They are everywhere. A $350 entry fee/four-game guarantee in Town X, followed by $400 entry fee/five-game guarantee in Town Y five days later, and how about a six-team round-robin in Town Z the weekend after for only a $250 entry fee. Kids show up, play a bunch of games, see a bunch of adults yelling and screaming, and then go home.

Maybe, if you’re lucky, a practice or two during the week.

Quantity over quality.

Participate over compete.

So many games stacked back to back, there is no time to teach. No time to improve. Just time to go through the motions.

The kids do not learn to compete. They learn to go through the motions. The system is built to appear as a competitive endeavor. We show up, we feel we’ve accomplished something over the course of the tournament only to realize, half our team can’t tell us anything about Game 3 of 6 we played five hours ago.

AAU Syndrome. Showing up, running up and down the court draining three’s and driving the lane for monster slams. Repeat.

(I know my Jayhawk friends will take offense but I think of Josh Jackson as the poster boy for AAU Syndrome. This kid has tremendous physical basketball talent. He will make buckets of money starting this summer. But despite all his talent and skills, I can count on two fingers the number of times during his one-and-done season where I felt the outcome of his team winning or losing mattered to him.)

What can be done to develop competitors? I have a few suggestions.

  • Lets kids play, not just play organized games and activities.
  • Start building individual competitiveness, then small group competitiveness, and then team competitiveness.
  • Make everything a friendly competition.Friendly doesn’t mean be a jackass. Friendly doesn’t mean you have to win. Remember, competing and winning are two separate things.
  • Workouts, physical skill development, and practices should run a competitive and focused pace. Work hard, have fun.

It takes work to build kids into competitive teenagers. You have to build them from the ground up. You can’t just throw them into the deep end of a high pressure, 4th game of the day contest and expect some innate ancient human gene to kick into overdrive amidst the dozens of shouting adults. It takes work. Competitors are built day by day, trial by trial, and rep by rep until they have a will to be something better.

Good luck, parents, and coaches. If you don’t like the level of competitive fire you see in your young athletes, stop and take a step back. Look in the rear view mirror at the current situation and make some changes. The answer is right there. Like the label says, “OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR”. Start at the beginning, start simple and build a competitor’s foundation.

Tom Osborne used to say that everybody wants to win, the difference is that some are willing to do the work to get there.

Hard work is the magic.

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With Intent to Harm

I need to come clean about something. As an ex-hitter and now as a hitting coach, it is a pet peeve of mine to watch high school hitters float the baseball bat into the contact zone. I hate the slow, looping swing!!!

There, I got it off my chest.

I wish I felt better.

But I don’t.

We talk a lot about violence in sport. Football concussions from helmet to helmet contact, well-aimed elbows on basketball rebounds, take-out baseball slides and using your hockey stick as a weapon are examples of unnecessary violence in sports. I’m baseball, though, there is a situation where I fully condone and even appreciate a healthy touch of violence.

In a baseball swing.

My belief is to hit the baseball as hard as you possibly can every time you swing. My philosophy is to teach short quick swings that generate bat speed and power upon contact.

Is short, hit the baseball hard and good things will happen. A well-struck baseball is much more difficult for the opponent to field than a seven-bouncer in the infield or a lazy pop fly to the outfield. Hard hit baseballs result in more base runners. More base runners translates into more runs, more runs translates into more wins.

As a hitter or a youth coach, develop a short, compact, and powerful swing from the very first time a bat is picked up. The long, looping swing you often see on the coach/machine pitch circuit will not work as the hitter matures.

Do you know what the number one reason kids cite for quitting the game when they reach high school?
It’s not being able to hit a baseball.

Why can’t they hit a baseball?
I am 99% sure that player who quits has a long, looping, slow swing. They have no violence in their swing. They not only have trouble making contact but there’s no zip on the batted ball.

Hitters of America, I plead with you to work on developing a quick bat. I implore you to take the steps necessary to rid this country of the slow bat epidemic.

Hitting position.
Relaxed body.
Head down.
Load and pull back the rubber band.
Step and swing with intent to harm the baseball. Hitting a baseball is a violent act.

Believe me, there are few things in life more fun and satisfying than launching laser line drives into the gap.
To me, that is what baseball is all about… CRUSHING the baseball. 

 

 

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Leadership is what leadership does

I’ve been thinking a lot about leadership recently with national and world events being what they are. Politics, business, agriculture, science, education, sports, etc. all rely on effective leadership to thrive.

This latest obsession started this summer watching the leadership void we had in the 2016 national election and trying to figure out how we got ourselves so whopper-jawed and off track. It spread to observing coaches like Bill Snyder, Joe Madden, and Bill Belichick and players who are considered team leaders, like LeBron James.

A leader should be judged on what they do, not what they say. Watch the walk, sift through the talk.

Over the years, I’ve tried to study effective leaders (and ineffective leaders) and try to deconstruct how they do what they do and get the results they get. I think it can be distilled down to three things. Knowledge. Quality people. Long-term vision.

Know your organization

This sounds so simple. Yet…

It is often overlooked. A leader should know the goal of the organization. A leader needs to know how the organization is set up and how it operates. The leader needs to understand the structure and dynamics of the entire organization as well as the smaller entities it contains. The leader has to understand the parts of the whole and how they fit the whole part.

Surround yourself with good people who are as smart, or smarter, than you.

It is vital to swallow your ego and bring in people to do the required jobs. Micromanaging is akin to stroking your own ego. Micromanaging and stroking your own ego smother organizations and teams. Bring it quality people and trust them to do the work. If anything, wrap your arms around your team by giving them goals and challenges and watch them grow. If your people grow, your organization grows. If your people grow, you are doing your job.

Make decisions and develop solutions with the long-term wellness or the organization as the top priority. 

It’s often hard to take the long view when most of the attention is on the immediate set of problems. Long-term organizational strength and development are what makes great organizations great. Decisions should be made with the future in mind. A good leader maintains the ability to solve the problems of today with one eye on the future. Respect the rules of the game because they were more than likely put there for a reason. Modify or eliminate the rule parameters which undermine the long-term wellness. Every day, strive to leave the team or organization a little bit better off.

Three simple things.

Three things you must fight through the noise and distractions to stay focused upon.

Three things.

Take care of them and the rest will all fall into place.

As I imagine Forrest Gump sitting on a bench at a bus stop saying,

“Leadership is what leadership does.”

 

V0048366 King George III standing Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org King George III standing, in military uniform; horse in the background. 1804 By: William Beecheyafter: Benjamin SmithPublished: 1 December 1804. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

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