Category Archives: Coaching

Fun? What do you mean, fun?

There’s been a coaching riddle that has perplexed me since 2002. The concept of “fun” in sports. It started way back when a very talented group of players were underachieving and had fallen into poor practice habits. After a players-only meeting to figure out their ideas to achieve more from practice in order to perform better in games, one of the three things listed was they weren’t having “fun” at practice. More recently, I’ve heard many a player who chose not to go out for a particular sport they’ve participated in previously, give their reasoning as “it’s not fun.”

Over the years, I’ve gone from utter disbelief (What do you want, a cake and a friggin’ party?”) to old man-get-off-my-lawn (It’s this stupid video game generation?”) to finally over the last few years wanting to study and figure out what “fun” actually means to a youth athlete. 

What struck me earlier this year was in order to put my thumb on the problem of fun, I needed to quit looking at the issue from the perspective of a middle-aged, white guy and try to turn back the mental clock to think like a teenage boy. It was scary at times and it was not always family-friendly content, but what I discovered was very telling. I discovered from my experiences as a teenage athlete to my experiences as a sports coach to my ability to empathize with today’s young athletes, a definition of what they mean when they say, “it’s not fun.”

Fun means satisfying.

Fun doesn’t mean clowning around all the time or having no desire to compete like I used to think. Fun means they desire a satisfying participation experience that makes it worth the time they invest when there are a thousand other things they could be doing instead. Fun means a satisfying environment where they feel safe, valued, and among leaders who, first and foremost, want to make them better humans through athletics. 

Sure, nobody likes getting their ass handed to them in a sporting event but I don’t think winning and losing is anything but a small fraction of this new definition of fun. Then again, the environment of competing—the environment of doing things the right way and getting better every day—often depends on having that satisfying environment directed toward daily physical, mental, and emotional improvement.

As we end the fall sports season and transition to the winter sports with an eye toward spring and beyond, coaches (and parents) take a moment to honestly evaluate your program, your young student-athletes, and, in particular, get a gauge on how fun/satisfying their experience is or has been. Throw your ego aside and make the necessary changes. Study other programs. 

Develop a fun/satisfying program. Develop an environment to which young athletes choose to be there rather than doing any of those thousands of other things they could be doing. Develop an environment that respects their decision not to participate but, time and place accordingly, welcome them back into the fold without ramification if they’ve found out they made the wrong initial decision.

A coaching warning, though. Providing this type of environment takes work and effort every single day. It takes connecting with the athletes on more than just a sports performance level. It requires an energy level above and beyond the call of duty. You check your adult problems and adult ego/arrogance at the door when you walk into the locker room. You make a difference one kid, one day, one drill, one game, one play, and one season at a time through consistency and direction. Competing satisfies an inherent human trait. Tap into it with everything you do as a coach.

Provide a satisfying experience and young athletes will follow you to the ends of the earth. And it will be fun.

Finally, as so eloquently stated in Field of Dreams,

“If you build it, they will come.” 

 

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Feet Feat

In the previous football coaching post, I talked about the important concept of open and closed gates for an offensive and defensive lineman. The ability to use your lineman body type as a tool to your advantage in creating or protecting space on the football field. Football is a game of real estate; it is a fight for space. The offense wants to create space and gain real estate while the defense want to deny advancement. It’s the story of humanity in a simple and physical game, I want that space.

The gates concept relies on footwork. Of all the athletes on a football team, the casual fan would likely rank the lineman as a distant last in regard to who has or needs the best footwork. In reality, it’s the exact opposite. The big boys are the ones who need the best footwork. The lineman needs the footwork of a dancer to go along with the strength and mindset to be successful. 

Where the feet go, the body follows.

When I watch a sporting event, either live or on video, the first thing I’m drawn to is footwork. The feet can tell you volumes. Football, basketball, wrestling, track & field, baseball, volleyball, etc. all movement sports are built on the foundation of the feet. It’s so basic and so logical, coaches often overlook this fundamental factor in building great athletes enamored by speed and strength numbers. 

The football lineman must have good to great footwork to get their job done. Good footwork allows them to close gates to effectively create space or defend space. Don’t believe me yet? Then try this.

Stand straight, looking forward, and with feet shoulder length apart about an arm length and a half from a wall. Take a step with your wall-side foot and reach out and touch the wall with your near hand. Not hard right? As you stand there with your fingertips touching the wall, notice how balanced and strong your lower body feels. You feel strong and stable. You could push a hole in the wall if you felt it was necessary.

Now, stand back in your original position. Anchor your feet in place and reach out to touch the wall. Not so easy, right? Did you feel balanced and strong this time? Nope. You probably felt thankful that the wall was solid and sturdy or you’d be lying on your butt on the floor. 

That’s the importance of good footwork for an athlete. The ability to move with power, quickness, and speed AND retaining the power, quickness, and speed in your new position.

How do you develop good footwork, especially for the Bubba athletes?

For starters, movement skills emphasizing footwork must be a part of everyday training, 365 days a year. Foot ladder drills, agility drills, dot drills, etc. can easily be incorporated into the strength training routines or classes. With something so important to athletic success or failure, why a coach wouldn’t incorporate and emphasize footwork skill development is beyond me.

With the Bubbas, we use the T-board drills to develop the first three steps. The first step is a quick, short (6 inch) angle or stretch step just across the vertical board keeping the hips and shoulders square. It’s important to watch the athletes and make sure the hip follows the foot. Remember, where the foot goes, the body follows.

The second step brings the trail foot level with the lead foot keeping hips and shoulders square to the line of scrimmage then initiating contact with hands. The second step establishes the close gate and brings the lineman’s body to a favorable position with, importantly, the balance and power to get their job done.

Once contact is made the third step is used to establish hip leverage to seal the defender from the hole. The first three steps in a block are critical to an offensive lineman. The higher the level of football, the more important these technical bits become. 

The next steps are used to drive or seal the defender from the attack area of the play design. With our undersized, but athletic, lineman we had in our program, it was absolutely vital we had good footwork to put our bodies in a position of strength versus the defense. We use the board to establish good fundamentals or to re-establish good fundamentals on a daily basis. The teaching progression added bags and holders to the vertical board as an advanced drill. All repetitions are at full speed and each block finished to the coach’s whistle.

Where the feet go, the body follows.

Footwork development is an integral part of any athletic movement program. It takes focus and discipline and repetition. That’s not just what is required of the athlete. The coach must be more focused, more disciplined, and more attuned to the details as they watch each and every repetition. Nothing in this coaching business can be run on autopilot. There’s not a single aspect of sports coaching, especially in youth or high school, where the coach can put on the cruise control. 

Coaching is work.

Hard work.

And, if you’ve hung around here long enough you know…

HARD WORK IS THE MAGIC.

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Gates

As a former offensive and defensive line football coach, one thing I always look for when watching a game or scouting a game is open/closed gates. What is a gate in football? It’s the ability to stay square and create your space in the contact zone called the line of scrimmage. It’s the same concept as the gate on a fence. When a gate is closed, you can’t walk through it. It’s a barrier. When a gate is closed, you have to do something drastic, like climb over, dig under, or ram through it, to get through. An open gate is just the opposite. It’s no longer a barrier but an invitation to come through.

By Calum McRoberts, CC BY-SA 2.0

My football concept of gates on the offensive and defensive line is similar. When an offensive lineman or defensive lineman keep their hips and shoulders parallel to the line of scrimmage, their gate is closed. When they turn their hips and shoulders perpendicular to the line of scrimmage, they open the gate.

A defensive lineman’s job is simple. They are assigned a piece of real estate, a gap or area, to protect. Nothing gets through. Nothing knocks the DL from their spot. The job is much easier and much more effective when they play with their gate closed. Opening their gate and turning their hips and shoulders open a running lane.

The same is true for an offensive lineman. Their job is to create open real estate and running lanes on a run play. The job is to clear a path by using your closed gate-created space to either drive the defender away from the running lane, like a snow blade on the front of a truck, or shield a lane for the running back to use. 

For pass blocking, the offensive linemen need to provide a protective barrier for the QB in the pocket in order for the QB to feel safe, comfortable, and able to make the throws. Close gates are essential to provide a barrier from the rushing defenders across the line of scrimmage. Closed gates in pass protection reduce the attack alleys of the defense just like a closed gate of a fence makes it harder to enter. Only when a pass rusher breaks the blocker’s hip level does the blocker turn the hips and shoulders to adjust their gate to the threat.

Establishing good technical skills to be an effective offensive and defensive lineman requires excellent footwork, body position, and hand battle skill. Everything a coach should do in practice must be centered around those skills. The footwork is vital. It drives the placement of the hips which drives the placement of the shoulders, which drives the success or failure in a lineman doing their job. (What is good footwork? That, and how to develop good big boy footwork are coming soon in a separate post.)

Practice perfect every rep. 

Practice for perfection when the athletes get tired because physically and mentally tired athletes make mistake because they lose form. 

Practice, practice, and practice to keep the gates closed. 

Close those gates, Bubbas!

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Doesn’t Matter

It doesn’t matter what everybody else thinks.
It’s what you think that matters.

It doesn’t matter what everybody else does.
It’s what you do that matters.

It doesn’t matter what everyone else talks.
It’s the walk you walk that matters.

Be the best you that you can be.
Every day.

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Go!

3,2,1…GO!

It’s time for the high school football season! There’s nothing quite like Friday Night in America.

I’m excited to watch our Clay County teams in action. Go Clay Center Tigers! Go Wakefield Bombers!

I’m also excited for the K-State season and to see what my Kansas City Chiefs can accomplish in what I consider a “do or die” season.

The song that always popped into my head before a Friday night football game as a player and as a coach was Street Fighting Man by The Rolling Stones. Great beat and cadence of what it felt like inside my head before a game.  “Everywhere I hear the sound of marching, charging feet boy”

I think I finally found a replacement Friday Night in America song. Go! by the London electronic band, Public Service Broadcasting. It’s a song that hits the perfect pregame mental/emotional notes and, in this 50th anniversary year of the Apollo 11 mission, makes one want almost want to run through a brick wall.

Enjoy your opening week, everyone! I wish you joy and satisfaction this season.

Work hard and have fun!

But never forget…

Football is NOT life; it’s for a lifetime.

Friday Night In America

We did not come here for “spirit” or to be “peppy”, others will come for those.

We did not come here for peace, or love, or joy.

We came here to knock your pride into the dirt.

We came here to steal your dignity.

Friday Night in America.

Tiger Football.

3,2,1…GO!

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All the answers

I was probably a nightmare of a kid to coach. No, I wasn’t a behavior problem. No, I wasn’t an attendance problem. No, I wasn’t a bad influence. In short, I was not in any way, shape, or form Kelly Leak from the Bad News Bears. My problem was that I wanted to have a sense as to why we were doing the things we did.

Why did we have to stand around for 2/3 of practice instead of doing something?

Why did we do basketball shooting drills where almost all the shots we practiced were shots we would never shoot in a game?

Why didn’t we occasionally pass when we had a speed advantage and the defense stacking 9 in the box against our wishbone offense?

Why?

Why?

Why?

Of course, I never said these things to my coaches. I just thought about them. And if I couldn’t work out an answer, my interest and enthusiasm waned. I turned into a sports zombie merely going through the motions on a day to day basis.

I learned a good lesson from these experiences. Experiences that I incorporated years later from day one in my accidental coaching career. That lesson?

If you want everybody on the same page, everybody needs to know what page it is and what’s on that page.

I probably learned this from my earliest football experiences. I was fortunate to play CYO football for Don Stump, whose son was in my grade at Christ The King school. Mr. Stump worked as an administrator at the local community college at the time but had a long career teaching and coaching high school football. Dave Palcher, the assistant coach, was our line coach. Both men told us what we were doing and why we were doing it in a simple and clear manner. Mr. Palcher was especially good with us linemen. Using only an ancient, stuffed, probably about fifth hand blocking dummy, he taught us the importance of why we need to put our foot here and our helmet there and keep the feet moving each and every practice. The basics taught in those blocking and tackling drills still live in my head today. Those “why”s and “how”s still survive in my head today and were a part of every practice I coached.

The bottom line is: Players (and fellow coaches!) are more locked in when they know the basic information of why you’re doing what you are doing. Locked in players (and coaches!) buy into their roles and take more pride in their jobs.

Today, probably more than ever, kids crave answers. In sports, they want to know if the things you are asking them to do matter. No, you don’t have to justify everything you do as a coach but you do need to communicate the reasoning behind your choices. The players need to know you’re not wasting their time. Time is precious even to a teenager. 

A coach doesn’t need the perfect answer during a timeout with 1:30 left on the clock and your defense trying to protect a four-point lead against an opponent with all the momentum on their side. During that timeout, the coach must provide an answer. The players need it. They need an answer they can grab ahold of and rally behind. As I said, it doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be logical, presented with complete confidence, and be something besides, “TRY HARDER!!!!”

Want to be a more effective coach?

Share information.

Put everyone on the same page. And keep them there.

Respect the players in your program enough to allow them into the hive mind.

Maybe most important, know why you are doing what you do. Everything you do must have a purpose. Don’t do something just because a book, video, or that college coaching camp you went to last year told you to. Do everything with a purpose for your players and your program.

You should know and be able to communicate that purpose within the organization.

If you can’t write down a specific purpose or goal of everything you do on and off the field, either do the research to figure out why or toss it. Don’t just tell your noseguard he has A-gap. Tell your noseguard he has to get his hip into A-gap and lockout square not allowing a single, double, or triple-team block to move you out of that gap YOU OWN.

Players in your program might not be Rhodes Scholars, but they aren’t stupid. Trust them and they’ll trust you. Before they buy into what you are trying to do, they need to know what they’re buying. Knowledge is power—and powerful.

Never forget, if you want everybody on the same page, everybody needs to know what page it is and what’s on that page.

 

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An Oft Forgotten Aspect of Coaching

Yesterday I met with a football coach friend to show him a defensive line drill progression for the three-man sled from back in the day. The Quick Draw/Lockout Drill is a good drill that covers defensive line fundamentals from the ground up in 7-10 minutes of practice time. That’s a good thing because, as you’ve heard me rant about before, time is the currency of coaching. Time is valuable and shouldn’t be wasted with frivolity—unless that frivolity has a purpose, like a fun competition.

After I finished showing the coach the drill and talked about some other aspects of coaching the defensive line, I checked the list I had in my jean pocket. Surprisingly, I covered everything on my list. Even at 55 years of age and ten seasons out of football, I still had it.

Or so I thought.

An hour or so later back at home, I retrieved the list from my jeans pocket before throwing them in the dirty clothes basket. I sat down on the bed and read the list while my ego soared with my second old man memory victory of the day. (You people know, right? That situation where you get “notified” that the stuff you forget to take out of your pockets ended up lining the inside of the washing machine with annoying shreds of wet paper.) I folded the list with a satisfied smile and was placing it on the table when it hit me. In my coaching session, I forgot the single most important aspect of coaching sports drills.

Paying attention.

Specifically, paying attention to the form of each and every kid on each and every drill. Good stances, ball reaction, hand positioning, foot placement, arm lockout, hip into their gap, etc. My balloon of coaching pride burst. I had taught the basic steps of the drill to my friend but failed to include the most important piece of information to ensure success. Paying attention.

Paying attention and correcting is at the very heart of coaching a sport. Why do we practice and do drills? To get better, right? If I’m not paying attention to each and every kid on each and every rep with the sole mission to make that kid just a little bit better, then I’ve failed as a coach. Sure, I still have the title and the team shirt and my name in the game program, but if I’m not making my players better every single day with every single repetition, I am not coaching.

And if I’m not coaching a drill with the intent and purpose to get better…

I AM WASTING TIME!!!

Youth and high school sports are played by youth and teenagers. Youth and teenagers, as a general rule, do a pretty crappy job of squeezing the best out of every practice repetition. Given the opportunity, they will slack off. I was like that as a kid and I bet most of you were/are the same. Very few have the innate discipline to perform ten repetitions of a drill with the focus of improvement on each rep. That’s why they need coaches. To teach, push, and correct technique and skill. It’s the very heart and soul of what we do. 

And what did I say about time in the opening paragraph? Time is valuable. Practice time, preparation time, and game time are all fleeting and can’t be wasted. They are too valuable to waste talking to other coaches, worrying about the next thing on the to-do list, or just mentally relaxing while the players go through the motions.

I publicly apologize to my coaching friend. I let him down by leaving out the most important aspect of the drill, “Watch every defensive lineman like a hawk with every snap of the drill.”

Coaching is teaching.

Coaching is providing the environment for constant improvement.

Purpose. Pride. Passion. Performance.

Push them to get better one step at a time.

Every player gets better.

Every day.

By Snyder, Frank R. Flickr: Miami U. Libraries – Digital Collections [No restrictions or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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