Coaching Football's "Little Things"

Developing a Consistently Successful Football Program

Lessons From an American Warrior

Posted by admin March - 31 - 2020 - Tuesday ADD COMMENTS

I have continued to read and make notes as I read Mike Leach’s book, Geronimo- Leadership Strategies of an American Warrior. To reiterate what I said last week, this is a book that anyone in a leadership role should read!

The story itself is a biographical account of Geronimo’s life. It is amazing to me that even early in his life, the elders in Geronimo’s tribe had him earmarked for leadership. He was being trained and mentored by 2 of the greatest Apache Chiefs: Mangas Coloradas and Cochise. They taught him the art of guerrilla warfare— which was the mode of fighting that the Apaches used. At an early age, Geronimo was leading raiding parties across the border to Mexico. He showed tremendous heroism— which earned him a tremendous amount of respect among his people.

Once in 1861 during a raid on a Mexican mule train, the tide of battle turned against the Apaches. Geronimo got shot in the face; yet, he continued to fight and lead his band of Apache warriors. The LESSON that Coach Leach emphasized in this account is an important one: “Stay calm under pressure at all time… and those around you will be calm too.” The leader who possesses this ability is going to be very successful!

A former player called me recently. He’d been watching one of our games on YouTube. It was a nailbiter against a tough opponent. The video was actually a rebroadcast of the local tv station that carried our games… so there were camera’s and sideline reporters involved that you wouldn’t normally have if it was simply a game video taken from the pressbox. At one crucial point late in the game, our opponent called a time out. The announcer said, “Let’s go down to the sideline and listen in as Lew Johnston talks to his players.” The roving cameraman stuck the camera right in the middle of our huddle and captured the moment. What my player who’d called wanted to know was… “Coach J- how come you were able to stay so composed during that time out and the rest of the game?!” Note: we pulled out the victory with a TD pass with 40 seconds left in the game!

My reply to him was simple, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation. I can do everything through the strength that the Lord gives me.” Someone else might say that I have trained myself. I would say that I let God train me! At any rate, it is something called SELF-DISCIPLINE. It comes only to a person who has been trained to remain calm in the face of adversity.

For me, it took a long time. When I played, it was easy to get “wild and crazy!” I loved the contact of football and my adrenaline was always flowing during a game. There were times when I was on the verge of losing control. Fortunately for me, my high school head coach (his whole staff) exhibited a quiet and calm demeanor. It filtered down to me and my teammates. It was a trait that I knew as a Head Coach that I wanted to be a hallmark of my program too.

As a coach, I recognized that I was a role model. If I didn’t allow my players to lose control, then I had to set the example for them. What I learned to do was: STAY IN THE MOMENT. Instead of letting my circumstances or surrounding environment affect me, I looked within and stayed focused on what was happening right then. It’s something that you can learn to develop too.

A coaching friend put me on to this book recently. It is full of great information. And… guess who the author is? Coach Mike Leach! It is a combination of American History (which I’ve always loved) and a study in leadership.

As many of you know, Geronimo was a Chiricahua Apache warrior of the 1800’s in what is now New Mexico, Arizona and across the border in Sonora, Mexico. What you may not know is that he was one of the greatest American military strategist and tacticians this country has ever known. As coaches and leaders, we can learn much from this man. Thus, Coach Leach’s book is well worth reading.

I’ve only read the first 3 chapters; but, I’m already fascinated by the man, Geronimo, and his leadership style. The Apache tribe was the last to succumb to the overwhelming advantage that the U.S. Army held in that part of the country. Geronimo was the last Apache chief to surrender. And it didn’t come without years of ourfoxing and outfighting the U.S. Army generals assigned to capture him.

What has Coach Leach presented thus far that would encourage you to get this book? One thing I like that the author has done is intersperse throughout each chapter “Lessons” for leaders to pay attention to. Each lesson ties in with the subject matter of that particular chapter. For example, chapter 1 is entitled “The Makings of a Warrior (Discipline.)” Leach describes warrior training in the Apache culture and shows how this training created the great leader that Geronimo became. Some of the “lessons” in this chapter are: “Serve an apprenticeship to develop excellence and a useful set of skills.” Another is: “Have a purpose in everything you do.” Reading the body of work in this chapter will give the reader details on HOW these lessons can be learned and applied.

Since we’re all shut down right now, it is a good time to do some reading. This is one book that I know will help any coach/leader/businessman who is reading this. Get a copy today!

Clear Communication

Posted by admin March - 16 - 2020 - Monday ADD COMMENTS

My wife and I are enrolled in our church’s Leadership Academy. I am always looking to learn and grow; this opportunity to do just that has been excellent. Our Lead Pastor teaches it and the first 2 sessions have been very informative.

He spent a lot of time last week talking about effective communication. Why, as a leader, you must take care to be sure that what you are conveying to your staff and/or your team is exactly what you want them to hear. A miscommunication on your part can set off a landslide of negative emotions and misinformation that could wreck your program.

Here is a perfect example of miscommunication impacting an entire nation:

In 1815, Napoleon and his French army ruled Europe. Lord Wellington of Britain met the French in Belgium at the battle of Waterloo. To this day, “meeting your Waterloo” is an idiom for meeting your downfall. Interestingly enough, the people in England thought that Wellington had lost the battle! They fully expected Napoleon to attack Great Britain next. Here’s why…

When Wellington sent a message to the British parliament, it somehow got partially destroyed. The only thing that made it back to London said, “Wellington defeated…” The British people went crazy! Little did they know that Wellington had, in fact, decisively beaten the French! What Wellington’s message said in its entirely was: “Wellington defeated Napoleon! French in mass retreat!” WOW!!!! Now THAT is a whole different message, isn’t it?

When we as leaders fail to get our message (in its entirety) across to those we lead, it’s likely to cause significant problems.

Be sure, first off, that you DO communicate. In this day of instant communication through social media, misinformation can spread like wildfire! You need to be sure that your staff, players, administrators and parents are kept informed. Cut off rumors before they can get started.

Secondly, make your communique’s brief. I like to call myself a “bullet’s guy.” Hit the high points. If people want more details, they can contact you. Unfortunately, too many people in these times lack good reading comprehension skills. Be “to the point!”

Finally, use the “sandwich” method when communicating… particularly if there is something of a “negative” that you have to pass along. Start with the “first piece of bread” in the sandwich and say/write something positive. Then sandwich in the negative that you have to share. But always finish with the “other piece of bread” and close with a positive statement.

Be an encourager. Speak life. People get enough criticism as it is. You, as the leader, need to be that positive voice when everyone around you is “crying the blues!”

“Take Him Back?!”

Posted by admin March - 9 - 2020 - Monday ADD COMMENTS

A young HC called me the other day from Arkansas— talking Wing T offense. He said, “Coach, I need your advice. I have a young man who we had to dismiss from the team last year. Now he tells me that he wants to come back out and play again. What should I do?” What proceeded was a great conversation…

When faced with situations like this, the best place to start is: Follow the Chain of Command.

I encouraged him to talk with his AD and Principal first. See what their feelings are about bringing him back. If one of them veto’s the idea, your choice is made for you. Now…. if you really want him back, you can certainly state your case and try to persuade them as to why you want to give the player a second chance; but, normally, if the Administration says “no” then that’s the end of it.

He said, “I’ve already talked to our Principal and he is of the opinion that the player deserves a second chance. But, he was leaving it up to me to decide if I want him back on the team.” OK… on to step 2!

I encouraged him to seek the council of his seniors or veteran players. See how they feel about bringing the young man back on the team. He indicated that the player was dismissed for “general bad attitude” last year. They are building a great team morale this off-season. He has to decide if it’s worth the potential disruption the player might bring. I might add… the guy is a realllllllllly good player! (Of course, that adds to the dilemma!)

I’ve had situations like this where our players wanted the guy back on the team and other times when they wanted nothing to do with him. Their opinion should carry some weight; but, I would not let their “vote” be the final determining factor. You are the leader of the program.

Here is where your wisdom and maturity come into play. The question becomes: what is your purpose in coaching high school players? Certainly, we all want to win! We’re competitors and it IS a game where we keep score! Talented players help us achieve that goal. However, if your coaching philosophy does not include a desire on your part to help your players grow and mature into young men of character then I suggest you consider another profession!

The coach indicated that the player in question comes from a very bad home situation. He hasn’t had many opportunities to be successful in life. The coach told me that he’d like to work with the young man and see if he could help him get it “turned around.” It just worried him that it might blow up in his face.

I indicated that if he decides to bring him back then he needs to sit down with the player and develop a clear-cut “contract” of the behaviors that will be expected and the things that can ultimately cause him to be removed from the program again. We agreed that most teenagers deserve a second chance. They’re still kids. But, this young man needs to know that he is being closely monitored and there are consequences to his actions. Frequent “pep talks” are important. The player (ALL of them!) needs to know that you are with him and for him. You do have policies that must be adhered to but…. for some of your players, you are that male role model or “father figure” that might be missing in their life. I’ve always called it “tough love.”

Think about this: IF he does not accept him back into the program on a provisional basis, he can’t have any positive influence in his life— because he’ll rarely be around the player in question. That is one of your main responsibilities as a high school coach: to be that positive influence. Accept the challenge!!! If he can turn this young man’s life around, what a tremendous success story that will be.

Player Goal-planning Meetings

Posted by admin March - 2 - 2020 - Monday ADD COMMENTS

So many times coaches get so focused on their off-season weight-lifting programs (“we gotta get our guys bigger, faster and stronger!”) that they forget the importance of spending time with each individual player.

I was fortunate to be in the Guidance department while I was a Head Coach. It gave me more “time freedom” than most classroom teachers had… freedom to call players to my office during the day. Most of the time, though, I met with them before school or during their lunch. So…. that’s no excuse for you not to meet with each individual player during the off-season!

In my book, 101 Little Things…, there is a chapter on off-season activities. One of the most important activities is this 2-part Goal-planning session that I did with every veteran player. During the initial meeting, I would present the goal-planning sheet to the player and take the time to clearly explain what each question asked. I didn’t do this the first year or so and some of the answers I got were so “out there” that I realized that: 1- kids don’t do this type of exercise very often and 2- reviewing each question would help them formulate clear answers. I’d then set a time to return with the goal-planning sheet completed and tell them that we would discuss his answers when we meet again. Usually, a week was more than enough time for the player to complete his answers.

When we met the second time, I took the sheet from him and began to discuss his answers. It’s important to note that not all of the questions dealt with football. I wanted to know things like his academic goals and social/family goals. One of the most important questions I asked them was “Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?” and… “Where do you see yourself 25 years from now?” The first one was usually answered with “playing in the NFL!” (Realistic goal or not… it’s a dream for most kids, isn’t it??!!!) The “25 years from now” question, though, stumped a lot of them! It required thinking beyond “football!” Now they had to consider what they really wanted from life. It was/is a great vehicle for getting kids to share their hopes and dreams with you. I could turn it into a “guidance” session.

These questions always created some great discussion. It helped create the impression that I cared about them as more than just football players. I think that this is very important. I wanted my players to know that what they accomplished OFF the field was just as important to me as what they achieved ON the field. It has created relationships with former players that still thrive today!

Character Coach

Posted by admin February - 27 - 2020 - Thursday ADD COMMENTS

This is a “plug” for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes organization. I have been affiliated with them since the late 80’s and have always supported their work. We have a tremendous young man who is the Area Director here in the Tidewater area of Virginia. Nate Timm has shown that he has a passion for the Lord and a desire to serve the coaches and athletes in our region.

I shared a few weeks ago that I have resigned my position as a full-time (day-to-day) coach. It was a difficult decision but I’ve come to realize in the last month that it was the direction that I needed to take.

The new HC at our local high school where I coached for 33 has brought me on as the Character Coach for Western Branch HS. If you don’t know what that is, then contact your local FCA representative and let him/her explain to you what a Character Coach is… and does! I feel like it’s the perfect role for me: I get to encourage the players and coaches while not having to be involved in the daily grind that is a football season. A season that is basically year-round now.

My hope, as the new Character Coach, is to inspire and encourage the young men on our team to become young men who understand the importance of integrity, respect and dedication— among numerous other traits that I plan to explore during the season. I plan to do this by reinstating a practice that I used while a HC. I call it the Word of the Week.

A positive character trait is introduced to the team on Monday. I have a library full of stories and parables that will bring to light what is entailed with that character trait. For example, my first word that I will present is: PERSISTENCE.

The story that I will use to introduce the significance of being persistent is one that I read from Stephan Curry of the GS Warriors. It is called The Tale of the Stonecutter. Check it out!

Our new HC is so excited about it that it produced our team slogan! Similar to the very successful “Row The Boat” that PJ Fleck brought to the U. of Minnesota football program, our HC has hashtagged it: #KEEPONHAMMERIN’!

I encourage you to explore getting a Character Coach as part of your program. Talk to your local FCA rep and find out how the FCA can become involved in your team. You won’t regret it!

Find A Mentor

Posted by admin February - 19 - 2020 - Wednesday ADD COMMENTS

I wrote last week about the new HC at “my” high school! He is still living and working in Northern Virginia (near DC) and we are in Tidewater (near Virginia Beach)… so he is trying to do a lot of things long distance! Thank goodness for cell phones and the internet!

One thing that I have been able to do for him, since I’m here in Tidewater, is to be an “adviser” to him. He shares his goals and vision with me and I respond. Then, at other times, I see something that he needs to take care of right now and I contact him. We have already formed a great working, and personal, relationship.

He said something today while we were on the phone that made me realize that I need to share this with those of you who follow this blog. What he basically said was, “I am sooooooo glad that I have someone with experience and wisdom that I can rely on to give me helpful advice when I need it. I bet every head coach wished that he had someone like you. Thank you.”

If you are a HC then you should take heed to what this new HC said. Each of you needs someone who is not on your coaching staff; i.e., an “administrative” person, who will be there to offer wisdom and helpful solutions when problems arise.

Most of you won’t know the name John Ballein. John coached with me at the high school level before he decided to head west to Blacksburg and Virginia Tech. His desire was to work at the college level and he would not be denied. He offered his services to Hall of Fame coach, Frank Beamer. Over the years, Coach Beamer developed such confidence and trust in John that he named Ballein the Director of Football Operations at VT. John was an invaluable support for Coach Beamer over the years.

Find someone (preferably older than you) that you respect and trust. Ask him to mentor you. Be sure he knows that you want him to be honest and forthright— no “bull jiving” as we used to say in the 70’s! When he observes a problem, you want to know about it. However, he is NOT a “spy.” But he is your “eyes and ears” of the program— observing things from the outside>in! Let the rest of the staff know your mentor’s role.

Don’t be a Lone Ranger head coach! Form relationships that afford you the support and encouragement you will need… particularly when the stress level goes off the chart!

Comin’ Home!

Posted by admin February - 12 - 2020 - Wednesday ADD COMMENTS

It has been a verrrrrrrry exciting day… for me and for our entire community. Today, the high school principal and A.D. presented the new Head Football Coach to the players and invited guests. I am so proud because the young man who was announced today as our new Head Coach is a former player of mine! Let me tell you a little about this guy:

He played Wing Back for us in our vaunted Delaware Wing T offense. It was a team that was loaded with talent. It went 10 and 0 during the regular season… only being tested once or twice. We lost in the Regional championship game to the eventual state champs. As outstanding as this young man was as a player, he had to play “second fiddle” to one of the best running backs in the state of Virginia. I like to say that Rashad was the “2nd best RB in the state!” Unfortunately, he played in the same backfield with the best RB in the state.

Did Rashad complain? Did he ever pout about his role? Did he ever give less than his very best— practice and game— every day? The answer to each of these questions is a resounding NO! This guy was the consummate “team player.” I’m sure that he would’ve rather been the “star.” But, he was a “star” in his own right. There’s not a player who I ever coached that I have more respect for.

Now he’s going to lead the program that he played (and excelled) in! To hear him share his vision with the audience today was just awesome! He is going to lead this program back to the heights that we experienced when he played in the mid 90’s. Why? Partly because of the foundation we laid when he played here; but, mostly because he is a young man of character, passion and wisdom.

Go Bruins!!!

Clinics vs. Visits

Posted by admin January - 27 - 2020 - Monday ADD COMMENTS

I have the honor of speaking at a Glazier Coaches Clinic this weekend. It is always a pleasure to meet and share with coaches who are hungry to learn and improve their craft. This is an encouragement to all of you to be a “Student of the Game!” One of the best ways to achieve that is to attend clinics. And… when you attend, you use it as an opportunity to learn! You accomplish that by attending the clinic sessions and not use it as a chance to party all weekend. There are some great speakers at the Glazier (and Nike) clinics. I know from experience that they are glad to sit and talk after their sessions… if you ask.

I also want to encourage you to visit other staffs as another means of being a “Student of the Game.” Select a staff that has been successful. Pick someone outside your district and go spend a day with them. Most people are flattered that you’d want to come to them for advice. You can get a lot done on a Friday afternoon/evening if you’re going there to just “talk football!” Find a staff that runs your offense or defense. Or, find a staff that coaches at a school with a similar socio-economic makeup. My dad used to call it going to “pick someone’s brain.” Take a whole list of questions and fire away. There is some great information to be garnered by sitting down with another HS coach.

And… offer to take the guy out to dinner when you’re done!

Discipline vs. Punishment

Posted by admin January - 21 - 2020 - Tuesday ADD COMMENTS

Today’s title created an “interesting” discussion that I had with a coach over the week-end. First off, is there a difference between the two? (The answer is a definite YES!) and when, if ever, are both needed when dealing with your team.

Discipline is an over-arching term which can (and does… occasionally) encompass punishment. But, in its broadest sense, discipline is defined as “training.” Those of you who know the Bible, the New Testament talks about Jesus’ disciples. See the close connection of the two words? A disciple is someone who’d best be described as a “follower.” Someone who is seeking knowledge, wisdom and emotional/spiritual growth by a leader. We might call him a student… or, a “trainee.”

When a coach disciplines his players, he is trying to teach them something— hopefully of a positive nature. EX: Work hard; be rewarded! We used to give a special helmet sticker award for someone who showed Outstanding Effort! Why? Because we wanted to encourage our players to hustle; to give a total effort. When players see someone being rewarded for great effort, they want to do the same thing… in hopes of getting the reward (i.e., the Golden Claw helmet sticker!) As a coach, you are teaching something positive.

Let’s look at another scenario and study the opposite effect. I was at a pre-season practice at a local high school one August. The practice was supposed to start at 8 am. At 7:59, the HC blew the whistle and the players lined up for team flexes. One of the assistants started taking roll. About 5 minutes later, a group of players ran out on the field! Late! The HC immediately blew his whistle and told everyone (note: everyone) to line up on the goal line. He proceeded to run them on 10 110 yard sprints. Why? Because a couple of guys were tardy!

He “disciplined” his players- no doubt! But… what did he “teach” them? That being tardy was unacceptable? Sure! But… who needed to learn this lesson? The guys who were responsible and were on time? OR the ones who were late? And… nobody questioned the players who were tardy to find out why they were late!

My question: who needed to be (here we go) “punished?” Here is where “discipline” moves into the area of negative consequences. Players need to learn to be on time. But, should the players who were on time be punished? The coach explained to me that everyone has to be accountable for each other. How? Do they all get to school from the same house? Does a player who lives north of the school have to drive 20 miles south of the school to make sure that a teammate gets to practice on time?

There is a difference between individual responsibility and “team” responsibilities. Be careful that you are not confusing discipline with punishment. It can back fire on you and create discontent among your players!