Coaching Football's "Little Things"

Developing a Consistently Successful Football Program

Underdogs Win When They “Break the Rules!”

Posted by admin April - 23 - 2010 - Friday

When the underdog wins, people rejoice! What an uplifting experience to see the little guy win. We even tag these battles as “David vs. Goliath”— and when “David” wins, people get excited!

But what lies behind the success that the underdogs possess? Some teams that you know of… some college programs that you can think of… invariably always seem to pull off the upset! Why? What do they possess that puts them in that position? If you and your program would be catagorized as a perennial underdog in your district, what are some things that you can do to maximize your chances of pulling off those upsets and elevating your team’s status to “giant killer.” The KEY is: underdogs “break the rules!” Not rules of ethics… but the expectations of how to attack the “giant” and win! History proves that if the underdog takes on the favorite with a “conventional” plan of attack, the likelihood of defeat is great. But… when the underdog does something unorthodox, out of the ordinary or unexpected, the chances of victory are greatly increased. I want to share several examples to point this out to you.

I wrote at lenght several months ago about a fascinating book that I’d just read by Malcolm Gladwell entitled The Outliers. One of the topics that Mr. Gladwell discussed in his writings was about this idea of HOW underdogs win. Gladwell shared about a girls’ basketball coach in California who took over a team that his daughter was on and proceeded to win a state championship with a bunch of undersized and physically less talented girls than anybody they faced. How did they do it? Gladwell reports how this fledgling coach “looked at” the game and asked himself, “why only cover 24 feet of a 94 foot court? Why do weak teams play in such a way that makes it easy for good teams to do the very things that make them good?!” For instance, if the underdog plays the conventional way— i.e., let the superior team dribble up the court unopposed, settle into their well-rehearsed offense and get off a good shot… they would almost certainly lose! That coach’s solution? Pick up full court and harrass the more talented team relentlessly for the entire game. The coach instituted this strategy by doing 2 things: First, he spoke calmly… to convince the girls of the wisdom of this unorthodox approach. He spoke by appealing to reason and common sense. And he continued to talk this way to them as he continued to stress that this would be the way to defeat the stronger teams. The second principle: the team would play full court pressure defense every second of every game. This is how they practiced— run, run, run! and run some more! I think of the movie “Miracle and how the U.S. Olympic Ice Hockey coach Herb Brooks drove his team in practice when I hear this. “Do it again.” “Do it again.” “Do it again.” He never raised his voice; never lost his cool. Brooks simply demanded the very best that his team could give.

When the underdog acknowledges their weakness and choosees an uncoventional strategy, Gladwell found that the chances for an upset increased significantly!

In the Biblical account of David and Goliath… King Saul initially gave David his sword and armor to wear as he went into battle against Goliath. *He was prepared to wage a conventional battle with the giant! But David stopped and stated: “I can hardly move in this stuff!” and he took it off. He, instead, picked up 5 stones and armed only with a slingshot and a shepherd’s staff, David started out across the valley towards Goliath. (1 Samuel 17) As they say, the rest is history! You see, David broke the rhythem of the encounter. He speeded it up (*changed the tempo!). It had to be disruptive to have disrespected Goliath’s response and he probably froze… making him a better target. Of course, it helps to have God on your side!

Let’s look at a couple of examples from military history. T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia movie fame) waged war against the Turks in Arabia near the end of WW I. Lawrence chose to strike the Turks where they were weakest— NOT at points of strength. Lawrence said: “our advantages were speed and time… not hitting-power.”

In the American Revolution, the Americans’ guerilla tactics in the early part of the war kept the British frustrated. But Washington wanted to create a “British-type” army. As a result, Washington’s “classic” army and battle tactics lost time after time and almost lost the war!

Gen. George Patton in WW II patterned his army’s maneuverability after Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign of the American Civil War. Patton’s relentless attacks and lightning quick changes of direction (forced marches at top speed) drove the German’s from North Africa. He accomplished the same thing in France after the Normandy invasion— pushing the Nazi’s back into Germany and their ultimate defeat.

As coaches, we tell ourselves that skill is the precious resource and effort is the commodity. Gladwell says that it’s the other way around! Effort can trump ability. Relentless effort is in fact something rare. If it can be harnessed and executed, then it can overcome the ability to engage in some finely tuned act of motor coordination.

How do we apply this to football? First, we, “David”, work harder than “Goliath.” (that’s the “10,000 hour rule that I wrote about a couple of months ago that caused quite a stir!) Notice that it doesn’t say that we work our team longer (though some well-organized extra practice time will help)— it says that we work harder. Like that basketball coach, we have to “sell the concept” that we are going to practice the way we play! We are going to go at a “racehorse” pace in practice and never slow down! Here is where I think that the Little Thing of TEMPO is overlooked by coaches way too often. I recall a state championship game here in Virginia about 20 years ago. The underdog team (they had about 28 players on their team) was playing a team from Northern Virginia that had about 80 players on their team. The underdog received the kickoff and immediately caused a stir by running a reverse on the return and getting up close to midfield to start their opening drive. The offense sprinted onto the field, lined up without a huddle (which was unheard of at that time!) and threw a pass on first down. It was complete and they ran to the line again without a huddle and threw again! They were now down in the red zone on two plays. On the third play, they ran a reverse and got knocked out of bounds on the 1. They ran to the line again with no huddle and ran a “silent” sneak for a TD! All of this took about 90 seconds off the clock. They weren’t done. On the ensuing kick-off, yep!!!, they on sided and recovered! They threw a bomb on the first play… scored and the rout was on! The superior team never recovered. Didn’t something like that happen in this year’s Super Bowl??!!!

We have to be willing to do something “uncoventional” to change momentum and get it in our favor. I feel that “tempo” is an important way to do that.

The other application that you as the “underdog coach” can utilize to gain an advantage is: do something that goes against the grain. Your strategy challenges conventional wisdom of how battles are supposed to be fought— how football games are supposed to be played.

Why did the first teams to run the Delaware Wing T offense go to it? They had undersized linemen who were fast and aggressive. They developed “blocking angles” that defenses weren’t prepared to stop. Why did the first coaches install “spread” attacks? They were looking for an advantage that was out of the ordinary. I think it’s why you see more teams messing around with the Single Wing or “Wildcat” offense these days. When I and my staff first installed the Wing T offense in the late 80’s, only one other team in our region even ran it. We became two of the most successful programs in the state for the next 15 years. During that time, 5 other teams in our district alone installed the Del. Wing T. It was not “unconventional” anymore. Somebody playing us in the 9th week had already prepared for the Wing T 4 other times prior to our playing. When I came up with our version of the Spread Shotgun Wing T package, and went to a no huddle when running it, I discovered the importance of both principles: do something that breaks the mold and change the tempo!

If this post has caused your pulse to start to quicken and for the first time in awhile you see some “hope” for success for your program, email me back through the “comments” section of this website. I’d love to talk with you about some things you might do.

God bless you and God bless the Denver Broncos! Since I’ve been a huge Tim Tebow fan for 4 years in college, I now have a new favorite NFL team! Praise God!!!

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