This is the continuing story of my “Worst to First” experience in Reno, Nevada this year. I took an 8th grade team that had won about 6 games in the last 6 years to the Semi-Finals in the largest and most competitive league in the Reno/North Nevada area. The first day of any youth football coaches season is a bit like Christmas Day. You wake up with great anticipation to see what type of presents you will get. You hope that whatever you had on your wish list is waiting for you under the tree. For those of us coaching youth football, that first day of practice we hope “Santa” has given us some reasonably talented players and enough of them to be able to compete. For me this was a nearly blind experience, filled with some trepidation. I had never met any of these players or even seen them on film.
The day started out with a 6:00 am CST flight to Denver out of Omaha. For me that meant a 90 minute drive and 3:00 am wake up call. The entire flight I was reviewing and amending my attack plan for the day. After changing planes in Denver and arriving in Reno a little after 9:00 am PST, I met Coach G at the airport. Quickly we got to the hotel, got settled, got a late breakfast and laid out the plan for the day. Coach G and I are in the picture here at the hotel, you can see the Sierra Mountain foothills in the background. This is right outside my front door a place I would call home for the next 16 weeks. Coach G is a very smart businessman with excellent insights on team dynamics and people in general.
At 1:00 we had a coaches clinic at the hotel with all the coaching staff. Instead of focusing on all the X’s and O’s I focused on the building blocks: where we would invest our practice time (Priorities), the methodology of teaching and reaching kids (Progressions), the standards of excellence required in everything we do (Precision) and the importance of maximizing the number of quality repetitions we would do in indys, group and team (Pace).
The next step focused on how important doing fair and accurate player evaluations were to the success of the team. This included all of the base drills and games we would use to accurately flesh out the baseline skills needed for every position. Then we discussed what exactly we were looking for in every position on both offense and defense.
As we talked about positions several of the dad coaches started jockeying for positions for their sons. It wasn’t grotesquely overt, but it was readily evident. I made it very clear that the best players for each position who made all the practices would start, it wouldn’t be fair to the other kids if we did it any other way. Kids know when some player are being given special treatment and it’s a team killer. We were there to put the best possible team on the field and help develop young men, there isn’t any room for favoritism. We talked about how each player would be graded and how there would be no patience for daddy ball favoritism.
As I showed film and demoed the evaluation drills, I was feeling out the skill levels of each coach. Each coach was given an evaluation drill to do, I gave the easy ones to the weaker coaches and the harder ones to the guys who seemed to be “getting it.” Each coach was given a clip board with that days practice plan and “cheat cards” of the drills they would be responsible for that day. The cheat cards are laminated 3×5” cards with a picture or diagram of the drill or play on the front and a written description of how to do it step by step on the back.
Next we talked about the talk we would have with the team and parents prior to practice. I said word for word what I planned on saying to the kids and parents, sharing our mission, our goals, how we were going to get there, expectations we needed met and what they could expect from me and our coaching staff. That included a 1 minute bio on who I was, since none of them had ever met me and most had no idea who I was. It’s hard to trust someone until you know a little bit about them.
We talked about how to work with each other as a team. I let them know that sometimes their feelings might get hurt a bit, that I would lead by example. That would mean me jumping into their drills and coaching all position players when needed. They needed to understand that the only thing that mattered was the team, not protecting the egos of any of our coaches. The scheme, player placements, playing time and approach weren’t up for debate. If we disagreed about something important, it had to be behind closed doors, not in front of the players or parents. My word would be final, but coaches could input if they felt their thoughts were significant. All I asked is that it be very quick, factual, accurate and to the point.
Lastly we talked about how IMPORTANT it was to set the tone early on. We wouldn’t accept anything less than exceptional effort and attention to detail. While making mistakes is expected, there would be no compromise on paying attention and effort. There isn’t any athleticism required to pay close attention to what the coaches are saying, staying focused and giving your absolute all during every second of every rep. Once the Genie is out of the bottle and focused effort isn’t the standard, it’s impossible to put Genie back in the bottle.
While explaining it is one thing, actually doing it is another. Most failing youth football teams THINK they are working hard, practicing fast and being precise. In reality they aren’t even scratching the surface, they don’t know what is really possible with a team, when the kids are coached well.
We worked right up to practice time and had some food brought in late. As we got to the practice field, I was very happy to see we had the equivalent of 4 football fields of room to practice on. One practice field was marked, the others were open. The fields were adjacent to the High School stadium which we had total access to and we used it to practice our kicking game.
As players and parents started to arrive I introduced myself to each with a big smile, repeating the player and parents names several times in conversation trying to commit them to memory. I took that time to lay out all the cones our ONE football and the dummys in the right spots for the various drills for the day. I assigned a coach to each area and made sure they understood their drills for the day.
The next post will detail day 1 of practice and the talk we had with the parents and players. I didn’t mince any words, everyone would either be on board with the mission or not and could move on. It would be an interesting day to say the least.