To clarify, in twenty years I have coached middle school football and baseball, directed middle school plays and middle school and high school musicals, coached as an assistant and as a defensive coordinator for a high school football team, and most recently coached college football in Division II.
As I listen to my friends share how their first practices are going, I wanted to write about the most important thing I learned in my experience:
Preparation remains the most important, neglected, and elusive element of coaching no matter what level one may coach.
One Reason Why It is Important
At the very least, coaches have a better chance of leveling the playing field with good preparation. A coaching staff can take a collection of average Joes, and will them to beat a team of better players with a better record in a better league with better facilities and a better reputation. Often, we mistake preparation as "teamwork" and simply teach our players to chant and clap about teamwork--when what we really mean by teamwork lies beneath the surface of the jersey: preparation.
Anyone can pull on a jersey or blow a whistle to stop a drill. Not everyone prepares well.
Coaches have to prepare themselves first and then their players. Sounds obvious? What gets lost sometimes is the importance of the player seeing and knowing how a coach has prepared. They have to see it--not to be convinced--but like any good teaching, coaches have to model preparation. Most players do not know how to prepare for anything until they are taught the behavior or skill. And we can't hold their inability to do it against them. Schools and parents teach kids good study habits, work habits, responsibility--organized and competitive football at the middle school, high school, and college level requires that level of care by adults too.
But I didn't always realize that--I wish I could take back some of my first years when I was in my twenties, twirling my whistle, chewing a wad of gum, and coaching from the memory of how I was coached as a teenager.
And then we won one game.
If we don't want kids to just show up on the first day of tryouts then we can't just roll in and start coaching. I don't care how long you played, where you played, or how many Superbowl rings you wear--if you do not prepare and teach the players you have how to prepare then you might as well be running field trips to ice cream parlors and movies--if I had done that my first few years they might have gotten more out of the social interaction and learned something from the movies.
Without good preparation, what was I teaching them?
One Way It is Neglected
Watching film of a game sounds like a good thing. Kids need to see themselves on the screen. They need to see the play, see the opponent, see the results of an action or inaction. And players can learn just as much by watching another player than just by watching themselves.
But kids need to be taught how to watch film. Without coaches having watched the film in advance and taking notes to share, it becomes an ESPN highlight film experience--if you are watching film for the first and only time and it is with your players, then all the meeting turns into is scanning for the big play, running it over and over again, and moving on. There is so much that can be taught on every play that a one hour film meeting might only cover a handful of plays--and that is not a bad thing. Film is a teachable moment!
When we hand our kids film of their opponent, a common knee-jerk reaction when asking them what they thought is, "They suck." I heard it in high school and I heard it from college athletes who I assumed would know better. More often than not, the opponent who "sucked" on film usually handles himself pretty well on game day.
After hearing "he sucked" among some of my college players, I started each Friday walk-through in a brief position meeting. Instead of me talking, I put it on them to share one unique thing they learned from watching film this week--and no regurgitating what I said. Give us something new. Give us something we can use. It can be a technique they noticed a player using, a tendency, etc.
When the player does not understand how to watch the film, we neglect an opportunity to teach, correct, and make someone better--and usually end up scratching our heads after the game wondering what happened.
One Way It is Elusive
Preparation is a two-way street. The player has to do his share in addition to the coach. For the players, this means diet along with mental and physical training. It is a bonus for any high school if the middle school coaches can instill the habits of good diet and mental and physical training. It is a steal for a college coach when he recruits a young man who has all of those things in place too--and they all don't! And sometimes, the kid can't help it--it could be environment, finances, family. In many cases though, I have come to understand that it can be helped.
|My step-father coaching in 1970s|
For the coach, this means attending coaching clinics or visiting with your local high school or college staff--it means looking at video of drills, reading coaching journals, and watching how other people practice--it means investing time outside of the scheduled practice for no extra money. It means going to every coaching meeting and staying until it is over--and that can be very difficult when home is calling. Our being prepared is a part of the responsibility and honor of the coaching profession. One of the greatest surprises I learned was when I picked up the phone as a middle school coach and called the Boise State football office and the Wofford football office. In the case of Boise State, I saw something they did on television and called and asked about it--an assistant spent time with me. When I called Wofford it was about something I read in a coaching journal--the coach spent time with me. For every clinic and college I visited, coaches shared what they knew or thought.
Coaches share what they know. You just have to pick up the phone and ask. It is well worth the time and the investment and I believe that when coaches do not spend some of their own time in preparation that they are stealing the money they get in the first place. A paycheck coach will never earn the respect of others. I'm sorry, but the impact we have on young people is too important for us just to roll in with our sunglasses on and the whistle twirling around our fingers. I've been that guy but I learned--preparation and teaching kids how to prepare makes the biggest difference on any successful team.
The longer I coached, the better I got at preparing--but I did it for twenty years! I made every mistake I outlined above and many I did not share--fortunately I was surrounded by good people who showed me how to do things the right way.
Most of us coaching in high school may only have a kid for 2-3 years, and if we are talking about middle school athletics then a coach only has a kid for 1 year. Our impact is so concentrated--we have so much to cover in such a small amount of time--that the assumption of preparation, the assumption of "I got this" or "I know what I'm doing" is one of the greatest disservices a coach can make.
Coaching is hard enough--let alone coaching without good preparation.