Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Building a Tradition by Brian Wical: Top 30 things I Learned as a 1st Year Head Coach - Part 1

by Brian Wical
Follow @CoachWical

Originally when I had the idea of sharing all of the lessons that I learned this season, I wanted to rank everything, 1-30. However, I soon discovered after brainstorming topics, it was too hard to actually list them in any kind of order, ranking one ahead of another. Therefore, I am just going to write about each one in the order that I came up with them. 

Some of these topics you may read the topic of the lesson and say: “no kidding”. My advice to that is: you don’t truly realize everything that is going to face you, until you have faced it. Meaning, on the outside looking in, you may think you have prepared for all situations that may come up during the season. However, I can tell you, once the season starts, things happen that catch you off guard or in the “heat of battle”. Looking back, you may want to approach some of those situations differently next time. I can tell you, that surely happened to me this year, and I hope you enjoy my list of lessons learned and advice from the first year of being a head coach.

1. Assign travel jobs to assistant coaches for game nights
Perhaps the first mistake I made this season was not assigning jobs to assistant coaches when we prepared to travel on game nights. Luckily, it never came to hurt us during an actual game because I learned my lesson over the course of two scrimmages. As an assistant coach, the head coach always told me what I had to make sure got done, and I did it. At my previous job, it was charging the sideline headsets and making sure they were packed and ready to go on Friday nights. Assistant coaches all had their job. Well, I thought I could handle it all, heading to the first scrimmage. That was until we got off the bus and someone asked me where the ball bag was. We showed up to the first scrimmage without footballs. Lesson learned: don’t do that again! This could have all been avoided if I would have assigned the different tasks required when you travel to my staff.

2. As a teacher and a head coach, PLAN AHEAD
Maybe my situation was unique (due to my age) but one of the hardest things for me this season was planning as both a teacher and a Head Football Coach. This was my first year as a teacher as well as my first year as a head coach. The time commitment to both positions is huge. My advice would be to finish whatever planning is needed for the beginning of the football season as early in the summertime as possible for you. As soon as you finish that (because chronologically it comes first) turn your attention to lesson planning. By doing this, you will you have more time to do the week-to-week planning and operations that come with being a head coach during your free periods. This is another mistake I made and as a result, I felt like I was constantly playing catch up with my classroom materials. Obviously, having a lot of the planning side of things done in both worlds will make next year much simpler. However, if I had to do it over again, I would have had many of the things I needed for my classroom done ahead of time, which would have allowed for more time on Hudl during my free periods in-season.

3. Teach fundamentals, all the time
One thing that is important is never getting away from the fundamentals of football. All great football teams, at every level from midget to the NFL, are comprised of players who are fundamentally sound. The other common factor that all of those successful teams have are coaches that continually stress fundamentals to their players. Coming into last season, I knew the players at Cardinal Stritch were behind fundamentally compared to some of the other teams in our league and on our schedule. To build a solid foundation for our program, this was mission number one: improve and stress the importance of fundamentals. While I figured it wouldn’t necessarily show up a ton in the results of our games last year, I knew it would show up next year and in future seasons. Sometimes while stressing those basics, you can take your lumps while the players are still developing. Trust me, we took some. But I continued to tell our players every single day that there is a certain “process” that comes with being a good football program. To achieve the goals we have for the entire program, we needed to stay the course and stay positive, regardless of the early results. I think we did an excellent job doing that. Our kids never gave up the entire season, and our players lived through the idea of  “Always Compete”. For that, I couldn’t be happier. I believe that we will see the positive results of stressing the fundamentals so much this season when we take the field August 29, 2014.

4. Junior players won’t lead the way you want them to
Last season, I was the 3rd coach in 4 seasons for the senior class. There were only 3 seniors returning, and we were able to get 3 more to join the roster in the offseason, leaving us with just 6 total. Needless to say, a lot of those guys were confused at how they were to lead due to the conflicting philosophies and the amount of coaches they had over the course of their career. The junior class last year had decent numbers and most of our starting positions were filled with them. I knew getting them to buy in and lead would be critical for the long-term success of Cardinal Stritch football. Because of this, I put a lot of responsibility and leadership roles on the players in that class. The problem that I discovered is that junior players will never quite lead the way you want them to, for a multitude of reasons. The biggest reason is that they are juniors, not seniors. Don’t get me wrong; some of the best leaders on the team were juniors last season. Having said that though, they were not leading up to their full potential. I chalk this up to the fact that there is a group ahead of them that are viewed as leaders because of seniority. As many coaches know, seniority is the lowest level of leadership. But, it is also the biggest enemy to players in lower classes leading. I found a leadership ladder in a football magazine last summer (I don’t remember which one) that I duplicated and have hanging on my wall. It is a phenomenal representation of the leadership levels that exist and what we wish to see as coaches from our players. I would be glad to share this with anyone who wishes.

5. Have a program for punishment in-season
I think that one of the best things that we accomplished last season was the creation of what we called “Character Club”. This was a group the kids learned quickly they did not want to be apart of. We used this to punish kids for being late to practice, receiving detentions in school, or any other general violations of our team rules and discipline policy. Our Strength and Conditioning Coordinator ran this after practice any day it was needed. It took on a life of its own throughout the school where students began teasing teachers they were going to get Character Club and it even had it’s own Twitter page at one point. It went a long way in promoting our discipline structure and the kids found out after one or two visits, they were going to clean up their behavior, arrive on time, etc. I would suggest everyone having some form of program in place that the kids fear being a part of and truly want nothing to do with. Extra work after practice is usually an easy way to fix many problems that arise in high school football, I have found.

6. Use the same terminology in every aspect of your program
One thing I noticed early on in the summer camp is that our coaches were using different phrases and terminology to describe the exact same concepts. The number one example of this was tackling. We would run a 4-station tackling circuit at the beginning of defensive practice, in which we would stress the different aspects of tackling at each one (if this is something you don’t currently do, I would suggest doing it). However, as I would walk around station-to-station I noticed that our coaches were describing things using a different terminology. All of the things that they were teaching our kids were great, but if you approach the same skill in different ways, confusion sets in quickly for 14-18 year old boys. We fixed this immediately as a staff and it went a long way in helping our kids understand what we were trying to stress to them. My advice is having this discussion in an offseason meeting to make sure that everyone is on the same page. Another area I noticed this in was cadence being used in different individual drills. I heard our OL individual group was using a different cadence than what we actually used in our offense, which might explain their issue with jumping offside early in the season, too. We can’t take for granted that all kids are going to adjust and adapt coach-to-coach or drill-to-drill. Consistency and attention to detail by the players is crucial to success. But, I would argue that the consistency and the level of attention to detail is even more important for the coaching staff.

7. Develop your players as students, athletes, and young men
I think one of the most overlooked aspects in high school sports is the affect it can have on these kids as human beings. A lot of people get caught up in results on the field. I would argue that an even more important task of any coach is turning out quality young people to our society. When I played football growing up, I always heard that the things I learned on the field would impact me in life. At the time, I could not conceive how something I learned while getting knocked to the ground repeatedly on scout team could possibly teach me anything in life. But as most of us adults now know, there are life lessons waiting in football around every corner. My thought though, is if we limit our “life lessons” to only what happens on the football field, we are doing a disservice to our players. As a result, doing team service projects are important in the development, too. It is a great time for the kids to bond outside of the traditional football structure, as well as potentially see a side of people and life they may not have the opportunity to see otherwise. I wrote a blog last summer about our service project day and my thoughts on it then, so I wont go too much into the specifics. Showing students that giving of your time, talent, and resources to others will hopefully help in developing better young men. Another way you can help develop great young men is by holding them accountable in your program. The quicker they learn they can’t get away with the little stuff, the better off they will be. That translates to better behavior in school and in public. The phrase I tell our players all the time is: “Remember, when you’re out in public you represent our high school and this football program. If you do something stupid, it not only reflects poorly on you, but us as a team and our school.” Overall, we have great young men here at Cardinal Stritch Catholic and we will continue to do our best in developing them into contributing members of our society. But remember, all kids need guidance in the right direction. It is our responsibility to do this as well.

8. Keep your youth programs excited and make them feel appreciated
Turning around a program is a tough job. One thing you have to do when taking over a job that needs an entire program built is determine what things you feel like are absolutely critical to you accomplishing that goal. A big priority from day one for me has been making sure we are developing our young athletes appropriately in our youth program. I think if you were to look at many of the successful programs around our country, most of them would have one thing in common: a great youth program either affiliated with their high school or one in their community in which they draw athletes from. When I took the job here, the 5th/6th grade program didn’t win a game in 2012 and there was no 7th/8th grade team. Those two areas we needed to address. The coaching staff at our 5th/6th grade level this past season did a tremendous job and led that team to a Toy Bowl Championship. However, we still did not have enough kids to play a 7th/8th grade schedule. To accommodate this, our elementary school combined our 7th/8th graders with another local Catholic elementary school in order to field a team. This was great because we still had kids playing and improving, they did not lose a year because of poor numbers. The exciting news I have though is that we now have enough kids interested that next season we will be fielding both a 5th/6th and 7th/8th grade team through our school. All of the positives of this cannot be measured in words. The ability for us to integrate some of our high school plays and terms with that team will speed up the learning curve of the players when they join the high school team in 9th grade. My advice to all that may find themselves one day taking over a struggling program is: make sure you do everything in your power to create a successful youth program. Another thing to remember about this age group is that success is not always defined by wins and losses. While it is fun for the coaches and kids to win, it has no real correlation to varsity level success. What you need to make sure is happening is that fundamentals are being taught appropriately, that way you have to spend less time teaching fundamentals and more time perfecting them when they do arrive in high school.

9. Have designed competitions in practice
I think one way to make sure that you are constantly getting the most out of your kids in practice is to have competitions. It is not hard to turn regular drills into competitions for your players. You don’t always have to do this, but it should be something that happens on a daily basis once, at least. If you are at a bigger school, have your offense and defense go live head-to-head. We liked to split the team in half and do an Oklahoma Drill and have consequences for the losing team (like more sprints). Another thing we did a few times is we had two assistant coaches serve as captains and draft teams. The two teams then played a live scrimmage against one another. The kids really got into this. This was dual serving, too. Obviously, they were competing and the kids didn’t want to be on the losing team. The other thing it did is force us to use the entire roster at once. Our back up QB got to take reps using our offense in a scrimmage-like situation. The back up running back was the running back on one of the teams, etc. This gave scrimmage downs to your entire roster, rather than kids playing scout team the whole time. We only did this 3 times but it was great for our team and our coaches. Kids not only got valuable reps they may have missed in a traditional “team” session, and as coaches we got the chance to re-evaluate some players mid-season.

10. Continue to have coaches meetings throughout the season

One thing I messed up on was having periodic meetings with coaches to make sure we were all still on the same page throughout the season. Another lesson I learned this season and something I will be changing next year. I am not referring to weekly game planning meetings, but rather a separate session where you sit down and truly gain positive/negative feedback from your assistants on the direction of the team, specific players, etc. It is also a great way for you to correct anything you see certain coaches doing that you would like changed or stopped. I had one of these meetings halfway through the season and it went a long way in helping our coaching staff understand my expectations as well as gave me great insight as to their thoughts and feelings, too. My only regret is not having more of them. This would be an easy thing to include in a game-planning meeting if you have those with your staff on the weekends, as well.

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