Insight into the real world experiences of an assistant coach with over 20 years in the NFL. Discover what really goes on at the pro ball level.
Is momentum real or perceived? There are other words and phrases that are synonymous with momentum. Confidence, in the zone, and the game slowing down are some examples.
If you believe attitude or mindset can make a difference in performance you also believe in momentum. Momentum can be an individual mindset or a collective one. Momentum is a force moving in a positive direction.
Football is a game of ebb and flow. Momentum is similar because it will swing back and forth between opponents. Momentum can occur during a single game but can also carry over game to game. Momentum occurs when a positive result instigates more positive results generating a force that moves forward with a collective confidence. Momentum gains more strength the longer it lasts.
There have been times as a coach, the momentum was almost palpable as I watched our team in action on the field. Leaders and team members can ride the wave of momentum by increasing the speed of action and passionately displaying their feeling of confidence.
Paying the price in preparation can help create momentum with only a few positive outcomes, because of the confidence that is carried onto the field of competition. When teams are riding the momentum train every player feels as if they are in the zone. They move easily into action without any conscious thought of friction or negative energy.
Many players experiencing a personal momentum wave will describe it as “the game slowing down”. It is also described as getting into a rhythm. Regardless of how momentum is articulated, I do believe it is real and difficult to stem the tide.
When an individual or team is battling against momentum it seems as if everything that can go wrong, will go wrong. It’s just not your day. As you enjoy your favorite teams this or any season, watch the battle of momentum unfold before your eyes.
Working together in camp develops the team work required to win championships.
Coaches are leaders. Leaders ensure that their teams are prepared for whatever comes their way. Leaders help individuals become better team members. Training camp is where athletes at the peak of their careers return each year to reinforce the basics. It is the fine-tuning of these basic skills honed over time to produce desired results working together as a team without having to think that allows these athletes to adjust to the ever-changing environment that they face on game day.
Training camp is a grind. The climb to the destination for every NFL and college football team is long, arduous, steep, and riddled with obstacles. The destination for every team in a competitive arena is the championship. The climb to a championship for both the NFL and college football teams begin in earnest during training camp. Strategies and tactics are being polished. Players are being evaluated to ensure the best team is crossing the lines onto the field of battle. It is not the 11 best players who cross the lines to the battlefield but the 11 players who make the best team.
Training camp is where the team begins to form its identity. Mental toughness, physical conditioning, attitude, and the team's passion are all being challenged. It is where the PROCESS begins. A process is a series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve one’s goal. This process is designed and mapped out by the head coach to the very last detail. It is a process he believes will be the path to the mountain top.
Training camp is a grind. The habits of camp determine who’s champ! It is through the grind that the personality of the team is developed. Grind means to sharpen, smooth, or produce by crushing or friction.
Championship teams understand and execute flawlessly the finer details of the most tedious tasks. Tasks and techniques that are not executed properly or without purpose are nothing but habitual action. Great coaches educate their team members on Purposeful Performance Tasks. It is through these tasks players produce meaningful action. Purposeful Performance Tasks are often the monotonous, tedious, tiring, and repetitive aspects of training.
Great teams produce meaningful action by embracing the process and finding joy in the journey. The journey through the camp grind is where the seeds of championship growth are planted. Enjoy the grind and you never know the fulfillment you will find!
Great teams do not exist only on the football field. They exist throughout life, in family units, in organizations, in government and in business. Good teams are better than the sum of their individual strengths. Great leaders help guide their teams by creating their own training camps where members can go back and reinforce the basics and learn new skills to allow them to function at the peak of performance whatever the field of play.
Many of the head coaches I’ve coached planned some off-field activities instead of a practice to give the team members a mental and physical break from training camp, but also to try to bring the team together on a personal competitive level, outside of football.
The different activities the head coaches chose were interesting alone. The best plan was carried out in Green Bay.
The team was on the practice field just finishing warm-up when 5 buses pulled up close to the locker rooms. Like everyone else, I couldn’t help but notice them and wonder what they were for. Then the car horn blew twice indicating it was time to form up with the Head Coach. Training Camp practices in Green Bay were almost always open to the public. There happened to be a large crowd that day. The head coach instructed players to head back to the locker room for further direction. We were all puzzled.
When we arrived at our lockers, there were instructions to put on the directed attire and load the buses. The beauty of the plan was the secrecy and starting in practice uniform on the field first.
It was an exceptionally hot and humid day. The Head Coach’s direction to head to the locker room was met with a tremendous roar. The deception was flawless. Not only were the players and coaches duped, but so were the fans. I don’t think they were expecting an opportunity to watch their team as enthusiastic as the team was about practice ending after 15 minutes! The Head Coach carried out the deception like a well-designed game plan.
Back to the different activities. The most popular choice by head coaches was bowling. Normally it was set up with a competitive format. Offense vs Defense as an example.
I don’t think of bowling as an activity based on the team building aspect as much as it was the easiest logistically with a confined area and a ready-made kitchen for food and drinks.
Softball was another activity which worked well logistically and was thoroughly enjoyed by players and staff. A minor league venue made it accessible and convenient. We had one attempt at golf with one organization. It was not a disaster, but I wouldn’t recommend it. The organization was challenged by the game with the exception of most QBs and kickers.
Getting back to the Green Bay activity. We were instructed to dress in sweatshirts and sweatpants and wear our gloves like receivers; all of that was very strange considering it was 88 degrees and the humidity about 90%. The buses loaded and off we went. Twenty minutes into the trip there was not a house or business within miles, we were somewhere in the middle of rural, wooded Wisconsin landscape.
A minute or two later we turned onto a dirt road and stopped near a clearing about a half mile in. As we unloaded, we each grabbed two bottles of water and walked a quarter mile to the clearing. There we found two wooden towers and a dozen or more people handing out protective headgear and weapons. We were going to paintball war!!! Offense vs Defense.
Game plans were made on the fly. Whoever captured the opponent’s tower first was the winner. Plays were made, leaders emerged, the battle began and chaos ensued.
Getting hit by a paintball is not pleasant and almost everyone had the welts to prove it. What a day! It was just as sweaty a workout in those pants and long sleeves as a practice.
It was also by far the best kept secret and most fascinating of all the team building activities I’ve experienced.
The draft has come and gone. The months of work put in by the coaches studying, interviewing, and writing evaluations of potential picks is now playing out on the practice field.
The scouts’ investment into talent acquisition has now transitioned to practice field evaluations. Coaches and scouts watch the rookies intently as they evaluate every aspect of their game on the field and off.
It has however, somewhat baffled me that there are setbacks with some top choices and surprises with some players who were late round picks or college free agents.
As I pondered the reasons for this it forced me to review the evaluation process and its evolution over the years.
The NFL Scouting Combine has always been one of the major steps in evaluating prospects apart from viewing and grading players on their game video. The next step 20 years ago was to have position coaches go to the prospect’s campus for a private workout.
This method was completely unique to each team:
- How long the workout lasted
- The drills and interview process
- Film viewing
Some of the projected 1st to 3rd round picks may have workouts scheduled every day of the week for a number of weeks. This would take its toll physically on the player.
Most players now only workout at the combine and on the school’s designated pro day. Occasionally there may be private workouts for the top 20 picks.
Private workouts are not merely important for evaluating a player’s physical skill, but also to evaluate a prospect’s work-related interest and endurance.
The benefit of the college campus visit and workout went well beyond the physical aspect. Teams are now using sophisticated and expensive psychological and personality profiling testing to project an athlete’s success.
These test results are interesting, but they cannot replace a position coach’s opportunity to spend a full day with an athlete evaluating every aspect of the prospect’s work mind and heart..
A typical schedule would include meeting for breakfast, viewing a weight room session, coaching the players through specific movements and techniques on the field, having lunch, and finally spending 2-3 hours viewing video and grinding through a board session.
After spending a full day with a potential acquisition in this manner, there are few questions that go unanswered. These on-campus private workouts have become few and far between. I absolutely loved those times and it was certainly revealing as to whether the prospect loved it as well. What you’d learn:
- Will the position coach and player have the proper chemistry?
- Does the player grasp new board strategy or field techniques quickly?
- Does the player have the baseline football knowledge to easily transition to the pros?
- Will his personality mesh with the position group?
- Will he be a team player?
- Does the player have the endurance, focus, and passion to maintain interest through a tough workday?
All of these questions are more easily answered through these personal workouts. No single test is a substitute for this.
Why are there setbacks and surprises? The shift away from personal workouts is one reason.
Hurt or Injured?
NFL players are extremely competitive and are also very tough both mentally and physically. Football is a high impact collision sport. NFL practices are also very intense even when they are non-contact.
When viewing a game or practice from the sideline there is an obvious sense of extraordinary speed. The NFL game is much faster and more explosive than one can imagine.
Players can react in an instant and change direction on a dime. These types of explosive movements take their toll on one's body over time. As players work through training camp into the regular season there is not a player who is not sore or in pain.
Playing through soreness and pain is part of the job outside of the glamour, notoriety, and money. The bumps and bruises are normal much like any of us working through the soreness of yesterday’s workout.
Injured players are not the same. Injured players are those who have an injury diagnosed by the trainer or medical staff. There are degrees of injuries from strains and sprains to broken bones. It is the medical staff's job to determine if the player has enough strength and mobility to play safely in the game without causing more damage.
Contrary to what you might think, it is usually the player who refuses to miss practice time or a game. The training and medical staff are normally quite conservative in the prognosis of returning the athlete to the field.
NFL Concussion Protocol
This procedure must be followed before a player can return to competition. Returning to competition for injuries outside of the concussion protocol is decided by the trainers, players, and coaches. Players are competitive, tough and like soldiers. They are warriors like the competition and do not want to let their team and team members down.
Most great players also have a degree of insecurity and do not want their teammate who will be taking their snaps, also taking their job. It is for these reasons players will compete even when feeling less than 100%.
In my 20-year coaching career in the NFL, there have been more occasions than I can count of the player begging trainers and coaches to play. Even the great players who give a valiant effort and play through pain are not as productive as their backup would have been playing at 100%.
I'm sure anyone reading this has seen players with the club on one hand or other. I am certain you are not an effective player with one hand no matter how talented, compared to a player who can use two hands. Lower body injuries fall into the same category. If you are not at full speed you should not be on the field.
Players who play with injuries not only hurt themselves, but hurt their team as well.
I would urge all coaches to keep their injured players off the field no matter how convincing their sales pitch. Return them to the field only when they are fully recovered for their sake and the team’s.
Life is a lot like football and football is a lot like life.
It's a finite period of time -- an opportunity, a chance to do the best job you can. To get the most out of life or football you must immerse yourself in the action. Get in the game.
To succeed at football and any sport you must play one play at a time. To be successful in the game of life you must be present in each and every moment as often as possible. Competing in this way whether in sport or life is easier said than done.
When competing on the field, players are constantly bombarded with external and internal factors that distract their focus from the play. The score of the game can distract us from our focus. When you are behind, it is easy to let negative energy affect your field disposition, body language, and concentration.
When you or your team is way behind on the scoreboard there is a tendency to lose hope and give up against what appear to be too great of odds.
The same factors can affect us in our daily lives. Circumstances in life’s daily battles can distract us from our family, relationships and job. Guard against letting the valleys in the daily journey of living prevent us from being positive, conscientious, caring, and respectful. Continue to forge ahead toward fulfillment.
There are times in football games when your team is way ahead and the urge is to let up.
Champions fight that urge and play a single play at a time with effort, energy, enthusiasm, focus, and execution of the smallest details; regardless of the score.
When things are going well in life's journey it's easy to let up on the spiritual foundation that got you to your place of fulfillment.
Coaches are constantly preaching to players: “Don't let one poor play turn into three or four.”
This occurs when a player can't let go of the previous poor play. He then lacks the focus, concentration, and attitude necessary to execute the technique and play properly, resulting in another poor play. Players must learn to have a short memory.
Oftentimes, coaches perpetuate this cycle themselves by reviewing the game with constant emphasis on the negative. By doing this, players are more likely to hang on to their mistakes.
Life is similar. It is easy to hang on to negative experiences which prevent you from growing and finding the positive possibilities right in front of you.
Prisoners of the Past
I heard a story of hunters who found a humane way to capture exotic monkeys. They first discovered that monkeys love cookies. They then built heavy boxes with a hole cut on each side, just large enough for the monkey’s open hand to squeeze through. They placed cookies inside and left to return hours later.
What they later discovered was at least one monkey sitting alongside each box, all with a hand stuck inside. The monkeys had grabbed the cookies so tightly, but wouldn’t let go, so they couldn’t remove their hands. They chose to instead hold on to the cookie, and become a prisoner instead.
The lesson of course is we must let go of the past to grow and move forward in football and in life. Scripture teaches the same lesson stating, “…. any man who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is not fit for service in the kingdom.”
For more insight on getting the most from your team, see our leadership course.
Beating the odds
Players who have made it to the NFL have beaten the odds. It requires and enormous base level talent to reach the NFL.
- Only 6.5% of high school players make it to the NCAA.
- Only one .6% of NCAA players make it to the NFL.
- That translates to just under two players out of 100 of every draft eligible NCAA football players.
- On average, there will be 300 rookies making a team yearly.
- One of the most startling facts about the NFL is that only 150 of all NFL players each year ever reach year four!
It is important that those football players fortunate enough to make it to the NCAA level, understand the odds of becoming an NFL player.
By no means should understanding the odds deter anyone from chasing their dream if that is their goal.
Those incredible odds should help those aspiring NFL players realize they will have to have more than just talent to move to the pinnacle of their profession. Excelling not only on the field, but in the classroom.
Know your position, but also have a clear understanding of the other positions and how they relate to you. Be not only a great teammate but a leader as well. These are areas outside of talent that can help you reach the next level.
You would think the players who make it to the NFL and beyond four years have a certain degree of security. In most cases, even with the great players I have found a certain degree of insecurity. Not lacking confidence in any way, but an understanding there is always someone out there who could possibly take their job if they became complacent or comfortable.
More often than not great players are the most consistent, hardest working, best conditioned players on the team. They are also extremely reluctant to miss practice or games. The small degree of insecurity helps the players maintain their edge.
Find other ways to help maintain your edge at Coach Slow's leadership course.
The need to present deficiencies in ways that inspire
Coaches who have reached the highest level of their profession often find themselves in their own philosophical conundrum. Coaches by nature are normally very critical people, but having a critical eye is something all good coaches should possess. In football and in life, it is the coach’s or Manager's or parent's job after all, to facilitate his players’ improvement.
Without a keen eye for the details and techniques necessary for success -- that would pose an insurmountable problem. Being able to discern the element of a professional players’ game or employee's shortcomings (or young child's struggles) that needs improvement is only the first part of coaching.
It is necessary to present these deficiencies in a way that inspires the player to an even greater level of performance. That can be the coaching conundrum at any level.
The delivery of the evaluation is just as important as the content. The majority of coaches, even at the NFL level, emphasize the areas of the players’ performance that needs improvement. Coaches have been conditioned throughout their coaching career to find the weaknesses in the opponent and in their own players.
Coaches have always believed if a performance is good it can be better. Therein lies the conundrum.
When your players are performing well yet constantly bombarded by criticism of how they can be better, it will tear down the players’ psyche. It can quickly breed a mentality that nothing will ever be good enough so why try to achieve anything that is not easy and comfortable.
A great coach can:
- Take the same resume and first and most importantly reinforce the positives of the performance.
- Filter in some of the weaknesses that can improve the performance slowly.
- Spread these out so as to not take away from the positive aspects.
- Explain the video of players performing the techniques and displaying competitive attitude you are trying to achieve.
This positive mental intermarry of the tasks you want performed are more likely to lead to that destination. Mental pictures of what not to do often leads to more negative actions.
Emphasizing the positive is not ignoring the elements that must be improved to alter all of your team goals. Team members must know you are honest in your evaluations. This leads to trust. Being honest in post-performance evaluations will help in game planning for your players’ strengths.
Too many coaches spend an inordinate amount of time trying to fix a weakness rather than play to strengths. By playing to your team members’ strengths it is a much smoother transition to address their weaknesses.
Great coaches utilize their team’s talents best and inspire the players to improve their weaknesses. The same can be said for great parents and great managers as well.
Legendary basketball coach Bobby Knight would preach:
“Mental is to Physical as 4 is to 1.”
When you hear announcers or coaches talk about the “First 15” they are referring to the first 15 plays the offense will run in the game. When the First 15 goes smoothly it will most likely end in points scored.
On a classic First 15 drive, the offense will use a variety of personnel groupings to keep the defense off balance and try to get them out of rhythm. The First 15 is fast-paced when the offense stays on schedule because it is already scripted and the play caller simply goes down his list. The offensive players are in tune because these 15 plays were reviewed in detail the night before the game.
The offensive not only changes personnel groupings, but also changes the complexion of the plays from play action pass, run, screens, draw, drop back, reverse or some other gadget.
The First 15 will try to test every aspect of your defense and that’s why it is difficult to stop.
When the defense gets an early stop within the First 15 it is a great confidence boost; while it is a letdown for the offense because so much effort was put into choosing, practicing, reviewing, and scripting those plays to open the game.
Good defensive coaches categorize and study the first 15 plays of the game as a special category. It is important for the players to be prepared for a fast pace and a multitude of personnel and variety of plays to defend.
The First 15 has become a game within the game!
Interviews help coaches find the right fit.
I’ve been with six different NFL teams and have attended the Indianapolis Scouting Combine with all six teams to interview college prospects for the NFL draft. Interviewing is critical to have the best chance to find out if a candidate will be a good fit for the team.
Every team is a little different with the interview procedure.
One year when I was the Assistant HC and Defensive Back Coach with Green Bay, I was fortunate to sit in on every player interview. In all but one of the teams, the head coach sat in on every meeting. The GM National Area Scout and Director of Player Personnel were also in attendance. The respective coordinator and potential position coach handled the football Xs and Os aspect of the interview.
The normal procedure started with the GM or Scout gathering the prospect’s general information such as agent and phone number.
Occasionally they would ask about family just to get the prospect talking and comfortable. If there were any character issues or arrests, these items would also be addressed at that time.
Most often these interviews are not like an interrogation, but a conversation. The head coaches and GM's usually have one or two questions to see if they can get a glimpse into what motivates the prospect and makes him tick.
One of my favorite head coach questions was when Mike Sherman, the Head Coach of the Green Bay Packers at the time, would ask the prospect if they had ever had a job. He would also ask if they ever missed work and why.
Prospects who had jobs were used to working.
Prospects who were reliable in those low-level positions were more likely to be reliable in the high-profile NFL.
Prospects who never had a real job may not understand the mentality of the NFL.
The X and O Interview
The X and O aspect of the interview then began with the coordinator and position coach.
Sometimes, video would be used to have the prospect talk through a couple of series of a game and the plays. It was a test for the prospect’s recall. Could they identify the play that was on the video and explain their reactions and the strategy of the overall scheme?
I liked the old-fashioned way of having them draw their basic play on the board. I was interested in not only their football knowledge or football IQ, but also how they would draw on the board.
Was the prospect: meticulous, precise, detailed, and neat; or quick or messy with all different sizes of the elements of the play design?
Messy diagrams identified players who had not diagrammed plays very often. That was an indication they weren’t passionate about the overall schemes of the game and would take longer to pick up the details necessary to produce at the NFL level. It could also be an indication that they didn’t have a real passion for football.
If they took pride in their diagram, they were normally players who did the little things -- the details necessary to win.
I would also ask about drills. When prospects knew the drills, and could explain the coaching point of emphasis, they knew the fundamentals of their craft and had a foundation to build on.
Another key question is to ask the prospect what they thought of their coach. If they were quick to criticize, then that's a red flag. Prospects quick to criticize others are normally the players looking for excuses or a way to place the blame elsewhere. The same thing is true if they speak poorly of any teammate.
There have been times I've seen coaches try to intimidate players by calling them out in none too flattering fashion for poor play or in an effort to see their reaction.
Coaches will say that an intimidating interview style is to see if the prospect can handle tough coaching and criticism. That particular style of interview can also backfire if the organization does select the prospect and he feels the position coach didn't want him drafted. Coaching is built upon trust and that is not an ideal way to start to build trust between coach and player.
There have been some buying interviews where very little is learned about the prospect.
This would occur when the position coach wanted to show the prospect and everyone in the room how much he knew instead of finding out how much the prospect did. You only have 15 minutes per player so it's best to have the player do the talking.
Interviewing questions and candidate responses are important whether you are hiring a babysitter, customer service representative, sales person or CEO. Getting the right people on the team is the beginning to creating a winning team.
Love and passion for the game and the process is not enough. To be a "Professional" in any field requires a certain degree of talent.
Just like any other competitive career market you must possess a certain degree of talent. If I wanted to become a great mathematician but struggled to understand and master algebra in high school I probably don't have the aptitude, intelligence or let's say talent to attain that goal.
Professional football requires a certain degree of talent. If you lack the base level talent you will not make it in professional football regardless of having an abundance of other quality traits.
Any player making it to a professional football training camp has been studied and evaluated by coaches and scouts and deemed talented enough to be given a chance to prove themselves in training camp. From this point on let's assume everyone possesses enough talent.
What Are the Other Traits That Separate Players?
Next to talent I believe you must have a love and passion for the game and the process. Pro football is long, rigorous and demanding physically, mentally, and emotionally. No matter how much allure the game brings in notoriety and money, without passion you will not succeed.
Not only must you love playing on Game Day you must enjoy the process of preparing:
- Professional football with its physical demands takes its toll on your body day after day.
- Professional football requires the same level of commitment in the classroom as it does on the field.
- Professional football players must learn and study the playbook, but also must put in extra time studying for their upcoming opponent.
The emotional toll is not often thought about. The majority of players are never secure in their job and carry the constant stress of being released at any time.
The daily grind of the same drills, study, and stress will wear on them if they don't love the game and its process. Passion and enthusiasm allow you to put yourself in motion, in action, effortlessly and easily without reluctance.
Players who treat their career as not only a job but a discipline also have a greater chance of success. Much like the discipline of a martial artist, the professional football player must carry over his passion for the game and process into his personal life. This is done by taking care of himself with enough rest, diet, and discipline to refrain from the temptations that can derail his career regardless of how much he loves to play.
Another important trait the player must possess is mental toughness. There will be highs and lows, constant bumps, bruises and pain, criticism and adulation. Through it all you must be mentally tough enough to prepare and play with the same competitive spirit. Talent plays a part, but attitude makes the difference in achieving success in professional football.
The practices in professional football can vary according to the level of intensity and equipment worn. The base level of practices are walk-throughs. The practice is exactly as its name implies. Players do not wear shoulder pads or helmets. Players will dress in workout gear with their practice jersey on. Their practice jersey does correspond to their game jersey with the same number. In a walk-through session, the players will walk through new plays and the daily install meeting they just heard in the classroom.
Normally the offensive and defensive units work separately. The normal format is to hear the information in the classroom first, walk through the plays, then practice at game speed, followed by the game itself on Sunday. After the walk-through teams will then practice the plays full speed. Full speed practice can be with different degrees of dress. Workout gear, shoulder pads, game jersey and helmet another level. Full pads is the most intense level which mimics a game with the exception of tackling teammates to the ground.
Once you pass the walk-through stage all other levels are full speed. The amount of contact and intensity of the contact is what coaches manage. It’s important to have enough contact and preparation to feel confident and comfortable game day. It is also important to be safe so you can have your best lineup available game day. Don’t have so much contact that players are getting hurt in practice, or over a period of time lose their crisp hard hitting hunger. Injuries can never be completely controlled but must be a primary concern. All teams want the best players playing. The level of intensity at practice is designed for the most efficient progression for learning and staying healthy.
Professional football differs greatly from college in that pro players can practice any level of intensity with very few athletes ever hitting the ground. In college football, you will see more players getting off the ground. Part of the reason is the fact college athletes as a whole are not nearly as talented; and also, pro players have learned how to practice with great intensity yet keep each other off the ground.
When players are going to the ground the risk of injury is much greater. The coach must find the right balance of contact and non-contact to be prepared and stay healthy.
Educating or yelling as a leadership style?
Every coach, just like every person, has their own unique personality. In my 35 years of coaching I've worked for many different head coaches. I've also had the opportunity as a defensive coordinator to observe position coaches on the field and in the classroom.
My personality and background is that of an educator or teacher. Most likely it came from my experience when I was playing football at the University of Delaware. The coaches were all organized, passionate, and prided themselves as teachers. We didn't have what I would consider really loud coaches. The loud coach is not one who is loud only by volume by his vulgar, demeaning, and negative style. There are leaders in football and other professions who prefer this loud and intimidating approach. I've been on many staffs where the head coach also prefers and encourages this style of coaching. It can be very effective as well.
When that is your methodology usually it is a result of a lack of confidence in your knowledge, organization, communication, or teaching.
My preference has always been more of the teaching or educator’s approach to developing leadership. I do think it has slowed me down in my professional advancement. It is important for leaders to be sure they are not mistaking kindness for weakness.
Loud doesn't always mean strong, demanding, detailed, and organized. There are times loud in volume is necessary and it's even more effective when it is used sparingly.
Words that build up, encourage, and inspire players will benefit more in the long run. There are many scripture quotes about the benefits of building others up. 2 Corinthians 13:10 “…. authority the Lord gave me for building up and not for tearing down.”
In life and sports, there are times when loud must be used. Effective leaders know when and why and use it only when required to get the highest level of performance from their teams.
Building winning teams in an era of free agency.
Free Agency has changed professional football in a number of ways. No longer can you assume your favorite player or the team’s best player will remain with that organization any longer than their contract length. It has also leveled the playing field where teams that are struggling can become competitive very quickly by good choices in the draft and free agency. In this era of free agency, dynasties are difficult. It takes a great organization to sustain championship level play and talent.
I have witnessed many coaches and leaders fall prey to the thinking that a high profile, popular, highly sought-after, and highly-priced player is best.
There have been times where that free agent, for various reasons, is just not a good fit to continue building towards a championship. It could be that your existing talent simply won’t be good enough for that high dollar acquisition or be as effective. It’s possible your scheme and tactics don’t suit this player as well. The media will initially welcome this kind of player and fanfare. Initially, it will stir great interest at the fan level. When the team falters or the free agent doesn’t fulfill expectations that are unrealistic he will become the primary target of criticism. This can easily become a distraction.
All of this can be avoided by one simple rule. Do your homework! There is absolutely no reason a team and an organization shouldn’t know exactly what they are buying.
I have been with some organizations that sign a player as a free agent and pay a high price because the market dictates the value and think the players on field production will change to reflect the market. That is the number one fallacy. The player you sign will be the same player you viewed on video. There may be small degrees of change for good or bad, but an organization that does their homework will not be surprised.
It is easier to manage the media’s expectations by educating them and the fan base as to exactly what was bought.
It is amazing to me that in the NFL and its billion-dollar business, GMs, Head Coaches, and organizations will invest millions of dollars without being thorough in the evaluation process and investigating the move from all angles. There are teams that simply don’t do their homework or ignore the data because of the initial excitement created for the team.
Many organizations fail because of the arrogance. With the popularity of professional football and technology with access to all games, there are new analytical companies that have been born. They grade every single player on every single play. Because some of the analysts are not scouts or coaches, an organization’s arrogance that anyone but themselves can grade a player prevents them from using a valuable tool to offset their own work.
For more insight on how to evaluate talent and get the most out of your team check out my leadership course.
Leadership requires hard work and dedication.
Any goal worth setting and achieving requires a large commitment of time and dedication to accomplish it. The truly successful continually set, achieve and reset their goals. Being an effective coach is no different.
The in-season life of an assistant coach in the NFL is a pure grind as far as the time spent in the office preparing each week. Usually coaches will spend 12-18 hours a day in the office. Most coaches are highly competitive. When their assigned tasks are completed and if there is still any fuel left in their usually depleted gas tank, they will find new ways to create more work for themselves to find an edge against the competition.
It seems coaches aren’t satisfied until they feel they have completely exhausted themselves.
Most coaches were athletes themselves at some level so in order to make it through the insane hours and pressure, some coaches will find the early hours before the grind begins to get a workout. I being one of those coaches felt the workout (which was anywhere between 30-60 minutes) helped get my creative mind alert and active just before the day began. In my younger days I would begin the workout at 6am at the facility. Depending on the commute that meant a 5am wake up at the latest. As I got into my last 5-6 years, for some reason this workout began earlier and earlier. My final 3 years started with a workout at 4-4:30am. My alarm was set for 3am (crazy!).
After the workout, the rest of your schedule varied somewhat from team to team or more accurately Head Coach to Head Coach or Coordinator to Coordinator.
In most organizations there would be be a staff meeting to begin the day with either the HC or Coordinator at 7am on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday which are heavy work days. Monday varies because of travel or the time of Sunday’s game. Saturdays are a walkthrough, travel, and evening meetings. Sunday is the normal Gameday. I will describe in detail in later posts what each day of the week resembles.
On Tuesday and Wednesday which are the heaviest days for workload, the day would normally end between 10pm and 12am. If you happened to be one of the early risers you could be talking about an 18 hour day easily. Thursday is a little shorter, ending anywhere from 5pm-8pm depending on your boss. Friday would end between 4-7pm and most coaches looked at it as their family or date night. From purely a total hour standpoint you can see it is not for the weak of heart or for those expecting to eat dinner at home or see their kids off to bed for 7-8 months of the year.
On top of what seems like endless hours, there is the stress that comes with the pressure of performing well at your position. If you happen to be short on talent or just don’t meet the expectation level set by the Head Coach or Coordinator, you can find yourself fired no matter how hard you’ve worked.
The ironic aspect of life in the league as an assistant coach is it doesn’t matter if you are winning or losing. The Head Coach is most certainly evaluated on wins and losses but that is not the case for the position coach. It is one of the aspects about the league I believe is unfortunate because as much as it is a team game, this reality tears down the team building. Coaches with families have the added stress of leaving their home life to a single parent for 7 months. Single coaches sacrifice social life or relationship building for 7 months.
If you are looking for a job with high stress, long hours, insecurity and relocating often: then coaching professional football is right for you! But really any profession where you want to be the best there ever was, requires hard work and dedication. Go forth with lofty goals and set about achieving them. The hard work will be worth the effort.
Being well prepared and confident doesn’t eliminate the nerves but will usually lessen the degree.
Much like professionals in any career from singers, dancers, comedians, entertainers, or actors and actresses almost everyone has some nervousness. Some more than others. Any business professional or someone in the military will have some nerves or anxiety when the time comes to put their training to use. The more prepared one feels, the less anxiety and nervousness you usually have.
Being well prepared and confident doesn’t eliminate the nerves but will usually lessen the degree.
Pro football players are no different regardless of their age or experience. The week builds through meetings and practice, thinking and action to prepare for the game. The fact that you move from training to the game and you have nowhere to hide in a full stadium does initiate some nervousness. Football players are similar to those serving in our military and their anxieties. Rarely does football have fatal consequences as in the military. The life or death consequences of a mistake in the military creates a higher level of stress. Both worlds are similar in the team aspect of the job. The professional players will stress most about failure and the possibility he could let his teammates down much like a soldier stressing over letting his fellow soldiers down. Even one mistake in an otherwise perfect performance could affect the entire outcome of the game.
Each and every team’s goal is the same -- to be World Champs. With so much time, energy, sweat and blood put into the preparation, the players are extremely sensitive to doing well for the team. It is not uncommon to wear their emotions on their sleeves. For some, with that much time shared in the grind of training, a bond is developed among the players. The stronger the bond, the better the team performs.
Preparing well doesn’t guarantee victory because there are times that talent level or the game plans presented to the player is not adequate. I have seen over the years many players throw up in the locker room or on the field just prior to the game from nerves. Once they take the field their training kicks in and the nerves usually disappear. The anticipation of the competition creates the worst stress.
There are also times during the game when you may see an athlete appear nervous or stressed all of a sudden. This will happen to some players when it is known to all watching or competing the outcome will be determined by the next play or plays. Players who allow their training and confidence to dominate their thoughts usually perform the best.
Yes, professional players get nervous mainly because they don’t want to let their teammates down! In the back of their mind is the possibility of injury and the fact that their financial livelihood and career is based on their game day performance. Regardless of how well they train, they must produce on Game Day to keep their jobs!
Harness fear to maximize performance.
Whenever starting something new or whenever you must perform at the top of your game, it is natural to exhibit a degree of fear. fear can be motivating, but it can just as easily be paralyzing. Great coaches help their team members understand that fear is natural and learning to harness it can produce greatness.
When I started coaching I never forgot what it was like to experience that fear for the physical aspect of the game -- which has become even more ferocious. It is extremely difficult for a player to reach their potential if they cannot overcome the aspect of fear.
When there is fear, there is no joy. If there is no joy, there is no real passion! I have been in many coaching staff meetings were players are belittled, berated and overly criticized for being timid or fearful in the contact element of the game. Obviously as a coach, if a player lacks contact skills it is a liability in a collision sport.
As the level of competition increases from high school to professional football, non-contact players are slowly weeded out. Professional football still has players who don’t like the contact, but possess other superior characteristics.
Knowing what it is like to overcome and cope with my own anxieties and fear has given me a different perspective than most coaches. Rather than belittle and degrade a person’s fear, I applaud their great courage. It takes bravery to step on the field day after day and to overcome that fear and perform. What courage it takes for a young person to go to school every day and overcome the fear of seeing the bully.
Since the door has closed on my professional coaching career I have expanded my horizons and come out of my comfort zone to grow and continue to overcome my own anxieties.
One of the most rewarding is starting to practice Gracie Jiu Jitsu with Coach Carlos Diaz in Destin, Florida. The Gracie program also offers a program called Bully Proof. It is one of my favorites because it gives the individual the tools and self-esteem and confidence to overcome fears. I empathize and hope everyone, especially young people living in fear, find their way to Be Not Afraid and overcome!
As leaders, it is our jobs to help our players achieve greatness, even if only in their own minds, by conquering fear and channeling it to do good.
I am probably an expert in the area of fear and panic attacks. It is ironic that someone on the small side ends up coaching in the world of professional football with very large and intimidating athletes. Growing up being one of the small kids probably contributed to my constant anxiety, stress and sometimes fear. It is difficult to have any joy when you are experiencing those emotions.
Fortunately, I had an older brother who was one of the bigger kids and best athletes in high school. He always took a very protective posture for his little brother. It probably kept me from being bullied. Which is and always has been an issue that is serious and real. I am grateful for my brother having my back, but until you can overcome your anxiety and fear on your own it will never be conquered.
I have the utmost empathy for anyone who is constantly living with fear. Somehow I found a way to cope and battle through my own anxiety and fear. One tool for me was my daily scripture reading. Scripture states “Be Not Afraid” many times over and over. That alone helped me and my anxiety knowing that no matter what happened I would always be victorious in my faith!
I didn’t play organized football until 9th grade and again had to overcome the fear of contact because I had never experienced it. Tackling drills were not organized by similar sizes. If it came to the smallest vs the biggest, that was the luck of the draw. Surviving that on my own was one of the last steps of learning to overcome my fears and anxiety to build some self-esteem.
The coaching life is not for anyone looking for security. Jobs are not only hard to come by, but difficult to keep as well. There's so much competition in the coaching field these days and there are so many intelligent, hard-working athletes aspiring to continue their careers as a coach. Professional football has opened its ranks to include women as well. Once you enter the career coaching world there are some tough realities you and your family will have to deal with.
There are only a few coaches who can start their career in the professional ranks. Most of these coaches are former NFL players who have prepared during their career by learning as much about the game and the coaching life as possible, as well as committing to being the best player possible. It is great to see some of these athletes who weren't the superstars of the sport find an opportunity in a career they so passionately embraced.
Regardless of how you get your chance, if you want to continue to climb the career ladder you will have to move, and move often.
I have coached 35 years and averaged a move every 3 1/2 years. I've known many coaches who have averaged moving every two years. For the coach it can be an exciting time moving to a new team and a new adventure. The people who struggle the most is your wife and family. Finding a new place to live, trying to find new friends, and getting familiar and comfortable with the new area and staff members are only a few of the challenges. Often a new job means longer hours in the office, in the off-season, and even more time away from home because of it. A coach's wife is much like a single parent.
It is especially exciting when moving because of the promotion. More often than not, a coach will have to move because he has been fired and needs work. Sometimes the head coach is released and the staff with him. There are times the head coach fires a number of assistants. I've been through them all.
It is slightly easier when you have years remaining on your contract so you are guaranteed income to provide for your family as you seek a new job.
When your contract is up and you're fired, it is much more stressful.
The window to secure another job is small and the stress is compounded knowing a paycheck is soon going to end. I've been fired or searching for a job over half a dozen times. It is humbling and a real blow to your self-esteem when you are not nearly as sought-after as you may have thought. People who were interested in talking to you when you were coaching don't seem quite as interested any longer. When you walk around a crowd at the Senior bowl or scouting combine it is like the Red Sea parting. People try to avoid speaking to you. You feel like you have a contagious disease.
You come to understand you have few, if any friends, but many acquaintances. I've been on both sides of the fence and think I've been very sensitive by talking to and helping if I could, someone looking for work. Simply returning a phone call, breaking the news a job has been filled, or letting someone know you can’t help is a professional courtesy that has been lost on most people. Very few phone calls, emails or texts are ever responded to when you mention you are looking for job.
It really does beat you down and can be difficult for the family to see their husband or dad face rejection after rejection and struggle to find work. There's a silver lining in these difficult times. If you keep your faith and stay strong displaying a kind and optimistic disposition, your wife and children gain a valuable life lesson. God did not give us the power of overcoming life, but of life as we overcome!
One of my first times out of a job I was visiting my parents and grandparents in Pittsburgh and I was told something I'll never forget. My grandmother asked if I had found work yet. I told her I was still looking. She then responded with something I'll never forget. She said, “A man is not a man without his work.” OH so true in so many ways!
My time coaching in the NFL was rewarding, challenging, stressful, exhilarating, and also a privilege. The first time I put on gear that carried the NFL shield was exciting. The idea I was having an opportunity to be part of a world of coaches and athletes at the pinnacle of their profession was stimulating and intoxicating. I couldn’t stop peeking at that shield every time I would put on a different piece of clothing. I would think, “Wow! I’m really here coaching.”
It’s more than the fact the league is so popular, but the people in the league are so special. I reflect on my career and the years I spent coaching in the league and feel proud — from winning a championship to coaching on an expansion team with one win. I enjoyed being part of an elite group of athletes and coaches.
So many of the players and coaches display the character-building traits that makes being part of a team so rewarding: hardworking, committed, passionate, relentless, determined, and persistent to name a few.
When the doors closed on my professional coaching career it didn’t change my feelings about how fortunate I was to be part of such a popular game and more importantly, so many exceptional people.
Life and football are a lot alike. In life you start slowly learning how to survive with the help of your family. As you grow you take on more responsibility and begin your formal education eventually ending in a job and more skills that need to be learned and fine-tuned. Football is similar in that you typically get introduced to the sport when you are young and as you get older and stronger, more and more time is spent fine-tuning your craft. In Football, your coaches and team-mates are your family. And practice is your education. At each level the training, leadership, and team-building skills become more and more important.
The last time I coached in the college ranks you played 11 or 12 regular season games and possibly a bowl game if invited. The regular season was over somewhere between Thanksgiving and the first week of December. You were allowed two weeks of pre-season practice before your opening regular season game.
After 13 years of coaching in college I got my opportunity to coach in the NFL. It was 1992 and I was fortunate to join the Dallas Cowboys' coaching staff. Jimmy Johnson was the Head Coach and Dave Wannstedt, the defensive coordinator. Dave took me under his wing and helped me understand some of the differences between college and the league.
At that time, we had 2 weeks of training camp, then 5 pre-season games. Our first pre-season game was the American Bowl as it was called back then in Tokyo, Japan.
We spent the week in Tokyo practicing against what was then the Houston Oilers. Following that game, we played 4 more pre-season games. The training camp practices had no restrictions regarding contact: wearing pads or not wearing pads, or even how many practices per day. Bottom line, before we even played a regular season game we already went through the equivalent of half of a college season.
During this time most teams left their normal team facility and went to a different location for training camp. So not only did you endure long 16-hour coaching days, but you were 7 weeks away from home and family. We then began the 16 game regular season and its grueling coaching hours. Before we had even reached the halfway point in the regular season it was the equivalent of a full college season. Talk about going from a sprint to a marathon! I had already hit a wall at the end of training camp and now was about to hit the wall again with 8 games left in the regular season.
We finished the regular season winning our division and earning a bye for the first week of the playoffs. Coaches didn’t get time off. We started our grind through game tape of potential opponents. We had a fabulous team and went on to win our 3 playoff games and become World Champions!
All in all, we had played 24 total games including pre-season. Basically, two college seasons with no break. So my first years as a professional coach would not only be gratifying earning a championship, but I must admit my first memories are how long, exhausting, and grueling that first year as a professional was!
Another surprise to me as I reflect back on that first year was how I could have been so far off in my impression of our team. It was difficult to see how great that team was because it was hard for anyone to stand out. In college, the range of talent is so much greater that good players easily stood out. When you had a half dozen stand out players in college you assumed you would have a good team. I look back in awe of the talent Jimmy Johnson accumulated for the franchise.
Now that I am no longer coaching, it is amazing to me that the traits you see in good football teams are also present in successful companies, and at almost every level of a fully functioning unit, right down to family. It is a parent's job to "coach" their kids to allow them to flourish and develop, just as it is a good manager's job to nurture his team to become the best they can be. The lessons I learned about teams and the team dynamic, as well as how to lead and nurture athletes can be applied to improve any group needing to function as a team.