Three questions to ask yourself after a clinic.
Knowledge is fun, but the most important thing is to ask, "Can we teach it?"
“[There is a] misconception that knowledge is about trying to justify your beliefs as true.”
As we enter the start of clinic season, it is essential to keep perspective about what we are learning. Not every team is created equal and we all have different abilities to meet the needs of our programs. Though we as coaches would like to think that we can make a heroic change and win it all, the reality is that the best players often win games.
When two even teams meet, coaching/teaching/motivating now comes into play. Brad Stulberg calls this need, Heroic Individualism, which leads us to a constant game of oneupmanship where measurable achievements (mainly winning) are the main avenue for our definition of success. Heroic Individualism often leads to burnout and disillusionment.
Heroic Individualism states, “…you will never have enough, be enough, or do enough. It is an endless gauntlet of more.”
The statement above is not to be discouraging but to remind that, as coaches, our job is to try and maximize the potential in every player we touch, not necessarily get to the top of the mountain and then stop. We teach a game to kids, who also happen to be human beings. Notice, I did not say we are to just maximize their ability to play football. Coaching is a much deeper calling than that.
Related Content: Moving Away From Winning as a Metric
Every off-season, the hot topic is the use of culture within a program versus the scheme being used on the field. The reality is that culture and scheme are not a dichotomy, a division between two things that are represented as being entirely different. They are symbiotic, a mutually beneficial relationship between different entities, within the program.
Culture and scheme are built in the pedagogy of techniques and the clarity of direction to the game. Football is a game that kids play. Don’t ever forget that. We use the game to teach the tools of life, which is why I love this game so much.
There is no other sport the requires what football does. Everyone at some point has to be a leader, they have to show up, and they have to put their body on the line. If they can’t do that, they can’t be a part of the TEAM.
And that is the most critical aspect. Football requires all 11 players to do the right thing to complete the task at hand. For offense, it is creating space, and for defense, it is constraining space. If you understand the aspect of space, you have a grasp, at least at the basic levels, of football. I call it “Spatial Darwinism,” or the ability to create or constrain space by manipulating the techniques and alignments on the field of play. Those who can survive, those who can’t parish.
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As we go into the Spring, clinics and knowledge abound. There is almost too much football (if that is an actual thing! My wife believes it is.). We’ve all done it. Sitting at a clinic, pen to paper, scribbling notes as the hamster wheel in our head spins at a high volume, we imagine, dream, about how this knowledge will change our program.
But, in reality, one thing is most likely not going to change the direction of an entire program. If you take one thing away from a clinic, be it a better way to teach something, a technique that is better than the one you teach, or a more intuitive design than what you have, then it was worth it.
Here’s the key: you have to teach the concept. And not just you, but the coaches on your staff. You may hold this golden nugget of information, but if the position coach can’t teach it, doesn’t understand it, or you don’t clearly comprehend the entire concept and how it fits into your scheme, then the struggle will most definitely be real.
Knowledge is power, yes, but only if you can diffuse that knowledge into your ecosystem (team). Coaching is teaching, and if you think it’s not, you are mistaken. One trend I have noticed in Texas is that more administrators now want coaches to teach, not PE, but actual core classes - tested subjects. They are beginning to truly understand the value of teaching and relationship building, that as coaches, we have known about for a long time and is precisely what great coaches do.
Pedagogy, by definition, is the method and practice of teaching. The method is the approach and the how, and the practice is the literal doing/illustrating what is being taught. My point is this, the best way to learn is to teach, so if you learn something new, dig deep, understand the pedagogy and how this new knowledge fits into your scheme.
If you have to cut something out to make the puzzle piece fit, do so. Remember, not every program is created equal. Do what you need to survive.
Every team lives in a unique ecosystem, which, again, is a reason I love football. What may be suitable for me at Life Waxahachie may not be what is needed at a larger (or smaller) high school down the road. We all have different needs and different questions to solve. I have coached at the FBS down to a 1,000 student school (4A). At each stop, there were unique challenges, cultures, and needs for our student-athletes.
For instance, this past year was the first time in my career where the team I was involved with didn’t single-platoon, meaning all our players had to play both ways. Going both ways doubles the knowledge at which kids must understand and execute, something I had never thought of because I had never experienced this. Time is more limited and the amount of information that can be disseminated and retained goes down, something I didn’t plan on because of my lack of experience in this realm.
I learned a valuable lesson about time management and that you are limited not by your knowledge but by the people teaching it and the players executing it. When you only have an hour to get your side of practice completed, you learn how to simplify. I had to adapt.
Simple doesn’t mean simplistic, which is treating complex issues as if they were much more straightforward than they are. Streamlining the pedagogy needs to be a priority so the coaches around you can convey the techniques clearly to the players. The primary goal is to make a complex game simple for players as coaches.
“A model might show you some risks, but not the risks of using it. Moreover, models are built on a finite set of parameters, while reality affords us infinite sources of risks.”
— Nassim Nicholas Taleb
So, as you enter clinic season, keep perspective of your team’s needs. The map is not the terrain, which means that though you may have a playbook from a famous coach or received the knowledge of a revolutionary scheme from said famous coach, it is only the superficial face of the actual technique/scheme. The terrain is the proper pedagogy and culture behind the concept. The map is just the playbook.
For example, I can give you a paper map of Waxahachie, Texas, but that only gives you a 2D version of the town. You need the intimate knowledge of living here to get around, know where things are, and troubleshoot certain spots. You have to live in reality.
Always do a debrief once you have gained some new knowledge at a clinic or talked with a staff/coach. The main goal of the debrief is to step outside of the moment and critically review what you just learned. The best way to do this is to ask these three questions:
Does this fit into our ecosystem?
How will this be used within our system?
Can WE teach it?
First, does the concept you just learned fit into the ecosystem in which you live? For example, if you are in a run-heavy district/conference where teams utilize simple play-action passing and basic route combinations, it doesn’t make sense to complicate your coverage schemes for the sake of being “cool.” It would be awesome to run 2-Steal, Birddog, or all the Cover 7 variations on a regular basis, but for what I need, those don’t make sense. It’s Occam’s Razor, “the simplest solution is almost always the best.” No need to overcomplicate a simple need.
On the other hand, don’t get complex to be complex for skilled opponents. We often overestimate the demand for many schemes we run because we feel we need answers instead of just searching for the best solution. I know I am at fault on this one!
I felt I could install an entire playbook full of concepts going into this past season. I did my due diligence and attempted to simplify the schematics down to the minutia prior to the season. Everything looked great, except it was paper knowledge to my coaches and not the physical application of the pedagogy. By definition, this is the age-old battle of book knowledge versus applied knowledge. I got to Life in June and didn’t start teaching the concepts to the coaches until August. Heroic individualism anyone?
I overestimated the time and effort needed to teach the techniques and concepts required for the coaches to feel comfortable within the system. By the middle of the year, I knew I had to make a change. Cut the fat, get good at what we need, and teach the hell out of fundamentals while forgetting the rest.
What happened? We got better because the coaches felt comfortable and had clarity of what was expected, allowing them to project that onto the players. In the end, use what you need and can teach, not what you want, and never sacrifice fundamental techniques.
Second, you need to ask how will this new concept be used? Is it a 3rd Down pressure or an early-down tool? Will this change the base way we teach something, or will it be used to better explain a technique we already have? If the concept doesn’t fit your schematics, it probably is nothing more than a cool idea. Save it for later, when you need it.
Critically analyze every piece of information you receive and ask, do we need this? If the answer is yes, go to work on fitting it into your nomenclature and pedagogy. Ask the coaches who will be teaching this what they think. Even ask your players to partake. If the answer is no, then store it for later.
The problem with knowledge is that it is our best guess at the time. If we are looking at information through Anchoring bias (clinging to the first piece of information we receive), we aren’t trying to get better. Instead, we use this new knowledge to justify what we already believe - Confirmation Bias. Cognitive biases are a real thing and have sunk many a great coach and program.
The overall concept I’m describing is called Bayesianism, meaning you only use the information collected to become more confident in what you know. The problem with this thinking is that you never create anything new; you can’t adapt. Everything is right until it is not. Create > Produce > Consume.
The only constant in life is change, and you better be able to adapt, or eventually, you will get fetched by someone who is. I know it sounds exhausting, but in sport, you are always the hunted. So I tell young coaches all the time, learn a system and then spend the rest of their career proving it wrong. What sticks is best practice.
Finally, and the most important, can WE teach it. Notice I used “we.” That includes all coaches. Just because you hold the knowledge doesn’t mean the other coaches around you do. If you are a coordinator or head coach, you have to distill the information and teach it to your coaches first. In the end, you can’t micromanage everything. You can’t do everything by yourself. It would be best if you instilled confidence in your coaches and let them diffuse that confidence to their position rooms.
Confidence within what is being taught is a trickle-down effect. The players can tell whether you believe in something or not. Don’t fool yourself. If you don’t believe in a concept or know confidently how to teach it, then the players will suffer. It breeds doubt and uncertainty. Many times what we consider cowardice or slowness on the field results from the player not knowing what to do. That lies solely on the coach.
Our responsibility is to teach it and do so in a digestible and straightforward manner. Remember that the next time you debrief after a clinic. Do what is needed, not what you want, and never forget the players because they are the ones playing the game. In the end, we (coaches) are just spectators to their success.
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