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June 2011

June 2011


Steuerwald’s Rules – A coaching legend shares his guidelines for designing and implementing an effective pre-season practice schedule.

by: Steve Dorsey
© June 2011

Click for Printer Friendly Version          

In sixty days or less, your 2011 team will be assembled for pre-season practice. They’ll be pushing themselves to achieve peak physical condition, battling each other for higher spots on the depth chart and, in most places around the country, struggling to get through practices in oppressive heat and humidity.


    They’ll also be learning from you and your fellow coaches. How you conduct the critical August practice sessions – whether it’s teaching the playbook, evaluating talent or conditioning your players – will to a large degree determine your success once the games get underway.

    While there may be no single blueprint for designing a perfect practice schedule, there are certain guidelines that, according to Brent Steuerwald of Shenendehowa High School in Clifton Park, New York, every coach should consider when planning practice sessions in the weeks prior to the first game.

    During his 54 years of coaching, including the past 43 as the head coach at Shenendehowa, Steuerwald has adjusted to numerous changes in the game. His career coaching record of 307-88-4 is proof that he’s adapted quite well. “There’s always something new,” Steuerwald said. “You have to adapt. That’s the fun thing, because it’s a challenge.”

    One thing in his approach to coaching that has not changed over the years, however, is his belief that the first three weeks of fall practices leading up to the season opener are the most important weeks of the season. “They are critical,” Steuerwald said. “You can’t go undefeated if you don’t win the first game.”

    Coach Steuerwald, who turns 76 this month, points out that almost half of his team’s practices each season are conducted during the three weeks prior to the first game. Like many coaches, he has two-a-day practices Monday through Friday before fall classes begin, and also holds a single practice on Saturday morning. That’s 11 practice sessions each of the first two weeks and four more the week of the season opener.

    That’s why so much work goes into planning every session, every drill, basically every minute of three weeks worth of practices. “Prior Planning Prevents Pitiful Poor Performance” is Steuerwald’s motto and it is evident when you look at the daily practice organizational charts, which he is generously sharing with AFM readers. (Note: Detailed charts for all 22 practice sessions can be downloaded and printed by clicking here)

Beating the clock

    Having a detailed, minute-by-minute practice plan is a real plus. But it’s useless if the coaching staff doesn’t stick to it every day, explained Steuerwald. “I’m adamant about maintaining the clock,” he said. “You have to move along.” 
 

   He believes that time is one of the most important things in our lives and “one of the few things we all have equally as coaches.” It’s something that can never be recaptured. “Coaching football is a critical race against time,” he said, “and it’s essential to constantly prioritize and build a sense of urgency into every plan and practice session.”
 
Beating the Heat

    Stifling heat and humidity is as much the rule in upstate New York as it is in most parts of the country in mid-August. Over the years, Steuerwald has adapted the two-a-day practice schedule to avoid the midday heat. “Kids and coaches all prefer the practice to be back-to-back and be done for the day around 2 o’clock,” Steuerwald said. “However, I reserve the right to mandate the second practice be in the evening if the forecast is for a heat index that could be dangerous.” In this scenario, the morning session is run from 8:00 to 10:30 and the evening session starts at 5:30 and ends at 8:00. Both sessions conclude with conditioning drills.

    “Early season is the most threatening time for heat-related concerns,” he said. Water breaks are frequent and players are instructed to remove their helmets and pull up their shirts/jerseys during instructional talks with the coaches. Steuerwald encourages players to bring their own gallon jugs of water and/or Gatorade that are labeled with their names so that they’ll always be able to hydrate quickly during breaks.

Making cuts

    Final team selections are made after Steuerwald huddles with his assistants following the evaluation meeting on Saturday of the first week. Steuerwald said it’s the toughest part of his job.
 

   “I really dislike the concept of cutting,” he said. Steuerwald never posts a list of those players who did not make the team. Instead, he meets with each one individually. “I ask each one if they think they’ve been given a fair chance to make the team. And 99 percent say, ‘Yes.’ But if one says, ‘No,’ I’ll give them a chance after the Saturday scrimmage and tell them they can come back Monday and Tuesday, but they’re going to go up against the best to prove they deserve a spot on the team.”

    Steuerwald generally has a varsity roster of between 38-42 players, and no more than 45. His typical roster will include 15 players who are two-way players but their main priority will be on either offense or defense. There’s another 15 players who he calls his prep squad for the opponent on a particular week, but they have a chance to move up on the depth chart if they prove themselves on the prep squad. “I’d rather face the issues (regarding playing time) in August instead of later,” he said.

    To help his coaching staff focus on key principals of effective planning, Steuerwald developed a list of 12 guidelines that define his practice organization philosophy. At the end of the chart listing the guidelines, Steuerwald delivers a message to his assistants. “BELIEVE IN OUR PLAN – NOTHING GOOD HAPPENS BY ACCIDENT.” It’s an appropriate way to sum up the 54-year coaching veteran’s core belief in planning and attention to every detail as the keys to successful practices and success on the playing field. 

Brent Steuerwald’s
12 Guidelines for Better Practice Organization
 
1. If it’s not written down, it won’t happen

    Steuerwald has written down virtually every aspect of his football program – from everything he expects of his assistant coaches during each practice or the purpose of each drill to a minute-by-minute gameday schedule. “It’s human nature to fly by the seat of our pants,” Steuerwald says. But, for him, that’s unnatural and unproductive.

2. Progress from teaching drills to training drills 

    Steuerwald likes to move as quickly as possible from teaching drills to training and coaching on the run to maximize repetitions. “We all like to hear ourselves talk,” he says. “But talking takes a lot of time.”

    “Explain why you want every drill done the way you’re teaching it. You have to move quickly from teaching to training and reps are important. There’s no idle time. Time is precious. Listen carefully and understand each part of the drill. It’s very important to teach correctly, and then get into training drills,” he said. “Repetition is important. You can never have too many reps.”

    That doesn’t mean that Steuerwald and his staff won’t adapt their drill progressions to reflect the skills of his players. “Fundamentals and skills that we emphasize during the early part of the season are dependent on the returning players’ level of skill matched up with our junior varsity players moving up,” Steuerwald said. “Our drills are consistent regardless, but tempo of installation and repetition is subject to daily evaluation and discussion.”
 
3. Drills repeated at length become conditioning drills

    Steuerwald cautions coaches not to automatically repeat drills if players aren’t performing them correctly. “Sometimes coaches do this out of anger, but then it becomes counter-productive,” he says. “Kids get turned off by that. They want to do it right. Sometimes I’ll take a player who is doing it right and have the other players watch so they see the correct way to do it. As coaches, we have to adapt to individuals.” 
 
4. Whole-Part learning is the basis
for teaching drills

    Steuerwald tells each player the concept of what the play is designed to accomplish, then works with each individual to perfect his job, whether it’s a tight end and tackle blocking correctly to open a crease or a running back hitting that crease the right way. “Plays take several players working together to work, and it’s important for each player to get a vision of what makes a play work.” 

5. Practice things that make a difference

    Steuerwald defines what areas need to improve and works to make them better in practice.

    “We spend a lot of time evaluating players and our opponents,” he says. “If we’re having a problem with team pursuit, for instance, then we have to practice extra on that aspect or perhaps address a personnel change. Again, you have to adapt and adjust as the situation demands. I don’t think in all the years I’ve coached that I’ve used exactly the same practice plan, although the first two weeks (in August) are probably the most consistent.” 
 
6. Relate drills to game situations 

    Drills can be ineffective if they don’t take into account the situations that players will face in games. “I’ve had defensive guys who would beat the hell out their opponents, but as they’re doing that, a running back goes right by them. You have to be conscious of what will be going on in game situations as you conduct drills.” 
 
7. Work with coaching staff to set priorities

    Steuerwald believes it’s important to have open discussions with his staff and let them know if he believes more effort needs to be placed on specific areas of team or individual play. “Converse and let them know what is most important in the game plan,” he said. That also includes making adjustments at halftime of a game.

    He values the opinions of his assistant coaches and encourages them to speak up if they believe something needs to be changed or tweaked that would benefit the team. “I enjoy a little bit of dissent and argument,” he said. “I think it’s good for my coaches to think things through.”

8. Coach an error or point of emphasis, one point at a time

    It’s important not to over coach by giving players too many points to work on at one time.
    “Human beings can usually only focus on one issue at a time,” Steuerwald said. “A kid can’t fully comprehend five or six things thrown at him at the same time. Don’t throw too much at them all at once. Get one thing right, then move on to the next.”
 
9. Feedback should come in the form of high praise – selective praise and constructive criticism 

    Steuerwald admits that some players might benefit from a butt-kicking or tongue-lashing, but he finds it mostly counter-productive. “This is a deep belief of mine,” he said. “Let’s say a kid drops a TD in the end zone. When he comes to the sideline, don’t berate him. Give him a boost. Tell him you know he’ll catch it the next time. Be more positive, not negative. You can’t make him feel any worse than he already feels. Attacking them is ultimately detrimental. Some kids you need to get in their face, but encourage them. That’s the best way to get the most out of each kid.”
 
10. Correcting errors

    Steuerwald recognizes that improving players’ skills in practice is best done on a one-on-one basis. “Every kid is different,” he said. “Address the part of a player’s game that needs correcting by following these guidelines: First, break down and freeze the elements of a skill. Analyze and identify the right and wrong parts. Then retrain the right way with high reps, feedback and encouragement. Help each athlete attain the feel of proper execution.”

    “I’ll adapt the practice plan based on evaluation of each practice. If we have a problem with backs blocking ends, then I’ll tell my assistants that we need to work harder on that.” Again, feedback from assistants is critical. “The tempo of new phases is dependent on how coaches evaluate achievement level,” Steuerwald said. 

11. Teaching cues for effective performance

    “Knowledge is power,” says Steuerwald of what he calls the cognitive area of teaching. “Make sure each player understands what he’s supposed to do. For instance, if a quarterback keeps dropping his arm when passing, keep reminding him until it becomes natural for him to deliver the ball correctly. 

    “An athlete needs to think and do. It’s the power of positive imagery. Ask a player to think his way through each play,” Steuerwald said. “For instance, tell your quarterback to visualize each pattern of his wide receivers and think what the defensive reactions could be. It’s all about visualizing success. Emphasize positive mental imagery and confidence in preparation.” 

    Also, teach mental toughness and how to be a role model and leader. “It’s different for each position, but the concept remains the same.”

12. “When all else fails, smile and throw the dog a bone.”

    If you’ve done your best and your players have given their best effort, that’s all that can be asked, believes Steuerwald. “Lighten up a little,” he said. “And don’t ever forget you love them and they love you.”






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