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AFM Magazine

0-12: How To Deal With Losing

by: Steve Dorsey
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We embrace winners. It’s in our DNA. But the other side of winning is losing, and it can be a painful pill to digest when it happens so often. Perhaps that is no more evident than in coaching. But, inevitably, every coach will experience that pain at some point in his career. How a coach deals with the negative aspects that accompany losing is a matter of perspective and having faith in what he is doing will reap rewards in the face of adversity.

Bob Davie, the former coach at Notre Dame who now is a college football analyst for ESPN, recently spoke about the amount of stress that accompanies the job of being a head coach at the college level. One of his comments pretty much sums it up. “The lowest of lows are brutal. The highs are euphoric,” said Davie, who endured his share of adversity during his five-year tenure at Notre Dame from 1997-2001.

Todd Dodge, the head coach at the University of North Texas, certainly can relate to that perspective. Dodge was a highly successful coach at Southlake Carroll High School in Texas, where he compiled a phenomenal 79-1 record over five years before accepting an offer to take over the program at North Texas in 2007.

Dodge has faced plenty of adversity since making that career leap, including 31 losses in his first three seasons at UNT. This season, the Mean Green lost its first three games, including a heartbreaking 32-31 home loss to Rice on Sept. 18 before winning their first game against Florida Atlantic.

North Texas was 2-10 in 2009, but the Mean Green were much more competitive than the previous year and six of the losses were by a touchdown or less. Six of the team’s top eight players on defense were returning and Lance Dunbar, who rushed for 1,378 yards and 17 touchdowns in just eight starts last season, was back, sparking renewed enthusiasm and hope for a winning season in 2010.

“Coming in, I was very excited about this season,” Dodge said. That bright outlook quickly dimmed, however. Ten starters went down with injuries in a three-week span, and less than a month into the season, Dodge was forced to start his third-string quarterback, his son Riley, who started the season at wide receiver. He’s also taking snaps from a backup center.
Like most coaches, Dodge realizes that coaching has peaks and valleys. The trick is learning to navigate the bad times and keep players motivated and focused. Dodge recently gave his perspective and strategy on how he tackles adversity. Psychologically, he said he has learned that it’s detrimental to become “too high with the highs and too low with the lows.” He believes that it’s “inevitable” that a coach will face some degree of adversity during a career, but realizes that no one can avoid things that you can’t control. “Football is a great teaching tool for life,” Dodge said. “I tell my players there’s a lot worse things (than a losing streak) that can happen in your life. I tell them to act like winners and don’t feel sorry for yourself.”

Ray Berger, who has coached in South Florida for most of the past two decades, compiled a 75-30 record during a 10-year stint at Santaluces High in Lantana, FL, before resigning for personal reasons in 2004. He returned to Santaluces in 2007 for one year, and last year Berger accepted an offer to take over a struggling program at Spanish River High in nearby Boca Raton, FL, which had won only one game in two years. Spanish River went 0-10 last year and lost its first three games this season by scores of 39-0, 56-0 and 60-0.

Berger said he has had some players quit the team because of the losing and the stigma that comes with it, especially among their teenage peers. Berger said he tries to keep his players motivated by weekly pointing out areas in which they have improved. His philosophy is that if they see they’re making some strides, regardless how small, they won’t give up. Berger believes, however, that constantly giving motivational speeches can turn against a coach.

“We keep saying we’re going to get better and we keep telling them it’s going to happen eventually,” Berger said. “But don’t play head games with them. The players see improvements they’re making, but their peers and the fans only see the bottom line, wins. You can talk about building a program, but people don’t want to hear that. Everything’s about now, that’s what it’s becoming, not just in the NFL.”

Berger believes that today’s modern technology, particularly popular internet diversions such as blogs and Twitter, can be counter-productive because of the criticism that often is out there for anyone and everyone to read, even if it’s not true or is completely unfounded. “I think it hurts coaches and builds animosity, but it’s freedom of speech,” said Berger, who is a special education teacher. “I went from being a decent coach at Santaluces to the worst coach around now. But I’m not going to stress out about it. I’m a teacher first. I do the best I can. You can’t control injuries, and if you’re losing, injuries tend to increase.”

Berger stresses to his players that they should enjoy the bonding and experience of being part of a football team, and pushes them to continue to work hard toward becoming better players. He said he employs that philosophy in his own life and suggests that coaches in similar situations should try to do the same thing. “At the college level, it’s different because that’s your only job, whereas at the high school level, it’s not the end of the world, but you want to help the kids,” Berger said. “But don’t take that pressure home with you. You’ll regret it down the road. Teach your players character, discipline and honor. Then go home and put your head on your pillow and say to yourself, ‘I did the best job I could.’ It’s tough, but like I tell the kids, I played on a great high school team when I was in school in Cleveland, but it really was all about the commaraderie. We have our 30-year reunion coming up and I can’t wait to go to it and see those guys I played with.”
This past spring Chris Kokell took over the program at Forest Hill High in West Palm Beach, FL, which owns two of the five longest losing streaks in state history. Like Berger, he knew what he was getting into when he accepted the job, but said the challenge of trying to reverse a losing trend is what drives him to coach. Kokell also echoed much of what Todd Dodge at North Texas said about football being a “teaching tool for life.” He said it’s important that coaches be role models for their players.

“Have players set personal goals,” Kokell advises. “Don’t preach what you don’t believe in, and don’t make promises you can’t keep. Deep down inside, you know you might not attain all of your team goals, but you want each player to set some personal goals for themselves so they can see progress. They want to be part of something, and a lot of them need a father figure, which a coach is in many ways. I try to teach them life lessons from the beginning. A losing program or a losing streak, it’s tough, and you don’t want to let them accept losing.

“Tears don’t look any different whether you lose 55-0 or 24-23. It’s all about self-belief. I want to teach them how to become better men, and football is a great way to teach young men. It’s hard, but you don’t want to make it too easy for them. You also don’t want to make it too hard. Make it fun for them and yourself.”

Dodge said that the biggest difference between high school and college is the amount of time coaches spend with players. Many high school coaches teach at their respective schools, so they see their players during the day and not just for a couple of hours at practice. He said that college players tend to be a “little more cynical than high school players,” but he often talks to his players about facing adversity. Dodge also said that he has not changed his approach to coaching since leaving a winning high school program and now being on the other side of the fence. Despite the adversity and tough times he’s facing at North Texas, Dodge said he has not allowed it to interfere with his believing he can lead a football team.

“The one thing I’ve made sure of is, I’m still me. I’m not going to change in the face of adversity,” Dodge said. “You have to understand what your beliefs are and stay with them. I might tweak some schemes and that sort of thing, but the objectives of our program don’t change.”

Here are the objectives of Dodge’s coaching philosophy, which he believes should always be implemented, especially when facing adversity:

1. Coaches should motivate players to push themselves toward success with hard work.

2. Play with the same level of intensity year-round – in practice, in the weight room, and during off-season training as well as during games.
3. Strive to become better human beings. “I’m a better man because of the players I’ve been associated with in this program,” Dodge said.

4. Have fun, but work hard at what you do. Make sure to keep a gleam in your eye. Football is a lot of fun when done the right way. Keep it fun, even when losing.

5. Understand the schizophrenic nature of football, but off the field treat others with respect and always act like a gentleman. “That’s very important,” Dodge said. “Athletes don’t need to be bullies off the field.”

Davie said he learned first-hand the toll that adversity can place on a head football coach. “It’s a high-risk, high-reward job, but there’s a lot of stress that comes with it,” Davie said. “You can sometimes get away from it physically, but I don’t know that mentally you ever get away from it.”

Dodge makes sure that he spends plenty of time with his family in the off-season. He suggests that coaches facing adversity take time to read a motivational book -- he likes those by former NFL coach Tony Dungy, and recently read Twelve Mighty Orphans by author Jim Dent. Dodge also draws on life lessons he learned from his late father, who was a Methodist minister, and from advice that Texas Longhorns coach Mack Brown, whom Dodge has known since he was a teenager. Brown told him when he first embarked on his coaching career, “Don’t change who you are.”


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