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Coaching in Denmark Part III

by: Wayne Anderson
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  For my final and third installment on my coaching experience in Denmark, I would like to share two topics that are universal when it comes to coaching American football: officiating and game management.

  My wife and I were thrilled to attend the Steelers/Dolphins game on October 24 in Miami. As the clock ticked down to the final minutes, the game was suspended in air as Ben Roethlisberger’s touchdown attempt was being reviewed by the officials. Every fan, whether wearing black and gold or aqua and orange, remained standing in anticipation of the judgment call about to be handed down. Although the bizarre double ruling impacted each sideline differently, the final decision was in the hands of the men wearing the black and white striped shirts - the officials.

   At any level of football, officials can be heavily criticized for calls that change the course of a team’s progress. In order to keep peace on the field and allow the officials to do their jobs, both colleges and pro leagues in the United States have rules about openly criticizing the referees. A coach can be reprimanded and even fined for negative comments made in the press regarding officials and the calls made during a game.

   Unlike America, there are no rules against criticizing the officials in Denmark, and they certainly complain. I did my share of questioning calls during my tenure as the Head Coach of the Odense Swans during the 2010 season.

   During my stay in Denmark, it was explained to me that each club team must have a certain number of players willing to take the referee’s exam and become certified to serve as officials during the season for each level of play - Under 16 (U16), Under 19 (U19) and Senior games. The schedule is made up so that the player/referees do not have an officiating responsibility that would conflict with their own club team that week. This type of system creates a wide range of experience and knowledge of the referees officiating each game. Some of the officials are veterans and have earned their stripes over the years. Other officials have little to no experience.

  For example, while coaching in Denmark, I had a young head referee officiating one of my Senior level games. My quarterback was flushed out of the pocket on a pass play and during the process of throwing the ball, he was face-masked to the ground and the pass was intercepted. The young head official disregarded the facemask penalty and gave the ball to the other team. I immediately followed Danish protocol and called a “conference” with the “white cap”, also known as the head official. I tried to explain to the head official that it could not be the other team’s ball because of the facemask penalty on the defense before the change of possession. The head official asked “why” and I explained to the young man the reason “why” the ball still belonged to my team. After laboring the point, the opposing team’s head coach, a fellow American, came over and told the head official that I was correct and that he could not accept the ruling that his team had possession of the ball. The head official changed the ruling and returned the ball to our team. On a side note, I thanked the opposing head coach for his honesty and give him a lot of credit for being above board about the call.

   Each week was an adventure in officiating in Denmark. I always explained to my players that no matter what the level of referees we were assigned, we were fortunate to have them because without them, we could not play our games. Likewise, I tried to set the example of gratitude by always thanking each one of the referees after the game with a handshake no matter how superbly or poorly they officiated during the game.

  No matter the outcome of the game, I am very thankful for the officials who allowed us to play each week. They sacrifice their time and deserve an element of respect for putting on the zebra-striped shirt. It is not an easy position to fill.

  After coaching for three seasons in Europe, I have concluded that some of the best referees are the ones who know the least about the rules. These referees are unlikely to throw the flag unless they are absolutely certain a penalty has occurred. The worst officials tend to be the ones whose egos demand that they should be part of the game thereby interrupting the flow of the game constantly.

  Danish football players that suit up each week are just regular men with jobs and families who happen to enjoy playing football on the weekends. They pay for this privilege with their club team membership. They are neither paid professionals nor are they on scholarship earning college degrees. In my opinion, it is the referees’ job to allow these men to play the game they love and only call the obvious penalties.

  Far too often, I witnessed flags being thrown for penalties that did not affect the play one bit. I think that in club team situations, the players should be allowed to play and if a penalty does not affect the outcome of the play, then the referee should wave it off. Too often, the officials take too much time gathering together in conference to decide the official call and it slows down the game.

  The pace of the game must always be monitored by the head coach. Game management is just as important as any other phase of the game. My situation with the Odense Swans was comparable to coaching at a small high school where the majority of players play both ways plus all special team units. This was the case with the Swan’s Senior and U19 teams.

  When you cannot bring your offensive and defensive units off the field to make necessary adjustments after each series, managing your time outs and half time adjustments are critical to the team’s success. Time outs cannot be wasted due to disorganization or confusion.

  I employed a different time out strategy for each half of the game. My philosophy in the first half was to use one time out just as a rest break to regroup and use the other two time outs for making adjustments. The adjustments might be needed on only defense, only offense, or one each depending on the situation of the game. Whenever possible, I tried to save all three time outs for the second quarter.

   Half time was always dedicated to making adjustments and communicating the changes to our players. This was always necessary because we had players missing from games or players who showed up for games expecting to play that had not attended practice. This sporadic attendance was a major headache for me and my coaches. Not knowing who would be on the field during games meant we had to run base offensive and defensive schemes. We had to be able to plug players into different positions without a great amount of explanation about the expected assignment.

  Since there are no locker rooms, the first part of half time was dedicated to getting our players off the field to a designated spot on the side and allow them to get off their feet and have some water. During this break time, my coaching staff and I would quickly evaluate the first half of the game and make whatever minor adjustments we needed to make with the personnel available. With our basic approach to our offensive and defensive schemes, we never made major adjustments during this time. Most of our adjustments were focused on who was injured and who was healthy enough to be plugged into spots on the offense, defense and/or special teams units for the second half. With our small roster, it definitely felt like a “last man standing” roll call.

   After my coaches and I quickly assessed what we needed to do to finish the game, we would relay the adjustments to our players. I would use this time to go on the board to explain any minor scheme adjustments that we were going to implement in the second half. Unlike when I coached in Italy, my players in Denmark all spoke English, so there was not a communication problem between us and a translator was not necessary. This really was a timesaver.

   My philosophy for using time outs during the second half of the game was based solely on situations in the game and not on making adjustments. I always tried to reserve one time out for a key fourth down play late in the game or to put together a two-point play call for the offense (after a touchdown) if needed. If possible, I always tried to save all three time outs for the fourth quarter.

  Managing my time outs was quite different during the Senior games from the U19 games. My U19 time outs were more of a normal strategical approach because we were consistently competing for a win in each game. In sharp contrast, the Seniors were often behind by such a margin at half time that there was not much strategy involved in using time outs. I often relied on the time outs in these situations to either provide a rest break or to stop the opponent’s momentum.

  One area that was very difficult to work on in Denmark was time management. Whether playing at home or on the road, we never had a scoreboard that kept track of the time.      One of the referees was in charge of keeping the official time of the game. I always had to check in with the official on our side to find out what the time was in the quarter. This became quite problematic when we were trying to run a two-minute offense at the end of the second or fourth quarters. I developed a strategy to combat this by having my defensive coordinator stay next to the official on our side to keep checking the time and calling it out. No matter what we tried to do to keep track of the time, there were a few instances when we were driving to score and ran out of time. Knowing that some referees were less experienced than others, I never knew if the referee assigned to keeping the time was stopping and starting the official time properly.

  Now that I have returned to my home in South Florida with my wife, I have had time to reflect on my coaching assignment in Denmark. I can honestly say that I had a great experience in Odense coaching the Swans. I am thankful to all the players that are members of the club, my coaching colleagues at all three levels (Seniors, U19, U16), and for the Board of Directors who made everything possible. I was thankful for not only the new experience of coaching American football in Denmark, but also the blessing of seeing such wonderful sights throughout the country of Denmark. I certainly can understand why Denmark is ranked as one of the friendliest countries in the world.



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