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July 2011

July 2011

Great Expectations – How do coaches like Bob Stoops manage high expectations or overcome low ones?

by: David Purdum
© July 2011

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“Coaches who can outline plays on a black board are a dime a dozen. The ones who win get inside their players and motivate.”
– Vince Lombardi

Every season starts with expectations, some higher than others. How a coach handles those expectations can be the difference between failing to meet them and exceeding them. But what is the secret to dealing with expectations in this era of pre-season rankings, blogs and media pundits that put pressure on teams before fall practice even begins?

Few, if any, coaches have faced higher expectations than Bob Stoops. Oklahoma has begun the year ranked in the top five in eight of the last ten seasons under Stoops. The Sooners are considered an elite contender this season and are expected to be in the top five once again when pre-season rankings are released.

Some coaches choose to downplay lofty expectations, while others ignore them completely. Stoops has a different approach – he embraces them, in part because the expectations of the media and other coaches are very similar to what he expects from his program. “If you are going to be a championship program, you have to have that kind of attitude, mentality and expectations of yourself. If someone else has them too, so be it,” Stoops said in a June phone interview with AFM from his Norman office.

He uses high expectations to motivate, constantly asking his players whether they have put in the work required to deserve to be a champion. “Now, what are we going to do to earn it? That’s what we talk about all the time around here,” he added. “How are we going to earn it? To me, that is first and foremost – doing the work to earn and deserve to have those type of championship expectations.”

Stoops has motivated his staff and players into doing the work to earn seven Big 12 championships and a national title.

Much like Stoops, Steve Specht, head coach at perennial Ohio power St. Xavier High School, is used to managing the high expectations that come with winning state championships and achieving number one national rankings. But Specht prefers a slightly different approach to managing the expectations that others have for his team. For example, in June, Specht received a phone call from his son, an eighth grader who was excited by a Facebook post from one his father’s players. “Apparently, MaxPreps has us as one of the top teams in the nation,” said Specht with a sigh. “I was on the phone calling the player, who was a young kid, a sophomore, and told him to take it down.”

Specht chooses not to use championship dreams as motivation and instead prefers each of his players strive to get better every day. “The recognition is nice,” Specht continued, “but I tell kids all the time, ‘you didn’t earn that; every team that’s played before you earned that.’ It’s nice but, I tell them that the only rankings they should worry about are the ones that come out in Week 16.”

Overcoming Low Expectations

“Confidence is contagious. So is lack of confidence.” – Vince Lombardi

Not every program is blessed with Oklahoma’s or St. Xavier’s talent or winning tradition. That was certainly the case when Tony Heath took over at Pearland (TX) High School in 1997. Pearland was a struggling program, going 9-90-1 from 1987 to 1996, before Heath arrived.

Fifteen years and a major attitude adjustment later, Heath’s Pearland Oilers are the defending 5A Division I state champions of Texas. Heath’s approach to dealing with the expectations that come with being the defending champs is to limit discussion of the past season and instead focus on this year’s team. “I want to relieve the pressure of being the returning champions, because really, truly we’re not,” said Heath. “I want this year’s team to develop its own identity, their own leadership, because this is a totally different group of kids.”

Trying to keep his team humble and relieve pressure after a state title was the last thing on Heath’s mind when he took over at a place he described as “one of the worst losing programs in Texas. To be truthful, the only reason I got this job was because nobody else wanted it,” he said.

An assistant at an area powerhouse, Heath saw Pearland as his opportunity to become a head coach and build a program. When he arrived, he found a number of issues: the losing environment had zapped the energy from most of the staff, the weight room was sub-par, and the feeder line to junior high programs had been severed.

“We were not getting the kids from the junior highs at the high school because their expectations of the football program were so bad,” said Heath. To raise those expectations, Heath shuffled the staff, bringing in a new group of energetic assistants. He spent time at the junior highs, developing personal relationships with kids and coaches. And he kick-started a six-month project that raised enough funds to transform an old gym into a state-of-the-art 6,000-square foot weight room. “We have as nice of a weight room as any high school that I know of,” Heath said proudly.

With his new staff in place and the weight room project rolling, Heath turned his attention to what he calls the most important part of football – the mental game. He had to change the players’ expectations of the program. But how does a coach change a perception of a program that’s been built on a decade of losing seasons? How do you motivate players that have experienced the thrill of victory only a couple of times during their careers?

Heath’s strategy was to give the players ownership of the program, get them invested. He asked his players what they would change about the program. The answers led to re-designed uniforms, including removing the oil derricks from the helmets. The locker room was upgraded and Heath also demanded a high level of enthusiasm at all times.

It worked. The changes to the overall atmosphere of the program immediately grabbed the players’ attention, who Heath said, despite the lack of success, were hungry to be champions. “Enthusiasm just breeds success,” he said. “We want the high octane level of performance going on all through workouts. We have music going on; we have coaches getting after them, not just yelling. I don’t want a coach standing above them with their arms folded watching a kid work. My coaches are down there spotting and other coaches who are putting weights on. We want it to be a very upbeat off-season.”

But while the amped-up workouts played a role in the turnaround, Heath strongly believes it was the interaction between coaches and players in a classroom setting that had the most impact on changing the attitude of the program. Through a series of classroom team meetings, during which the intangibles were discussed, Heath changed the expectations of the Pearland program, setting the foundation for what has emerged as a Texas state champion.

“The biggest thing was mental development,” said Heath, “We spent time with them in classroom settings, talking about attitude, self-discipline, mental toughness and concentration. We associated this with life lessons, not just necessarily football. We talked about the skills and development and being the best person you could be. We talked to our kids about leadership, caring and concern for others, trust and loyalty and good character, which I think is very important. We want kids with honesty, integrity and dependability. That’s what we built this program on.”

Dealing with the Unexpected

“The coaching manual doesn’t prepare you for a day like this.”
– Bob Stoops, speaking at senior linebacker Austin Box’s funeral.

It was an emotional off-season for two of the nation’s premier college football programs.

At Alabama, Nick Saban faced the daunting task of mentally preparing his team for a national championship run, just a few months after tornados devastated Tuscaloosa. The Crimson Tide also were struck by the sudden death of offensive lineman Aaron Douglas in May.

At Oklahoma, Bob Stoops is trying to move his team forward after the death of senior linebacker Austin Box. The Sooners also were saddened by the death of former star safety Brandon Everage, who drowned swimming in a Texas river on the same day Stoops spoke at Box’s funeral.

Despite the difficult off-season, Stoops won’t change his approach to preparing his team mentally for the season. He and his staff talked with the team about the feelings and emotions in dealing with the loss of Box and believe moving the team forward is what’s best.

“In the end we have to remember to move forward,” said Stoops. “We will always remember these guys, and they are special to us, but we have to continue with our work. Nothing will be different when we get back into camp, in how we prepare and how we approach the season. And, again, we’re always mindful of players’ feelings, but still, the way we go about our business will be very similar to what we have always done.”

Steve Specht knows a little bit about what Stoops is going through. Last April, St. Xavier senior offensive lineman Matt James, who had committed to Notre Dame, died after falling from a hotel balcony. A number of coaches who have had players die contacted Specht looking for advice on the best way to comfort the players.

“There’s no right way to handle it,” said Specht. “We emphasized to the kids to lean on each other, to cry together, to mourn together and celebrate Matt’s life together. Ultimately, when we looked at the season, we wanted it to be a tribute to Matt and a celebration of his life and what he gave to St. Xavier.

“Truthfully, I don’t know if I have the answers,” Specht added. “There’s no right or wrong way because everyone is going to deal with their grief differently. I still deal with my own grief, but the big thing is to remember that there are people around you that love and care about you and want to share your pain. I think by sharing that pain that it makes it a heck of a lot more tolerable and easier to deal with. But it doesn’t make the pain go away.”

Much like Stoops, Specht headed into August practice last season wanting to keep everything as routine as possible. “Kids understand routine, and that’s what football is, routine,” said Specht. “If you deviate from the routine, kids notice and get concerned about that.”

“It’s not the will to win, but the will to prepare to win that
makes the difference.” – Bear Bryant

As Stoops enters his 13th preseason practice at Oklahoma, he’ll be focusing on the same things he did when he first arrived in Norman. It’s that type of consistency that Stoops believes has helped the Sooners maintain success throughout his tenure.

“To me, the best habit we can develop [in preseason practice] is the ability to play hard all the time,” Stoops emphasized. “Then, it’s my job to gauge how physical we have been, how banged up we are; maybe we have gone hard three straight days in full pads; maybe we need to back off some and let the players catch their legs back. So I think it is my job to really gauge the pulse, the health of my team.”

Over at St. Xavier, Specht isn’t focusing on his team’s championship expectations. “Our goal every year is to win a league championship. And our kids now that,” Specht said. “But more importantly, we always stress the importance of getting better every day. I hammer that into their heads every single day.

“I think that approach eliminates some of the pressure,” he added. “We tell the kids, ‘If you get better every day, we’re a success. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else on this team. I don’t want you to worry about being better than our starting running back if you’re a backup. I want you to be as good as you can be.’ We preach that every single day. You ask any single kid at St. Xavier High School that plays football here and ask them what the goal is and they’ll say, ‘I want to get better every day.’”

Each program at each level of football faces different expectations and motivational challenges. Each coach also has his own way of managing those expectations and motivating his program. In the end, Stoops, Heath and Specht all agree that consistency is a key ingredient into mentally preparing your team.

“Be true to yourself, know your team, know what their capabilities are and never underestimate what they think they can do,” Heath said. “It’s more than just physical; it’s everything mental, physical, it’s heart. We say that it’s all physical, but really it’s 80 percent mental, 10 percent physical and 10 percent luck.”


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