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Playoff Prep – Good strategy during the season can increase your chances of success in the post-season.

by: Bill Ramseyer
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How do you prepare now to for maximize your playoff run in November and December? There are many reasons why some teams are strong playoff performers and some are not. Some of those reasons are controllable, and others obviously are beyond the coach’s control. Some teams experience regular season success, but those accomplishments don’t continue through the playoffs. For others, advancing week-after-week is a tradition. What are the critical elements – physical, psychological and strategic – that can increase your chances of advancing deep into the playoffs?

To get the answers, AFM talked to four coaches, each with a different legacy, but all with tremendous success. They shared keys to consistent playoff runs.

Larry Kehres seems to have invented the word consistency. In his 25 years as head coach at Division III Mount Union, Kehres has the highest winning percentage in college football history, 92.6%. During his tenure, Mount Union has put together the two longest win streaks in NCAA history – 54 consecutive wins followed by 55 in a row. The Purple Raiders won an incredible 100 straight times in Ohio Conference play a few years ago. This consistency has continued on into the playoffs, where Coach Kehres’ teams have appeared 21 times with a 68-11 playoff record including 10 national championships and four runner-up finishes.

Gary Joseph is the head football coach at Katy High School, a Division 5 program, which is the largest division in Texas. In the eight years that he has been in charge of the program, he has averaged more than twelve wins per season (97-10). Joseph’s teams have advanced to the playoffs each of his eight seasons, and have won two state championships as well as two runner-up finishes.

George Smith, the recently retired head coach of Florida’s St. Thomas Aquinas High School, left a mark which will be difficult to duplicate. In a 34-year career, Smith led his teams to the playoffs for 29 consecutive seasons. This magical run included six state championships, seven runner up slots, and two national championships. How do you define dominance in the playoffs? Coach Smith’s teams cruised through the demanding Florida post- season on their way to a 70-20 playoff record.

Eight years ago, Mark Clifford inherited a Beaufort (SC) High School football team with a consistently losing tradition. With a 0-10 record the year before Clifford’s arrival, the new coach did not waste any time developing believers out of the chaos that had been the program. He performed the impossible in taking that 0-10 team and guiding them to an undefeated season and an appearance in the state playoffs in his first year. What has followed was a playoff run in each of his seven years at Beaufort, including playing for the state championship in 2007.

Q. What do you do during the regular season to prepare your team for success in the playoffs?

Kehres  - We try to be balanced and have the style of play that is adaptable to any type of weather. We recognize that in our geographic location, we will probably be exposed to much different weather during the November and December playoffs than September’s heat and humidity. We also have the second team get as many practice reps as the first team, which will help us develop much-needed depth.  

Joseph  -  We treat every game as an important one. We have to achieve a high level of consistency. We play a lot of people, and whenever we have the opportunity, we put backup players in the game. We never know when we will get injuries to key personnel, and we have to do everything that we can to develop depth and get people ready to play. We tell the squad that we don’t expect to go through the season only playing 22 people. That is not realistic.

Smith - In 1996 we reduced practices to 1 ½ hours. It all comes down to how you practice. We want to keep our people motivated and fresh.

Clifford - We shorten practice, and reduce the amount of contact, and at the same time we increase the tempo.  

Q. How do you prevent peaking in the regular season?

Joseph  -  It’s a process. Everyone we play from week one to week sixteen is a championship caliber team. It’s all about execution. We strive to execute better in week one than in week ten of the regular season.  

Kehres - We want to keep an emotional even keel, and consistency in the coaches. You should concentrate on yourselves, study yourselves and don’t over-scheme. Maintain consistency in practice. Maintain every game preparation

Clifford - We try to control what we show x and o wise, and always keep something new for next week. This keeps our players concentrating on what is immediately ahead for them.  
Smith - Everything is “next day.” Keep their minds focused on the here and now and what’s immediately in front of us.

Q. Do you try to bring inexperienced players along faster during the season to increase depth, and to get them ready to contribute during the playoffs?

Smith - Yes, but we try to not rob the junior varsity or freshman team. In our program, it is important to have success all the way along the line, and so we want each team to be able to have the continuity throughout the season of keeping all of their players and not lose them to the varsity.  

Joseph - We would like to, and that is why we train them all the same fundamentally. But, we have to get the best players on the field. Consequently, we may have a situation, where, because of injuries, we move someone from the position that they were playing, to a new position. It’s all about playing your best people.  

Clifford - Yes, we let them know that junior varsity players can move up to varsity.
Q. What are the priorities in preparing players and coaches for a successful playoff run?

Joseph - We must get more reps to the players that are going to win for us. Keep the kids mentally focused on what the immediate objective is. It’s imperative to keep them concentrating on where we are right now. Don’t look to tomorrow, it’s all about today.  

Kehres - Practice is always about us and that prevents looking ahead. Play through the regular season to win the championship. When that is achieved, start preparing for a new challenge.   

Clifford - We rely a lot on routine, and keep them in a routine, with no surprises. It helps keep our overall focus on our next opponent.

Q. What do you consider to be the mental, emotional, and physical keys to the playoffs?

Kehres - Adequate preparation for every game is required if you are going to be mentally prepared to give your best effort. The players must have confidence that they are intimately familiar with every detail of the game plan. The physical key to the playoffs is being on top of our game in the fundamentals of blocking and tackling. This obviously can only come about through daily repetition. This brings us to the emotional key to success in the playoffs, and that emotional key is playing with poise. This can only be done if the players have been both mentally and physically prepared to give their very best effort, and are comfortable with that preparation.  

Smith - Believe in what you are doing. Don’t get people hurt in practice. Tradition – it’s the players job to make success possible for the next couple of years. This year’s job is to make it possible for future teams to have success.  This year’s team didn’t earn the right to play a nationally televised game against a ranked team. Past teams did that for us.

Clifford - Each player has a role to play to bring success to the entire team. Also, we hit enough to stay sharp, but not too much that we increase the risk of injury.  

Joseph - Our people have to understand that it is going to be a grind, and that every opponent we play is good. We must be ready for the challenge and prepare for every opponent. We must be at our very best every week. In-season strength training is also a very important part of our program. Our line lifts three times per week and our backs and receivers lift twice per week. 

Q. What effect does consistent playoff appearances have on your program?

Joseph - It has a great positive effect. It becomes a tradition, going into our locker room and seeing the state championship trophies, and seeing what those who have gone ahead have accomplished. There is an expectation for continued success. You don’t want to be the one that doesn’t measure up and fails to make the playoffs. You don’t want to be the one that is responsible for not living up to the tradition of success.

Smith - Continuing the tradition one game at a time. “If you go we go”  –  this is what we are all about, emphasizing to the players that they are an integral part of the team’s success, and that each one of them must do their part and carry their share of the load. 

Kehres  -  The continuation of practice helps for next year. The younger, less experienced players get more practice reps and that helps to bring them along and develop them. 

Q. What do you consider to be the strategic keys for a successful playoff run?

Clifford – It’s essential to take one game at a time. We want to finish the regular season on an upswing. I told them the old cliché, ‘don’t lose your last game!’ In other words, stay alive in the playoffs. It’s very easy to do too much hitting. Don’t wear them out and let those injuries heal.

Smith - You have to be smart and not increase the risk of injury. We do less hitting during the post season than in the regular season. The junior varsity is finished with their games by then, so we bring them up and they are the scout team. They practice the opponent’s Xs and Os on another field. They do a better job as scout teamers because that is their focus. This also gives them an extra five weeks of practice, so it is helping get them ready for their next season.

Joseph - It’s obviously important to stay healthy. The kids have to understand that it’s a process, it’s a sixteen week schedule. We reduce some practice time, and we make sure that the first team and second team get similar numbers of repetitions. The regular season is about the program, the playoffs are about championships.

Kehres – We want to achieve balance in our football, both with respect to the run and pass, and also between offense and defense. We work to develop back-ups by giving them practice reps and rotating them in games if they do well.

Some of the words you have heard over and over again from the four coaches include tradition, consistency, expectation, preparation, and emotion. Football coaches are notorious copiers as we learn from each other. Take what you like and adapt it to your program. And that applies in this case as well. Learn from those who have consistently earned the right to appear in the playoffs, and then have made the most of that opportunity, and gone on and dominated in the post season. In other words, they have “been there and done that.”

Bill Ramseyer coached at the high school and college level for 44 years and is now living in South Carolina. He was the head coach at Wilmington College for 19 years with an overall 114-58-4 record.

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