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Strategies to Overcome a Poor Startby: Bryon Hamilton
Associate Head Coach and Offensive Coordinator, Shasta College
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Football season is finally here.
By the time you read this column, your team might have already played several games. Hopefully, the start of your season has been successful and is full of promise. The reality is, however, that each week 50% of all teams, coaches and fans suffer through a defeat. In my 20 plus years of coaching football, I have been a part of teams that started great and I have been part of teams that have struggled mightily out of the gate. Both situations can present challenges for coaches and players. Hot starts can breed overconfidence and a lack of focus while a tough start can produce a fragmented locker room and raise doubts about the direction of the entire program.
One of the marks of a good football coach is how he and his team handles defeat, especially defeat early in the season. Good coaches have a way of making sure their teams are able to stay focused and committed toward getting better every day regardless of the circumstances. Coach long enough and eventually you will endure the challenges presented by unexpected failure and defeat. I want to share with you several key components that have helped me and my teams get back on track when things have not gone as anticipated. If you find yourself in this situation, these tips may help you rebound and get back to what we all desire - winning football games.
1. Eliminate Schematic and Fundamental Doubt.
I have written about this before but I think it is important enough to state again. I would rather be very good at a little than average at a lot. One of the mistakes that I have seen time and time again is the idea that the best way to counter failure is to expand the playbook. It has been my experience that this is absolutely the wrong approach. Many times the difference between winning and losing is simply the slight hesitation that the lack of confidence or knowledge can produce. Excellence is produced by correctly repeating a movement, skill and assignment to the point that it becomes a reflex-type response. Bad football teams are often comprised of players whose mistakes have bred a lack of confidence in both assignment and fundamentals. Adding more to their plate just compounds the problem. Eliminating doubt and hesitation by staying simple and concise is one of the best ways to ensure that your team will improve each week.
In my coaching career, I can remember the losses much more than the wins. There is something about failure that leaves a lasting imprint on my brain. Call it human nature or whatever you would like, but the truth is that most of us dwell on failure with greater ease than we celebrate achievement. The problem with this approach is that negative reinforcement does nothing to develop the confidence that is necessary for success. I am not claiming that repeated mistakes caused by a lack of focus or effort are to be ignored or brushed aside. I am saying that continually revisiting the failures of the past is not an effective strategy in building the confidence necessary to correct them. Articulating the positive goals that will lead to success is a better way to correct mistakes.
An example of reinforcing the negatives would be, “We fumbled three times last week and now you are fumbling in practice. No wonder we lose games.” Addressing the issue with a positive statement might sound like this, “We will not fumble the football. We’re not going to fumble the ball today in practice and we’re not going to fumble the ball in the game. Take care of the ball and we have a great chance to win.” The message is the same but the delivery is different. One reinforces failure while the other predicts success. Maintaining a positive approach is important, especially when you are trying to keep your team from falling into the trap of self-pity and negativity. When faced with a tough start, remember to stay confident and clearly define the positive goals that will allow you to steer the ship to calmer seas.
One of the highlights of my football life was getting the opportunity to play for George Allen at Long Beach State in 1990. Coach Allen was well known for coining catchy phrases to convey his message. One of the phrases that he reinforced often was “The Future Is Now”. Despite a rough start to our season (we lost three straight including a blowout at Clemson in Coach Allen’s college debut) he continued to preach the concept that everyone needed to focus on each play, each drive and each quarter of football. When you are struggling at the start of the season it is easy to look ahead to where and when you might get that first win.
Coach Allen preached winning each play, each drive and each quarter regardless of who we were playing. It took a while for our team to really understand this approach but once we did, things started to change. With unwavering focus we got into the win column in week four. As we learned to concentrate on the immediate, we stopped going through the motions and started finding solutions. With “The Future is Now” approach, we finished the season by beating UNLV. The win gave us a 6-5 record and secured George Allen with another winning season. It is very easy to be overwhelmed with concern when things start poorly, but learning to focus on the immediate will help you and your team move in a positive direction.
One of the culprits of a losing mentality is the inability or unwillingness to compete. This may sound simple but in reality the art of competing at a high level is a learned skill. I once listened to Pete Carroll describe how he learned to create a practice that promoted the concept of competition. He told the story of the day that he visited a youth football practice and how that experience impacted his view on how a successful practice should look. He described a setting in which he could hear the players yelling with excitement from the parking lot outside of the field. As he approached the practice he could not help but be impressed with the level of excitement among the coaches and players. What was the reason for this tangible excitement? Simply competition.
Competition was evident in every phase of the practice. Score was kept during drills, one-on-one sessions and in team periods. Winning teams and players were rewarded while losing teams and players were disciplined. Coach Carroll described a practice where the players were learning to love competition, to love winning and despise losing. He stated that from that day forward he changed his philosophy towards practice. He embraced a fun, competitive environment over the stiff, repetitive regurgitation of a predictable, scripted practice. The results have been obvious in the success that Pete Carroll has enjoyed. When a team is struggling to win, it is even more important to stress and stoke the competitive fire on a daily basis. Building situations that demand competition within your daily regimen is a great way to get your team back on track.
I want to wish you nothing but great success this season. Always remember that regardless of your success on the field, this season will present you with the opportunity to be successful in affecting the lives of your players in a positive way. We as coaches have more influence on our players than we ever really know. Enjoy the season, battle each week and know that all of us are blessed to be a part of this great game.
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