By Jeff Minter
Editors Note: Since 1998 Coach Minter has served as a head coach, coordinated all three phases of the game, and worked with the defensive line, offensive line, linebackers, quarterbacks, and wide receivers. In the past few years, Coach Minter has become one of the most popular and respected coaching bloggers on the web and is excited to be a regular contributor for X&O Labs.
The best teams are almost always great closers. They don’t just start fast, but they get better as the game progresses. This same logic can be applied to seasons as well. The teams that understand how to continue to get the most out of their players as the regular season comes to an end and the post season begins. So, with that in mind, I have put together a list of do’s and don’ts that should be applicable for any team, anywhere.
Practice Planning “Do’s”
Do… Film Everything
With the increasing access to technology, and the growing popularity of the iPad, it has become exponentially easier to film practice sessions for later viewing and correcting. You can now easily use apps such as CoachMe and Coach's Eye, along with any video app, to film practice for immediate feedback or diagram things on the go. Even if you're still using cameras, DVD duplicators, allow you to quickly burn anything for multiple players or coaches to watch at home. By using technology to help you teach either before, after, or during practice you are more likely to be able to coach on the run...which happens to be the next key idea.
Do… Coach on the Run
Don't take time to stop practice for each coaching moment. Especially if you are able to teach off the practice film, make sure you are coaching as practice is moving. Ever see a coach stop the whole offense to review something with one player? It kills the tempo of practice and can lead to players losing focus.
Do… Script Everything
Seems obvious, but it sounds like this doesn't happen everywhere. Scripting accomplishes a few things. First of all, you can control what your team is practicing as you aren't doing it on the fly. This gives you a better opportunity to spend quality time on reps your team really needs. Scripting also allows you to control the number of reps your team is getting. When you chunk a team time into 20 minutes you are likely to go the whole 20 or possibly over. However, when you follow the script you can avoid over repping your players by going longer than is necessary to accomplish your goal. Finally, scripting allows you to work in special situations or field position needs.
Do… Properly Label Scout Cards
How many times have you told your team where they will be and then run the play only to be told that the defense was in a different place? Fix that problem by being more specific with the scout team and give them more information. Tell the scout team they are "X", "H", or "32". Whether you use numbers or letters is up to you, but it's a lot easier for the kids to get where they need to be if they only have to look at one position.
Do… Use Your Terminology for Scout Teams
Whenever possible use your own words for plays, formations, and alignments so you can effectively communicate with your scout team. This is especially helpful with the scout defense and offensive lines. Your offensive line probably has a counter trey blocking scheme, so no matter what the backfield is doing, if that blocking scheme is being used make sure it is noted on the scout card.
Do… Use Two Huddles
If you have the players available use two huddles. Yes, your scout team won't be as good when it divides into two groups, but more players are active, more players are getting reps, and your first team is able to get more looks and reps as well.
Do… Run Situational Periods
Don't forget to practice situations. What are you going to do on that 3rd and 15? Don't make Friday night the first time you actually attempt to do it.
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Do… Add Music
Many coaches seems to be purchasing portable speakers that they can connect an iPod to in order to help create aid in the atmosphere of practice. Some coaches use the music to create a sense of chaos on the field, while others just feel it improves mood and tempo.
Do… Add Competitive Periods
Go live with best on best, have individual competitions during indy drills, develop a competition between the scout team and starters (one that the scouts have a chance to win). Whatever you do, find a way to implement competition into your practice as often as possible. Most importantly, it teaches kids how to compete and fight. The added bonus is the improvement you'll see in the tempo of practice.
Do… Use Everyone!
Don't let guys sit on the sidelines during practice. If they are healthy get them in on the scout team or set up a side station for kids that aren't participating on the scout team. This station can review basics such as blocking and tackling as these kids probably could use some work on these skills. Also, be sure to use the injured and otherwise unable. Don't let the kids sitting out of practice just hang out. Give them a job to do. If they really have a legit reason for not practicing, then maybe they can hold scout cards. If the inability to practice leads you to question their manhood, then make sure they fill up and deliver water or set up and take down some drills. Either way, find a way to keep all your kids involved.
Do… Organize Your Coaches
Do all your coaches know what they are supposed to be doing? It sounds obvious, but have you ever watched a position coach just let the coordinator run team time? Make sure all coaches are aware of who they are supposed to be watching and coaching up. Hold them accountable for giving consistent feedback to this group of kids.
Do… Use a Segment Timer
For the same reason you script and write a practice plan, segment timers help in communication and expectations. Everyone can see when the period is going to end so transition times move faster and there is no lost time wondering if indy time is done or if you can get another drill in quick.
Practice Planning “Don’ts”
Don’t… Underestimate the Power of Purpose
We are all faced with a time limit of some sorts when it comes to practice. So why do so many coaches waste time during practice? I'm convinced it's because they don't have a clear purpose, vision, or area of focus for the practice and they need to fill time. Making sure you know exactly what you want to get out of the days practice can help your team and your coaches avoid this costly mistake. Make sure all coaches know what plays, schemes, or concepts will be taught or reviewed during the days practice and what drills are necessary to be effective with the bigger ideas. Don't be afraid to also tell the players why they are doing the drill. I do the same drill every single day with my defensive ends, but the tempo and focus never changes. Why? They understand the purpose and how it will apply to that week's gameplan. Purpose. Without it, your just doing "stuff."
Don’t… Run Marathon Periods
Ever coach an hour long team period? I've been there as an assistant and it's brutal. At some point the coaching and reps that take place during marathon periods could be better placed into smaller group or individual periods. What's the ideal time for team? I don't know, but I can tell you that when it's closer to 15 or 20 minutes the rest of practice sure has some great tempo. You shouldn't need marathon periods to accomplish your goals if you effectively plan your individual and small group sessions.
Organize your practices so you are working similar concepts on specific days. For a spread team this may mean the Inside Zone and Quick Game are the focus for Monday while the Outside Zone and Screens are Tuesday. This allows you to nail down your team time to a handful of concepts and build the gameplan throughout the week.
Defensively consider using circuits to teach fundamental football skills such as tackling or block evasion, then going to individual drills for specific technique work. This keeps tempo moving while still accomplishing your goals of building technique. Use small group adjustment or blitz periods to work these concepts instead of taking time to cover them in team. If you have enough guys you may also want to consider running two offenses against your defense. Sure, the quality won't be as good as it could be but you'll be getting way more reps in a shorter time period and more players will be involved in practice. Which brings up the next point....
Don’t… Encourage Inactivity
Keep everyone active. This doesn't mean full speed all the time, only that kids need to be involved. The more reps kids get they better they will be, right? So why do so many teams let their junior/sophomore scout kids sit off on the sideline or rotate in when they could be running against the first team? Kids that often get limited reps even on the scout team aren't that good. We all get that. However, when you keep kids active they will feel more connected to the team and they will get better. That's a win-win. Plus when kids are active they won't get bored as quickly or lose focus. This helps keep tempo up and makes kids want to stay in the program. If you can't work kids in on a scout team figure out a separate period they could have with a coach on another part of the field. This could be a remedial period to work on skills or time to cover team concepts since these kids often aren't getting team reps. Every once in awhile throw together a good drill that still has a purpose, but also makes things fun. Let lineman catch footballs or race a back through an agility station with a head start. Keep it light, but let the kids get better.
Don’t… Allow for Poor Coaching
Finally, the biggest sin I see within practice is simply poor coaching. This can comes in many forms, but ultimately it is a reflection of the head coach. One common mistake I've seen, and one that often comes from marathon periods, is a lack of coaching. When practice drags on it is difficult to keep the focus or intensity, but if you want the kids to improve you need to coach them up. The most successful team I've been a part of had every position group getting coached up between plays. These coaching points were always quick so we could keep practice moving, but kids had immediate feedback to help them improve. Often times these pointers were actually just confirmations that the kid did the right thing or a quick question as to what he saw.
I've also seen teams with coaches standing around during team time while the coordinator called the plays and addressed the team as a whole. If you have position coaches then use them and expect them to coach. It sounds simple and obvious to many of us, but the reality is that how we expect our coaches to interact with the players and what we want them doing during each session is something that must be made clear by the head coach.
On the opposite end of this spectrum are coaches that overcoach. These coaches stop everything and put themselves on stage. They kill practice tempo and eliminate any chance for flow. Kids lose reps, scheme work dwindles, and everyone starts to tune this guy out. Coach on the move, address those that need to hear it, and be cognizant of players energy level, interest, and focus when determining what corrections to make. Don't let the worst player on the team slow everyone down so you can correct him. This doesn't mean don't coach the kid, just shorten the speech and get things down to your main points, so you can say things quickly and keep things moving.
A clear purpose, short but intense sessions, active players, and good coaching seem like obvious things to consider when planning out your practice, but in reality I've seen these mistakes all too often in high school, and especially youth, football practices. Make sure as you start looking towards program improvements this year that you consider these sins and how you can make sure your staff is not guilty of these key mistakes.
I am sure there are additional concepts that could be added to both parts of this list, but hopefully at least one of these ideas will be helpful as you seek to help your team finish well. As always, we are eager to hear what you do to keep your team engaged late in the season. Share your ideas, questions, and successes below.