Coaching Through the Dark Days

Coaching Through the Dark Days

It has been far too long since I wrote an article here. Rest assured more will be coming in the next few months, especially after I attend the National Wing-T Clinic at the end of this month. As before, I plan to write up each session I attend. Leave a comment below if you have any special requests (you can find the agenda here).

I think I needed to get through the season and get some distance from it before writing again. The season had some highs and lows and shook my confidence as a coach, even leading me to make some changes for 2018 that I’ll go into later. It will be therapeutic for me to share my experience, and perhaps you’ll find some value in my lessons learned.

2017 started on a high note for my co-head coach and I as we put together a full staff, interviewing three assistants and getting them on board to join us. All three were parents of rising 8th graders and had coached at least one season prior. We were warned about one of these assistants by a fellow board member that his coaching style might not fit well with us, and that he could become adversarial if confronted to alter his approach. During the interview we felt like we addressed this concern adequately and decided that the positives outweighed the risks; we invited him to join our staff and be our defensive coordinator. As of April 2017 we were in great shape, even adding a helper coach that would lead all of our player safety work. Full staff of six eager for the season to start. I would take over offensive coordinator role for the first time.

Around June my co-head coach decided that due to work and family challenges that he needed to step back from a head coaching role. This was very understandable and I was thankful that he addressed this early on rather than disrupting things mid season. We agreed that he would help as he could and that I would take over sole head coach responsibility, which put me in a position of also being lead coordinator with the parents.

We kicked off our practice season in early August and things were mostly on track during that period. I did begin to raise my eyebrows a bit at my DC’s installation approach, and started to get a few complaints from other assistants. He has a solid understanding of youth defense installation, but had a hard time communicating his scheme and installation to the other coaches, which made practice planning very difficult. I attempted to address this in a 1x1 conversation and detailed out my concerns along with some suggestions and corrective action I expected to see. While things were a bit adversarial during the meeting (he challenged my playing experience and inferred that this diminished my ability to coach effectively), I felt that we came away from this meeting with a mutual understanding of what needed to change.

I saw small improvements: he sent the coaches some hand-drawn descriptions of our base fronts and tried harder to share with me practice planning info in advance on defensive install days. During our jamboree scrimmages I saw poor performance from the team along with significant player confusion. Consensus with the coaches was that his strategy was too linked to individual personnel (put this player in this position and we’ll be able to stop them) rather than an overall scheme. We weren’t teaching run fits. There was often confusion about who had run contain responsibility. Things looked even worse after our first game and I expectantly looked to him to suggest corrective action in the coming practice week. The extent of what he shared with the coaches during this meeting? We need to just kick the players’ asses in the coming week and get them to play harder.

I chatted with my two main assistant coaches to get some final feedback before deciding to remove him as the defensive coordinator. This was a difficult step to take, and a difficult phone call to make. I wanted him to remain on the staff in a diminished role so that he could continue to coach his son. Drama ensued as he started to go down multiple paths in an effort to get me removed as a head coach, even taking things to the league commissioner. Fortunately the support was there for me (from my staff, the board, and the league) and we were able to resolve this challenge, though because of his reaction we asked him to leave the coaching staff.

You might think that this narrative represented the “dark days” I’m talking about, but it was only the beginning. I take full responsibility for churn in the staff: I should have listened to the wise voice whispering in my ear advising me to not hire him in the first place, and once I committed to having him on the staff I probably should have smiled and endured rather than make the change.

Him leaving the staff caused significant strife with a small faction of parents and parents, and I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that I spent the rest of the season from mid September through November trying to get past it. I was fortunate to have another parent share some feedback with me (along with rumors and some misinformation) that I was able to respond to. Some things I learned:

  • Most of the players and parents were oblivious to what was going on and just wanted to enjoy the game of football. Being overly dramatic about the situation wasn’t going to help things improve.
  • I took the time to meet in person or talk on the phone with every person I thought might be upset about the situation. I listened and learned and tried to consider each situation and adapt accordingly. These conversations gave me some specific insight into certain players that we were able to address.
  • There are some people out there that really don’t like the Wing-T! After a brutal loss that took us to a 2–3 record, I had a mom say to me in passing after the game “how’s that Wing-T thing working for you?” Most of the players had not played in a true Wing-T offense before and it was slow going for a while. We didn’t really get humming until week 7 or 8. Even after the season was over I saw in some online feedback that some parents doubt that this offense is effective for youth football.
  • As Dirty Harry once said: a man’s got to know his limitations. I had spent 10 years before this season as the “man behind the scene.” This meant organizing our install and practice plans, breaking down film, preparing game plans. My co-head coach was always the face of the team, kicking off practices, giving half time talks, etc. While I believe I could get better at this, I underestimated how weak I would be in this area going into the season. I can be fairly clinical and detached and tend to relate better in banter with adults than with kids. Many of the parents and players were looking for a head coach that would be more playful and engaging in a way that doesn’t reflect my style.
  • I chose to weather through these challenges with a smile and assume that the players and parents were on board. I urged the players to keep perfecting their craft and to believe that we can get better as a team. Things turned around in our final game where we beat a perennial nemesis that was heavily favored and earned a playoff spot. We advanced to the semi-finals, losing by just 1 point after a failed 2-point conversion. By most measures it was a successful season, but the problems I mention above still grind at me. When my mind wanders off to reflect on the season I don’t feel elation; I feel disappointment that I didn’t handle certain situations better and that I let down some of the players by not giving them the experience they were hoping to have.

So where does this leave me? This was the second year in a row that my wife Julie and I were separated for six weeks at the start of the season, with her remaining in NY to take care of our family cottages there while I returned to Oregon to coach. This was very unpleasant but the joys of football coaching outweighed the downsides for me. Until this season: my shaken confidence in my ability to head coach and the separation have moved me to step away from coaching this season, and perhaps indefinitely. One of the parents that helped me out this season has a younger son that will be playing at the 5th/6th grade level and I plan to help his team out when I return to Oregon in mid September. I suspect I’ll be very anxious to get back on the field by then.