Sunday, August 29, 2021

Back on the Field

This Year's squad: "The Blizzard"

I missed it more than I thought. After a year away, I'm back out on the field coaching youth football. Two years ago, when my son finished his season as an eighth grader, I figured that would be the end of my coaching at least until he was done with high school. I had squared with that reality, but I also left that experience feeling as though I had maybe missed a calling. Perhaps if I was coaching full-time I wouldn't feel that way. Perhaps I was getting just enough of a good thing to keep it awesome for me. Perhaps I just liked coaching my kid. I was content to leave coaching behind for a time with the satisfaction of knowing I had success with the kids I coached and that it came with much enjoyment and personal satisfaction.

As fate may have it, however, an opportunity came around for me to help with a new batch of eighth graders. One of the parents also has a son my son's age and remembered the good time and success that team had. Thus, he recruited my previous co-coaches and I to take on this team. We all gladly accepted and are realizing how much we missed being away from the game.

Each season brings something a little different. Call it lucky, call it blessed, but the previous team (my son's team) had an abundance of physicality and skill. They also had a large number of kids (~50) split between two squads, so there was also depth.  That group has added to the depth on the high school level, with a large number of new players joining the squad as sophomores. 

As eighth graders the two teams went for a combined 17 wins and 2 losses. One of the losses was a first game of the season 7-6 fluke of a loss and the other was when the two Bloomington squads played each other and things went into overtime. It was impressive and maybe set a disproportionate expectation for future squads I help coach.

Enter this group. This crew is a bit more "green". There are a number of first time players. Also, a lot of experience was missed from last year's cancellation due to the pandemic.

A lot of development happens in the middle school years. There's the awkwardness of puberty and everyone growing and maturing at different rates. There's having to deal with physical and emotional clumsiness along with an increase in responsibility and self-reliance. 

As far as football goes, the game changes from bodies bumping into each other to serious physical contact. Plays and defensive schemes get more complex and there's a lot of learning going on. These kids missed a whole season of refining skills, not to mention the extended time away eroding what had been developed. 

That is, to say, there's a lot of work to do. Everything from basic stances, splits (the separation between players in a formation...not like gymnastics), run and pass blocking technique,  to being quick on the count/snap of the ball. There's also a toughness aspect that needs to develop. 

Football is a game of managing discomfort. Helmets often start off with a miserable fit, pads and pants are tight. You're running around, sweating and losing breath. The contact results in bumps and bruises, fingers get jammed and pinched in pads, toes get stepped on. My right big toenail never recovered from being stomped on repeatedly during field goals and extra points in college. I don't think the guy to my right's toes fared much better from my stomping. The players learn to manage and that there's a difference between being hurt and injured. 

Another level of discomfort to manage is that of being a part of the team. Not everyone gets to play the position they want. They learn the significance doing best what helps the team as a whole to succeed. This doesn't mean they can't have desires or goals for positions and playing time, but they need to be committed to working hard to get there. 

These are as much life lessons as football ones. Promotions aren't often just given for putting time in on the job, nor are significant pay increases. Initiative is often required, sometimes a willingness to take on new and potentially uncomfortable roles. Sometimes life is just downright painful beyond a stomped toe or muscle soreness. You learn to persevere. 

I take a lot of these types of lessons with me from my playing days.  Particularly the reality that my personal expectations didn't line up with my reality. The example that plays through my head the most was from my sophomore year in high school. A number of the guys were getting the call up to varsity at that point and I was expecting the same. I was getting some time on the field during the varsity games, but it was generally when it was of minimal consequence. It hurt a little and took a lot of time to realize that I maybe wasn't quite to the level yet. The reality was I was getting A LOT of playing time running with both the junior varsity and sophomore squads. That playing time helped develop me into a much better, and eventually college-level player. It was a more natural path of development that allowed me to still pursue playing the game whereas many of the guys who got the early nod were burned out by senior year.

From the coaching side it is also tough to keep expectations and reality matched up. As much as we want to win, the more important thing is to develop the players, toughness, skills and all in a way that they want to keep coming back and playing. It's also important to realize that success is largely defined by the personnel, the team you have. You can do everything right as a coach and the players can work their butts off, but if they're not quite "to the level" it will likely make for a tough year. 

There's one recent glaring example of this at the professional level: Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. While Belichick certainly made the right personnel move with playing Brady for Bledsoe all those years ago, it was Brady who was the difference maker. This hypothesis was proved out with Brady's move to Tampa and subsequent Super Bowl win.

All of this is on my mind while I enter this season. Particularly since our first outing didn't go so well. We lost on the tone of a high number of turnovers. The tally was five lost fumbles, plus three additional dropped balls. It was hard to get anything going with that, let alone make adjustments. Still, most of the kids played hard. There were some good surprises as some of the kids flew around and made some great plays.

With the reality now in check, practice can be used to make adjustments and work on the things that obviously needed work. This is what makes coaching fun and interesting for me. It's a big engineering challenge of sorts. How do we optimize the system that is the team? What do we have that works and what do we need to maybe MacGyver a little? How do we keep it fun in the midst of adversity/losing? How do we teach and what examples and expectations can we set?

I love coaching and it's not for the opportunity to be a superstar of feel like I'm playing a live version of a Madden video game. It's because of the people, my players, their parents (even if they can be the subject of another post at times) and my co-coaches. It's the collaboration and the common goals. It's the gratitude I have from my playing experience and wishing to pass some of that on.

It's good to be back!

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