My son has joined a local football team. I try to be an involved dad, so I’m trying my hand at helping to coach.
He’s surprisingly good at defensive end; I’m very proud of him.
However, in their most recent practice (Thursday), something stood out to me.
We were running a half-line; basically the center, guard, and tackle on the offensive line, along with a defensive end, an outside linebacker, and a nose guard for defense. (Also in the mix: a tight end, wide receiver, and the three backs.)
We were doing this because we wanted to run offensive plays with some defense. (The team’s small; we don’t have enough players to run an offense and a defense, and most of our players play both.)
Then something stood out: the defensive players wanted to hit, of course, but we were trying to hold back on that – we wanted the offense to get experience running the plays, and our defense is much farther along.
But then, the defense was asking themselves how they could improve, what they could run on defense outside of a base 4-3.
They started talking. They started asking themselves what the offense might do, and how to counter it.
And they weren’t just asking themselves as position players – they were talking about it.
The tackle was suggesting a tactic for my son, because they were triple-teaming him – which meant my son (the DE) would have a specific lane open to him. But if he was going to use that, the OLB needed to cover the gap my son was abandoning.
It wasn’t the lane assignments that was impressive. It was the feedback loops. They were encouraging each other to try things, to work together, adjusting for their strengths and weaknesses; they were starting to play football instead of just playing positions.
It spread: the safeties got involved, the cornerbacks paid attention and started watching for what they could do, and they started being part of the line’s chatter as well. Huddles stopped being “what you do between plays” and started becoming miniature strategy sessions.
It spread to the offense, too: they noticed the changes, and started asking themselves what they could do to counter it. The linemen started talking about assignments, how to open lanes, and who to team up against. The backs and receivers were becoming part of it.
It was football becoming football – chess with pads.
What stuck out to me was how open it was: the defense was sharing with the offense what was going on, and vice versa. Both offense and defense were participating in the other side of the line of scrimmage, so the offense would run a play, then the defense would tell the offense what they (the offense) could have done.
As a result, you could see the improvement. You could see the camaraderie build. And by the time that particular drill was done, you had a visible improvement among the entire team.
It’s almost like the football team was using open source methodology: openness, discussion, improvement for the whole instead of improvement for the individual.
It was awesome to watch.
The epilogue, of course: they played a game Saturday, and the practice didn’t quite translate to the field. They started slowly, and ended up losing 6-0; the other team scored early on a long pass play. As the game wore on, they got a lot tougher; the defense was stellar, and the offense, well, it’s still got a little way to go.
It’s okay. The team is new, with few of the players having ever played before; the ones who had played, had not played as a team. They’re learning, and I’m learning as well; I’ve never coached before, and thank God that we have a head coach who knows what he’s doing, even if he learned at Maryland and not a good school like Florida State. </humor>
The players can see what’s happening, and we’ve already explained to them that our goal is to have the best candidates for varsity in the league when the season’s done; if we lose every game but achieve that objective, we’re okay.
Of course, if we have done that, chances are our players are good enough to win, and we expect that. However, we’d rather teach them fundamentals that they’d need on a higher level than do whatever we need to do to win a particular game.
The target’s the war, not the battles. And the war is these players’ trip to varsity, in the short term, and these players’ understanding of team in the long run.