As coaches, we all strive for the ideal situation where upperclassmen, not coaches, are basically guiding our football program. The leadership isn’t coming from the coaches but rather the returning players, while we sit back and let the machine run. While I’m personally still trying to get to that dynamic (despite coming off a successful 10-2 season), I’ve found that an identity of competition among players has contributed to some of the more successful cultures in high school football. So, at X&O Labs, we researched how various programs are finding ways to motivate players during a long offseason and keep them interested in football. In doing so, we have found some common denominators in the form of developing competition. These are outlined in several areas below.
Implementation of a Leadership Council
Some of the best ideas that we’ve come across have taken shape through the process of developing a leadership council among current players. While there is no set requirement for the number, we’ve found the majority of programs will break up into five to eight teams.
For example, Berne Union High School (OH) will break seniors up into three to four teams (depending on numbers) and hold a team draft at the school or at the head coach’s house. “We always have food, and hang out together for a while, then we let the players get into their groups and talk strategy for their draft,” coach Tony Hurps told us. “We don’t give them any guidelines when drafting their team from our expected roster for the coming year. Once all of our expected team members are drafted, we allow them to choose any “free agents” or players that they think might play and would be helpful to our team.” According to Coach Hurps, this puts the responsibility on their seniors and creates healthy competition.
Granite Hills High School (CA) engineered a complete turnaround the last several years by employing an off-season leadership council that promotes competition. “We have our seniors draft teams, usually about six, and they compete in everything we do,” said head coach Kellan Cobbs. “We will reward the winners for anything you can think of—team attendance at a basketball game during the offseason, overall team GPA for each grading period, etc. The team with the most strength gains after a six-week cycle will be given rewards ranging from Gatorade, food, shirts, hats, to team points.”
Creating Competition in the Weight Room
In order to produce an element of competition in the weight room, it’s important to have coaches in the facility to challenge players. Because many student-athletes are playing other sports, we’ve found that many coaches are resorting to early morning workouts to get as many players together at once. At Opelika High School (AL) head coach, Brian Blackmon will infuse competition among players by keeping tabs on their numbers. “We challenge them in the weight room to not only compete with the guys they lift with but with the weight they are lifting,” said Coach Blackmon. “We chart PR's (personal records) and challenge athletes to break them.”
We've implemented other tiered rewards systems in the weight room program. At Ricori High School (MN) former head coach—and now superintendent, Mike Rowe—rewarded athletes for attendance and meeting their required goals for lifting. “We give the lifter of the month a $10 gift card to Buffalo Wild Wings,” said Coach Rowe. “The lifter of the month is decided by attendance points and percentage of gains in the three core lifts—bench, squat, and clean.”
Even after the lifting session is complete, River Rouge High School (MN) head coach Corey Parker holds a discipline and mental toughness competition before players exit the weight room. ““For example, we will have all of our student-athletes hug a 45-pound plate and then have them go through several sets of squats, lunges and upright rows,” he told us. “We also have our stereo blasting loud music in the weight room to attempt to disrupt their focus and counting. If any of the young men lose the count or forget what number we are on, we go back to zero with the count of repetitions we have done. The objective is to help them focus when they are tired and stay together through a tough experience.”
This can be one of the more challenging facets of competition. Coaches, particularly those that don’t work in the building, can chase their tails tracking player's academic standings. While many coaches keep a constant stream of communication between guidance staff and parents, some coaches are placing the impetus on struggling students’ peers to pull them through.
Coach Cobbs has found a way to create team accountability by giving team points in the offseason for good grades. “Kids put pressure on each other to get grades up to try and have the highest team GPA,” said Coach Cobbs. “I will also put emails up on our board that shows coaches looking for kids with a 3.0 or higher or only a certain test score. Having them see it in an email from actual college coaches has held a little more weight than just me nagging at them to get their grades up.”
At Union High School, the biggest competition that is emphasized is grade point average. Since players need extra motivation to do well in school, they utilize the drafted teams to make it a competition. Each team will get points based on grade point average and test scores. “We will also pair two players up with comparable cumulative GPAs for individual competition,” said Coach Hurps. “At the end of each grading period, we reward the individual competition winners with pizza and glow in the dark dodgeball, or chicken wings and a video game tournament”.
These are just some ideas of what coaches are doing this offseason to produce a better product in the fall. But remember, each program is different; what works for some of these coaches may not work for your program. The idea is to take some of these ideas and formulate your own system of offseason competition. The earlier these players understand the importance of competition, the harder they will compete during the season. You can find more information on all disciplines relative to football at https://www.xandolabs.com.