Notes for Coaches

Here’s a thread to jot down teaching points, anecdotes and other insights related to coaching.

For the first post, I want to start off with some comments I had about Pete Carroll’s remarks about a disastrous play right before halftime against the Vikings. The Seahawks had the ball on the Vikings 4 yard line, with 16 seconds and no timeouts. Russell Wilson drops back, slips, tries to scramble and then throws an INT. Anyway, Pete mentioned several things about this that I thought was interesting:

1. He mentioned that he kicked himself for not reminding Russ to throw the ball away if there wasn’t anything. You would expect Wilson to know this, but even really good players forget an important detail like this. (The radio announcer asked if it was similar to baseball players reminding each of the number of outs, and Carroll agreed.) The detail is interesting because it shows a way that professionals aren’t completely different from amateurs.

2. Carroll mentioned that they practice the exact situation over and over again. When I played on teams, the coaches I played for almost never practiced situations like this (i.e., little time on the clock, having timeouts or not, etc.) This isn’t the first time I realized the importance of practicing these situations, but if I ever coach seriously, this is something I’d do a lot with my teams. (I’ll explain the reason in the next point.)

3. Carroll explicitly or implicitly mentioned that they practice these situation over and over again so that a) the coaches don’t have to make a decision under duress. That is, they identify all the possible scenarios, decide the way they want to handle those scenarios, and then practice them over and over again, and b) by repeated practice, the players are comfortable and confident when these situations occur. (If I were the coach, I would try to also recreate the amount of pressure the players feel, and if possible make the pressure even greater than what the players would experience during the game. The idea here is to get the players used to playing under pressure. The more accustomed they are to pressure, the better chance they’ll be able to perform under pressure during the game.)

4. Regarding preparing for different scenarios, Carroll mentioned that they never really practiced a situation where the QB slips, and you can hear his chagrin of this oversight. To me, this illustrates the degree to which a coach would or should think of every possible contingency. Again, you want to do this and then expose your players and coaches to this in practice, so that they’ll be able to handle this well if it happens during the game. This is about being prepared, and being disciplined.

13 thoughts on “Notes for Coaches

  1. Should You Rest Players or Play Them in a Game That “Doesn’t Matter?”

    That’s what some teams like the coaches, like Pete Carroll, have to face this weekend (although there are some stakes to the Seahawks game, not only who they play in wildcard, but it could affect home field if they advance). Still, let’s assume the game really didn’t matter–would you rest players or play them? With a few exceptions, I would play starters, and I would approach the game as if it mattered. Now, if I had starters that were injured, I would consider sitting them, but it depends. If they would normally play, I would be really reluctant to sit these players. Why? The primary reason is that I’d want to maintain the mindset of approaching each game the same way, as if you were playing in a championship game. When you sit players, especially if you normally wouldn’t, that can signal to your players and coaches to approach the game differently, that they need not approach it with the same intensity and concentration. That is not a good thing. I think this is especially true if your team has been inconsistent all year, which applies to the Seahawks. If your team consistently played a high level all year, I might be more open to sitting players I normally wouldn’t. But that would be one of the few exceptions, and even then, I would be reluctant.

    I think this question can be re-framed in another way: Would you rather lose in the playoffs because of an injury that occurred in a meaningless game, or because your team came out flat and out of sorts? Off the top of my, I’d prefer the former. Both situations would difficult to deal with it, but I think I’d be kicking myself more for the latter.

    1. I would disagree with two things: one, a guy like Martin, where he could play, but rest will help his injury should sit, imo. Could he be rusty after one week off, maybe, but if he could theoretically go from 75% healthy to 85% healthy than I would said it’s worth the chance. Two, although a coach can emphasize the importance of “staying sharp”, players know the game is meaningless, so that could affect how hard they will practice and ultimately how hard they play. Not to mention the focus they will have. So although I think you are right, it’s tough to “manipulate” meaningful football in a meaningless game.

      1. I would disagree with two things: one, a guy like Martin, where he could play, but rest will help his injury should sit, imo. Could he be rusty after one week off, maybe, but if he could theoretically go from 75% healthy to 85% healthy than I would said it’s worth the chance.

        This is a bit of a gray area, but if the player is good enough to play, and the likely improvement is minimal, I’d lean more towards playing them. The bigger issue is the message not playing the player sends–to the player and the rest of the team. If you can rest the player without signaling that the team doesn’t need to play as hard, then I’m more OK with resting the player.

        Two, although a coach can emphasize the importance of “staying sharp”, players know the game is meaningless, so that could affect how hard they will practice and ultimately how hard they play. Not to mention the focus they will have. So although I think you are right, it’s tough to “manipulate” meaningful football in a meaningless game.

        I agree with this, but I don’t see how what you’re saying is a rebuttal to my position. If anything it supports the approach I’m advocating. There are times when getting the players to take a game seriously will be very challenging. That’s when a coach has to earn their money. What you see m to be saying is that there’s no use trying to get the players to take the game seriously. ?

        1. The Eagles had to win their last three games to get into the playoffs, so let’s assume their desire to play hard and win was a 100%. Compared to the Eagles, I cannot expect the Cowboys (against the Giants) to be at that same level of desire. Could I coach them up to get to 75% as compared to the Eagles, let’s say yes. But is that enough to validate what you were saying in the original post about “maintain the mindset” and being more consistent?

          Does it matter if the team’s roster is slim in certain positions in terms of resting? The Cowboys are not in a good place in terms of o-line depth, especially if Sua-Filo cannot play. So would resting a Martin in that situation be more acceptable or would that not come in the play at all in your coaching strategy of playing guys in meaningless games.

          1. Could I coach them up to get to 75% as compared to the Eagles, let’s say yes. But is that enough to validate what you were saying in the original post about “maintain the mindset” and being more consistent?

            Here’s the thing: One of my primary goals as a coach is to get my players (and assistant coaches) to have only one approach towards a game–namely, to give maximum effort and concentration, to earnestly strive for perfection (even though you know this is impossible). Pete Carroll expresses this in the terms “championship week” and “championship opportunity” to describe each game. That is, approach and play each game as if it were the championship game. It doesn’t matter who the opponent is, where the game is played, or even the stakes of the game–I want my players to have only one way to play the game. i don’t care if about the effort of the Eagles. They could be giving 100%, 50%, 10%, it doesn’t matter. I’m striving to get my players to give their maximum effort, to play their best game.

            Ultimately, what I’m saying above is separate from the decision to start a player, pull them out early, or just not let them play at all. Where it is relevant is if you decision sends the message that your players need not take the game as seriously. In other words, they can approach the game differently (thus have at least two ways of playing). If you can rest a player, in a situation where you normally wouldn’t, and NOT undermine your message that you’re playing only one way–that you’re going to give the maximum effort, etc., then I would be OK with this move. I think this is not an easy thing to do, and it’s hard to do with precision.

            But I’ll say it again: the injuries should be factored in. I don’t think a coach can ignore this completely.

  2. How Should a Coach Approach a Game with a Big Rival?

    I really agree with Pete Carroll’s approach, which is to treat the game like all the others–namely, as if you were playing a championship game. Based on my understanding, one main reason for this is to prepare your team for a championship game (and playoff games). The stakes and pressure are obviously greater in these games. If the players can approach each game as if the stakes were as high as a championship game, then they will have a greater chance of handling the pressure–because they’ll be treating it like the other games. Basically, the goal is to play with the same mindset and approach for every game, whether the game is the first of the season or the championship game. In my view, getting the players to do this is really difficult, but it’s a worthy goal.

    With a game against an arch-rival, there’s an added issue–namely, a coach can emphasize the rivalry to elevate the emotion and intensity of her players. Should a coach do that? My sense is a lot of coaches do this, but I don’t like this approach, partly for the reasons I describe above. But there’s also another reason as well. Bobby Wagner does a good job of explaining this:

    “When you put so much into a game, you feel like you have to do something crazy because there’s more people watching—your family is watching, more people’s eyes are on you—you can sometimes do something that you wouldn’t normally do or try hard because you want to be seen,” linebacker Bobby Wagner explained. “That could mess up your game that day, and that could mess up the team, and that could come back to hurt you. Then, you think about how you put so much energy into that one game, and then the next game, it’s not prime time and maybe with not as many people watching you don’t put in that same energy into the game. So you could create an inconsistent performance because, you’ll be up for the games you think everybody’s playing or big games, and you’ll be down for the games you think that people aren’t watching or aren’t as significant, and you’ll have a rollercoaster of a season. If you treat every game the same, I feel like you’ll have more of a consistent performance.”

    In the same article, I liked the way Carroll tried to mitigate the importance of the upcoming game against the 49ers (who are 8-0, while the Seahawks are 7-2):

    “Shoot, this is a big week,” Carroll said to open his Thursday press conference. “It’s such a big week.”

    Then after a pause for comedic effect, Carroll added, “The Harlem Globetrotters are in town. Holy mackerel. Did you guys know that? They’ve got a great looking team, we showed the highlights today, they’re ready to go. I would not want to play them.”

    and later,

    “No, it isn’t in my mind,” Carroll said when asked about a potential rivalry game with the team that currently resides in first place in the division. “Every game to us is a championship game regardless of who we’re playing, where we’re playing, what the situation is, what the schedule says, what the matchups are, what’s happened before. In that case, there is no one game that’s different than another. We want to play every game like it’s the only game we’ve got. That’s how we approach it.”

    I’d really try to get my players to embrace this attitude–and it would be a challenge because it’s very unnatural mindset. To play the first season of the game with the same intensity and focus as a championship game would be odd. The natural thing to do is to treat rivalry and championship games with greater importance than non-rivalry and regular season games. But this is the way a true champion plays. Every season, I’d want my team to make playing every game with a championship mindset as a kind of quest they’d pursue.

    (By the way, the coaches also need to adopt this mindset as well. They should approach practice and preparation of the team in a very similar way as they would preparing for a championship game.)

  3. This recent Pete Carroll press conference has a lot of insights about managing the psychological aspects of a team. He goes over two things specifically–1) playing each game as if it were a championship game–so that when the real big games occur, players will have the same mentality, versus adopting a different mindset and approach, and 2) executing in big moments. I’ll say more about this second point (which occurs near the end of the press conference) after the clip.

    Carroll says he doesn’t want plays to try to elevate their play in the big moment, even though people tend to talk this way. Instead, he wants to create conditions that they do what they’re capable of doing–not something beyond what they normally do. This made me think of a definition of clutch performance–namely, the ability to perform at a normal level, in a pressure packed time. People talk about clutch performance as if a player plays better than they normally do. But I suspect this is an illusion–the fact that they perform at a normal level in such a high stakes moment, is what makes the performance seem elevated. But in a manner of speaking the performance is elevated–because the player isn’t allowing the moment to inhibit their play. Pressure inhibits one’s ability to perform at their best. Players who deal well with pressure are capable of doing what they normally do. Players who struggle perform below what they’re normally capable of.

    Carroll mentions a conversation with Bill Walsh about performing well in big moments, and Walsh said that he doesn’t try to ask them to do anything unusual. The takeaway for me is that the challenge is to not let things inhibit performance–not find ways to elevate performance. For a coach, something novel or too complex can be an inhibitor. (I think this is a reason teams that rely on complex schemes are at a disadvantage in the playoffs.)

    I forgot something else. Carroll talked quite a bit about how he will approach a game that may not matter–i.e., will he try to win or will he rest players. He really does not want to do that–his team has had the right mindset and has been playing well, and he doesn’t want to disrupt that. The insight here is that the proper mindset, especially for the entire team to have this, is far from a given, from game to game. When his teams play the right way, he talks about “capturing that” and then taking it to the next game (not in the clip above, but in other places). The implication is that this mindset is not automatic. Indeed, I think it’s elusive—something the team has to capture on a weekly basis. The teams that can do this the best, if they have the talent, can have a great season. This is a championship mindset. I like the pursuit of this–as a player and as a coach. It’s fun to try to do this; as a coach, it’s fun to help the team do this, and it’s super gratifying if you can succeed. Win or lose, if a coach can do this, they are champions, in a way. If they had sufficient talent, there’s a good chance they will be champions.

  4. Reid,

    Did you ever listen to Flying Coach with Carroll and Steve Kerr? Just wondering, since you really like Carroll. I find Carroll drab most of the time. I’m actually surprised at how ineloquent a lot of coaches like Coach K and Saban are? You would think great coaches are very good at communicating and/or charismatic. Actually Saban is from the Belichick school so he could just be drab on purpose.

    1. I listened to some of those episodes, and I liked what I heard.

      By “drab” do you mean not entertaining–like Jim Valvano? And if he’s not a good example, which coach would be? My sense is that Valvano is the exception that proves the rule. My impression is that most of the coaches are not entertaining in that way.

      I think the great coaches are good communicators–but not necessarily entertaining ones. There’s also a difference between communicating to the team and one-on-one interactions. I think a coach has to be good at both. They also have to know how to speak to the media–and here I mean having the ability to be diplomatic, but personable, very similar to the skills a good politician needs. A coach can be great at this, and still be kinda drab in an interview. Indeed, there’s a greater chance the coach will be boring in these situations.

      When I’m listening to interviews, I like hearing good anecdotes, but I’m mostly looking for insights into Xs and Os, strategy, player development, and managing player and team psychology. If the insights are good, I guess would be enough to keep me interested.

      1. Not necessarily entertaining as in funny or entirely funny. Like Obama and Clinton are great communicators but I wouldn’t call them necessarily funny. They may say some funny stuff, but they are not comedians.

        Carroll’s thoughts a lot of time are not very deep or insightful. Coach K stumbles a lot when he speaks, with a lot of pauses and “ummms”. Saban sounds like what you think Belichick would sound like in a interview. I’m guessing, like you stated, if these guys are talking X’s and O’s or player development, they would probably be great. But something like Flying Coach isn’t necessarily a “coaching” podcast. It’s closer to a self-help type podcasts. Or if Coach K comes on Dan Patrick Show, he isn’t necessarily talking X’s and O’s.

        But guys like Pitino and Calipari are great communicators. They both sound like used car salesmen at times, but at least you can see them being good at communicating. I’m not saying all coaches are bad, I’m just surprised there are a lot of great coaches that are not necessarily great.

    2. It sounds like you’re talking about a smoother, slicker delivery? I can sort of see Pitino and Calipari being this way a bit more than Coach K or Carroll–but not something noticeable that I would say the former are good communicators, while the latter are not.

      How much of this is based on the context or format of their speaking? Both the Flying Coach and DP Show discussions, have a more talk story, shooting-the-bull quality to them. They’re much different from giving a speech, talking at a press conference, or addressing the team.

      I’m a bit surprised when you say that Carroll’s comments are not deep or insightful–while presumably that’s not the case with Pitino and Calipari. Are you saying this because he uses to many cliches? Do you feel this way when he speaks about psychological and emotional elements? (To me, I think his most interesting insights are about these topics; same with Coach K.)

      1. Let’s say I had a phone conversation with the coaches I mentioned and we were not talking coaching or sports. I doubt I would enjoy talking to Coach K or Carroll. It would probably be a struggle as they don’t come across as being overly charismatic. Whereas the guys I mentioned as being exceptional communicators including Obama and Clinton, I get that they can make anyone be comfortable in a conversation. Now part of that is their down-to-earthness although I don’t get that Pitino or Calipari is down-to-earth, but part of that is just being able to speak well. I don’t get that impression of guys like Coach K. If you had to have your wife listen to an interview of guys I mentioned, do you think she would enjoy Carroll and Coach K as much or more than Pitino or Calipari?

        For the record I don’t think Calipari is deeper or more insightful than Carroll. In fact it’s probably the opposite. I would think Pitino sounds more insightful than Carroll, but in a politician sense where you cannot trust everything he’s saying. Maybe I didn’t hear enough of Carroll speaking, but yeah I’m not inspired by what I’ve heard. I don’t know if he uses a lot of cliches, but sometimes I get that his whole coaching persona is cliche.

    3. By “charismatic,” it sounds like you mean personable or likable. I feel like that’s what you’re getting at with Obama and Clinton, in addition to being well-spoken. (I actually think Obama can be halting and a little too slow in interviews and press conferences.) In terms of these qualities, all those coaches seem to be on a similar level. Actually, in terms of likability, I don’t think any of them would score high for me. But I think Coach K and Carroll would have a greater chance, because their concern for people seems slightly greater than their ambition and ego–at least compared to the other two.

      Are you saying Tracy would like listening to Pitino/Callipari a lot more than K/Carroll? That would surprise me. I would be genuinely curious to know why she would feel this way. I think Larri would be equally uninterested.

      By the way, with Carroll, I don’t find him inspiring, for what it’s worth. I just think his insights and ideas about getting his players to perform at a high level are fascinating. For example, I don’t think I’ve heard any other coach down play rivalries or big games as much as he does–while also articulating the reasons for this. He actually shares quite a bit of his thought processes behind the reasons for things like this. What he says really aligns with my own experiences as well–e.g., what would make me anxious during a performance and what would help alleviate those nerves.

      When I was younger, I focused mostly on getting a really clear idea of what a great team looked like. After reading and listening to Carroll and Coach K, I realized that managing the psychological and emotional aspects of your individual players and the team, as a whole, was way more important that I realized. I’ve read books by Dean Smith, Bobby Knight, Bill Walsh, Bill Parcells, Rick Majerus, John Wooden, and several more–and I don’t think any of them dig into this psychological element as much as Carroll and Coach K. It’s funny that you should lump these two coaches together—because I see them as two that are really great at managing players. They’re the type of coaches that if you gave them great talent, they would field teams. (Maybe Phil Jackson would be the other. Is he kinda boring like these coaches?) But if they didn’t have great talent, then wouldn’t be able to elevate their teams like Belichick or Pitino. Their strength is more with dealing with people and handling psychological and group dynamics–whereas Belichick and Pitino are more the Xs and Os wizards. (I feel like this may be giving short shrift to Carroll’s defensive acumen, but oh well.)

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