I’ve been lucky enough to have 6 of my 8 teams as a Head Coach qualify for the playoffs, including my first four years. The team where I am assisting now, www.excelsiorfootball.com, is heading in to the quarterfinals this week.
From my experience, here are 5 Keys that I believe are important while making competing in the playoffs.
1. SHORT AND SWEET
(Wrote this in November 2012 so these stats are a year old!) I spoke with the Head Coach Jason Strunk of Lubbock, TX high school earlier in the week about the length of his practices. He has led his team back to the playoffs in highly competitive Texas for the first time since 1975!!! They finished this year 4-6 after an 0-10 season last year. He has experience at the NCAA Division 1 level, and at a very high level in Florida High School football. His experience means something. I share the same philosophy he has, cut practice time as you move through the season. Keep the kids fresh both mentally and physically. Let’s face it, you’ve been out there since the beginning of August, we are now in November. Some of these kids are DONE with football. Honestly, they would rather turn their pads in than keep going in the playoffs. Those kids will weigh you down at this point.
Once in the playoffs, I usually never practice more than an hour and forty minutes each day. If you have done your job as a coach with the fundamentals thus far, you really shouldn’t need more practice time than that. I remember seeing a few practices of the Miami Hurricanes before their 2001 Rose Bowl domination of Nebraska. They weren’t on the field longer than an hour and 15 minutes.
2. KEEP THEM SAFE
The last thing you need now is an injury to a key player here in the playoffs. Ask any major college or NFL football coach, or high school coach for that matter what one of the keys to their championship stretch run was, they will tell you that just being healthy was a key. Sometimes that stuff is totally out of our hands as coaches. There isn’t much we can control during a game in terms of injuries. However, we can control a lot during practices.
As you plan your practices here in November and December, think about the risk v. reward. Is the risk of your drill worth the reward at this point in the season? Do you need to practice full speed kickoff returns at this juncture? Is the full speed collision worth it now? Do you need tackling drills player on player at this point in the season? Or can you stick to your dummies and pop up sleds?
3. KEEP THEM FRESH MENTALLY
Again, it’s been a long season. Is your message getting stale in the minds of your kids? Are you bringing something fresh to them, as a source of inspiration? Doing and saying the same thing day in and day out will become stale to these kids you are working with. Are you using the same old practice plan that you have used all season? Or are you mixing up the mental demands of your kids here in the playoffs?
I’ve always believed that as you get in to the playoffs, practices need to be more about the mental approach than the physical approach. Crank up the mental demands, crank down the physical demands.
4. KEEP BUILDING TEAM CHEMISTRY
Don’t forget one of the most important aspects of a championship football program – team chemistry! Many coaches pour a lot in to this aspect during Training Camp. And rightly so. You are fresh and new, some kids are brand new to the program, it is needed. But as you move throughout the year, you forget to keep building team chemistry. In my opinion, if you aren’t working to create it, you are working to hurt it. Never underestimate the power of team chemistry. These kids have been together a long time!
Getting them away from the football field together will help to keep them bonded. Go do something together as a team one night after practice. Go see a movie or take the team out to dinner together. This keeps building team chemistry.
5. ONE AND DONE? OR JUST DO YOUR BEST?
My first year as a Head Coach, I made a critical error. We knew a few weeks before the regular season ended that we would be in the playoffs, so I started beating the “one and done drum.” You know how coaches do it, they STRESS, and a lot of times OVER STRESS the one and done theme. With a mature football team who has been to the playoffs year in and year out, I can understand that philosophy. But what I found that year, 2003, from talking with my players afterwards was that I totally stressed them out and put way too much pressure on them with beating the “one and done drum.”
We got beat by a great team, a team that went on to win the Championship, led by current New York Giants receiver Ramses Barden. But my kids were playing with too much stress on them, brought on by my theme, and the theme of our coaches throughout the week. We wanted to give them the sense of urgency we were under. But they were too young and immature to really handle it. They were pressing during the week, and making mistakes they didn’t normally make. And then the same thing happened in the game. We were very disciplined with the snap count that year. But sure enough, very first two plays, we false start. That’s what I mean, we were pressing too hard.
Instead of beating the “one and done drum” just tell your players to do their best. Ask of them the same thing you asked of them all season. Don’t add unneeded stress and pressure.