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An Essay on “TEAM” by an Old Coach

When it comes to football I believe in TEAM. Others may believe in spread offense or the 40 defense. They may think the answer to success is having a nice field house or having great talent. But I am a TEAM guy. I would rather have a group that plays as a TEAM than a certain number of victories or even a playoff run.

Great facilities, pretty uniforms, fancy formations and exotic defensive schemes are OK. Nothing wrong with that. But if you don’t play as a TEAM, they are all just a waste. TEAM must come first.

I looked up TEAM in the dictionary. Webster doesn’t even understand the concept. It is defined as a group of individuals playing on the same side in a contest. I have seen a lot of that, but I wouldn’t really call that a TEAM. Just having the same color jersey on doesn’t make you a TEAM. I believe a TEAM is a group of people that bond together for a common cause where no one cares who gets the credit. That’s TEAM.

A true TEAM happens so rarely in sports today that many misrepresent its success when it occurs. I love to hear commentators talk about why the New England Patriots seem to be successful year after year. They have Tom Brady or a great defensive scheme or something else. The truth is that they have a coach in Bill Belichick who is a master at teaching TEAM. His father coached for years on the football staff at the Naval Academy. He grew up in that atmosphere of teamwork, loyalty and duty to something bigger than yourself. Yes, Nick Saban is a great recruiter. But he coached for Bill Belichick with the Cleveland Browns years ago. Over the years he has also become a master at TEAM. He is abrasive to outside influences that threaten his TEAM beliefs and concepts.

For some reason most coaches don’t want to believe that TEAM is that powerful. It is the single most underrated force in athletics today, regardless of the level of play.

My vision for my TEAM was to play as a unit where everyone respects each other and the role that they provide for the TEAM daily. He may be the starting quarterback or the lowest member of the scout team. Both have important roles. Our managers and video guys were a part of our TEAM. A player may play four years of varsity football, but they will only be on that TEAM once. After the season ends, that TEAM will never exist again. Yet, those TEAM members will always be TEAMmates for the rest of their lives.

If you believe in the philosophy of TEAM, then it has to be more than lip service. You have to promote it and most importantly you have to create ways to teach it. You have to celebrate examples of TEAM when they occur. Trust me, it is a lot easier to believe in talent or size or a certain offense or defense. Teaching TEAM is extremely hard, because there will always be those who are selfish who want their way before the TEAM. They are more interested in their own success than the TEAM success. A lot of times it is one of your best players. That player must be convinced to get in the circle with the rest of the TEAM or it will hurt your squad. We call that coaching. If you believe in TEAM, then there will be things that you think are important that no one else will. TEAMS think alike, look alike, practice alike and conduct themselves alike. TEAM must come first!

It is important for coaches to remember that 99% of all parents believe in their child over the TEAM. Therefore, they will not agree with a lot of the rules and policies that a coach may have that promotes TEAM. I always said I would do anything I could to help a player or a coach as long as it did not interfere with our TEAM.

The silliest award in football is “Player of the Week.” We give it to the guy who scored three touchdowns or rushed for 100 yards or who intercepted two passes. Did that guy score touchdowns or rush for 100 yards without someone blocking for him? Did anyone pressure the quarterback to cause those interceptions? Inevitably someone wants to know why this guy won the award and I didn’t, and they are mad. Worst of all, you can be sure that the guy that won the award this week will play like crap next week.  I never had “player of the week” award. It is not included in the definition of TEAM. TEAM must come first!

I don’t know how you can have a true TEAM and let people do things that are detrimental to the TEAM without having some sort of consequence. Mac Champion, one of the greatest coaches in high school football in Alabama, told me once that the worst thing a coach can ever do is play a guy on Friday night that skipped practice during the week. He was right. I’m not talking about missing because of a funeral or an injury. I’m talking about the guy that claims he is sick on Tuesday when the tough work gets done. His teammates know him and they know he isn’t really sick. I had a lot of guys who were sick on Tuesday during my career, but I don’t ever remember anyone sick on Thursday when you practice an hour in shorts.  Sometimes a player would say that they didn’t feel good and I would say, “I don’t either. Get dressed.”

One night we got a big lead on someone and by the start of the fourth quarter we were subbing everyone into the game. One of our young players had missed Tuesday practice during the week and I would not put him in the game. It hurt him so bad to watch his buddies play and for him be on the sideline that he was in tears. But the next week he was at practice with his TEAMmates every day, being a part of the TEAM. The next time we got a lead, he got to play. Yes, I was teaching him about the importance of being at practice, but more importantly, about his responsibility to the TEAM and to his TEAMmates.

When I was a young coach I asked an older coach once how he motivated players to do the right things. “Well,” he said. “Why are they there in the first place? They are on the TEAM because they want to play. That’s your leverage. If you aren’t willing to sit them, you will never get them to do it right.” Sitting players and providing discipline properly is a critical part of TEAM building. Every TEAM has conflict, but coaches must find a way to turn that into a positive lesson about TEAM. TEAM must come first!

If you want a true TEAM, you have to get rid of a player who has become a cancer. His attitude or work ethic is having a negative effect on the rest of the TEAM because he is considered to be a good player. He may be helping you in some ways, but chances are he is killing you off the field in other areas. I hated dismissing players from the TEAM, but I never regretted any of those decisions.

We act as if we think these young men show up knowing and possessing knowledge about how to execute their role on the TEAM. The opposite is usually true. Chances are they have never played on a true TEAM in any sport. Chances are no one had ever coached him about TEAM. It is the coach’s responsibility to teach his players about TEAM. Sometimes we forget that coaches are teachers first. Remember that Belichick and Saban’s greatest strengths are their ability to “teach” TEAM.

TEAM’s are built slowly over the course of a season. TEAMwork taught in the off season and during the first part of the regular season will begin to flourish with better play as the year progresses. I always wanted our TEAMS to improve each week so that we would be good by the end of October when we had to win the important games and get ready for a playoff run.

A head coach must understand the strengths of his coaching staff and use them to help him build the TEAM. He must preach TEAM to his coaches and insist that they are constantly talking TEAM to the players. Players must lift for the TEAM, practice for the TEAM, and play for the TEAM. TEAM must come first!

Whether you coach Little League or in the NFL, the ability to teach TEAM should be treasured. I laugh when a college says it wants an offensive minded guy as their new head coach after firing their last coach for a losing season. Offense is not their problem. Their problem is TEAM.

Because of the internet, the new generation of high school football coaches know more about offensive and defensive schemes than ever before. Unfortunately, they know less about TEAM than ever before. Part of that is because they have never played on or coached on a true TEAM.

Finally I would say that if your child ever has an opportunity to play on a true TEAM, go thank his or her coach. Your child has truly been blessed and may actually use their athletic experience to enhance their lives as they grow to adults, which was the original purpose of high school athletics.

Here is my last word on this subject. TEAM must come first!


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