New Ideas for Old School Football Coaches
High school football practices look the same as they did 40 years ago. Stretching, agility, stations, special teams; followed by individual, group, and team sessions. Practice always ends with conditioning to conclude a two and a half to three hour practice. Lots of whistles, yelling, and cussing can be heard throughout the session. Encouragement is intertwined with some verbal abuse. Water breaks are hurried and players are expected to hustle from one activity to the next. If anyone screws up the entire team is physically punished. This is the process. The process is unquestioned and dates back to the forefathers of American football (Vince Lombardi, Woody Hayes, Paul Brown, George Halas, etc.)
What if we started over? What if football coaches understood that 80% of our results come from 20% of our work? (Pareto Principal). Or better yet, what if we could agree that most of what we do as football coaches is totally bullshit and counter-productive?
What if football coaches could put aside their massive testosterone-driven paramilitary egos and realize that success on Friday nights may have very little to do with Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday?
Winning is usually the result of talent, luck, and healthy athletes. Winning may be the result of your school having 50% more students than your opponents. Winning may be the result of your team having 60 players and your opponents having only 30. Winning may be the result of the winning tradition at your school in contrast to the losing tradition at another.
Maybe winning has more to do with your opponents doing dumber things in practice than you do.
What exactly are we trying to accomplish in the process of preparing a football team to win on Friday nights?
I would argue that “winning” is a byproduct of high performance. I would argue winning is relative. Winning simply means that your team was relatively better than your opponent. I’ve watched hundreds of high school football games where both teams deserved to lose.
Playing at a high level and maximizing performance on Friday nights should be the goal. Maximized performance will result in relatively successful seasons.
What are the most important things we can accomplish at football practice? I believe you can boil down it all down to four simple things.
- Gaining and maintaining speed
- Execution of fundamentals
- Absence of mistakes
- General preparation for opponent
What makes me qualified to have opinions on this subject? I played the game and coached the game. I’ve coached at three different high schools in two states. I’ve coached along side two Hall of Fame coaches and coached in two state championship games (Tennessee 5A, 2004 and Illinois 7A, 2016). My father coached football. Three of my mom’s brothers played college football and two became career football coaches. I don’t know if this makes me qualified or not, but I’m not some weekend warrior wearing their favorite NFL jersey.
I’m also a sprint coach. There should be a sprint coach on every football staff. Instead, coaching staffs are overpopulated with weight room meatheads who have never won a race in their life. I have a theory that 90% of all coaches are slow over-achieving white guys who busted their ass. The mediocre results these guys got from their hard work fueled their interest in coaching.
Football coaches are the hardest workers I know. In my opinion, football coaches are zealots. (Zealot: a person who is fanatical and uncompromising in pursuit of their religious, political, or other ideals.)
Have you noticed how football has a bizarre relationship with religion and warfare? Old school football practice resembles a religious revival, boot camp, and vision quest; all pursued with fanatical and uncompromising passion.
Now that we are done with the preliminaries, I’m going to give my radical ideas on how a football coach should change his program to maximize performance on Friday nights. Making speed the single priority will be a paradigm shift for almost every high school football program in America.
Primon Non Nocere
First, do no harm. In the Hippocratic Oath, doctors pledge to do no harm. In my world, football coaches should make the same pledge.
Long, hard practices combined with verbal abuse followed by weight lifting sessions will cause harm. Players will be significantly slower the next day. The byproduct of a hard workout will be a 48-hour hangover. This is unacceptable if speed is the priority. Speed is incompatible with long, grinding, soul-crushing practices.
500 years ago, Paracelsus said, “Everything is a poison, nothing is a poison, it all depends on the dosage.” Football coaches are 500 years behind the times. They fail to recognize the poisonous effects of too hard, too much, and too long.
200 years ago, Hugo Schulz, echoed the ideas of Paracelsus, “For every substance, small doses stimulate, moderate doses inhibit, and large doses kill.”
Paracelsus and Schulz were the founding fathers of “hormesis”, a term used by toxicologists to refer to a biphasic dose response to an environmental agent characterized by a low dose stimulation or beneficial effect and a high dose inhibitory or toxic effect. In other words, two aspirin magically cures a headache. One hundred aspirin will result in death.
As a sprint coach, I’m 100% certain that speed should be regarded as a poison, subject to the terms laid out by Paracelsus and Schulz.
I’ve preached for years, “Sprint as fast as possible, as often as possible, while staying as fresh as possible.
The visual above is a classic hormesis graph. To be the fastest team possible on Friday nights, football coaches must rethink all football tradition. In my opinion, 90% of all high school football programs value hard work and toughness more than they value speed. Some programs value toughness more than winning. They value the process more than the outcome.
If every team is training wrong, everyone plays slow on Friday nights. The dumb team beats the dumber team. Dumb & Dumber.
The Jimmy Radcliffe Idea
A year ago Jimmy Radcliffe spoke at our Track Football Consortium III. Radcliffe, the famous strength and conditioning coach at Oregon emphasized speed on game day. When Chip Kelly took the Oregon job in 2007, he asked Jimmy Radcliffe to design a practice plan that maximized speed on Saturdays. Radcliffe designed a workweek that is now copied by 25% of college football programs.
The week was basically fast and furious for two hours on Tuesday and Wednesday. “No Sprint Thursday” is followed by a high speed, helmet-only one-hour practice on Friday. Short practices were facilitated by Jimmy Radcliffe’s famous 7-minute warm-up.
Football coaches love Lombardi and they love motivational quotes. Why don’t they walk the walk? If games are played at breakneck speed, practices should reflect games.
“Luck follows speed.” – Bear Bryant
Playing fast seems to be the Holy Grail of modern football. Spreading the field and throwing the ball has made 250-pound linebackers obsolete. Today, the average D-1 linebacker weighs only 226 pounds.
Why do football coaches allow players to practice slow?
If a team’s effort level is high, coaches will mistake effort for speed. Football coaches love effort. In addition, if everyone on the team is a step slow, the fast guys still appear fast.
Chris Korfist and I are in agreement, when speed is the priority, sprinters should sprint no more than three days a week. Where do we get this idea? Sprint data. I’ve timed over 200,000 sprints in the last 20 years.
- Speed is fragile.
- Training should be regarded as a poison.
- Practice hard all week and sprinters will be turtles by Friday.
- Overtraining causes athletes to run instead of sprint.
- Training in the absence of recovery does harm.
- Every high-speed rep in practice needs to be cherished.
The Radcliffe-Kelly model requires sprinting four days a week. The four-day plan was probably a compromise between Radcliffe and Kelly. Football coaches want to be at top speed every day. Hell, they would go twice a day if they could get away with it. Nothing gets a football coach more excited than “two-a-days”.
Three Days of Sprinting
- Fundamental Monday – 90 minutes of skill-building with no emphasis on conditioning and no sprinting. Many high school football programs spend their entire week putting in new plays and preparing for their opponent. Blocking, tackling, and other fundamentals are forgotten. In my program, players will finish practice with gas left in their tank. With gas left in the tank, practice can be followed with an energetic, enthusiastic, minimum-dose weight room session. Nothing that happens on Monday should interfere with the most important practice day of the week, Tuesday.
- Game-Speed Tuesday – Two hours of practice where SPEED is the priority. Since speed is the priority, rest between reps must be a primary concern. Practice will appear “choppy”, not a beautiful flowing masterpiece. Nothing is done at half-speed, nothing at sub-max. (No conditioning! Conditioning is sub-max bullshit). Game-Speed Tuesday will adversely affect Wednesday. In a twist of Bill Bowerman’s hard-easy concept, I believe “Fast days are never fast enough and the next day is never easy enough.”
- Game-Prep Wednesday – 90 minutes of practice that football coaches love the most … the chess game. 75% of a football coach’s attention seems to be focused on the next opponent. The hours and hours of watching film (old school term of course) pollutes the brain and creates a near-psychotic obsession with the other team’s formations, tendencies, schemes, etc. My weekly plan forces football coaches to focus inward until Wednesday. Defensive recognition, review, and special teams can be addressed in this one practice session. No sprinting. No conditioning. Do nothing on Wednesday that will interfere with “Super-Speed Thursday”. Weight room following practice should be effective minimum dose upper-body work. Wednesday is a recovery day.
- Super-Speed Thursday – 60 minutes of high-speed game prep, helmets only. You want your players to ramp up their central nervous system and feel fast. Again, like Tuesday, you want a choppy practice with rest between reps. Unlike, Tuesday, you need to keep reps low because Friday night is all that matters. Low dose and high energy. Lot’s of gas left in the tank.
- Friday Night Lights – Friday night is the third sprint day of the week. The game is by far the hardest workout of the week and there will be no gas left in the tank. There will be a 48-hour hangover.
- Saturday/Sunday – Recovery. Absolutely no running! I’ve never understood the mindset of waking kids up for 8:00 am film followed by running. Do football coaches intentionally want to interfere with the recovery process?
If you want to be radical and incredibly fast on Friday nights, try the 3-day practice plan. To be honest, I would be afraid to do this due to blow back from football purists. If my only concern was my team’s performance, I would do this in a heartbeat.
- Monday – game speed, two and a half hours
- Tuesday – no sprint, fundamentals, game prep, 90 minutes
- Wednesday – super-speed, helmets only, 90 minutes
- Thursday – no practice
- Friday – game day
Loitering in Practice
Most football coaches have probably already stopped reading. I’ve already compared football to religion and warfare. Whether you are in the church or in the army, there’s very little room for deviation from the norm. Catholic Mass changes about once every thousand years. Military Code dates back to the Romans.
Now I will lose the rest of my audience.
If speed is the priority, rest between reps must be given reciprocal emphasis.
Football coaches are artists and see practice as their canvas. Moving from drill to drill, station to station, and play to play must be done quickly and with purpose. Half of what’s said in practice seems to be encouraging players from place to place and discouraging loitering. Football coaches would rather submit to a colonoscopy than observe a 10-minute water break.
Standing around drives football coaches nuts, but to run each rep at full speed, recovery must be addressed.
For those of you still reading, here is the common sense behind my madness.
If a receiver runs a max-speed 5-second route and then must run back to the huddle, then quickly run back to his position, his next route will be sub-max. Should coaches accept routes at half-speed?
The receiver should find a way to reenergize, even if the optics are not good. Do you want to look good or be good? The appearance of hustle should never supersede high performance.
Football coaches are “process” people. Practice is process. Sprint coaches focus on the “outcome”. Sprint coaches could care less about the optics of their practice. If total rest results in better outcomes, sprint coaches don’t practice.
If we could shift football coaches to outcome-based thinking, practice would reflect games. Football games are mostly loitering.
In a two and a half hour high school football game, a one-way player will play a total of 5 minutes of football. Five minutes of playing football, 125 minutes of loitering. For every one minute of play, a football player loiters for 25 minutes. Why should football practice consist of constant movement? If the game is choppy, practice should be choppy.
The average play in a high school football game lasts 5.6 seconds. Some running plays are over in two seconds. The average time between plays is a whopping 30.8 seconds.
In the NFL, the stats are crazy.
- Average play length 5.2 seconds, 32.2 seconds between plays
- Average game length 3 hours, 12 minutes
- Total football played = 11 minutes (this is total action, no one plays 50% of this)
- Total time of televised replays = 17 minutes
- Total time of televised loitering of players, coaches, and officials = 75 minutes
- Average number of commercials = 100 (players are obviously loitering during commercials as well)
If you are outcome-based, your practice should not copy Bear Bryant’s Junction Boys. It’s time to replace constant motion with speed and rest.
“Don’t mistake activity with achievement.” – John Wooden
Football is a maximum effort game. The maximum effort lasts about five seconds. Then you rest. Aerobic conditioning is misguided and interferes the priority of speed.
“Wind sprints at the end of practice had been a part of football since its origins. They were the stripped-down essence of the game meant to increase endurance, toughness, and weed out the mentally weak and spiritually suspect.” – S.C. Gwynne
There’s no question, the heart-rate of a football player will remain elevated during a practice but this is due to the crowding together of alactic work, not an aerobic focus. Running a five-second pass route and resting 30 seconds before the next play will allow another high-speed effort, but the heart rate doesn’t return to 60. What I’m trying to say is this: an alactic focus will provide an aerobic effect. We should never focus on aerobic work in football. Football ain’t soccer.
Since we’ve introducing energy systems to the discussion, what about lactate work (maximum effort anaerobic work of 10-60 seconds). Do football plays ever last 10-60 seconds? Hell no. My sprinters will do lactate work in the spring because I’m an outcome-based coach and my sprinters run the 200m (20+ seconds of sprinting) and the 400m (45+ seconds of sprinting).
Football-related activities will get your team ready for playing football. You never need to do wind sprints, stadium stairs, or up-downs. While you’re at it, do away with stretching, monkey rolls, bear crawls, burpees, gassers, wave drills, calisthenics, and man-in-the-middle.
I said earlier, my dad was my football coach (sophomore year, 1973). Dad was the best football coach I’ve ever had. He was a consistent winner and players loved him. I remember one night at the end of practice doing 25 up-downs (Dad called them “grass drills”). After doing 25 in the August heat, he simple said, “the first quarter is over”. We proceeded to do 100. Like an army after battle, the survivors picked up the dead. Dad told us how proud he was of each and every one of us. I think he made some reference to World War II. Like all football coaches everywhere, Dad saw toughness as football’s priority. In my opinion, toughness had nothing to do with winning games. Instead, we won games because of blocking, tackling, execution, and being led by a dynamic coach.
Less is More = Fewer Injuries
I’ve seen 15 guys on a high school sideline wearing jerseys and jeans. All 15 guys failed to survive 10-12 hours of practice during the week.
My less-is-more, speed-based proposal will keep athletes fresher and healthier. My six-hour practice week will result in 50% to 75% fewer injuries.
Football is a war of attrition. Most teams get worse during the season. Overtraining, losing, and injuries take their toll.
Making Speed a Priority Doesn’t Make You a Wimp
When I was a high school basketball coach (head coach, Harrisburg H.S. 1982-1990), I read everything, attended every clinic, and worshipped Bob Knight. I observed several of Knight’s practices. I never witnessed conditioning at the end of an Indiana practice. I never saw the verbal abuse that later came to define Coach Knight. Instead I saw someone who was demanding. Someone intolerant of mistakes. Knight’s players listened with their eyes and ears. Bob Knight was the best teacher I’ve ever seen.
It’s important to note that Bob Knight had superior talent. Coaches all think they can turn chicken shit into chicken salad. They all think they can turn water into wine. Self-absorbed coaches overemphasize their own importance.
Talent, enthusiasm, and execution wins games. In modern football, speed may be the most important skill. If you are a football coach and still reading, hell, you might want to read this too, Ten Sprint Facts I Wish Everyone Understood.
Should Speed be a Priority for Offensive Lineman?
Hopefully everyone accepts speed to be a critical skill of backs, receivers, and all defensive players.
Quarterbacks can survive without speed (Tom Brady ran 5.28 at the 2000 NFL Combine). However, most college quarterbacks are as fast as running backs these days.
Many coaches will argue against the speed idea for offensive linemen. The big guys don’t have to be fast, right? Their job is to take a step or two, usually backwards. How would speed benefit a lineman?
First of all, I would argue a less-is-more, speed-is-critical approach would keep the big guys fresher. Tired lineman can hardly move.
I’ve heard arguments that lineman must be treated harshly and worked until exhaustion. Wide receivers might be treated like cats, but lineman should be treated like pigs. Many coaches refer to them as “hogs”. This may be a term of affection, but I don’t like it.
NFL teams draft offensive lineman based on size and talent. Speed is benchmark of talent. Check out the top 12 offensive linemen from the 2017 NFL Draft and their NFL Combine times.
- Garrett Bolles, OT, 6’5” 297 – 4.95
- Ryan Ramczyk, OT, 6’6” 310 – 5.29 (Pro Day)
- Cam Robinson, OT, 6’6” 322 – 5.15
- Forest Lamp, OG, 6’4” 309 – 5.00
- Dion Dawkins, OG, 6’4” 314 – 5.11
- Taylor Moton, OT, 6’5” 319 – 5.18
- Dan Feeney, OG, 6’4” 305 – 5.24
- Antonio Garcia, OT, 6’6” 302 – 5.15
- Dorian Johnson, OT, 6’5” 300 – 5.27
- Nico Siragusa, OG, 6’4” 319 – 5.35
- David Sharpe, OG, 6’6” 343 – 5.44
- Zach Banner, OT, 6’8” 353 – 5.58
Garrett Bolles, 6’5” 297 offensive tackle from Utah was the first offensive lineman taken in the NFL Draft (drafted by the Denver Broncos). Is it a coincidence that Bolles was also the fastest (4.95) of the first 12 offensive linemen taken in the draft?
The average size of the top 12 offensive lineman of the 2017 NFL Draft was 6’5”+ and 316 pounds and they averaged 5.22 in the 40. Those drafted in the first three rounds averaged 5.13 in the 40.
Even if you consider elephant-sized Zach Banner (6’8”, 353, USC) running 5.58, that’s still remarkably fast.
John Ross, the speedy 5’11, 188, wide receiver from the Washington Huskies, ran the fastest 40 at the NFL Combine. Robinson ran 4.22 (9th overall pick, Cincinnati Bengals).
John Ross is half the size of Zach Banner, but Ross ran only 24% faster than Banner.
Great offensive linemen are athletes, not hogs. Make speed a priority for all athletes.
Do Teams Running Hurry-Up Offense Need More Conditioning?
No. Counterintuitive, but no.
Too many coaches fail to understand the edge that the hurry-up offense provides. The advantage lies in the speed of the offense compared to the fatigue of the defense.
The hurry-up offense needs to be smarter than the defense. While defenses are doing what they are taught (running eleven guys to the ball on every play), the offense should waste no energy. Linemen block for a couple seconds then stand around with no false hustle. If the pass is going to the boundary, the receivers on the wide side of the field can take a break. If receivers are forced to run hard on multiple plays, fresh guys should be substituted.
If both teams are using the same amount of energy, both teams become slow, punch-drunk fighters. Neither team has an advantage.
Hal Mumme was an innovative coach who popularized the “Air Raid Offense” and hurry-up in general.
In 1994, Hal Mumme was coaching 9-0 Valdosta State (averaging 508 yards per game with a 75.6% completion rate). Sports Illustrated asked Mumme how his program differed from rival North Alabama. “We don’t stretch, we don’t run sprints, and we don’t practice on Mondays and Fridays. And when we do practice we never go longer than an hour and forty-five minutes. We don’t waste the player’s time.”
The other edge of the hurry-up offense is simplicity. Playing at high tempo requires fewer formations (one?) and a small fraction of the total offense. Complexity at high tempo never ends well. All high-speed athletes perform best when they are are instinctive. Elite sprinters use only their reptilian brain, they don’t think.
“A confused player can’t play fast, and you can take that to the bank.” – Darrell Royal
Physical. Punishment. Has. No. Place. In. Education.
I’ve been around too many football coaches who border on being sadistic and abusive. They mix patriotism with bible passages as they rule with an iron fist. I don’t blame these guys. When they played football, they loved and feared their coach. Punishment was a part of the game.
I’ve never understood the love-fear stuff that goes on between football player and football coach. There must be some genetic component involved. Maybe human history favored the obedient warrior. Obedient warriors killed guys like me – guys who questioned authority. I guess it’s just an example of Warrior Darwinism. Soldiers who followed orders and accepted military discipline lived to pass on their genes to the next generation. Opinionated freethinkers lived short lives and had fewer children.
Then again, it might be the Stockholm Syndrome, where abused hostages begin to love and trust their captors.
I don’t have to list hundreds of ways football players are physically punished. Ask any former football player and they will tell you stories. Watch closely and you will see a gleam in their eye and a fondness in their voice.
Running is the most common punishment. I literally hate coaches who punish athletes by running them. Sprinting is a skill, not a punishment. Running is slower than sprinting and perpetuates slow play.
Up-downs are another common punishment. I once asked a coach if there was any benefit to up-downs. He said, “Yes, up-downs teach you to get off the ground quickly.” That’s total bullshit. Football players play on two feet. Watch a game sometime and try to find a play where a player laying on their belly gets back up to make a play.
Punishments are often more diabolical. There’s a Pac-10 school that employs the practice of football players holding 45-pound plates over their head while water is sprayed into their face from a hose. This is the football version of water boarding.
Another school assigns a homophobic pink T-shirt to anyone who missed a previous lifting session, attempting to humiliate the offender. This may be physically harmless, but can you imagine an English teacher assigning pink T-shirts to students who didn’t meet the deadline for their rough draft? Maybe we should bring back the dunce cap.
Verbal abuse has always been an integral part of coaching football. Ask anyone who’s played high school and college football if they ever heard a coach question a kid’s manhood. It’s ironic; our most religious sport is also our most abusive sport.
I was riding my bike recently in a park and witnessed a youth football team practicing in the mid-afternoon heat. I had seen only 30 seconds of practice when the coach ripped into his quarterback in an abusive tirade. The coach was about 6’0”, 260 pounds. The kids looked to be one-third his size. They were learning football the same way the fat blowhard had learned it 20 years ago. The cycle of abuse continues.
As a coach’s son, sports have been central in my life for 58 years. I love coaching more now than I ever have.
Sports began as an outdoor classroom. Coaches were teachers. Today, entrepreneurs are creating conflicts and competing for high school athletes. We may be headed to the day when sports have no relationship with schools.
College athletics are a joke. The highest paid public employee in Illinois is a bad football coach who’s been fired in his last two jobs and went 3-9 last year. College football and basketball are bigger than the universities that sponsor them.
As a high school teacher, I’m hopeful that sports will survive as a co-curricular part of a balanced high school education. High schools have eligibility rules and codes of conduct. Most high school coaches are also teachers.
Football is a high school sport unlike any other. Football is a man’s sport, a right of passage turning boys into men. Friday night football is a community event. Football, to many families, is a religion.
Here’s my take.
Football can’t be the tail that wags the dog.
Practice should be minimum effective dose, not a vision quest. Kids should go home from practice with enough gas left in their tank to eat dinner, have a social life, and do their homework.
I’ve experienced four-hour practices. One day in November 2004, our football team in Franklin TN started practice at 3:30 and ended at 8:00 under the lights. Some coaches are mentally and physically destroyed by the end of the season. I’ve seen marital problems due to the ridiculous time requirement of high school football programs. If coaches are worn out, how are the players doing?
Modern football is a spread-the-field game that makes sprinting the single most important skill.
Why not shorten practice and focus on what wins? Realize 20% of your efforts are responsible for 80% of your outcomes, and then focus with laser-like precision on the things than produce the best results.
While shortening practice, why not coach football instead of running a paramilitary academy?
These ideas make sense to me, but I’m afraid my hopes of football evolving into a speed-focused, kid-friendly, balanced educational activity will not happen.
Football assistants live in echo chambers in loyal support of their head coach. Independent, free-thinking, anti-authoritarians are not encouraged to join the staff.
Assistant coaches become head coaches by pledging allegiance to the way things have always been done.
Athletic Directors and Principals don’t have the knowledge or the power to change a football coach’s modus operandi. Head football coaches are kings of their castle.
If you agree with my ideas, please share this article or start a conversation about speed-based football.
As Frank Zappa said, “Without deviance from the norm, there can be no progress.”
You may want read my follow-up article, Football Dosage & Approach ⇒ FAQ
Tony Holler has taught Chemistry and coached track for 36 years at three different high schools, Harrisburg (IL), Franklin (TN), and Plainfield North (IL). Inducted into the ITCCCA Hall of Fame in 2015, Holler’s teams have continued to feature great sprinters. Along with Chris Korfist, Holler co-directs the Track Football Consortium held twice a year (June and December). Holler has written over 100 articles promoting the sport of track and field and sharing everything he knows. His articles can be found at ITCCCA.com, FreelapUSA.com, and SimpliFaster.com. You can follow Coach Holler on Twitter @pntrack and email him at email@example.com.