Every coach would like to have greater depth of talent on their roster. “No one has depth,” insists Brad Dixon, head football coach at Central High School (IL). “You get to work with who comes out, that’s it,” he says, adding that if you spend too much time complaining about lack of depth, you might forget to build it.
Depth is a product of good coaching and player retention.
Through a recent conversation on the Good Athlete Project’s “Coffee with a Coach” segment, we learned that there is rarely a situation where all members of a team are capable of competing at an elite level. There will always be a range of abilities. The backup is never as talented as the starter, “even at a place like the University of Alabama.” But if you coach up the backup with enthusiasm and intent, then you have the opportunity to create depth.
Consider an obvious scenario: a starter gets injured. If all of the coaching effort has gone into building up that starting player, then lack of “depth” (the ability and readiness of the next guy in) will be revealed. All the coaching effort that went into the first player will now have to be redirected to his backup. At the high school level, if that talented player started both ways, there are now two new players on the field without the ability or readiness to make a meaningful impact.
Coach Dixon and his staff take a novel approach to this idea. In the offseason, all coaches on his staff fill out a document to identify a potential set of 11 starters on offense and 11 on defense, without any two-way players. He admits that when you look at that list in February or March, it makes you a little nervous. But if you commit to the idea, invest in the athletes, and help build them into competitive athletes, then things look a lot different in August and September.
One benefit of building depth is that “we haven’t had a season-ending soft tissue injury since we started this new method,” says Dixon. Especially with the linemen, “we realized that we were wearing the big guys out over the course of the season. They were getting slower and they were getting hurt.” He notes that the linemen especially did not have the same “burst” at the back end of the season when compared to the start.
It’s a thoughtful method, and it works.
Two years ago Dixon and his staff took a returning All-Conference linebacker off the defensive lineup and had him focus exclusively on offense. That young man started at quarterback for that team, who went on to play in the 2018 State Championship game. When he got under center at the beginning of each drive, he was ready. He was not exhausted from a defensive drive. Instead, he had been talking to his offensive coaches about the next offensive drive. Physiologically, psychologically, and strategically this makes sense.
The added benefit? Another young man on the Central Panthers roster gained valuable experience playing linebacker. In this case, that young man became a two-year starter and one of the team’s leading tacklers. After being given the opportunity to play as a junior, he approached the offseason with greater enthusiasm. And when he took the field as a senior he wasn’t getting his feet wet, he was mastering a system within which he already had significant experience. He was ready.
In a sport like football, fresh and fast is better than fit and slow. There is some range in there, of course (a minimum fitness level is obviously necessary), but the guiding principle is true.
It defies many of the old models. This past fall, we at the Good Athlete Project overheard a coach romanticizing the notion that one of his high school coaches had his players run into a brick wall to toughen them up. Literally run into a wall. Those mindsets linger in today’s game.
Toughness, grit, resilience – those are desirable traits – but how they are developed matters. Coach Dixon might have been old-school to start his career, but he never asked his kids to do anything that ridiculous. He cares too much about them.
Still, in the early days he was tough. And a few of those early seasons featured rosters with kids who were tough but a little slow and always banged up. Then he changed his approach. It was an opportunity to coach the school’s Track & Field team that reframed the way Dixon thinks of speed – speed is a distinguishing factor in all sports, he realized.
Coaching staffs will often use running to get people fit, but also to get them mentally tough. And sometimes as punishment. Without judgement surrounding those methods, we can to a simple conclusion: that doesn’t necessarily make them faster.
So he changed his program to build depth and speed. He built an understanding of the body’s physiological systems. He dug into research and methods on the nervous system. He communicated with his players to learn when they felt best and when they were exhausted. He adapted.
Of all the tools in a coaching toolbox, adaptability is one of the clear essentials. In no other industry could you get away with the idea that “I’ve been doing it this way for 30 years” – that means you’re 30 years behind the times and likely missing out on best practice methods. Dixon adapts. The coaches at Central adapt.
They only practice in full pads once a week. They take the entire weekend to rest and recover (no Saturday meetings after Friday night games). They work hard to two-platoon as much as possible with a roster of about 50 players in a school of approximately 250 total students. They prioritize health and wellness. They care about their kids.
And they win.