Aaron Moorehead: From Walk-on to World Champion

Nine games into the 2018 NCAA football season, the Vanderbilt Commodores have racked up 2,075 total receiving yards under the direction of Wide Receivers Coach Aaron Moorehead. This Saturday, Aaron’s receiving corps, who have already accounted for 14 touchdowns, will again be called upon to light up the scoreboard as Vandy battles the University of Missouri in SEC play.

This past spring, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Coach Moorehead, who looks like he could still suit up and play, in his spacious office in the McGugin Center down in Nashville. Check out our conversation here: https://www.goodathleteproject.com/podcast/

Aaron was a standout high school player at Deerfield High School in the suburbs of Chicago, but the option offense they ran didn’t provide many opportunities to highlight the skillsets of one of the area’s top receivers. He was a talented track athlete as well, finishing 4th in state in the 110m High Hurdles. His athletic ability was obvious. Still, the offers did not roll in as some thought they might, and he accepted an opportunity to walk on at the University of Illinois.

At 6’3” 185, the talented but undersized Moorehead redshirted that first year, opting to build his frame and work to more fully understand the offense and culture of Head Coach Ron Turner. His work paid off. He improved physically and mentally, ultimately earning a scholarship. Though he had a couple setbacks along the way (tune in to the podcast to hear the details) he bounced back, ultimately leading the team to a 10-2 record in 2001. Moorehead shined that season. The Illini won a Big Ten Championship, finished 16th in the nation, and went on to battle LSU in the Sugar Bowl.

85 career receptions, 1,293 yards, and 9 TD grabs later, he knew he wasn’t done. He was just hitting stride. Still, offers to play in the NFL did not roll in as some thought they might.  Aaron accepted an opportunity as an undrafted free agent with the Indianapolis Colts.

By that time, he was no stranger to the process. He was used to overcoming obstacles and smashing expectations. So when most undrafted free agents were hoping desperately to find a spot on a roster, Aaron simply went back to work. Once again, that work paid off. Aaron made the roster, played 5 years for the Colts, and won a Superbowl in 2006 over the Chicago Bears.

That win was the perfect capstone to an athletic career. His father, Emery Moorehead, played tight end on the 1985 Super Bowl Championship – you guessed it – Chicago Bears. By beating his father’s former team, the Mooreheads became the first father-son duo to play for Super Bowl winners.

When his time in the NFL ended, Aaron was faced with an all-too-familiar dilemma. Life as an athlete is one of clear expectations, constant growth, and direct feedback from coaches. It is a life of physical exertion and psychological strain. It is camaraderie and setbacks, sacrifice and glory. It’s an experience that cannot be replicated in the “real” world. He wasn’t sure what to do next.

When the next step was unclear, it was his father Emery who told him it was time to get off the couch, pick something he was passionate about, and get to back work. Again, Aaron stepped up to the challenge. He went over to his alma mater, Deerfield High School, and volunteered assisting with the wide receivers.

From there, he started going to coaching conventions, met professionals in the field, and landed graduate assistant position at the University of New Mexico. When the wide receiver coaching position opened up a year later, he applied, excited to make the full transformation from college athlete to college football coach. Though many though he would, he didn’t get the job. Looking back on that disappointment, he says “they were right, I wasn’t ready.”

Once again, Aaron was undeterred. He went on to be the quality control coach at Stanford University, where he was able to play an important role in a major football program which was routinely in the national spotlight. Shortly thereafter, he accepted his first full-time job at Virginia Tech, working for previous podcast guest and Hall of Fame coach Frank Beamer. In 2015, Aaron went on to coach receivers at Texas A&M, where the Aggies were consistently among the top teams in the SEC.

Then he set Anchor Down in Vanderbilt. The Commodores have been flying ever since. Their only losses this year have been teams ranked among the Top 15 in the nation, including a one-score game against Notre Dame (#3).

He has seen success everywhere he has been, and he’s had to earn it. Still a young man with a bright future, he’s taken a simple mantra to every stage of his journey: “prove that you can provide value to your organization.” A simple strategy. A strategy that has proven to be successful.

Tune in to our podcast with Aaron to hear more strategies for success. It’s especially interesting to hear him talk about legendary coach Tony Dungy and some of his teammates with whom he went to the Super Bowl.

With Peyton Manning, there was no letdown… every snap was like the game was on the line,” he said.

His advice to athletes is amazing: “Be humble and don’t be short-sighted. Be somebody that the coaching field knows about.’

And his advice to us all is a necessary thought: “Take time to learn about people who are different than you are.”

So much to learn from Good Athlete, Kind Coach, and someone we’re happy to have as part of the Good Athlete Project family, Aaron Moorehead.

 

Nick Alfieri: Unicorn

The question has plagued early-20-somethings since the dawn of time: after college, what? You are qualified, cultured, and finally credentialed – the world is at your fingertips – it’s a state of incredible potential, laden with uncertainty. Should you embrace your youth and follow your passion? Should you buckle down and get a job? Nick Alfieri did both. He became a Unicorn.

It started routinely enough. He played college football at Georgetown University, where he studied hard and stood out on the field. Nick was named team captain as a senior and is still the third all-time leading tackler in Hoya history. After graduating, he entered the prestigious film school at USC as a graduate student. A year in grad school made him antsy. Though he had a great time in southern California, exploring his artistic inclinations, he desperately missed playing football. He still had what many post-career athletes refer to as “the itch” – he wasn’t quite ready to be done.

Enter the Unicorn. The NFL wasn’t knocking down his door, so Alfieri took his talents overseas. All the way to Germany. Nick is now the starting middle linebacker for the Schwabisch Hall Unicorns. You may not heard of them, but the Germans have. The ‘Corns won the German League National Championship last year, and finished as the top ranked team in all of Europe.

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Their success is unquestioned, but Nick insists that it’s all about the experience. Schwabisch Hall is a town of approximately 39,000, located in southern Germany and founded prior to 1280. It’s an ancient city, by American standards, and the architecture reflects its rich history. Subscribe to Nick’s YouTube channel to see more of the town, and catch glimpses into the life of an American football player in Europe.

He notes that it is the passion of the locals that has invigorated his love for the game. Though there are a few Americans who have taken similar leaps of faith following their collegiate careers, the bulk of the American football rosters in Europe are comprised of Europeans. Americans are distinguished from the rest, wearing green letter As on their jerseys and helmets, since a team is only allowed 3 on the field at any given time. Nick’s teammates do not go through the grind of a football season for money or fame, they do it because they love to play.

Oftentimes, our behaviors match our motivations. In this way the modern sports landscape, especially at the professional and top-tier college level, can be disheartening. It seems as though many are more concerned about their next contract than their teams. And there’s no judgement from our end, football is a rough game and a player has every right – a duty, even – to take care of himself and his family. It’s his job. His livelihood. But that’s exactly the point. When the game becomes a profession, it changes.

The Unicorns play for each other, and for the love of the game. It’s refreshing in its purity. It’s how sports were meant to be – how football was meant to be – and Nick Alfieri is living it, tucked into an ancient city replete with Gothic architecture lining the River Kocher, and schnitzel on every corner.

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Whatever happens next, Nick says he has had experiences over the past few years which have opened up the world in a variety of ways. He has seen the world, made connections, and colored his worldview to a point where the idea of “outcome” is clearly second to the process of exploring, of living his best life.

Recently, Nick took over the story on our Instagram feed and gave the Good Athlete Project family some sound advice: “in order to be successful long term you have to fall in love with the process.” He went on to acknowledge that “every single game is precious. Every single game is an opportunity to improve.” It’s an approach we subscribe to fully. It works for us, and it works for the Unicorns, who are currently undefeated and heading back to the German National Championship game.

If you read this soon enough, clink this link to stream the championship game between the Schwabisch Hall Unicorns and the Frankfurt Universe. It’ll be epic.

And be sure to check out Nick on social media and on his YouTube channel. Though he’s still not sure what he wants to do with his “real life”, what happens up until that point is a story you won’t want to miss.

 

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Alabama adds another top prospect: Sports Medicine Fellow Dr. Aloiya Earl

During the month of August, in the muggy Alabama heat, Nick Saban grants his players one opportunity to acknowledge the obvious: it’s hot. After that, the athlete must make one of two decisions: find a way to change the late-summer climate, or find a way to effectively deal with the heat. Repeatedly complaining about the weather never got anyone closer to their goal.

That sort of championship-caliber mindset is a staple in Coach Saban’s program, and it’s one of the things that drew Dr. Aloyia Earl to Tuscaloosa.

Dr. Earl earned her BS in Exercise Science from the University of South Carolina, then her MD from the University of Toledo. She excelled in a variety of professional roles, including Resident Physician at the Ohio State University, before swapping Scarlet for Crimson.

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While Coach Saban and his staff focus on performance between the sidelines, Aloiya’s work focuses on what’s going on between an athlete’s ears. Her research focuses on an athlete’s mindset when returning to play after injury.

The body incurs regular stresses and strains which make injury an inseparable part of athletic participation. It’s part of the game. It’s part of all games, especially football. The ability to physically and psychologically rebound from those injuries can make or break a season. In 2017, linebackers Mack Wilson, Christian Miller, and Terrell Lewis all sat at one point due to injury. Their performance in the National Championship game against Georgia accounted for 20 total tackles, 4 tackles for loss, and 2 sacks. Were it not for their return, the Tide’s sixth Saban-era championship might have been even more challenging.

Those who work in Sports Medicine have the opportunity to impact an athlete’s physical recovery and, given the time spent with athletes, their mental preparation during return-to-play protocol.

That is exactly where Dr. Earl’s work comes in.

She draws from her own experience as a cross-country runner at South Carolina, where she suffered multiple stress fractures over the course of her career. Each time, she built the mental resolve to push aside pain to pursue her goals. During her research, she noticed that many were going through similar journeys. Many more will report fearing re-injury when their time to return approaches. Aloyia’s research hopes to better understand that fear in order to identify the role of sports medicine providers in its alleviation.

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While at Ohio State, she began to identify opportunities during the athlete’s rehabilitation process wherein the Sports Medicine staff can support the athlete in self-efficacy, as well as athletic performance. She will now be fine tuning those methods in the halls and on the sidelines in Tuscaloosa.

In a recent interview, she said “I could not be more excited to be working here. The athletes here have an incredibly passionate group of trainers, coaches, and physicians working to keep them healthy and performing well, and I’m honored to be a part of it. Every day is exciting. It’s a privilege to serve such talented and driven athletes.”

Championship mindset has always been a part of the Saban-era Tide, and Aloiya seems to be bringing a new and important wrinkle to the discussion.

One more way the Tide continues to roll.

 

D-Line Manual: Keys to the 3-4 Under Front

Given the success and recent prevalence of the spread offense, many teams have attempted to increase the amount of speed on the field by installing a three man front. In order to have another look, perhaps a primarily run-stopping option, we adjust frequently to what we call the 3-4 Under, which resembles a traditional 4-3. We have had significant success in this transition. We played it most during a three game stretch in 2013, wherein opponents gained, (between the tackles), less than 100 yards… combined. It should be noted that this production was a systematic success, a product of our defensive staff, and the years of hard work and devotion on the part of our players. With great understanding of the scheme, we were able to move seamlessly between fronts.

Our base 3-4 front features traditional 4-0-4 alignment (Anchor, Nose, Tackle):

Our Under front includes one primary adjustment: walking our biggest, strongest outside linebacker down to the line of scrimmage. We played him in a 2 point or 3 point stance relative to strategy and possible stunt. The obvious – and most essential – benefit of this front is that it allows, by alignment, time for our inside linebackers to read and move without taking on a block. When executed correctly, the 3-4 Under occupies all five offensive linemen:

Anchor aligns in a 5 technique (subtle outside shade of the Strongside Offensive Tackle).

Nose aligns in a strong side 1 technique (shade of the Center, which not only occupies the Center, but demands the Strongside Guard’s attention (generally resulting in some sort of combination block)).

Tackle shifts down to a 3 technique on the Weakside Guard.

Buck aligns in a 5 technique on the Weakside Tackle.

Before we instruct athletes how to play, it is important to find the type of athletes we need to accomplish those things we will instruct. It is our job as coaches to put our players in position to succeed, which includes talent evaluation – we can only ask an athlete to do a job which they are capable of doing.

Anchor (5-tech) – Absolutes: We look for long, strong bodies to play the strongside. An Anchor should be heavy handed (strong, aggressive, accurate hand-play), he should have mobile hips and the ability to play both laterally (toss, sweep) and vertically (rush the passer). Ideals: In years when we were lucky enough to have Anchor with high athleticism, we were able to be more creative with our zone drop options to the field.

Nose (1-tech) – Absolutes: Leverage and toughness are the two must-haves to play nose in the Under front. We are asking this player to occupy two offensive players as often as possible. He must bend well and play low to the ground, be great with his hands, quick off the snap, and be able to turn his hips to split double teams. Ideals: Identify a mismatch – either size and strength (many teams will play their 1 technique Nose as a ‘space-eater’ – a 275lb Nose with great strength and the attributes mentioned above will provide cover for inside linebackers), or fantastic speed (if he can consistently turn a Center by beating him off the snap, any sort of cross-center guard pull will be interrupted).

Tackle (3-tech) – Absolutes: Great hands and eyes. A good Tackle can maintain separation and react quickly to his visual cues. He needs to have the strength to play a base block, and the field-savvy to follow a pull, spill a trap, play screens, and rush the passer. Ideals: We have had the most success with smart 3 techniques – and they have to be field- smart. When we can ask a player to show false alignments, be mobile pre snap, stunt with accuracy, and still be able to filter through visual information at speed – that is when we know we have a special player.

BuckAbsolutes: The Buck is a hybrid player – we’re looking for the biggest, strongest, rangiest Linebacker of the group, or the fastest, most athletic Defensive End. He has to be able to drop and cover the flat if necessary, blitz with success, and play strong on an Offensive Tackle. Ideals: Speed – if we can quickly switch back to our Base 3-4 without needing to sub a player at Outside Linebacker, we have more confidence in frequently running the Under Front.

Process Matters

Defensive Line is the hardest part of the defense to play. Not only is it extremely physical ‘in the trenches,’ but they are at the disadvantage of not knowing the snap count or play. Linebackers, at 4-5 yards, have more time to read, as do Defensive Backs, but the Defensive Lineman have a fraction of a second to play physical, accurate football, and make decisions that support the scheme.

As coaches, it is our job to make their job as easy as possible. We have to scout and understand all possible offensive plays and schemes our defense might experience – all blocking schemes, misdirections, formations and tendencies; from there, we have to develop simple rules for our players to follow – the rules, if followed, must account for all scenarios. I tell our defensive front all the time: the play doesn’t matter – your keys matter, and your reaction to those keys will make you successful. For instance, our Nose does not play Power – he plays a double team just like we teach him, and that allows our team to defend Power. Our Anchor does not play Toss – he plays a reach block in a way that allows him and our team to stop Toss.

Remembering my time as a college and professional Defensive Lineman, I would be frequently be frustrated when given direction “Just go!” – and while there is a time and situation for a coach to encourage his athletes to play outside themselves, I was always left with basic questions: just go where? go there how? We equip our athletes with an understanding of the process, and the components of that process, while letting the result speak for itself.

The Basics

As a coach, I try not to give my players more than 5 keys to remember. I call it the Rule of 5. If I ask them to remember anything more than that, I feel as though I have given them too much to process, which results in slower play. We want to play fast and accurate. So we keep it simple and direct, and we do not waiver from our expectations. Here is what I ask my players to focus on, in order, and with Perfect execution:

  1. Stance
  2. Attack
  3. Control
  4. React
  5. Finish
  1. Stance – Stance begins with focus and understanding. Understand the called front and play, and use supreme focus in your alignment. A 5 technique asks you to put your inside hand down, inside foot back (and ready for first step), appropriate pre-snap weight distribution (relative to stunt, if applicable), and aligning our inside eye with the Offensive Tackle’s outside eye, for example. Coaching Point: Slow it down. During the first few film sessions, we will pause before the play, identify our strict alignment in the front, and show the players who is perfect in their stance/alignment, and who is leaving the defense vulnerable before the ball is even snapped.dline
  2. Attack – We spend a lot of time here. The attack point is precise and requires focus, speed, and aggression. Once we are in our stance and aligned correctly, we lock our eyes onto the point of the offensive player we are about to strike. For example, a 5 tech Anchor will lock his eyes onto the upper outside corner of the Offensive Tackle’s jersey number – once he sees movement, he attacks with his hands: full extension, elbows in, thumbs up, bring the hips. The object of the attack is to knock a blocker off his path and allow an extra moment to process/read the block.dline attck

Coaching Point: Sight not sound. Incorporate plenty of drills wherein an athlete’s movement is based on a visual cue: ball on a stick, live action and team segments on varied snap counts, etc.

  1. Control – Upon attack, the player should be under control: arms extended and controlling a block, good (low) pad level, feet and hips underneath him (careful not to overextend and lose balance). Coaching Point: during handwork drills, whistle or call a Freeze command – if the athlete is under control, he should be able to freeze his position and correct, if necessary.
  2. React – This is the key step. This is what separates athletes from football players (that is, you might be athletic, but can you play football?). Our best Defensive Linemen are the ones who react to blocks as simple as breathing – there’s an ease to their movement – they see and go, see and go, see and go, without hesitation. Abiding by the Rule of 5, we try to become masters of five types of block:
  3. Base Block
  4. Down (or Inside Release)
  5. Reach Block
  6. Double Team
  7. Pass Set

Base – Assuming the athlete has accomplished proper Attack and is under Control, Base block becomes a test of grit; that is, the athlete must maintain his gap assignment and leverage. Coaching Point: Don’t pick a side! We cannot create interior lanes. Down (or Inside Release) – A powerful and accurate Attack should slow an Offensive Lineman’s interior movement. Whether he is blocking down on another Defensive Lineman or releasing inside for one of our Linebackers, the task is simple: squeeze. Squeezing keeps the Offensive Lineman off our players, and puts us in position to Spill a Trap or Kickout Block. To squeeze, we drop our interior elbow to the hip of the offensive player, maintaining pressure, therefore maintaining the line of scrimmage (and our gap). *After a Down Block, keep eyes open for a Trap – we Spill (or Wrong-Arm) all Trap Blocks, which seals off any interior lanes. Assuming the Defensive Lineman has taken care of his Down Block, he should have squeezed himself into perfect position to Spill the Trap. Coaching Point: Run Down Block/Squeeze/Spill recognition as often as your practice schedule allows! The big plays we have given up between the tackles are rarely because we’ve been physically beat – interior lanes open up because we lose our position and get trapped. Reach Block – Get width! The Defensive Lineman must keep his arms extended, and work to keep his hips outside the block. In the worst case scenario (and this would only happen after a poor Attack), should a Defensive Lineman lose position on the snap, he must work underneath the Reach Block, then sprint horizontally down the line of scrimmage in the direction of the initial block – he has turned himself into a cutback player (by getting blocked) and should be ready to make a tackle after the Linebackers and Defensive Backs establish edge force. Coaching Point: This is one of those instances where coaches tend to teach schematic responsibility instead of breaking the idea down so it is more easily digested – that is, a coach might direct his player to “Keep Contain,” instead of telling him to react to the Reach Block, keep arms extended, hips outside the block… we find best results come from explaining why and what a player should do, then spending the bulk of the time teaching them how. Double Team – Powerful Attack, then turn into secondary pressure. As always, a good Attack increases the odds of success, against a double team it limits the potential of the initial blocker to get hip-to-hip with the second blocker – that distance between hips is all the opportunity a Defensive Lineman needs to be disruptive. Once the player feels secondary pressure, he should turn his back to the pressure while pressing forward to split the space between the Linemen’s hips. This needs to be practiced over and over until it is a knee-jerk reaction: secondary pressure = turn and press forward. Over and over. Coaching Point: Know when enough is enough. To establish a behavior as habit, it must be practiced – it is up to the coach, however, to know when it is time to pull back. In a double team drill, the Defensive Lineman is at a clear disadvantage – let him rest – he can’t help the team if he’s injured and sitting on the bench. Pass Set – Speed is important, knowing when to turn the corner is crucial: speed can get you pressure, the turn can get you sacks. Pass Set might be the easiest block variation to recognize, but it has the highest amount of response variation. Each coach needs to develop pass rush moves he is comfortable teaching, then progressively install. We start with a Bull Rush on one edge of the Offensive Lineman, then go from there. From Bull Rush we move to Push-Pull, then use that to set up our double moves. Regardless of how a player wins his one-on-one battle, it is important that he know when he has won: if he waits for green grass, he will never find it… once he is hip to hip with his blocker, he should rip through, drop his inside shoulder and turn the corner toward the Quarterback.

Coaching Point: Stay within the toolbox. We ask our guys to start on level one: hands on half of a man, Bull Rush. Once they have mastered it they can move on to level two. In a given year, we might allow three to four players full range of moves, to use at their discretion – otherwise, we have a handful of big guys who master the Push-Pull, Rip and they stay there all year with great success.

*Zone Block – from a Defensive Line perspective, a Zone Block is the same as a Reach Block, since the footwork is too similar to differentiate at full speed.dline control

  1. Finish – Do what you are supposed to do, over and over, and the Finish will take care of itself. Stay low, stay hungry, and arrive in a bad mood! We teach safe tackling daily, but many tackles by Defensive Linemen aren’t pretty – they don’t have to be, they just need to put the ball carrier on the ground. Putting yourself in position to make a tackle is the key.

Coach with Standards

Establishing Goals is great and common practice – e.g. holding a team under 10 points, 3 takeaways, 2 sacks per game, etcetera – but establishing Standards will get you there. Two sacks per game, but how? Our Coaches develop – and hold their athletes true to – a process. The coach should have clear view of his expectations and communicate with clarity. He must hold players to a well-established standard: Do what’s right because, well, consider the alternative.

Identify what a successful process looks like, then break that process down into components (I suggest no more than five components, if possible), and make adherence to those Standards the bedrock of your system. If all Standards are upheld, the system will run smoothly. Defensive Linemen play fast, play strong, play smart, and uphold the standards we set forth – that is our expectation.

 

The Coaches We Mean to Be

When fall rolls in, the leaves on the old oaks lining Appian Way provide an idyllic view from the corner office of Rick Weissbourd, Faculty Director of the Human Development and Psychology program at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.

Rick is also the Co-Director of Making Caring Common, a national effort to make moral and social development priorities in child raising.

We had the privilege of sitting down with him to record an episode of the “Good Athlete Podcast”, which seems as appropriate now as ever. The discussion is an essential one. After all, sports don’t teach life lessons, intentional teachers and coaches use sports as a platform to teach life lessons. Rick agrees, as he does “not think there’s anything about sports, per se, that build character.” There are good sports environments and bad sports environments. It’s coaches. It’s culture. It’s not automatic.

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Photo credit: The Harvard Gazette

Similar to the research outlined in his book, The Parents we Mean to Be, Rick notes that some of life’s most valuable lessons can be taught by the mentors in this space, though they are not necessarily. In sports, one’s intense feelings are colliding with the intense feelings of another. A coach has the ability to create an environment that values competition but frames it in a healthy way so that both teams shake hands by the end of the game. On the other hand, the coach can also fuel negative feelings and demonize an opponent. Both of these situations regularly present themselves.

There’s clearly potential to influence young people through sports. The questions for the coach is, what will you do with it?

Empathy, for example, has become a staple concept in modern classrooms. Sports offer the opportunity for young people to empathize with people that are different than them. When the culture is appropriately created, they provide the opportunity to take other perspectives, to work together toward a shared goal.

Emotional regulation has provided massive psychological benefit for young people by assisting with stress-management, ability to focus, and ultimately resulting in feelings of self-worth. Healthy sports cultures teach young people to regulate their emotions in emotion-rich environments. Rick adds that “intense competition can be really good for kids” IF, in keeping with the theme, coaches help young people frame these moments. Intense competition does not include excessive violence and rule breaking. It can include full effort, quick decision making, and the prioritization of team over self. Emotions need to be regulated. That skill can serve as a successful strategy in many other areas of the student’s life.

What is so refreshing about Rick’s perspective is that he acknowledges that feelings of aggression and competition should not be met with shame. It is rarely okay to chastise a child for feeling any sort of way; rather, we have an opportunity to teach young people how to deal with those feelings. That, coaches, can be a life lesson.

He notes that these life lessons are not always conveyed in the ways we assume. Coaches who cultivate us-vs-them or win-at-all-costs cultures often include explicit or implied permissions of violence and rule breaking. Those are the toxic situations which undercut healthy adolescent development. Rather benignly, they create unpleasant experiences in sport and do not allow students to reap the full benefits of the experience.

If those toxic mindsets continue, how they transfer and present themselves in realms other than the field or court can be devastating. “Being a man” in artificial or violent ways, for example, often has a way of terrorizing relationships and unceremoniously ending any chance at social success.

That said, Rick’s mission is clearly aimed not at finger pointing, but at accurate looking. Counterbalancing those violent, toxic cultures, there are “everyone-gets-a-trophy-cultures.” These too can be harmful, since “kids need to learn to cope and deal constructively with underperformance.”

Unfortunately, popular opinions of sport seem to include either 1) win at all costs, or 2) you’re all perfect.

At the Good Athlete Project, the goal for students is to win as a team, with the win serving as the product of healthy adherence to a process of constant improvement.

We realize that the win is not all that matters, which is why the “healthy adherence to a process of constant improvement” line is so essential. Win or lose, students who learn that sort of lesson will undoubtedly be on a positive path.

So when the leaves change color this fall, let’s be intentional with what we teach. It could be deliberate practice, growth mindset, grit, or any character trait that might associate with longitudinal success.

Whatever it is, let’s align the coaches we are with the coaches we mean to be.

For more information regarding Rick’s work with Making Caring Common, find him here: https://mcc.gse.harvard.edu/

 

 

 

 

Frank Beamer: Football is Family

In September of 2017, we had the privilege of interviewing legendary football coach Frank Beamer on the Good Athlete Podcast. A few months later, Jan. 8 of 2018, Frank Beamer was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. It was the crowning achievement of a career which includes 280 wins, 8 conference championships, 12 bowl wins, and an appearance in the 1999 National Championship game. At his induction, it was noted that Beamer was a 2x ACC Coach of the Year, 3x Big East Coach of the Year, won 8 significant National Coach of the Year awards, and was already in 4 different Halls (Virginia Tech Hall of Fame, Virginia Sports Hall of Fame, the Peach Bowl Hall of Fame, and the Sun Bowl Legend hall). He has a road named after him. He has a day named after him (Feb 4th is ‘Frank Beamer Day’ in Virginia). And, most importantly, his former players light up when his name is mentioned. Few would have assumed this success when he first laced up his cleats to play quarterback in Hillsville, Virginia, a town of approximately 600 people. But it was that small town, where everybody new each other, that helped created his demeanor; and it was the esteem they had for football – “on Friday night everyone was at the game,” – that began to carve the path for a true legend of college football.

Hillsville was half a mile from the Blue Ridge parkway, a rolling landscape in the quiet knolls of Virginia. Beamer remembers it fondly. It was a town stocked with traditional values, “no matter how late you stayed out on Saturday night, you were in church Sunday morning.” And on Friday nights, everyone in town was at the football game. It was small town football in the early sixties. Single wing was the offense of choice. Frank credits his coach, Tommy Thompson, with changing the game, at least the flavor of it, when he went up to Baltimore to learn from Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts’ coaching staff. He brought back “a passing offense to little Hillsville. He was way ahead of his time and defenses couldn’t stop him.” In that offense, Frank began to shine, as he racked up a school record 43 passing touchdowns.

That time at quarterback influenced his future success at Va. Tech, where he played the other side of the ball (defensive back), and played it well. He was a three year starter and a team captain. He credits his time at quarterback with developing an already innate understanding of the nuances of the game. He felt he could sense what the opposition was hoping to do before they did it. That intuition brought him success as a player and ultimately as a coach, as his first stop after graduation was back home, serving as an assistant coach at Radford High School. And it’s here I must pause. I hope all young aspiring coaches hear this: one of the true legends of college football began as an assistant high school coach in a small town of about 9,000 people. He carried bags and set up drill and cleaned the coaches locker-room. It was, once again, a testament to how down to earth Coach Beamer is, and how much he cares about what he does – not for the glamor of it, but for the value of it.

“Be honest, be truthful, care about each other. That care should be real.”

– Coach Beamer

The rest from there, as they say, is history. Success on top of success on top of bowl wins on top of success. In my lifetime, I have never known a Virginia Tech football team that was not in the national spotlight. As with many things Beamer, it did not start that way. VaTech was struggling in the early years. It was not until year seven of his tenure (most coaches in the modern age would not be given so long a leash) that the Hokies found stride. In 1993 the Hokies won 9 games and beat the Big Ten’s Indiana Hoosiers in the Independence Bowl and people started to fully buy in to “Beamer Ball.” But it was the 10-win season in 1995, which included a Sugar Bowl victory over the powerful Texas Longhorns, that solidified Virginia Tech’s place among the college football elite. True to form, Beamer credits others with that success.

It’s the players that win the games, he’s quick to admit. True. But his players (including NFL stars like DeAngelo Hall, Michael Vick, and Macho Harris) say the only reason they even considered playing football at Virginia Teach, amid an onslaught of scholarship offers, was Coach Beamer. When confronted with the idea that he is the one who brought the talent to Blacksburg, he again demurred: “we told parents, you send [your son] to Virginia Teach and we’ll do our best to take care of him, make decisions that we are right for him, and if we need to call you we will – and when I said those things, I meant them.”

He had a simple motto for the way he expected his assistant coaches to interact with the team: “treat your players the way you’d treat your kids.” Coach Beamer says he wanted to treat kids right, be respectful, be honest, and noted that if that alone wasn’t a big enough positive, he believe it’s also what gets the best results on the other side. It’s what has the potential to win games. He references a scenario: when you get to the goal line and you need a yard to score, “if people really care about each other, you’ve got a better shot of that ball getting into the end zone.” A simple and honest truth.

It’s a strategy that has worked from the start. Although his coaching beginnings seem humble, the team at Radford went on to win a State Championship. After Radford he went on to be a Graduate Assistant at Maryland, then off to the Citadel, then to Murray State under coach Mike Godfrey, carrying his values with him at every stop. When Godfrey left to take the head job at Cincinnati, Frank was his incumbent. A few year later, he was a Hokie again.

These days Coach Beamer talks regularly to son Shane, who is coaching alongside Kirby Smart at Georgia. He spends a lot of time traveling from Virginia to Georgia, spending time with grandkids, speaking quite a bit, and enjoying a slightly slower pace of life.

One of the final requests we had of Coach was to give some advice to a future leader who would hope to one day be in similar shoes. He said, simply, “live by what you try to teach. I don’t think you can live by one thing and do another and be an effective leader. Be honest. Be truthful. Care about each other, and that care should be real. All those things go into being a leader.

Hear our conversation with Frank Beamer here or by searching “Good Athlete Podcast” on iTunes or Soundcloud

 

**This article was originally published on The Good Men Project webstite

3 Lessons I learned while Playing Football in Spain

The value of my experience playing football overseas is immeasurable. I played three seasons (two in Ireland with the Limerick Vikings, one in Spain with the Valencia Firebats), won three championships, learned a lot about myself, and made lasting friendships. Summing up that experience into “three lessons” is a daunting task. For that reason, I will focus on the lessons which most directly influence my current occupation: Coach. At the Good Athlete Project, we anchor our coaching to three tenets – Start Fast, Stay Focused, and Finish Strong – and our athletes have experienced the benefits. Having a personal relationship to those ideas makes them more effective and easier to transfer.

Start Fast

My flight from Chicago included a long layover in Paris, and when I finally arrived in Valencia, Spain, I was exhausted. When I got to my new apartment, I exchanged some standard preliminary conversation with my room mates, checked out what would be my home for the next four months, then went down for a much needed nap. A few hours later, the knock on my door told me it was time for practice. Though I could have used another few hours (or days) to recover, I got up and took a quick shower to shake myself awake. One absolute truth for Americans playing overseas is that you have to be humble. It does not matter how good you were (or thought you were) back home, you are a guest in a new place. Which means, in part, you cannot skip the first practice because you need a nap.

My roommates and I grabbed our bags and took off toward the practice facility. One of my roommates was an old friend, Coeny, who I lived with in Ireland. He was integral to the team bringing me over, and a welcomed presence in my first few days in Spain. He introduced me to Dustin and Turill, who I would become close to in the coming months. That night we walked through beautiful stone streets, past ancient buildings (which made the oldest buildings in the USseem modern), and through the sweet odor of orange trees blossoming. Valencia orange trees were planted in the parkways every twenty yards or so. There were palm trees hushing in the cool dark, new sights and sounds, and I was in awe.

There was no time for awe, however. Practice started soon. I was a late addition to the team, and this would be my only practice before Saturday’s game up in Barcelona. I had studied the plays during travel, which were similar enough to the system I played in during college. 24 Power seems to be part of the universal language of football. Still, I would only have one night to ingratiate myself to new teammates and develop a small amount of trust before game time. I would have to start fast.

Practice went well, and the next day we were off. The bus picked us up from the stadium and we began weaving our way up the coast to Barcelona, where we would take on L’Hospitalet Pioners,a regular power in La Liga Nacional de Futbol Americano. That year the Pioners were especially strong. In Spain, a team is allowed only three US “imports”; their imported players included a LB/FB who played at the University Nebraska, a WR from the University of Washington, and a QB from UNC (North Carolina) – all big time players from power conferences in the NCAA.

Jet lag kept me sleeping for most of the bus ride. When we arrived, I repeated a line in my head that would become a mantra: Start Fast. Start fast, I told myself. The Valencia Firebats had invested in me, believed I could help them get to the next level, and I didn’t have time to feel things out. I thought back to what one of my college coaches, Andy Gibbons, told me, “don’t dip a toe, jump in – the water’s fine!” So I did.

I was on the kickoff team and we kicked off to start the game. I don’t know how many tackles I made that on Special Teams that season – not many – but I can tell you for sure that I made at least one. I sprinted down the field and, at 6’2” 250lbs, ran over the unsuspecting opponent on the front line of the Pioner’s kick return, then tracked down ball carrier for my first tackle of the year. My new teammates went nuts on the sideline. I wasn’t too good to play special teams, I was ready to give full effort for my team, I wanted to be part of this new football family and I intended to show that passion right away.

We went on to win a tough game 6-0, and I was happy that football season was underway. I was in a new place, surrounded by new faces, but we were off, and there was no slowing down.

Gatorade bath

About to get a Gatorade bath

Stay Focused

Playing overseas offers incredible travel and cultural experiences. Everyone who goes to play should do their best to absorb their new culture. Be humble, ask questions, try new food, speak the language, look around and discover. That said, good times and discovery have the potential to be a distraction – it’s all about balance. Especially in Spain, where the clubs are open until sunrise, one can get caught in a loop of long nights and days recovering on the beach. The first night we went out as a team, I was amazed by exactly that. After that first big win in Barcelona, we rested on the bus ride home. But once we were back, it was time to go out. I still hadn’t slept much. Still, I sluggishly agreed and we were off. For the rest of the night I hung out with my new team mates, getting to know them better and thinking about dancing (though none of us made it on to the dance floor). On the cab ride home, the sun was breaking over the Mediterranean and the dark silhouettes of palm trees made the whole scene like it was pulled from a movie. It wasn’t. This was my life. And though it could have been a nightly practice, there were other things more important to me and my team.

“Good” behavior can be tricky, especially in your early twenties. Distinctions between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ can be difficult to make. Which is why I believe that in many cases, you can only be ‘wrong’ relative to your definition of ‘right’ – to navigate that idea, I had to set goals for myself. My goal was to have fun while providing as much value to my team as possible. I also wanted a ring. I didn’t fly across the ocean for second place. This required a consistent degree of focus. In fact, at the end of those four months, I was probably in the best shape of my life. My room mates and I would cook fresh food, workout 1-2 times every day, and practice otherwise healthy lifestyles. We got into routines. Healthy eating, daily reading, and lots of walking around the city. We practiced hard and with intention. We were focused on optimizing our potential.

Two months and a long winning streak into the season, I got an email from back home. I had dated a girl on and off for five years. We had recently split, and I will never forget the day she emailed me to ask how things were going, and to tell me that she had a new boyfriend. Before the season she had talked about coming out to Spain to visit. “This is going to hurt,” her email began. She was right. It was difficult. But I had my team, I had goals, and I had to stay focused.

Finish Strong

We entered the playoffs on a seven game winning streak against Spanish teams (we also played non-league games against the New Yorker Lions from Braunschweig, Germany, and Italy’s Bolzano Giants). We were battled tested. We were training hard. We were healthy and determined. We were also hoping that our rival, the Pioners, would be on the other side of the bracket. It didn’t match up that way. We had a first round bye, won our second game versus the Bufals, and were facing the Pioners in the Semifinal – the winner would be heading to the National Championship.Once again, we took the long drive to their place. Part of me couldn’t help but consider the full circle idea that this is where my experience in Spain began, and could be where it ended.

It was an intense game from the start. The Pioners had not lost since they last played our team, and it was clear that they were hoping for revenge. Their big LB from Nebraska was making tackles all over the field. He was talking trash, something he didn’t do in our first matchup. I missed a tackle on their QB as he scrambled from the pocket for first down. We struggled getting things going on offense. They came ready to play, and late in the game, we were behind.

It would be our final chance. Our final drive on offense. Our quarterback, Stuart, was moving us down field, but we were running out of time. Third and ten on our side of the fifty yard line, Studropped back and completed a pass for a first down… but there was a flag on the play. Holding. The penalty lost us yards and a down – we were now facing forth and long with fourteen seconds left on the clock. I’ll never forget this moment. One of our lineman looked discouraged. I grabbed him and looked him in the eye, then looked at everyone in the huddle and reminded them, with intensity and language that cannot be repeated here, that we were fine. We were going to finish. We don’t stop. We finish. That’s what we do. That’s what we’ve done all year. The situation didn’t matter, we were going to line up and smash whoever lined up across from us. We trained for this. We finish. That’s it.

And we did. Stu got great protection from the line, then stuck a perfectly timed pass into EZ’s hook route. As the defense swarmed on EZ, he pitched the ball to Lalo, who was coming across the middle on a drag. We had practiced this play, a version of hook and ladder, for exactly this sort of situation. The Pioners started fast, but they didn’t stay focused or finish strong, and Lalo took off down the sideline for the game winning score.

The Firebats stormed the field. Right when I thought I would have a chance to catch my breath and fully take in what had just happened, my teammates snuck up behind me and I got my first Gatorade bath. It was one of the highlights of my athletic career.

We went on to win the SpanishNational Championship, which was televised across Spain. We finished strong. The whole season seemed like a dream.

Final thoughts – paying it forward

I have always believed that good needs to be paid forward. A lot of good people and good team mates made my experience what it was. I will always be grateful to the coaches and players on that team. Now, as a coach, it’s time to share what works. Regarding performance, everything we do in our coaching comes back to those three lessons: Start Fast, Stay Focused, and Finish Strong.

They will appear in different ways through the course of a season or offseason, but they are the anchored absolutes of our approach. We use those terms so often that our athletes repeat it in their own self-reflection. They use it as a guide. We hear things like, “Coach, I came out fast, but I didn’t stay focused on my man” – once they are able to identify the opportunity, we can work on assignment recognition and composure.

“Finish Strong” has not only become a mantra for many of our athletes, but it can be seen on posters in the stands during big games. Purposeful pursuit and high achievement needs to have guidelines. The lessons I learned in Spain solidified my commitment to these three. And it’s catching on. At a recent State Championship meet, one of the teams we work with had t-shirts made for the event, with Finish Strong printed boldly across the chest. There’s really no other way.

 

this article originally appeared in American Football International