Program development is a complicated process, but Coach Mertens found a guiding principle in Tony Dungy's book "Uncommon" that he was able to set as the overarching theme for his program. Read the details here...
By Luke Mertens
Lakes Community High School (IL)
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Being the first and only head football coach in the short history of Lakes Community High School has proven to be one of the most unique experiences in my career. It was my first experience working in a public, co-ed school, and although I thought I had all the answers as a first-time head coach, I was quick to learn that I was not as ready as I had originally thought. For the first couple of years, I did all of the things “good” programs do: year-long lifting program, an extensive summer camp, strict discipline, holding players to high standards – all that I had learned from being a product of Chicago Catholic schools. We had some success with this blueprint, but not enough to satisfy my competitive spirit. I knew something was missing, so I started to really evaluate my program, and I concluded that two vital components were missing: tradition and spirituality. My next challenge became ‘How do I incorporate tradition and spirituality into a new public school?’
My first action step was to create an identity for the program that would encapsulate the tradition and spirituality I felt were missing, and Tony Dungy’s book, Uncommon, held the answer. Since adopting that simple word, “Uncommon”, we have qualified for the state playoffs 7 straight years, won 5 consecutive conference championships, and haven’t lost a conference game since 2011. More importantly, we have created a program that teaches our players lessons that they carry with them for years to come. Below are three examples of what we do to make our program “Uncommon.”
1. Don’t Make It About Football
I knew that if my players were to believe in “Uncommon” we would need to create something that was not ordinary - something that would not be found in other programs. Consequently, I authored a book that teaches our players not about football, but rather how and why being uncommon will help them to be successful in life.
The book I created is broken up into chapters, such as Attitude and Effort, Confidence, Discipline, Excellent Character, Failure, I in Win, Leadership, No Excuses-No Explanations, Passion, Preparation, Pressure, Together, and Vision. In addition to my own thoughts, each chapter has quotes, anecdotes, interactive questions, and even poetry. Starting in the off-season and continuing through the end of the season, we are teaching our players what it means to be “Uncommon”.
In the off-season, we typically cover one lesson per month. During summer camp, we will move to bi-weekly lessons, and once the season begins, we meet with our players twice per week. How each lesson is presented varies too greatly to adequately cover, so I will only describe what we typically do in-season; however, what we do works for us. Each year I survey my seniors, and they always talk about the impact of the lessons. It is what they remember most, which is a very telling sign. Their comments never focus on wins/losses, play calling, etc. but always on how we are teaching them to be uncommon.
By the time the season starts, our players have a solid understanding of what being uncommon means, so I then have them take ownership of the weekly lessons. They are assigned to groups, an assistant coach volunteers to be the moderator, and that group presents a chapter of their choice on game day. Earlier in the week, I will have introduced the weekly theme, but other than that, I purposely do not give any instructions or parameters for their presentations. I want them to sculpt it to their vision, and they usually exceed my expectations. Their presentations have included movie clips, musical lyrics, PowerPoints, and even very personal background stories related to their topic. I LOVE Friday nights, not due to the game, but rather to see what the groups have prepared.
Following their presentations, we break into small, coach-led groups to further discuss. I give my assistants complete autonomy on how to run their small groups. Some coaches will have players share their answers to the discussion questions in the book, while others just let the conversation go wherever it leads. Either way, both the coaches and players enjoy this time together. It really unites and allows us to truly understand each other. After the small group discussions, we meet as a whole team to view highlights from the previous game. Although the creation of the weekly highlights is an onerous task, it is well worth the time. Each video contains cutups, pictures, heart-pounding music, along with embedded messages highlighting the week’s topic. Players really enjoy watching themselves performing at high levels from previous games, and the entire organization exits the meeting feeling confident and ready for the next opponent.
Even if they are not in the group presenting, all players are assigned the chapter to read as well as questions to answer. As a program, we are dedicated to these Friday meetings. If a player is not prepared (i.e. forgot his book or did not have questions answered), he is sent home for the day. Once we start playing games, our players are always prepared because they believe in what we do. They know our pre-game meetings are uncommon, so it becomes a source of strength for us.
I occasionally bring in guest speakers for our Friday meetings as well, which has worked really well. I especially recommend inviting administrators. My administration really enjoys being a part of the pre-game activities, and they are appreciative of the life skills being taught to the players. Additionally, this really creates an uncommon Friday. How many football teams have their principal addressing their team on the importance of having excellent character only hours before kickoff? I do not believe in fiery, pre-game speeches; our meetings bring focus, confidence, and camaraderie to our team, and that is what allows us to be ready to play at the highest level on Friday night.
Since our players have such a deep understanding and belief in being uncommon, it allows the coaches to evaluate our players as either “common” or “uncommon” in all endeavors. For instance, if a player is loafing in practice, we will not mention words like “lazy” or “too slow”; rather, we just tell him his effort was “common.” May not sound like much, but our players do not want to be known as common. Not only is this evaluation system simple and easy to understand, but it also eliminates any chance of a player misinterpreting coaches’ comments as demeaning or disrespectful.
Uncommonly, we pick our captains at the end of the season rather than the beginning, and it is deemed as a great honor amongst our seniors. At the conclusion of each season, we have our seniors vote four “captains” to author a new chapter to represent their senior class. Those picked have complete control – the title, the layout, the questions – and it brings me great pride to see the chapters that have been created through the years. Additionally, it also creates a link between current and past players, which contributes to the tradition.
Coach, you and your entire coaching staff need to read this full report. It’s powerful. It’s available right now in our Insiders membership website. Here’s what you’re missing…
- How Coach Mertens rewards players with the top attendance in off-season workouts with picking their own jersey number.
- The “stripe recipient” ceremony Coach Mertens and his staff use to showcase the dedication of his players.
- The “orange shirt” program used at Lake Community High School that promotes the “uncommonness” Coach Mertens and his staff developed.
- How Coach Mertens helps bridge the gap between coaches and parents by keeping open practices and hosting a Mother-Son Brunch and Father-Son Dinner in-season.
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Lakes Football now has an identity. I originally attempted to build our program based on superficial criteria such as wins and losses, which is why I felt like something was missing. Since making this philosophical switch, there is a completely different atmosphere around our program. I attribute this to the fact that we, players and coaches, feel as if we have more of a purpose; we are all a part of something deeper and more meaningful than just winning football games. I am aware that there are programs that incorporate some or all of these ideas into their program. However, we truly feel that what we do and how we do it is uncommon. Whether this is in fact true or not is inconsequential. What is important is for everyone involved with Lakes Football to believe we are uncommon.
Unintentionally, the concept of being uncommon has become a secret society within the entire school community. With the exception of their parents, our players do not discuss the meaning of uncommon with people outside of our program. With that said, “Uncommon” is definitely growing amongst our school. A few years ago “uncommon” was on the back of our senior girls’ powder puff tees. When I saw it, I immediately questioned the girls about it. They told me it came from the football players, but the players would not tell them what it meant. The football players want to keep it to themselves; they own it. Although our student body is aware of “uncommon”, only those directly connected to our program and who invest their time are privy to the meaning. Like all things misunderstood, “Uncommon” is mocked at times by non-football players and our opponents, which ironically only strengthens the program’s message and helps players to believe even more. Probably the culmination for me, though, is the fact that many alums and past parents still consistently use the term “uncommon” in conversations with me, which proves players are bringing what they learn back home and discussing with their parents. Our whole football family believes in being uncommon.
To be honest, all that we do to make our program uncommon is too extensive to adequately describe in an article. Also contributing to its complexity is the fact it has been personified by my players. However, hopefully I have successfully shown how important creating an identity has been for our program and may be for yours.
Meet Coach Mertens: Luke Mertens has been the Head Football Coach at Lakes Community High School (Lake Villa, IL) since the school opened in 2004 with only freshmen and sophomores. Since becoming a 4-year school in 2006, L.C.H.S. is a 8x IHSA State Playoff Qualifier and have won 5 consecutive conference championships. Prior to Lakes, Coach Mertens was the QB coach at both Chicago Catholic League power St. Rita High School (Chicago, IL) and St. Patrick High School (Chicago, IL).