See how one program faced with the same challenges as most high schools, increased their player numbers by 55% by building an environment of inclusion.
By Brian Odland
Head Football Coach
Saint Peter High School (MN)
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We are a mid-sized public high school. Our district offers two other fall sports, soccer and cross country running. We are also not immune to the concerns regarding player safety. Despite these challenges, we have seen our football numbers in grades 10-12 increase by over 55% over the past ten seasons. I am privileged to be invited by X&O Labs to share what we are doing to have this success.
We have a couple tenets that form the foundation of what we do:
- We must connect and make relationships with the players. This is key. I truly believe building the relationships keeps kids out and makes it more rewarding for players and coaches.
- We are inclusive. We welcome anyone whether a first-time player or a kid returning to play.
- We mention these multiple times, “If you are here, you matter!”
What follows is a breakdown of what we do based on the time of the year:
SCHOOL YEAR OUTSIDE OF THE FOOTBALL SEASON
With the conclusion of the football season, we encourage all our players to participate in our off-season program. We offer lifting times in the mornings as well as after school to reach all our players, even those in winter seasons. Our emphasis to each athlete is to strive for individual improvements. We do not stress competition between the players (kids will do that on their own). Rather we focus on achieving personal records (PRs). This fosters success and helps them develop confidence.
We have found that spring has led to a drop in weight room attendance for a variety of reasons. This past season, we selected eight seniors and they held a draft of all football players in grades 9-11 to be placed on lifting teams. They selected team mascots and had to track down their draftees to inform them, and in some cases invite them, to join the team in the weight room. The competition was based on weight room attendance and completion of their daily lift sheets during the spring and into summer. The winning team was offered the choice of an ice cream treat or to sit out one conditioning period during the first week of practice.
We observed a couple of reserved seniors really step up and take a leadership role with this activity and it forced the older kids to communicate and work with the younger ones.
Beyond the lifting, I email a letter in March to every returning player and possible new players in grades 7-11 grade specific letters regarding summer opportunities, camps and fall start dates. I have found this to be a time saver for myself as families try to schedule summer vacations, work schedules, etc.
In Minnesota, our state high school league establishes the number of days of contact we can have in the summer months. We take advantage of these days that are optional and open to all players. We use these summer practice times to invite kids who may have played in the past or are considering for the first time. We participate in a five-week 7-on-7 league and a 1-day tournament. We strive to play well but winning is not our focus. We speak to the kids about execution and learning what we do offensively and defensively and then correcting and reinforcing what they do.
We host a three-day high school camp each July. I work with the summer baseball and basketball teams to try and not create conflicting schedules that force kids to make choices. This is all teaching based and we encourage kids considering playing “to come out and join us”. At the conclusion of the camp, the team selects one additional team captain. I have found this gives incentive to kids to work to be leaders during the off season even if they had not been named captain in November.
Following our camp, we will wrap up our summer activities by traveling to a team camp at a college. We invite all players grades 10-12 to sign up to attend this overnight team camp. This is never required, and I also stress to all of them that this may be a financial hardship for families — so it will never be held against them if they are unable to attend. We make sure every kid that attends have their fair share of reps at the camp. They paid for it and so they are going to play. I also do the roommate assignments as this is a big team building activity. We want to leave this camp with each player feeling he belongs and is part of something special.
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- How awards are created for players who have shown improvement in the off-season program.
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Relationship building and fostering a team first mentality have been key to our number growth. We, as a staff, work hard to make connections with the kids and stay in communication with them throughout the year. I believe it all boils down to kids feeling that they can be part of something special.
Meet Brian Odland: Coach Odland has been Head Coach at Saint Peter High School since 2008. Brian has 25 years of coaching experience at the high school, community college and Division II level. He has been a head coach the last 17 seasons.