How one coach re-built his program from the top down to fix the core problems of low numbers and poor buy-in. See the remarkable turnaround...
By Jeremy Plaa
Head Football Coach
Thomas Downey High School (CA)
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After taking over the program twelve years ago, it took me a couple of seasons before realizing we needed to fix the issue of retaining players. We had to reinforce the mentality with our lower-level coaches that we wanted them to enjoy their football experience and wanted to play again the following year. Every head coach knows this but having solid lower level coaches is really the foundation of any good program. The kids retained and the kids recruited slowly started to improve, but it was a process that took time. It is one of the main reasons I believe continuity is so valuable with a coaching staff- so that we can learn from mistakes made and finding more efficient ways to get things done. We learn better practices every year and attempt to improve every year.
Our participation study showed two things: 1) improvement doesn’t happen overnight and 2) at some point your program will likely hit a participation plateau. The key to growing your program is you cannot rest when you hit that plateau. We work as hard as ever with looking for athletes at our school, and retaining them when we find them. While our numbers have stayed pretty constant the last few years, our program accrues playoff experience and the expectation of success with each winning season. Below, you will see the quantifiable increase in numbers in our program over the last twelve seasons.
As football is more popular than ever at the college and professional ranks, concussions have scared away not only parents of high school kids, but also kids at the youth level. Kids themselves even seem to be constantly reminded of the dangers of football. As coaches already know, all the benefits of football far outweigh the risks. As coaches, it is our job to not only promote our sport but to do our best to entice as many kids as possible into our school's program. We are constantly looking for ways to increase our signups and retain the kids we have in our football program. This article will list all of the ways we have “got them out for football, and kept them in the program.”
Recruiting your hallways is not a once-a-year thing. It is an all-the-time thing. Recruiting your hallways could be between classes, in your class, or before and after school. Obviously, the more coaches you have on-campus, the easier your job. But even if you are not lucky to have that situation, you can still reach out to teachers on campus to help promote your program. Build bridges there and you will surely see the benefit.
Our staff is always on the lookout to identify students we should approach about playing football. We are a 9-12 high school and we spend most of our on-site recruiting effort on our freshman class. We feel like they will give us the biggest return for our effort, and have the chance to be in our program for three years. We feel like we can have as big of an impact on them as they will on the program. We are not against recruiting any grade level, but in terms of time management, we like to spend most of our time on each year's freshman class.
We also get a monthly report from our attendance office of students who have transferred into and out of our school. Occasionally we will find a young man whom we can get tied into our program, and that, of course, would help him get acclimated to the school more quickly as well. If you don't get this type of report, make friends with someone in the attendance office and ask if you can check in occasionally to get a report like this. With the data systems our schools have, it probably isn't difficult to get this done.
Step 1: Recruiting the Physical Education Teachers:
We will start our cycle for next season as soon as the off-season begins. The first stop for us is our PE teachers. In December of each year, we will send them an e-mail that will ask them to identify any or all kids that they think would be good for football. We ask for work ethic first, and talent is secondary. They will always identify at least a few kids that will make a difference in our program, but of course, make a bigger difference in their own lives for joining a team environment that football provides. December is a good time to ask the PE teachers because this has given them a few months to identify the kinesthetic kids that excel in class. I will usually follow up with in-person conversations with those teachers, and giving them a t-shirt as a thank you for helping our program out is always good practice.
Depending on how helpful your school’s PE teachers are, you can also use your school’s attendance/grading system to look for potential players. We have a data system that I can filter all of the male ninth-grade students, and I can look at their first quarter grades as well as a school picture of each student. The student's picture could give you a small clue, but the bigger reveal is the student's grades. In the past, I've looked for students that get good grades in PE, and struggle in their academic classes. These kids are surely kinesthetic learners and would probably enjoy afterschool sports. These students probably NEED afterschool sports. The extra guidance of a football coach could be just what that young man needs to improve as a student to be a part of the football program. They are easy recruiting targets and should be discussed with their PE teacher if the PE teacher didn't already alert you about the student. Another reveal is a student that gets all good grades but doesn't seem involved with many other programs at the school. Our school is typical of most, and offers music, drama, agriculture, and of course other sports; but sometimes you will find a student that does very well academically but has not otherwise tied into the school’s afterschool activities. Students that get good grades are going to be more reliable and will likely reflect well on your program’s reputation and emphasis on the academic part of the “student-athlete.”
Step 2: Providing fail safe Rebuttals to Counter Common Concerns
As we identify students for next year’s team, we almost always run into kids who make excuses about joining our program. Kids being indecisive is obviously a hurdle and most coaches would not pursue those kids, but a little extra effort to find out why can go a long way in getting that student out for your team. Some of the reasons why, and our comebacks are:
- Concussions: Football has always had risk, but its safer than its ever been and our district buys the best equipment possible for our students. The benefits in our opinion outweigh the risks. (The information to battle the negativity is changing constantly).
- I’m getting a job: You have the rest of your life to work, at least 40-50 years worth. Be a kid and be with your friends and enjoy a sport that you are only guaranteed to play through high school. We usually will counter the serious kids with a summer and fall calendar, and talk about ways to have a job and be an athlete, if it's absolutely a necessity. We have many students that work and play football, and it's a great way to teach time management.
- My parent(s) won’t let me play: Just find out if this is the truth or not. Ask if you can call their parent and talk to them about it. Most of the time, the parent is all for their son joining our football program; and the real concern is coming from the student. This can usually lead to more discussion that could lead to the player being more educated about whether or not to play.
- It costs too much: We try to explain that we fundraise to sustain our program, but that money is no reason for kids not to play. We are fortunate to have a few alumni I can call if needed that would be willing to buy cleats or pay for a kid's spirit pack if needed. We also will work with parents with unique situations. For kids that have problems buying cleats, we even have a loaner cleat program, where kids that are done playing football (especially seniors) can donate their cleats for other kids to use in future seasons. (We’ve even had some parents buy discounted cleats and donate them). Many times our affluent kids have nice cleats that they just outgrow or don’t like. We offer “pride points” for cleat donation to encourage the program, and I think you can google more information about our “pride point” system.
Continue to the full-length version of this report...
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- The process Coach Plaa and his staff uses to identify and select returning leadership and the “Family Draft System” he will vary to give players accountability in the system.
- How building a social media presence has helped to provide sponsorship, promote positive publicity and encourage parents to get involved in the program.
- The replica “NCAA recruiting board” coach Plaa uses in his office which promotes new signups on a weekly basis.
- His plan for combating safety perceptions about the sport by ENCOURAGING AND NOT DISCOURAGING the support of other athletics.
- What he does on game day to promote the game of football by enlisting parents and the community involvement.
- How Coach Plaa and his staff uses this process to translate in recruiting the 8th graders at the middle school level.
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Hopefully, this report can give you a year-round checklist to recruit your school, and also retain your players. I’m hopeful that at least one or two ideas will help your program grow. Growing our program is one of my most important jobs as head of our program. While I am constantly using the checklist, I’m also constantly asking myself if there a better way to do everything we do. Doing this helps us adjust to the rapidly changing times we are living in and will help us continue to build and grow our program in a positive direction.
Meet Jeremy Plaa: Coach Plaa has been at TDHS since 2004 and has been the Head Varsity Coach since the 2007 season. He is a graduate of San Francisco State University (BA) and the University of Texas-Tyler (M.Ed). He has coached football since 1995. His teams won five consecutive league championships from 2012-2016. He was the Modesto Bee’s District Coach of the year in 2002 and 2012. He often speaks at Clinics and & has spoken for USA Football, Nike COY Clinics, Glazier Clinics, & Northwest AllSports School. He is speaking in Seattle at AllSportsSchool on February 8-9, 2019. Coach Plaa teaches AP Human Geography & AP Government on campus.