As coaches, our success is directly linked to our ability to effectively communicate with our players. And with the limited time we’re given with players, that communication must come in meeting rooms and not on the practice field.
By Andy Merfeld
Benedictine College (KS)
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As coaches, we have all heard the expression, “It’s not what the coaches know, it’s what the players know that really matters.” I think most of us believe in this statement, but how many of us truly practice it? How many of us emphasize player learning as a central tenet of our programs? As coaches, our success is directly linked to our ability to effectively communicate with our players. We must examine complex problems, come up with solutions within our existing scheme, and figure out how to impart the necessary information to our players. One of the reminders I keep on my desk is to “be the best teacher on campus.” Over the course of my career, I have spent a lot of time thinking about better ways to teach and communicate with players. In this report, I want to share some ideas for teaching and learning aids that I have used. I am indebted to several other coaches for most of these ideas and tried to give credit to the proper men where I could. Among those not otherwise mentioned, I am specifically grateful to John Steger at the University of Minnesota Duluth, Travis Walch (formerly of the University of St. Thomas), Dante Bartee at Cal-Berkeley, and Justin Wyatt at Upper Iowa University.
As an aside, I want to emphasize that I started out as a high school coach and have always worked at the small-college level where we are not blessed with an army of support staffers. With some organization and creativity, I think all the activities I will discuss today are doable at any level of football. Secondly, I would like to make a disclaimer that my background is primarily coaching the secondary and many of my examples relate to that area, but I believe most of these practices can be adapted to other positions and the offensive side of the ball as well.
In this report, there are a few different areas on which I’d like to focus. One area focuses on the general procedures I use in my position meetings. A second area where I will spend some time is on special activities in position meetings. Thirdly, I wanted to pass along some general guidelines that I have found help facilitate player learning and information retention.
Position Meetings: General Procedures
I am a firm believer in requiring players to sit in their position groups in meetings. In a smaller setting, this means I have the safeties grouped together and the corners grouped together. The primary reason for doing this is to allow the players to coach each other throughout the meeting. I always make it clear that quiet conversation is encouraged within groups (if it is on topic, of course). If I’m covering a coaching point for the corners and one of the young safeties has a question about something different, I will let one of the older safeties quietly help the younger one. If the point is especially important or I want the players to hear a different voice, I might ask the older player to explain the point to the entire group. I feel like this format allows us to cover as much ground as possible in a limited amount of time. It also gets the older players more invested in our scheme and in the development of younger players. Allowing the players to coach each other benefits both the player doing the teaching and the one(s) who are learning. As we know, the best way to learn a skill or concept is to have to TEACH it to someone else. I also try to be very clear about the players needing to be comfortable communicating with and coaching each other, since that is essentially what they have to do on the field all the time (the theme of players working with and coaching each other will be consistent throughout this report).
Sitting in position groups can also be used in larger settings where the entire offense or defense is meeting together, or in a special teams meeting where players can sit in small groups with their position coaches (the coach working with the right side of the punt team, as an example) and get extra coaching while the lead coach runs the meeting.
In the defensive systems in which I have coached, the safeties are responsible for nearly all the pre-snap communication among the defensive backs. In my meetings, I require the safeties to make each coverage check in the meeting just as they would if they were on the field. When we watch practice or game film, whoever is in on the play we are watching makes the check in the meeting. This serves several purposes. From a practical perspective, it keeps the players active and involved in the meeting. Secondly, it gives the players many more quality mental reps. They get the coverage call from me in the meeting (just as they would get it from the sideline in a game), go through their mental checklists, and must make a clear and confident coverage check. (Depending on the situation, you may not even need to watch the play! You could just have the safeties make their checks and move on to the next play.) The corners, who are typically not making checks, also get repetitions listening for the checks from the safeties. Thirdly, requiring the safeties to make their checks each play allows me, as a coach, to get an accurate feel for their comprehension. If the less-experienced players are comprehending everything well, I can feel confident that everyone is ready to progress to the next concept. If the more experienced players have questions or are overly confused, I’ll know I need to slow down or possibly even back up and review the material.
Another way that to encourage players to take ownership is by giving them the opportunity to contribute to the game plan. The QB coach and offensive coordinator at Upper Iowa, Ben Curran, likes his QBs to come to their Tuesday meeting with several game-plan ideas for the upcoming game. This ensures that the players are watching the film on their own and that they are putting some thought into what they are seeing.
Understanding the “Commander’s Intent”
As coaches, we know how hard it is to prepare our players for every situation or eventuality that could arise in a game. This is why it is so important that players understand the "Commander's intent," which is a useful military term referring to the desired end state of an operation. If subordinate officers understand the commander’s intent and the overall goal of the mission, they can be empowered to make their own decisions in the heat of batter. In a football context, this refers to players, individually, understanding what we, as a team, are trying to accomplish with a given call, play, or technique. Not only do players need to understand the ‘what' and ‘how' of a concept, but they also need to understand the ‘why.' Furthermore, they need to know why they need to know why. (This also applies to all of the other activities listed in this report; players need to understand why we run position meetings the way we do, why they have to make their checks out loud, why we are doing counterintelligence meetings, how the charts can help them learn, etc.) A player who knows his job versus a player who understands the concept is like a robot that can only perform one task versus an artificially intelligent one that can adjust and adapt on the fly. Understanding the concept helps players learn our specific game plans and checks and allows them to coach each other better.
I also think it is important that players understand and appreciate how different calls and concepts fit into the entire scheme. I remember as a young college coach wondering why we needed to have (what I thought was) an excessive amount of coverage checks and pressures. A few years later, I understand very clearly that it is a bad feeling to be in a game without having enough tools in the toolbox! This sort of information is good for players, especially inexperienced ones, to know. When installing a new concept or technique, I usually try to find a few examples from the prior season where that concept either came in handy OR where we could have used it. For example, if we are installing a coverage check against a certain motion, I will show examples where that motion has hurt us in the past. Having a great understanding of a given concept helps the players recognize where we are weak and can give them clues about answers within our scheme that can help cover up our deficiencies. If we are deficient in protection when we are in empty, as an example, the players need to know that we have a screen package ready. Defensively, if we are vulnerable in a certain gap, the players need to be confident in our ability to stunt or change our run support to help in that gap. Understanding the “commander’s intent” also helps give the players something to do when they are in doubt. I believe your scheme must have some absolute principles that players can fall back on when necessary. This allows them to play with speed and confidence.
Continue to the full-length version of this report...
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- How Coach Merfeld uses HUDL to create his timed pre-snap assessment for players during game week.
- The procedure of his “Player Lead Meeting,” which he orchestrates the day after the game when players create the coaching points for each play.
- His “Counterintelligence Meetings,” where players benefit in learning from a different environment and a different coach.
- Why long term cutups can be used better to illustrate coaching points than shorter playlists.
- Plus, a sample template of Coach Merfeld’s “Comprehension Chart,” which he uses to gauge players grasp of the system before adding or subtracting concepts.
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I would like to close this report with another classic coaching idiom: “Players don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” It is worth remembering that everything we do in our programs, even at the college level, should be about the players. Today I have focused on teaching aids to help improve player learning, but the emphasis on taking care of players should permeate every aspect of our programs (practice structure, schemes, travel schedules, lifting times, planning for life after football). I would encourage everyone reading this to take the time to show your players you care about them as individual young men. Ask about their home lives, their academics, their families, and their spiritual lives. It’s the best way to connect with them and it makes for a richer experience for everyone involved. Once that relationship is established, it will be much easier to get them to buy into the scheme, strength and conditioning program, their own academic success, and everything else in the program.
I would like to thank the staff at X & O Labs for all the great content they provide and for allowing me to contribute another report to the site. Please feel free to reach out to me if you have questions or would like to talk more about teaching and learning aids for football. This is obviously a passion of mine and I am happy to help out other programs as much as I can.
Meet Coach Merfeld: Andy Merfeld recently accepted a coaching position at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, after spending the previous three seasons coaching the defensive backs at Upper Iowa University. Prior to that, he was a graduate assistant at the University of Minnesota Duluth. He started his coaching career in Madison, Wisconsin, working as the defensive coordinator for Edgewood High School.