By Luke Mertens
Lakes Community High School (IL)
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.