A Tradition of Outreach

Long after our players forget how to block “Power Read” or to “make a coverage check versus an empty set,” our goal is that they will still remember the life lessons they learned both on and off the field.  It is a coach’s responsibility to build teams, win games, and develop student-athletes of character who give back to their community now, and for years to come.  

2022 Hilltoppers setting examples of teamwork and service on & off the field.

This past weekend was an outstanding community outreach opportunity for our team.  It marked the eighth year our team gathered on a Sunday morning in late September, to support the Walk to End Alzheimer’s.  Eight years ago, we were the only sports team to join the walk.  This year, every Fall team at the Academy, one winter team, our local Pop Warner football team, and a team from another school followed our lead and joined in supporting the walk.  I’d like to think we helped set an example and developed a little momentum encouraging others to join the Fight against Alzheimer’s and raise awareness of other opportunities for community service.

Aside from participating in the walk and having a strong visual presence at the event, we ask each player to consider a small donation of their own money to the cause. Just as we sacrifice for one another on the field, it’s my hope traditions like this one encourage teammates to sacrifice for others long after the last whistle. I have told players for many years, “the hand that gives gathers.”

Coach Rich Alercio is available to discuss coaching philosophy, X’s & O’s, or teach his O-Line “techniques in the trenches.” Contact Coach at richalercio@gmail.com and share http://www.olineskills.com with your colleagues and friends. Thanks for supporting this blog and joining our conversations, and as always, thanks for your time!  

Mental Toughness & Resilience

After a 2-0 start, the Hilltoppers suffered a 2-point road loss against the defending state champions in a game plagued with injuries, penalties, and turnovers.  There were opportunities to win that game but we squandered them and did so against a good team who came ready to play.  

I have to admit, inside… where thoughts echo and reverberate, I’m terrible when it comes to losing… However, over the years, I’ve learned to compartmentalize those feelings and focus on what comes next. Jack Clark, Head Coach of the University of California, Berkley Men’s Rugby Team has the most NCAA championships of any college coach in any college sport. Coach Clark defines mental toughness as “the unflinching and relentless ability to identify and execute the next most important thing regardless of the circumstance.” I’d like to think I’ve learned such a concept over more than four decades of playing and coaching this game, and I believe Coach Clark has it right.  

There is no time to wallow in the loss or dwell on last week’s game. We welcome last season’s state finalists this Friday night.  Our focus needs to be on what lies ahead.  I have used the analogy of the windshield and the rearview mirror for years to remind students to focus on what lies ahead and not on what is in their past.  Sure, the rearview is helpful and often may offer a valuable perspective, but there is a reason the windshield of a car is so much larger than the rearview mirror. The majority of our time and attention needs to be focused on what lies in front of us.  We should only occasionally glance at those things in our past.  We learn from them and become better prepared for the future because of them…  But if you spend too much time focused on what is behind you in life or in your car, you will crash into what lies ahead of you. 

Losses may be painful in the moment, and one must feel the feelings and emotions one encounters. However, as we try to teach resilience in our student-athletes, they need to know they can take a hit, a loss, or a momentary disruption and bounce back. As with many lessons we teach around this great game, it’s our most sincere hope our players will learn these lessons, and bounce back in practice, on gameday, and in life.

Coach Rich Alercio is available to discuss coaching philosophy, X’s & O’s, or teach his O-Line “techniques in the trenches.” Contact Coach at richalercio@gmail.com and share http://www.olineskills.com with your colleagues and friends. Thanks for supporting this blog and joining our conversations, and as always, thanks for your time!  

Go Earn A Sticker…

Like the Ohio State Buckeyes, we recognize player performance by awarding our players with helmet stickers.  Players earn a sticker for among other things, kicking extra points.  After our first game in 2019, our kicker was awarded 7 helmet stickers.  After the meeting where the stickers were presented, the long snapper and holder came to me and lobbied for themselves to also receive stickers as they were as crucial to the extra point as the kicker.  I had never thought of it that way…  Having been a long snapper for extra points in college I knew how nerve wracking it was to have the pressure of a perfect snap on every point after touchdown attempt but I always looked at it as just doing my job.  

Helmet stickers reflect individual contributions to Team success.

Earlier this week I received the following email from a former player who long snapped for us long before we gave that position helmet stickers, reminding me of just how important that role is.  

Hey Coach, I watched Cincinnati and Pittsburgh yesterday, and they had quite the finish. I remember I got an early chance to play at the Academy because of special teams. The long snapping job was one I always valued, even when I had the opportunity to play for you on the offensive side of the ball. I saw yesterday how much the typical fan likely undervalues the importance of that role. The Bengals snapper was injured, and one of their TEs had to snap. Evidentially, they had an XP get blocked, which would’ve ended the game in regulation, and then they missed a short FG in overtime. Both were due to slow/bad snaps. I’m not sure if you saw the highlights, but I wanted to share this with you. A nice reminder for kids to get to the field early before practice starts!

We’ve commented often how the game of football reminds us of our interdependence with teammates, and ultimately how working together, we are stronger than any of us could be by ourselves. Each of us has a role to play and a contribution to give for the betterment of the team. Long snappers, holders, kickers, even the sophomore linebacker filling a role on the scout defense who helps sharpen the starting offense… each of us has a contribution. Each must be ready when called upon whether in a game, in the classroom or in life. What role will you be called to fill? Are you ready to contribute to your team, family, club, church, or community…? Just like the long snapper, holder, and kicker…Together, we’re better than any one of us alone. Contribute to your team… Go earn a sticker!

Coach Rich Alercio is available to discuss coaching philosophy, X’s & O’s, or teach his O-Line “techniques in the trenches.” Contact Coach at richalercio@gmail.com and share http://www.olineskills.com with your colleagues and friends. Thanks for supporting this blog and joining our conversations, and as always, thanks for your time! 

Everyone Has A Plan…

Iron Mike Tyson’s famous quote, “everyone has a plan until they get hit in the face,” perfectly explains the start of our 2022 season.  

As underdogs, on the road vs #2 ranked Hartford High School, we had a disastrous start that led us to be down 7-0 one minute into the game.  Weeks earlier, we had a terrible practice that I contemplated ending early…  But I wanted to see how the team would respond to hard coaching, and they finished that practice session with a great final 15-minute team period. 

Final Scoreboard photo Courtesy of Erin Messer, Vice President of the Hilltopper Football Family Group

As we discussed here on last week’s Blog, a football’s points mean sometimes the ball bounces in unexpected ways…

Just prior to the Hartford game, I reminded the team of that unexpected practice, and their resilience in the face of adversity… I told them that at some point things may not go well tonight but we all know how well you can respond and can turn things around just like you did weeks ago.  I never thought such advice would be implemented so quickly at the start of the game.  

But just like they did during that terrible practice session, our players showed great resilience and outscored our opponents 49-7 over the next 47 minutes.  Unlike most of MIke Tyson’s counterparts, we got hit in the face and were still able to execute our plan.  Things do not always go as planned on the football field or in life.  Holocaust survivor and author Victor Frankl notes, “In the moments between stimulus and response, we find character, and our actions define who we are at our core.” I’m proud of the team, their character, and our culture. They responded like “Hilltoppers,” and carried forward a proud legacy of the legion who played before them.

Coach Rich Alercio is available to discuss coaching philosophy, X’s & O’s, or teach his O-Line “techniques in the trenches.” Contact Coach at richalercio@gmail.com and share http://www.olineskills.com with your colleagues and friends. Thanks for supporting this blog and joining our conversations, and as always, thanks for your time!  

Undefeated…

Every team starts its season undefeated.  Very few finish that way.  In the last nine years, we have been fortunate to take three teams into the State Championship game undefeated (2014, 2017, 2019), but only one stayed that way.  Perfection is a rare anomaly and is most often a circumstance combining teamwork, performance, and luck.

When preparation meets opportunity

Football, however, is an imperfect game. It is played with a prolate spheroid (football) that bounces in any direction with no predictability.  It is officiated by men and women who though doing their best, must make subjective decisions in seconds.  At the same time, coaches combine strategy and analytics while combatting predictable patterns and confirmation bias. Additionally, both players and coaches must contend with friction and uncertainty as imperfect opponents compete under the pressure of diminishing time.

The philosophy of our program is that games are not won on weekends in the Fall, but in the hours, days, and weeks of preparation occurring all year long.  Of course, most coaches will also tell you “luck is best found where preparation meets opportunity.” As a veteran coach who began his career back in the 1980s, I always hope for luck to be on our side and that the spheroid bounces in our direction.  I would expect others to feel the same way. Good luck to all the coaches and players beginning the 2022 season.  Play hard and play safe.

Coach Rich Alercio is available to discuss coaching philosophy, X’s & O’s, or teach his O-Line “techniques in the trenches.” Contact Coach at richalercio@gmail.com and share http://www.olineskills.com with your colleagues and friends. Thanks for supporting this blog and joining our conversations, and as always, thanks for your time!

Expanding Our Influence

I’m very fortunate and feel flattered to have been named the President of the recently formed “Vermont Football Coaches Association (VFCA).”  It’s my privilege to have the opportunity to establish a foundation and set an initial course. I sincerely hope to make lasting contributions to the benefit of the sport in our state.  

A lofty goal that may not be achievable in my lifetime is that no potential player ever utters the worst 6 words a coach can hear…”My mom won’t let me play.”  Those words are often followed by “she doesn’t want me to get hurt.”  While I understand the inherent risks of injury in contact sports and have suffered a few of them, I strongly believe the benefits far outweigh the risks.  No sport teaches mental and physical toughness, teamwork, discipline, and work ethic quite like football.  It is a mentally and physically demanding game requiring every player to make good decisions and perform with precision on every play to create team success.  These circumstances lead to camaraderie and cohesion unmatched in any other sport.

Heather Wallek, Julia Kearney, Brooke Davis all took to the field during St J’s recent intrasquad scrimmage.

This past weekend, during our intrasquad scrimmage on the campus of St Johnsbury Academy, we took big steps in changing the impression some mothers may have of football.  For the first time in the state of Vermont, a female official, coach, and player were all taking an active role in a football contest.  Heather Wallek, a first-year football official, learned from veteran officials.  Julia Kearney, a first-year coach, and Vermont’s first female football coach kept a watchful eye over her position players.  Brooke Davis, a first-year player, got in several reps at her safety position.  I trust all of them will see the benefits of teamwork, character development, and competition, and ultimately let their kids play football.

VFCA will engage, solicit input, and incorporate a broad variety of perspectives from the Mothers of Vermont’s student-athletes and those who influence today’s and tomorrow’s players and parents. Together, we can focus on the very best this great game has to offer, and see benefits extend for decades to come.

Coach Rich Alercio is available to discuss coaching philosophy, X’s & O’s, or teach his O-Line “techniques in the trenches.” Contact Coach at richalercio@gmail.com and share http://www.olineskills.com with your colleagues and friends. Thanks for supporting this blog and joining our conversations, and as always, thanks for your time!

A Little Serenity Amidst the Chaos of Training Camp.

As we press ahead with camp, players new and old return to the locker room and field, each with hopes and expectations of opportunities to contribute to the team and our goals. While a few arrive with a laser focus on goals, many approach camp (and subsequently the new season) wondering just “where,” and in some cases, “if” they’ll fit in.

As we’ve noted before, one of the things about football is it’s a game where the ball has points… Basketballs, soccer, tennis balls, and others bounce with reasonable predictability. Footballs do not, and such surprises force us to encounter things outside of our control. As players (and sometimes coaches) contend with things they (we) can control, and things they (we) cannot, it’s important to take stock of the difference. (Queue the Serenity Prayer!)

Over 30 years of coaching, I’ve learned to reinforce the importance of things in a player’s immediate control. The very best players and coaches I’ve encountered focus on:

•  Attitude

•  Communication

•  Body language

•  Work ethic

•  Preparation

•  Energy

Sometimes the ball bounces in your favor, sometimes not. Regardless of how the ball bounces, student athletes’ performance can be significantly improved by focusing on the list above. I would offer this sentiment as yet another example of how lessons from this great game extend far beyond four short years on the high school gridiron.

Coach Rich Alercio is available to discuss coaching philosophy, X’s & O’s, or teach his O-Line “techniques in the trenches.” Contact Coach at richalercio@gmail.com and share http://www.olineskills.com with your colleagues and friends. Thanks for supporting this blog and joining our conversations, and as always, thanks for your time! 

Looking Back & Looking Ahead…

When I reported to my first college football training camp as a player in the 1980s, we had triple sessions. “Triples” equated to 40 practices in 2 weeks… Sunday mornings were the only respite. I’d like to tell you we spent the time in Church, but we were more likely praying for rain to cool the scorching August afternoons, or to hide cuts, scrapes, aches, and bruises from the coaches evaluating our performance.   

Next week, we begin our 2-week training camp and by comparison, have only 15 practices scheduled.  Gone are the days of double and triple sessions in the blistering heat.  We have 2-a-days every other day and cannot begin them until day #3.  

While I do recognize it is better for player health to minimize the number of practices and concurrently the number of exposures to contact, I do miss the solidarity formed through the shared privation of a team going through such a difficult training camp.  As the saying goes, misery loves company… and with 3 practices each day for 2 weeks, there was a lot of misery to be shared.  

In hindsight, it seems like the Team’s bonding happened organically during “the old days.”  Nowadays coaches need to be very intentional about creating team building opportunities.  With only one practice scheduled every other day, there are ample opportunities, and we reinforce the tenets of character, culture, and interdependence at every turn.

Just as we “formed, stormed, normed, and (finally) performed” more than 30 years ago, the team we’ll field in 2022 will have their own stories of “how hard it was…” and “remember the time we had to…” When they inevitably look back, I’m sure the obstacles will seem bigger, coaches louder, and challenges more daunting than they could have ever imagined. And just as we do today, I sincerely hope they find the struggles endured today better prepared them for the struggles yet to come, and the recognition they are stronger as a team than anyone could be alone.

Coach Rich Alercio is available to discuss coaching philosophy, X’s & O’s, or teach his O-Line “techniques in the trenches.” Contact Coach at richalercio@gmail.com and share http://www.olineskills.com with your colleagues and friends. Thanks for supporting this blog and joining our conversations, and as always, thanks for your time!  

Competition & Encouragement

Coaches always say that games are won and lost in the trenches but most spend the offseason and summer sending their “skill” players to passing camps and 7v7 tournaments.  That is why I started my OLine Clinics over 20 years ago, and why we host a Strongman Competition and OLine Challenge at our annual Northeast Kingdom 7v7 tournament.

The Strongmen compete in the following events:

1. Log Press (Max Reps in 1 Minute)

2. Farmer Carry (Best time)

3. Hexbar Deadlift (Max Reps for 1 minute)

4. Seated Sled Pull (Best time)

Our OLine Challenge has 5-man teams competing in the following events:

1. Standing Slam ball Toss (Total distance)

2. 1-man Sled Drive Relay (Best time)

3. Tire Flip Relay (Best time)

4. Sandbag Carry Relay (Best time)

5. Team Tug-of-War (Seeded Single Elimination)

While I am proud to say that one of our guys was the overall winner in the Strongman competition and our team won the OLine Challenge, I am more proud of how spirited the event was throughout the day.  The 7v7 games were very competitive, but the competition at times was contentious.  The Strongman and OLine Challenge events were also very competitive but players from different schools were all very supportive of each other.  Players wearing a rainbow of colors representing schools from all over Vermont and one from New Hampshire circled around each other and cheered as individuals they may have never met pushed themselves to the limits and beyond in the spirit of competition.

There is truly something special about offensive linemen.  Simply stated, they are selfless. That’s not to say others can’t be selfless as well, but as we’ve noted previously, the nature of the roles on the offensive line often rewards selfless interdependence more frequently and more consistently than other positions. Some roles tend to be more “supporting,” while others tend to be more “supported.” It was great to see the OLinemen “supporting” each other throughout the competitions.

Coach Rich Alercio is available to discuss coaching philosophy, X’s & O’s, or teach his O-Line “techniques in the trenches.” Contact Coach at richalercio@gmail.com and share http://www.olineskills.com with your colleagues and friends. Thanks for supporting this blog and joining our conversations, and as always, thanks for your time!  

Simplify

As we wrap up OTAs this week and finalize practice schedules and scripts for Mini Camp next week, I am reminded of something that I have shared this time of year in previous blogs.  It is my advice when packing for a vacation.  Lay out all the clothes you want to take and all the money you think you need then put back half the clothes and double the money.  

You cannot install every play, scheme, coverage, blitz, and drill in your arsenal during a 5-day mini camp just like you cannot fit all of your clothes in that suitcase for a 5 day vacation at the beach.  Ask yourself, what do you really need?  What do you really need to be good at?  What would make it simpler? Try to cap everything at three:  Run plays, Pass plays, Screens, Fronts, Coverages, Blitzes, Stunts, Tackling Drills, Ball security drills, and Takeaway drills. 

My goal on vacation is to never return home with a single article of clean clothing.  That would mean that I packed something that I just did not need.  My goal for Mini Camp is to not spend time on any play, scheme, or drill that we will not use, and use often, throughout the season this fall. If we can simplify the process and reduce the friction, we’re more likely to succeed.

Simplifying the plan builds flexibility and time into the program. Flexibility and time afford us the opportunity to focus, reinforce, and ensure foundational concepts get the emphasis they need. As we revisit elements of team building and culture common to this part of the season, everything has a place, time, and the attention it’s due. We consciously simplify to reduce friction and confusion while reinforcing the essential elements of success.

Coach Rich Alercio is available to discuss coaching philosophy, X’s & O’s, or teach his O-Line “techniques in the trenches.” Contact Coach at richalercio@gmail.com and share http://www.olineskills.com with your colleagues and friends. Thanks for supporting this blog and joining our conversations, and as always, thanks for your time!