Parity…

2018-09-20 ParityThree weeks into the 2018 season and every Division 1 team in the state of Vermont has at least one loss.   I just read an email from one of our TV sports anchors addressed to every coach asking if anyone can recall the last time that has happened.  Certainly not in my five years as a Vermont high school football coach.

 

In 2014, my second year at the Academy, we made our first state championship game appearance with a 10-0 record.  Our opponent that year had the same record.  I believe it was the first time two Division 1 teams in Vermont ever came into the championship game undefeated.

Last year, during our undefeated 2017 season, we had a couple of close games; but still wound up winning them all and outscoring our opponents 435 – 179.  We went into every game feeling quite confident we were the better team.  This year, our coaches and players recognize every opponent brings talented athletes and teams much more closely matched in capability and experience.  With no “easy weeks” on the schedule, our players bring great motivation into the weight room, spirited attitude and performance to practices, and focused attention and questions to video sessions.

The upperclassmen we hoped would pick up the mantle of leadership are doing so and we’re also seeing some younger players personal examples standing out as peer leaders. While we as coaches would like to take credit for setting the culture and conditions for the team’s emotional growth, it’s more important to recognize the elevated attention to detail and focus we’re seeing in the phases of practice and preparation reflect the student-athletes who have taken it upon themselves to lead by example. The players’ pursuit of excellence also serves as a motivator for us as coaches. Just as “steel sharpens steel,” there’s a complementary symbiosis to the relationship.

Our critical responsibility as coaches continues to be effective communication. We must develop, communicate, clarify and confirm game plans, situational context, and special circumstances teammates can implement and execute together.

It’s not uncommon to hear people in the media talking about “circling an opponent on their schedule,” as particularly challenging or key to a season’s success. This season, we have a circle around all of them and it has made coaching as exciting and important as it has ever been in my 30 years in the profession. Thanks for joining us on the journey!

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 your time!

Do the Right Thing, at the Right Time, for the Right Reason…

Earlier this summer I talked about the importance of moving through the teambuilding steps and the recognition that together, we are so much more powerful than any of us could be alone. As the team runs through early phases of drills and practice, we try to create opportunities for players to recognize their inability to succeed by themselves. Whether players feel personally in need or recognize someone else who is struggling, the staff creates scenarios where the only path to success is through teamwork.

Both on the field and off, we ask players to put the interests of the team and their teammates ahead of their own… to be generous with their time and effort, and to make a conscious decision to help others.

For the past three years, the St Johnsbury Academy football team has gathered with other members of our community on a Sunday 2018-09-13 St J Walk to End Alzheimer'sin September to participate in the Walk to End Alzheimer’s.  We believe it is a great opportunity to give back to the community and support a worthy cause.

Our community has been so supportive of Hilltopper Football (and other sports!) over the years, turning out to support the community is the least we could do. The Walk to End Alzheimer’s gives us the opportunity to extend the team’s interdependence out into the local community, and the return on investment is extraordinary.

Below is an email from the director of the Walk to End Alzheimer’s:

Good Morning Coach,

      I wanted to thank you again for having your family and team join us for the Walk to End Alzheimer’s.  It’s simply incredible how your team’s presence brings so much joy and hope to the families struggling with this disease.  Please extend a personal thank you to your team from myself and the entire Walk to End Alzheimer’s committee.  They should be very proud of themselves for taking part in such an important cause. 

 Not only does the community appreciate our participation, we reinforce the pattern of putting others’ interests ahead of our own. We practice the ethics we preach and in doing so, carry forward the Hilltopper example beyond the confines of the campus. Our team’s example (choices, words, and deeds) can either add to the culture or detract. It is unfortunately all too obvious in today’s day and age how one “Aw Shucks…” can take away a thousand “Attaboys!”

As I’ve noted elsewhere in the blog over the last 18 months, the staff and I know all too well the season ends and classes graduate in the blink of an eye. The lessons we teach are intended first to serve players on the field, but also to endure for a lifetime. Investing in our team and culture both on and off the field pays dividends for years to come.

Our time is our most valuable non-renewable resource. During the season, demands on coaches and players make time even more precious…. But there’s always time to do the right thing, at the right time, for the right reason. Giving back to a community that gives so much to us is worthy of our time, talent, and treasure.

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 your time!

Good Call or Bad Call?

Coaches Make Decisions…

I remember watching a Patriots v Colts game several years ago where the Patriots had a 4th down and short in their own side of the field late in the game.  They had one of the best QBs in football, a dynamic isolation receiver, and only needed 2 or 3 yards to get a first down, secure the win, and burn the clock.

Conventional thinking would be to punt the ball away and play defense, but they would be giving the ball to the other “best QB in the league,” with plenty of time to score.  The Pats decided to go for it, the pass fell incomplete, and they wound up losing the game on a short field touchdown.  I recall thinking how bold and brilliant that call was, but the next day I heard all of sports talk radio criticizing the call made by one of the greatest coaches the game has ever known.  Why the criticism?  It was the right thing to do, with the right people, at the right time.  It just did not work.

Coaching is Coaching

Fast forward to our game this past Saturday.  We opened our season with the team we defeated in the state championship game last year, who is also the team who defeated us in the 2016 state championship.  The game was back and forth.  They had a dominant running game and we dominated in the air.  During the first 3 successful Points after touchdown, I noticed that they were only rushing 2 guys off our right side and were not rotating anyone over to cover for them.

I had made the decision in the first half that if this is still a back and forth game in the fourth quarter we would fake and go for two.  Playing them in overtime did not favor us.  Their success on the ground gave them a decided advantage on the short field, and short fields are no friend of the passing game.  So when we got the ball in the fourth trailing by 7, (28-21), I told our QB that when we score, we will fake and go for two.  It was the right thing to do with the right people at the right time, but the ball fell to the ground incomplete.  We wound up losing 35-33.

Good call or bad call?

I posed that same question to a longtime friend and student of the game. He responded:

“Good Call… Remember, the ball has points, and therefore like life, bounces in unpredictable ways.  You make the best call you can given the information available at the time, and let the chips fall.”

What do you think? Good call or bad call?

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 your time!

Teammates, Captains, & Caring

Last week’s blog had to take a back seat to training camp and all the time and energy dedicated to those two weeks.  This year’s training camp was made even more challenging with the sudden passing of the father of one of our players in week 1 and the services that followed in week 2.  Although it was a difficult time, I was moved by how much the team supported their “brother” and how he sought comfort by being back with his football family. The return on an individual’s commitment to the team and our culture can be measured in many ways, but I am always proud of the way teammates pull together to care for and support one another in the face of adversity and loss.

As a staff, our greatest concern going into training camp was not replacing the 8 senior starters from our undefeated team, but rather the void in leadership left by their graduation.  Those young men created an environment of social cohesion; a team in true meaning; void of stratification and absent of cliques and egos.  No player was treated any differently regardless of their year in school or spot on the depth chart.  This year’s team only has 6 seniors, but they have been exemplary in their actions and attitudes. Leading by personal example, they know the way, go the way, and show the way.

Two of those seniors were voted on by their teammates to be captains.  A third player also received a large number of votes; a junior offensive lineman, who is our only returning starter for last year’s line.  2018-08-29 St J CaptsAs I reflect back over my 30 years in coaching, it is hard to remember a year or a team that did not have an offensive lineman as one of its captains.  One of my proudest moments was being named a captain of my team at Ursinus College in only my 3rd year with the program and 2nd year starting at Center on the offensive line.  Although the average football fan pays little to no attention to the offensive line, the five men who comprise that unit and their selfless efforts are clearly recognized by their teammates.

Teammates care… Captains care… and the 2018 Hilltoppers begin their season caring for each other, sharing common values,  commitments, and the confidence to step forward and join the battle together as a team.

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 your time!

Let’em Play!

SJA_Football_green helmetAs I think about the training camps I’ve participated in as a player, assistant coach, and head coach, memories ebb and flow, but the near torture that was the end of practice conditioning (wind sprints, gassers, timed runs, etc) was the least favorite part of my football experience. Since then, I have never been a fan of ending practice with conditioning. While players will undoubtedly encounter fatigue during the season, (and our staff reminds players of Lombardi’s sentiment, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all,”) old-school conditioning drills do not translate well to the game of football. Worse, they often drain player morale and disincentivize coming back the next day.  A better approach is incorporating conditioning into the football position specific drill work we do throughout practice. Our coaches incorporate bursts of intense work during practice with a 1 to 4 work to rest ratio throughout.

Our offense leverages tempo as a weapon. We minimize the time between snaps to just enough time for our Quarterback and O-linemen to read the defense, make their calls, and execute. By doing so, we limit defensive adjustments, substitutions, and the opportunity for rest. Increasing tempo during practice helps our players get used to the pace we expect them to keep during a game, uses positions, steps, and techniques translating directly to team success, and concurrently conditions our athletes.

We choose to end practice with a game, (to play) but not football.  We play a different game every day of training camp.  After practice #1, we played Ultimate Frisbee.  2018-08-16 Football fieldWe divided the players into 8 teams and our practice field into 4 fields. Not only do players work at maximum capacity, their movement patterns translate well to football (e.g. lateral movement, changing direction, tracking an object in flight, reacting to an opponent’s movement, etc.)

As coaches observing this period of play, we supervise the activity, but intentionally do not make up the rules.  We give them the field, the frisbee, the game, and the team; but they make up their own rules and those rules may differ from field to field.  As coaches, we observe; assessing performance and reinforcing safety.  We see who can run, who can cover, who can play an object in flight; but more importantly, we observe how players interact.  Who takes a leadership role?  Who creates or solves disputes?  How do teammates communicate? Who can follow, taking direction from an upperclassman or peer, yet finds ways to contribute?

On a team that graduated 16 seniors from an undefeated season, we are looking for every opportunity to develop leadership, cultivate interdependence, and build a team. These games give our kids those opportunities and they love playing them.  They even like playing soccer.  Everyone leaves practice with a smile on their face, looking forward to coming back the next day.  That is not the way I remember training camp in the late 70s and 80s. Times change… Let’em play!

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 your time!

Parents’ Meeting

“You never get a second chance to make a first impression…”

We will host a “Meet the Coaches” parent meeting the night before we begin training camp.  It is an opportunity for the parents of our players to meet and greet the men who will be working with their sons for the next several months.  It is also a time for me to share some very important details of our program. 2018-08-08 Parents GuideIf we are to create and sustain the Hilltopper culture, we need parents to buy in and support our tenants of character, leadership, and team before self. In much the same way we encourage our veteran players to welcome new teammates, I encourage veteran parents to welcome the parents of new players.

First order of business is to inform them that safety is our number one priority.  We share that all of our coaches have USA Football certifications in Shoulder Tackling and Equipment Fitting, Concussions in Sports, Heat Illness Prevention, and Sudden Cardiac Arrest and that we have all successfully completed CPR and AED training.  We explain our acclimatization policy that brings us from helmets, to uppers, to full gear over the first several days of Training Camp.  We inform them that we have a full-time, certified athletic trainer at all practices and games who is also available to them before and after every practice.

Next, we share the Academy’s core covenants for athletics:  Committed, Competitive, Classy.  Parents and players both must understand all practices, meetings, strength training and video sessions are mandatory. We share our training camp calendar and game week schedule, clarifying and confirming the expectations of committing to this team. Family emergencies and academics are the only things that trump scheduled football sessions.  Hilltopper teams are competitive and expected to practice and play with passion every day. While the spirit of competition and the thrill of victory fuel our efforts, we must demonstrate character and class on and off the field. We ask parents to reinforce competitiveness, but never at the cost of good sportsmanship.

Then we focus on the importance of communication and encourage parents to have their son come talk to me if he has any issues.  For some young men conveying a personal issue to an authority figure like a head coach can be a daunting task. However, it’s also a life lesson and I believe our work as coaches should serve our players long after the last whistle of their football careers. To that end, we ask parents to prepare their kids for the path and not the path for their kids.

If a parent insists on meeting with me, there are two hard and fast rules:

  • We will not discuss specifics of an individual’s playing time.
  • We will not mention the name of another player for the purposes of comparisons.

During the Parents meeting, I explain my thought process around playing time, starting, traveling, and dressing for games. Each is a privilege to be earned. None are guaranteed.

The coaching staff works assiduously to field the combination of student-athletes we think gives us the best chance for victory. I tell parents their son is evaluated on a daily basis by their position coach, coordinator and me. We evaluate not only his athletic performance but perhaps, more importantly, his attitude and effort.  Although all four grades (9th-12th) practice together, we do not dress everyone for home games and even fewer players will make the travel team for our away games.

This leads us to the conversation I call, “It’s Not Easy.”  It is not easy to compete at the level we do.  It is not easy to make the travel or dress list.  It is not easy to get through one of our practices or strength training sessions.  It is not easy to learn our offensive or defensive systems.  It is not easy to play football.  There will be failure and/or loss.  We ask parents to let their child fail and encourage them to work harder to succeed.  We believe athletics in general, and football in particular, serve to inoculate student-athletes against both the inevitable loss, failure, and fear they will experience and must overcome to be successful in life.  Again…prepare your kids for the path, not the path for your kids.

I go out of my way emphasizing to parents training camp is the one right of passage associated with becoming a Hilltopper football player. Our program is planned, executed and supervised in detail. It is intentionally challenging and designed to deliver both success and failure in doses calculated to foster allegiance, loyalty, and reinforce the best of what being on a team can bring. I emphatically state our prohibitions to hazing or bullying. I ask parents to echo this message to their children and should anyone encounter or hear of such an incident to immediately report it.

Additionally, we share the importance of Training Camp detailed in my previous blog with one other important detail…Uniformity.  We wear St Johnsbury Academy Football gear and accessories in Green, White, Black or Grey. We understand and appreciate the individual talents and perspectives each individual brings to our team, but as we shape this team, our culture, and mutual respect, we ask our players to set aside individual priorities and put the unity, focus, and interests of the team ahead of self. When team members are on our field, in our weight room or our meeting/video room their appearance, words, actions, and decisions must uniformly reflect our core values and culture.

We close our “Meet the Coaches” meeting with an open discussion of parents’ questions. Taking the time to clarify and confirm both understanding and expectations of a young man’s commitment to this team, and a parents’ support of their player’s endeavor sets the stage for future 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 your time!

Thoughts on Training Camp

The “transformation” is about to begin…2018-08-02 year Transformation

Earlier this week, I was invited to attend Jets training camp by my longtime friend, Jets coordinator of pro scouting, Greg Nejmeh.  Greg played for me and coached with me at The College of New Jersey (TCNJ).  While I was watching the team stretch at the beginning of practice, I saw them all begin to clap in unison as they looked towards the indoor facility.  They were welcoming a new player wearing a red jersey with number 14.  It was Sam Darnold.  He had just signed with the Jets and was transitioning on to the team.  As he made the long jog to the far grass field where the team was stretching and the clapping began to fade, you could hear one veteran cry out, “get your a$$ on the field” and everyone else begin to laugh…  At that moment, I was reminded that Training Camp is as much about building your team as it is about teaching offense, defense, and special teams. Culture matters… becoming a teammate is a process… and coaches must guide the process

Training Camp is the rite of passage for our program.  It is the welcoming of new players into our culture as well as the transitioning of the team from spring/summer work into the new season. As coaches, we’ve experienced firsthand, as well as observed multiple iterations of a team’s transformation from what was before, to what will be moving ahead. Although upperclassmen may have a leg up on offensive and defensive schemes, terminology, and practice routine, Training Camp begins the same way for everyone: with lots of focus, guidance, and direction for our players.

We revisit the common stages of teambuilding and by in large, most of camp is centered around “forming” and “storming.” When it goes well, we get to “norming,” and in a few instances, coaches and players see glimpses of “performing.” However, the final step is rarely widespread before the start of our first game-week of practices. The phases are however important, and Camp serves a role in clearly delineating a transition point in our season.

Leadership emphasis and “personal example” are imperative. If we are to help our new teammates grasp what it means to be a “Hilltopper” and to buy into our culture, upperclassmen and coaches’ words, decisions, and actions must overtly set the example and reinforce our character and culture.

Camp is intentionally hard. Players are stressed both physically and mentally, and each day serves a variety of individual and collective opportunities to confront personal fears, anxiety, and adversity. We program both success and failure in order to slowly build commitment, momentum and belief in ourselves, our teammates, and the team. We come out different than when we began and the transformation occurring during this rite of passage is an awesome thing to witness.

It’s important to note, Training Camp is our one rite of passage. Planned and executed in detail, there is only one transformation we strive to achieve. Both prior to, and during Training Camp the coaches and I take the opportunity to address the issues of hazing and bullying, and emphatically state there is no other rite of passage on our team. Team building reinforces the very best of character, culture, and interdependence. Hazing and bullying are its antithesis and are never tolerated. Nothing destroys a team faster.

For the Hilltoppers, Camp is a culminating event marking the transition from offseason to in-season, and the shared experiences on and off the field serve to solidify the vision, values, goals, and purpose behind who we are as a team. Coaches state our specific intent going in, and emphatically denounce any other effort by teammates, students, community members, or other entities who might try to create a separate initiation, rite of passage, or event that could rapidly deteriorate into a hazing incident. Hilltoppers treat one another with dignity and respect and reinforce the notion that individual words, actions, and decisions reflect on the whole team’s identity.

I look forward to discussing our transformation in the coming weeks, highlighting the lessons learned during Camp, and describing how the 2018 Hilltoppers rally together to start the new season.

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 your time!