James showed up to Spring Practice and it was like a celebrity had joined us. Teammates gawked as he warmed up. Whispers about his skill ran rampant through the locker room. When it came time for the Spring Game, he even performed like an All-Star: One interception and seven tackles at safety.
But that was the only Spring Practice James was on the team.
James isn’t alone. I have played with and coached dozens of talented players who never saw the field. Some became ineligible because of grades. Others got distracted and trouble found them. Still some just faded away and stopped caring.
James was one of the most physically talented players to step on a football field. But he never stuck with it. Instead, players who worked hard year-round and didn’t give up were the ones that got to play in games. James didn’t want to put in the work through the hot summers so he quit.
Young players who haven’t honed their skills can be intimidated by more mature athletes. Some young players look at the larger ones and think, “I could never be that good. Why even try?” Of course, as coaches and parents, we know this isn’t a healthy mindset. We want every player to practice and compete like they are preparing for a starting role.
Here is how we ingrain the belief that the most persistent players, not necessarily the most naturally gifted, are the ones who achieve success.
1) Approach new players with what I call “healthy skepticism.” Everyone gets a fair shot, but don’t give new players more credit than they deserve until they have proven commitment to the team. Players can see when we play favorites and it is demoralizing. Overhyping a player who makes one good play or anointing them a starter before they’ve made a full week of practice can damage the morale of the team.
2) Reward hard work. Not every player is going to be tall and fast. But, everyone can learn to run hard and to be aggressive on the field. Reward players who make plays, but don’t forget about the second stringer who beat everyone in sprints or the newbie who isn’t afraid to get in the weight room.
3) Don’t compromise team rules. I saw this first-hand in a large high school: two players violated the same team rule. One was an All-State performer and the other a backup. Guess who was punished and who wasn’t? We, as coaches, cannot grant special privilege to our star players. This may be a controversial topic because cutting playing time on a super star could cost you a win. If that’s the case, opt for some sort of physical punishment like duck walks, bear crawls, or some other punishment named after an animal. Don’t let the rest of the team see that one player is “better” than the rest, even if they are a more talented individual. This discourages the players who follow the rules and sets the precedent that All-Stars can do what they want without consequence.
4) Encourage everyone. Ben was a skinny, but consistent cornerback. He showed up every day to work, he was the first one to win conditioning drills, and he was patient. But, he didn’t start for a couple years. When he finally got his chance he broke his collarbone just a few games into his junior season. Finally, in his senior year, he flourished. All his hard work paid off. He had become well-respected by his teammates for his consistency. He was in such great shape from all his hard work that he only came off the field for the occasional special teams play. He knew the schemes so well from paying attention as a backup that he became a leader on both sides of the ball. He was elected team captain by his peers and was an All-Region selection. Use stories like this to motivate the players who aren’t starters but have the drive to improve.
Winning teams are not always the most talented, they are the ones who work together the best. Use these strategies to get the most out of your players who need to rely more on hard work than natural talent.