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Outside the Coaching Box

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 Issue: 19.03 April/May 2007

Cover Story

Outside the Coaching Box
There are several formulas for becoming a successful coach. So what happens when coaches trash the tried and true and step outside the box? A lot of neat ideas.
Greg Scholand
Greg Scholand is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management. He can be reached at:
One coach helps his athletes succeed by teaching them what it feels like to fail. Another helps her team grow closer by splitting them apart. A third has achieved legendary status by maintaining a long list of things not to do.
Most coaches have become successful by following the path of those who came before them—adopting the strategies and philosophies of mentors and leaders. But then there are those who choose a different route. They don’t worry about whether an idea has been tried before—they’d rather chart new waters.
In this article, we profile five coaches who are doing things their own way. They’ve all achieved great success using a creative or unorthodox approach. Each one is a profile in coaching creativity.
The next time you’re looking for a way to revitalize your own programs, consider how these innovative coaches have put unique ideas to work for them. While their strategies may not be right for all teams, they might inspire your staff to come up with new ideas themselves.
Bryan Westfield’s track and field teams have claimed 14 state championships in the past 26 years, but if you visit him at Ann Arbor (Mich.) Pioneer High School, one thing you won’t hear him talk about is winning. For Westfield, success on the track has been a pleasant byproduct—the real focus of his program is getting kids involved in athletics,
and making sure they all have the chance to experience both success and failure.
In 28 years as Head Girls’ Track and Field and Cross Country Coach, Westfield’s philosophy is that as many students as possible should join in, athletes should try more events, and everyone on the team should compete. His team usually consists of about
60 members, and he’ll sometimes break the squad into two or three groups to attend different meets on the same weekend so that even the least-talented athletes get to compete. But a big part of what makes him unique is how he handles his best athletes—he works hard to find situations where they can learn, improve, and grow, even if that means not finishing first.



"I think you can learn a lot from not being the best at something, especially if you’re used to being the best," Westfield says. "When I have an athlete who’s outstanding at one or two events, I won’t let her train and compete in only those events. If someone is always dominating and things are coming easy to them, I don’t think they’re getting the most out of their athletic experience—often they’re just getting a big head.
"I will put that athlete in an event she’s not familiar with," he continues. "I’ve had sprinters try hurdling, and milers throw the shot put. At a meet, they’ll end up in the middle of the pack in that event, and it’s a humbling experience. But it teaches them a couple of important lessons: First, that your teammate who can’t run very fast but throws the shot put is just as much an athlete as you are. And second, that feeling you got when you finished in the middle of the pack might be the same feeling someone else gets every time they compete, because they aren’t as talented as you are. So it’s important to respect them and appreciate that they’re working hard and contributing to the team."
In addition to keeping his most elite athletes grounded, Westfield finds opportunities for his less-gifted team members to shine. Four days a week after school from September through March, he oversees a conditioning club at Pioneer, in which track athletes lead other high school students in fitness and general conditioning activities.
"The club is geared toward females who are not participating in any sport, but who are often just hanging around after school," Westfield explains. "We say to those kids, as long as you aren’t doing anything else, even if you don’t think you’re good enough to be on a sports team, come here and do something healthy and positive with your time."
Track athletes lead fitness drills, teach running technique, and provide one-on-one training for conditioning club members. Westfield says the best part is seeing athletes who are shy on the track thriving in the role of teacher and mentor. "Many times our athletes discover leadership qualities they never realized they had before, because at track practice they are intimidated by the better athletes," he says. "The leaders in the club aren’t always our standout track athletes, and it’s wonderful to see them exploring their abilities and helping someone else in the process."
At the end of the year, Westfield rewards perseverance and hard work—not athletic success—when handing out letters. Each athlete who finishes the season receives a letter, and no awards are given for individual achievement. "If they finish 20th out of 20 in the 100 meters, but they stick with it all year, they deserve to be rewarded for that— it’s an accomplishment to complete a season, especially when things don’t go too well," says Westfield. "That teaches the athletes another important lesson: Sometimes all it takes to be successful in life is the courage to stick it out. You don’t have to be great, you just have to finish what you start."
It’s not surprising that everything about John Gagliardi’s approach to coaching puts players first. When he started his coaching career, he was still a player himself.


"When I was 16, my high school coach went into the service to fight in World War II," Gagliardi recalls. "They were going to cancel the football program, but some of us on
the team talked our school into letting it continue with me as a player-coach, since I was the team captain. Well, these were my teammates and my friends, and some of them were older than me—so I approached it like any kid would."
Suddenly there were no more hated calisthenics or long runs at practice, players were finally allowed to drink water during workouts, and most on-field decisions were made by committee. And with all those changes, a funny thing happened: The team began to win. "We had been losing a lot of games, with a lot of players who didn’t enjoy what we were doing. But slowly, we turned that around and became a successful team," Gagliardi says.
Six decades later, he’s never forgotten the lesson of that early coaching experience— that happy players make better players. As Head Football Coach at NCAA Division III Saint John’s University (Minn.), where Gagliardi has become the winningest coach in all of college football (443-120-11 in 58 seasons) and won four national titles, he has translated it into a system of simple rules called "Winning with No."
The list of things Saint John’s football doesn’t do seems incredible for such a successful team. In practices, there are no players wearing full pads, no tackling, and no traditional football drills. During the season, there are no player meetings, no keeping track of individual statistics, and no playbooks. In the off-season, there are no compulsory weightlifting programs or team meetings. (For a longer list of Coach Gagliardi’s no’s,
see "Winning with No" below.)
How does a team win with rules like these? To start, Gagliardi believes practices should be more about teaching than making players tough. "You can run really rough practices and beat your players up with blocking and tackling because you feel it’s making them stronger, but I don’t think it really does," he says. "I’d rather spend the time teaching my defense how to read a blocking scheme so they can get to the ball carrier. If they can do that, I trust they’ll make the tackle."
As for not having a playbook, Gagliardi says he prefers to teach offensive plays on the field. "Of course, we have lists of plays that we run, but we’d rather show the players what to do during practice than have them sit at a desk and study a big book," he explains. "We used to have a playbook, but I’ve found players learn better from doing reps in practice. And it’s sure improved our communication, because we’re teaching everything on the field."
Some rules have an obvious goal in mind—the lack of attention to stats is about always putting the team before the individual. "We don’t care who makes the tackle, just so long as somebody does," Gagliardi says. "If you do your job, maybe you’re not making the tackle, but you’re forcing the runner toward a guy who will. That’s sometimes better than going for the tackle yourself."


At their core, Gagliardi’s no’s are all about trust. For instance, having no mandatory strength training program doesn’t mean he wants players to avoid the weightroom. It just means each team member should take it upon himself to decide what he needs to do to be successful. "Some coaches base their whole judgment of a player on whether he shows up and works in the weightroom," Gagliardi says. "Well, a lot of football players like to lift weights, but some don’t, and if they play good football, that’s what matters.
"I trust them to make the right decisions to improve themselves, and they do," he continues. "If they know we have consistent, high expectations for them, that’s all it takes."
Any coach can tell you that teams often develop their own cliques: Seniors hang out with seniors. Starters hang out with starters. Pitchers hang out with pitchers. But on the softball team at Louisiana State University, a squad that’s made two Women’s College World Series and five NCAA Division I playoff appearances in the past six years, the group-within-a-group dynamic is quite a bit different. At LSU, peacocks hang out with peacocks, bombshells hang out with bombshells, and TNT hangs out with TNT. It’s the result of the coaching staff’s Tiger Teams program, which reaches across traditional
boundaries to create a unique atmosphere.
"Each team is made up of four or five players, and we set them up so they all have a mix of different positions and different classes—athletes who might not normally spend time together," explains Megan Smith, Assistant Softball Coach at LSU. "The groups each chose a name and a unique identity, and we have them compete against one another in all types of activities throughout the year. New players are put on a team when they join the program, and they stay on it for their entire four years."
Some of the Tiger Team competitions are strictly about building team chemistry while having some fun. During a team-bonding camping trip last fall, LSU softball coaches borrowed an idea from reality TV and created Tiger Survivor, a contest that involved a weekend full of outdoor challenges, such as a race to see who could put up their tent the fastest. "At the end of the weekend, we crowned a Tiger Survivor champion, and even though the whole thing was for fun and team building, it was amazing how much the girls got into it," Smith says.
Throughout the year, teams are pitted against one another during practice drills, weightroom workouts, and even academically, with an award going to the group with the highest GPA. "We really stress being competitors out on the field, and this is a great
way for us to reinforce that every day," Smith explains. "Sometimes it’s hard for girls to see themselves as competitive, but the Tiger Teams help us to bring that out in our players, and it’s really made a difference."
Smith says one key to making the Tiger Teams system work is keeping players excited about it with fresh ideas. "We’re always on the lookout for ways to turn something the


athletes relate to into a competitive team activity," she says. "For instance, our players love watching ‘American Idol,’ so we’re doing a Tiger Idol—each team has to come up with a song to sing, costumes, and choreography. With competitions like that, they definitely get into it."
Along with helping the players hone their competitiveness, the Tigers Teams encourage them to form important bonds with teammates. "Some girls have told us they’re talking
to players on their Tiger Team whom they hadn’t really gotten to know before we started Tiger Teams last year, and they’re enjoying it very much," says Smith. "We have pitchers who have become better friends with outfielders, and freshmen who have become friends with seniors, and that really builds team unity. When you’re meeting at the softball field before a team trip, and see a group of players walking toward you wearing matching orange hunter’s vests, you know it’s been a success."
Bill Resler can summarize his approach to coaching in one sentence: "Twelve young brains are way smarter than one old brain." As Head Girls’ Basketball Coach at Roosevelt High School in Seattle, he leads a program that has won a state championship and four conference titles in the past eight years by letting his athletes do
a lot of the coaching themselves.
"When I became head coach, one of the first things I did was scrap the offense, so today we don’t have one," Resler explains. "We have a series of offensive sets, but within each of them, there is no specific plan for what the players should do. They make all their own decisions on the court and are free to use their creativity."
If this approach sounds out of the ordinary, that’s only fitting, because Resler isn’t your ordinary coach. A tax professor at the University of Washington by day, he took the job at Roosevelt nine years ago despite having no head coaching experience beyond leading his daughters’ youth league teams. A lifelong basketball fanatic, he’s never played on an organized team (he describes himself as being "as fast as a glacier"), so he relies on four assistants to teach much of the game’s nuts and bolts.
As for his hands-off philosophy, Resler believes high school sports are all about teaching young people to make choices. "You learn life lessons when you make decisions, and sometimes you learn the most when you make bad ones," he says. "If a coach is constantly telling his players to do X, Y, and Z, they’re just following orders— they’re not developing critical thinking skills or learning how to get better. I want to give my players the tools to succeed, then let the players figure out how to use them."
This approach extends to the locker room as well. Whenever there’s a problem to be solved or the team has an off-court issue to discuss, they call a players-only meeting dubbed the "inner circle." Resler insists that they tell him about whatever decisions they make, but he doesn’t get to hear what goes on at the meetings.


"Even though I’m not a part of it, I believe the inner circle is the most powerful teaching tool I have," he says. "By letting them sort out their problems on their own, I’m showing them that the team is in their hands, and that I’m not the authority figure."
Of course, just because the players have a great deal of autonomy doesn’t mean Resler’s team enjoys an anything-goes atmosphere. He stresses that with freedom comes accountability, and reinforces the point with a few hard-and-fast team rules. "For instance, the team agrees what time practice will be held, but once it begins, if anyone
is late, everybody runs," Resler says. "That is, except for the person who was late—she has to stand at center court and watch her teammates."
Resler’s penchant for teaching life lessons through coaching has garnered some national attention. The team was chronicled in a 2006 documentary film, Heart of the Game, and on the heels of its success, Resler authored a book, Heart of the Team, in which he mixes anecdotes from his career with reflections on what it means to be a coach.
"I want to get two things out of coaching: to have fun and to help my players become better people in the process," Resler says. "Nobody says in life, ‘I think I’ll do the wrong thing.’ People make mistakes because they can’t always see things clearly when they’re faced with a choice. Well, my job as an old guy is to help these young girls learn to see the choices in front of them, and make the right decisions."
Five years ago, Terri Simonetti Frost, Head Field Hockey Coach at Thomas Worthington High School in Worthington, Ohio, felt her team was close to being a state title contender. Her varsity players exhibited a good mix of speed, smarts, and skill, and she could see improvement throughout the year. But when they had to win a big game,
like a sectional title match, they always seemed to come up short.
Today, Frost’s team is a powerhouse. The Cardinals have gone to the state tournament’s semifinals several times, and last year finished the regular season undefeated. They reached the next level, Frost says, after she started paying special attention to her athletes’ psychological side.
For help, she called upon Dr. Sam Maniar, then an Ohio State University doctoral candidate in sports psychology, to run her players through some basic mental skills training. Among the many exercises he introduced, one of Frost’s favorites involved teaching players the power of mental imagery.
"He gave each girl a string with a washer tied to the end of it, and asked them to hold it up so the washer was hanging motionless in front of them," she explains. "Then he told them to remain still but move the washer from side to side using only their mind—not their fingers. They thought, ‘That’s ridiculous.’ But suddenly, the washer starts to move. The brain is sending subtle messages to the nerves in the fingers to move the washer, but the athlete doesn’t know she’s doing it.


"It’s a lesson about visualizing something in your mind to help make it happen," Frost continues. "It teaches the kids that they’re in control—if they can see themselves scoring that big goal or making that big save, they can go out and do it."
Frost also believes in recognizing stress as a crucial aspect of psychological health in athletes, so she usually gives her team one weekday off every week. She’s convinced the sacrificed workout time is well worth it. "You want players to be excited about coming to practice and to have a healthy balance in their lives. If their sport becomes a chore, something is wrong," she says. "I know my kids are dealing with lots of stress— from academics, their social lives, worrying about getting into college, and all kinds of other things. If I can ease that burden and make them more motivated when we are practicing, then everyone is better off. I think it’s even helped prevent injuries, because they have more opportunities to recover physically throughout the season."
Another part of Frost’s unique approach to the mental game is the way she personalizes her relationship with each player. Before every game in the state tournament, she hand- writes a letter for each athlete, seals it in an envelope, and tells the athletes to save it until right before falling asleep the night before the game—after homework, phone calls, and everything else from the day is cleared from their minds.
"What I write in the letters varies a lot, but I basically tell each girl what I need from her for our team to win," says Frost. "Sometimes I’ll mention something awesome that she did during our last game, or something I want to see her improve on. With our bench players, maybe it’s something they said or did in the locker room that really motivated the team or gave us a real energy boost when we needed it. If you’re paying attention, you can always find something each person did to contribute."
Frost describes her overall approach to coaching as always keeping the big picture in mind. "I take winning seriously, and so do my players, but focusing on my relationships with them as people helps us keep everything in perspective," she says. "If I can teach them things that will make them healthier for the rest of their lives, that’s really what I want. That’s why I coach."
Saint John’s University (Minn.) Head Football Coach John Gagliardi is the winningest coach in all of college football, and he got there with the help of a unique philosophy
that revolves around things he doesn’t do in his program. Here are some highlights from
Gagliardi’s list of "no’s":
Overall Program
No goals. Just high expectations.
No hall of fame.
No pampering athletes.


No depending on "good luck." No surviving without humor.
The Season
No traditional captains. All seniors share this honor.
No rules, except the Golden Rule.
No staff meetings. No player meetings. No dress code.
No training table. Team eats with other students.
No slogans. No playbooks.
No superstitions. No statistics posted.
No newspaper clippings posted (ours or theirs).
No excuses.
No resemblance to a boot camp
No tackling
No lengthy calisthenics
No pre-practice drills. Players do what they want or need to do.
No practice apparatus or gadgets.
No wind sprints.
No use of the words "hit," "kill," etc.
No whistles
No yelling or screaming at players
No water or rest denied if players want it.
No insisting underclassmen carry equipment other than their own.
The Games
No big deal when we score. We expect to score.
No Gatorade celebrations. No trash talk tolerated.
No player not in uniform at home games.
No player not played in a rout (as many as 163 have played in one game).
No cheap shots or foul play. No counting individual tackles.
The Results
No player has not graduated. Most in four years.
No discipline problems.
No player lost through ineligibility.
No team has fewer injuries. No team has fewer penalties.


No end to the possibility of more No’s.
The complete list of Gagliardi’s "no’s" can be viewed on the team Web site at:
www.gojohnnies.com/football/default.htm, but here are some highlights: