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Flagging up key periods of development in a newly formed team

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Simon Browning 1

The Valkyries pictured before their friendly with the Cardiff Hurricanes men’s team 

The Cardiff Valkyries flag football team are a work in progress. Set against a backdrop of the build-up to a national tournament, ConnectedCoaches Community and Content Champion Simon Browning delivers a step-by-step guide to managing expectations, building game sense and confidence, and integrating new players into a fledgling side. 

You are the coach of a club in the embryonic stages of its development. Perhaps you have started the team from scratch, or a high percentage of your players have limited or no previous experience of the sport. 

Potential pitfalls lurk around every corner as you build towards the start of the season or a forthcoming tournament. 

What you wouldn’t do for a bit of friendly help and advice from someone who has been in that same position. 

Look no further! ConnectedCoaches Community and Content Champion  Simon Browning is the former assistant head coach of Cardiff Cobras, an American football team based at Cardiff University.

In a series of blogs written earlier this year, Simon charted the multiple coaching challenges he faced as the Cobras entered the second half of their 2015-2016 season, building to the prestigious Welsh Bowl. 

This season, he has undertaken an entirely new challenge, having set up a new women’s American football team. 

His challenge is a mirror image in one sense, in that he has a set number of months to prepare the Cardiff Valkyries for a showpiece tournament – the Opal Series, which is the national championship for women’s flag football (the non-contact version of American football, where tackles are made by pulling off a flag worn by each player) begins on 22 October and is the opener to the women’s competitive season. 

He has prioritised the same areas for development: managing player expectations; expanding knowledge base; building confidence and tactical understanding; and developing game sense. 

However, the context in which Simon is coaching is diametrically different. 

The Cobras were expected to win the Welsh Bowl and were established players – even the team’s rookies had a high level of exposure to the game prior to joining. 

The Valkyries are embarking on a season of firsts: their first season of playing football; first ever tournament; and, for some, first time in years they have played sport of any kind. 

So where do you begin? Tasked with such a mountainous challenge, and with players having to climb such a steep learning curve, your first instincts as a coach are probably, if you’ll pardon the pun, to wave the white flag. 

A whole new ball game 

Simon’s initial priority was to instil in his novice players a basic knowledge and understanding of the sport. 

When players venture into a new sport at grass-roots level, their knowledge base will, in all likelihood, be limited. That may not apply to anywhere near the same extent to mainstream sports like football, rugby or cricket, but it is certainly the case with American and flag football. 

They are niche sports, with a unique set of team dynamics, but by tracing his side’s progress – from the moment they made the decision to attend the try-out day in February, to their impending attendance at the Opal Series in October – Simon believes coaches from other sports who are facing similar start-up challenges will be able to pick up some transferable tips. 

‘When talking to rookies starting at the Cobras, the mental side was usually already there,’ says Simon. ‘You could start talking to them about tactics and use words like receiver, running back and quarterback, and they would understand you. You could quickly deal with the nuances of the sport on a deeper level and use more advanced language.’ 

So, the first thing he had to keep reminding himself of was to remember to be conscious of terminology. 

‘You can’t assume people new to your team know what you are talking about,’ says Simon. 

‘With the women, for many of them, it was a case of turning up to the try-out day and thinking “This looks interesting, let’s give it a go.” Their knowledge was non-existent. A few had watched American football on TV, but none had played it before. 

‘My sentiment and approach had to change completely. Before, the starting point was that much further on.’ 

Simon Browning 2

Eye to eye with the Cardiff Cobras

Start at the end 

Forever hovering at the front of Simon’s mind during these early sessions were the questions: Where am I trying to get to? What are we trying to achieve? And what’s the best way of doing it? 

He wasn’t overly concerned with technique to begin with. The priority was to get them used to running around the field and enjoying themselves. 

‘That was hard for me at first because I wanted to keep stopping them and correcting them,’ he freely admits. 

Simon’s approach to developing the necessary skills and game sense for his players to function successfully as a team was to turn time on its head, and work backwards. 

‘We’ve always had 22 October as the goal in mind and an end point. The way I look at it, by that date I need to be able to send five of my group of women onto the field, they must all be familiar with their individual positions, and, when I call particular number plays for offence and defence, they must understand what their roles are and how to execute each play. 

‘That’s not to say we will be the finished product by that date but that is the marker I am working back from.’ 

Embedding new players   

Part of the plan involved throwing his unfledged cluster of new recruits in at the deep end against teams comprising swift and strapping men with years of flag experience under their belts. But more of that later. 

Simon decided to break everything down into a series of smaller goals, or phases. 

So, in February and March, his sole aim was to ensure his core of players from the try-outs kept coming back the following week. 

Only once the commitment levels had taken root did he break the training down into more structured sessions. If he had done that too quickly, there was a risk he might overwhelm them. 

‘A typical starting point for the Cobras’ rookie receivers was how to release on the line, how to catch, how to run a route. If that had been the main focus with the Valkyries, I wouldn’t have 12 women now. They’d have got bored and left,’ says Simon. 

All training programmes, at any level, must address the differing needs of each individual in order to perpetuate progress. With the Valkyries, the focus was on taking things back to basics, and, as stated, getting those players who haven’t engaged in sport for a period of time (years in some cases) used to running again. 

That’s fine if everyone is at a comparable level and progressing at a similar rate – which they were in the early days of the Valkyries camp. 

The problem arises when somebody fresh comes into the squad months down the line. How do you integrate them while ensuring the established players continue to develop along their own linear pathway? 

With American football being a technical sport – with precise phases and plays that take time to master – there was an acute risk that any new players would find it difficult to catch up. Similarly, if too much time were spent on the rookies, there was also the danger this could stall the development of the more established players. 

Simon explains how integrating new players need not have a detrimental effect and slow the flow of sessions. 

‘I set up my playbook in a flexible way. I would give her a specific role in each session. For example, instructing her how to run one specific route, or telling her to take up the same position for every play I called. That’s what she learnt that day, meaning she could still take part in the session. 

‘That example might be unique to our sport, but what I would say is for other coaches who allow players to join throughout the year, to think of techniques to integrate them without jeopardising the progression of the whole team.’ 

Simon admits he has been guilty in the past of telling those rocking up part way through a season to just join in and to basically copy what everybody else is doing. 

And while he may have ‘got away with it’ in a male environment, he argues that asking females to just ‘jump in’ has the potential to backfire. 

‘Guys have probably got more confidence to do that,’ says Simon. ‘But for those starting with the Valkyries, I will make sure I allow them the chance to see what is happening and explain what they need to as the others do the drills, before inserting them into the rotation – while still watching closely so I can give feedback to the rest of the team at a later stage.’ 

Simon Browning 3

Giving the Hurricanes a run for their money 

If you think Simon has been busy just drumming into his players the technical and tactical aspects of flag football you would be wrong. 

Despite the Valkyries’ first competitive outing being in a five-a-side flag tournament, it is the 11-a-side tackle version that, from the outset, he has been teaching his troops. 

There’s method in this apparent madness. But before we examine this, some background. 

The American football calendar features an open invitation in the summer, which players can attend to earn selection for the Diamond Series – where the North plays the South in full 11-a-side games of American football. 

Six of the Valkyries went to those try-out weekends for their first exposure to proper tackle football, where they were in competition with current Great Britain players. Reputations count for nothing at the trials, with everyone, including international players, starting on an equal footing. 

‘We decided our ultimate aim was for the 11-a-side Diamond Series try-outs, which lead on to representing the Great Britain team,’ says Simon. 

‘It means what I’m teaching them in drills now is what I’ll be teaching them when they step up to tackle. Even though there are only five on the pitch, they can see how it would work with 11 on the field.’ 

Isn’t getting their heads around full-tackle tactics while playing flag rules confusing, I ask? 

‘It’s true some of them may stop at flag football and not go down that route. And I did initially think it would be a little too complicated to do from the outset, but they have taken to it incredibly quickly, because that’s all they know. 

‘It’s not a matter of learning one set of rules and then learning another and having to recalibrate. 

‘With the Cobras, who usually had more prior exposure to the game, one of the problems was they thought they knew more than they did, and you have to unpick that muddled thinking. They struggled with that. 

‘Whereas with the women, it was a blank slate, there were literally no bad habits or misconceptions, and they just absorbed what I told them from the word go. It’s just reps and muscle memory.’ 

Simon Browning 4

Managing expectations 

Simon had no qualms about throwing his charges in at the deep end just weeks after they had thrown their first pass. 

It is, he says, a great way for a new team to gain valuable experience prior to taking their first big step – whether that be the start of a first league campaign or, in the Valkyries’ case, a prestigious national tournament. 

And so, a matter of weeks after their inception, his Valkyries found themselves on a trip to Plymouth for what Simon thought was a women’s flag tournament. 

It turned out to be a mixed event, comprising two other teams, one containing men who were all over six feet and highly athletic. 

‘It could have gone one of two ways. But it was a case of managing our expectations. 

‘We’d only been going a few weeks so knew the scoreboard wasn’t going to be pretty reading.’ 

Simon told his players not to be frightened by the enormity of the task, as the score was irrelevant and they had an altogether different set of goals to the other teams. 

‘We set ourselves a series of goals, and each time we met one, we moved on to the next one,’ says Simon. 

‘We wanted to score but that wasn’t our initial goal. Our first goal was to complete a pass. Once we’d done that, our next realistic goal was to get to halfway. A couple of drives later, we’d achieved that. Once we’d shown ourselves we could complete a pass and reach halfway, only then did we turn our focus on to scoring. 

‘If we’d set the initial goal of scoring and hadn’t, then, upon reflection, it can be a negative process tracing it back to determine what we had achieved.’ 

Simon remembers celebrating one play in such a way that must have left opposition onlookers quite bewildered. 

Two Valkyries players executed a defensive play to perfection, both converging on the opposition player at precisely the same time, from the correct angles. 

‘The guy just ran straight through them as if they didn’t exist – he was twice their size and extremely fast – but the play was a success as the players had done exactly what they were supposed to do. It was a win for us.’ 

The same mentality accompanied them when squaring off against the Cardiff Hurricanes men’s team – who were national flag champions two years ago – and his former Cardiff Cobras side. 

‘I told them both to run their standard playbooks and to not treat us any different. Our objectives were not scoreboard related but internal development related. We wanted to run our entire playbook against an established team to chart how far we had come.’ 

Turn a negative into a positive 

Confidence is easy to lose, much harder to rebuild. 

Realistic goal setting is an important mental training technique that can be applied to any sport and, if managed effectively, can help keep confidence levels running high. 

You may be a grass-roots football coach whose inexperienced side has entered a local five-a-side tournament. Should you really be telling them they can win the competition? 

What impact will it have on morale if you whip up your players’ hopes, only for them to suffer some heavy defeats and fail to make it through the group phase? 

If you set them a goal of achieving a point or scoring more than once in games, then any disappointment at failing to qualify will be significantly diluted. 

And it is a lot easier for a coach to build on small successes than it is to raise flagging morale. 

‘I’ll always remember the looks on their faces when they scored that first touchdown in Plymouth. Building up to it through the tournament, with the initial goals, to that realisation that they really could do this. They really were a football team.’ 

Simon Browning 5

The Valkyries are all smiles before their first tast of competitive action at a flag tournament in Plymouth

Stay tuned 

Simon has put all his coaching principles into practice and will wait to see the results of his endeavours. 

Readers of this blog will await the climax of the tournament with a keen interest too. 

In the second part of the series, Simon will reflect on his coaching methods in light of his players’ performance at the Opal Series. 

What lessons were learnt? Was anything overlooked? Which methods worked particularly well? In hindsight, was there an area of training that should have been given more priority? 

Questions will be asked, but Simon, with the help of your feedback and shared experience, will be sure to provide the answers. 

Until next time.

Have you faced similar challenges? What did you do in similar situations? Please let us know by leaving a comment.

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Comments (2)

   
ike2112

My only concern with this approach, is that setting such low goals can be very condescending. Here you may have had 12 complete novices to work with, so they might not have appreciated just how low a bar you were setting. But this is not an approach that normally would work. One of the most difficult things I find in coaching minority sports is integrating players of varying abilities, as they have varying expectations of themselves. You will often need to take very small steps with the majority of your players, and once the club is going 2-3 years, the steps come together and players grow in how proficient they are. But in the meantime you can have 4 types of joiner:
- ones who are completely naive about organised sports in general, yours included
- ones who are also completely naive about the specific sport but have participated in others, so at least have a reference point
- ones who have played organised sport to a high level and have a passing understanding of this one, and expect to succeed quickly, be challenged regularly, and to have high expectations
- ones who already know the sport, perhaps joining from other clubs, also with higher expectations of themself and the team generally.
I maintain you cannot coach to the lowest denominator, and the article states that new joiners learn one small bit of the puzzle so they can gradually integrate. Thats perfect. But if you got 8 new people, 2 of each of the types I've described above, you can't give those people a target of completing a pass.
There's also an argument that, once settled after a period of time in the sport, aims should be set that sometimes will not be met, allowing for a more thorough period of reflection that otherwise is an opportunity lost.
The above comment aside, this was a great read and its good to have people share these sorts of experiences, and importantly how they structured their coaching philosophy and skills to a project in this way.

13/11/16
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Coach_Browning

Hi Coach
Thanks for the feedback. I'm glad you enjoyed it!
With regards to the goals, the idea is that it is all contextual and the goals related to specific tournaments or matches. So the goal of completing a pass was specific to that context/environment at that time given they were facing opposition that was bigger, faster, stronger, more athletic, and more experienced. They all knew that the completion of a pass was the most basic level - and they knew they could do it - but for them it wasn't condescending. If anything it was something to celebrate that they had gone onto the field against that opposition and executed what they needed to do in order to have a success. It gave them that small mental victory that "hey, we can do this!" and set them up to then go on and have a fantastic day, in which they exceeded everything we imagined. The goals then became fluid and developed with them - getting to halfway (meaning that they had sustained good plays not just one off) and then scoring. It also allowed them to go back to the group as a whole with a validation of the training they were doing.

As we entered the Opal series our goals were then very different. While we had tested ourselves against some established male opposition the women's game was a complete unknown to us. So, while we were quietly confident, we felt that setting a goal based on victories or points was not appropriate. Without wanting to pre-empt the 2nd instalment, we chose a different set of goals that reflected what we wanted to get out of the tournament. Now we are at the finals day they are different again, and reflect the growing development of the players both in terms of ability and confidence.

With regards to training and individuals - yes, completely agree. The need to balance a wide range of ability/knowledge levels is a constant issue (especially at the lower levels) and not just confined to our sport - when you get players from all different backgrounds/histories. Here, even within the same drill goals will be different. A new player might have the initial goal of just lining up correctly and running the route correctly, while a more advanced player would be challenged on eye position/focus, more advanced body control, different releases from the line, going against press coverage etc...As the new player develops then these get added into her reps. This could be within the same training session (if they learn fast, or show they can be pushed) or over a couple of weeks (if they need time to develop confidence).

01/12/16
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