Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Myth Of Coaching

"You can't teach that, you get out of bed with it!"

A phrase you hear about twice or three times a week during the regular NFL season, referring to some of the various attributes and skills demonstrated by players. Oddly enough a lot of things being referred to - aside from the pure genetic potential of the player - are things that can and indeed have been coached, even if it's as simple as putting a player in the weight room and developing his strength over the course of his career.

But around this time of year, with the draft looming ever closer on the horizon, there is a lot of talk about "it's ok, you can coach that" in reference to the various deficiencies in a prospects game.

Now where possible I try and avoid talking about the potential of coaches to develop a certain aspect of a players game for the simple reason that over the years we seem to have developed a great myth surrounding the NFL draft, namely that any physically gifted athlete can be taught the variety of skills he will need to succeed at the next level, skills that he did not possess in college.

And for the most part it's just that, a myth. I present to you Exhibit A; Tim Tebow.

Tebow entered the league with serious concerns about his throwing motion (which turned out to be the least of his problems). He spent two years with the Broncos including his first year under coach Josh McDaniels, who was a former quarterbacks coach and then offensive coordinator with New England. He then spent another year with the New York Jets.

In all that time - three whole years of coaching with pro level NFL quarterbacks coaches, in an environment that is far more conductive to individual coaching attention than at the high school or collegiate levels - not a single degree of improvement was achieved with his throwing motion. 

In fact, not a single degree of improvement was attained in any area of his game. In some cases he even regressed (see his deep ball accuracy in the NFL vs his time in college). Being coached for three years in the NFL not only failed to improve his performance, it actually made it slightly worse.

That is the stark reality of the limits of coaching in the NFL. NFL coaches are not supermen. They can only do so much in the time they have available and within the limitations of the product that they have to work with.

The best way to approach this mentally is to think about it logically. You take a kid all the way back in high school. You take a 14 year old boy. Now let's assume that he is being shifted to a new position to where he's played previously, or he's a kid who has just shown up for practice the first time and is being newly inducted. He is an absolute raw rookie, a blank canvas for his coaches to work with.

They get him for four years. Four years. They teach him everything they can about his position. They take him from a complete novice to a four year veteran at the position. Then he goes to college. Let's say for arguments sake that he starts in his freshman year and he stays in school for the full four years. That means his college coaches get to take this four year veteran at his position and inject another four years worth of coaching into his mind and muscle memory. This kid now gets drafted to the NFL.

It's tempting at this point for an NFL coach to see a rookie walk onto his practice field and assume that this "green horn" knows almost nothing about what awaits. The reality is that what he's looking at is a grizzled veteran of the gridiron, with potentially as many as 80 games played under his belt (the equivalent of five regular seasons in the NFL). This "rookie" is one of around only 0.08 percent of all seniors playing high school football in the same year who have made it this far.

To teach this young player a few new tricks is not impossible. But in order to succeed the coach will have to overcome eight years of ingrained muscle memory. The likelihood that he will be able to make fundamental changes in the way the player behaves and interacts with his environment on a football field (i.e. technique) is quite slim.

There are little tricks you can teach a player that they've never been exposed to before. There are certain mental cues that you can teach the player to focus on to help improve and refine the quality of his existing technique. But to completely throw out everything the player has learned to date and to install a brand new body movement procedure is going to be very, very difficult and it's typically going to take a long time to adapt, if at all.

And time is precisely what coaches don't have a lot of, at any level.

The August training camp generally consists of two-a-days, that is to say two major practice sessions; one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Each head coach is different, but these practices will typically last from around 1 hour 40 minutes to two hours, often including warm up/cool down and stretching periods.

Inside of this time span you have 7-on-7 drills, 9-on7 drills, full scrimmages, situational football, one on one drills, group drills, special teams work, and anything else the coaches decide to throw in. The time for teaching is mainly centred around individual periods, but when you consider that a coach will have his veterans, his rookies that are likely to make the roster, his practice squad guys and rookies that will likely be outright cut, he simply doesn't have time to focus on any one individual and correct all of their little mistakes.

But what about a player who's never been taught a certain skill, such as a wide receiver that's never previously been asked to run a deep inside crossing pattern at 15 yards?

Well first of all you have to ask yourself has this player really never been taught this? Not once in their career? The second question you have to ask yourself is why has he never been taught this pattern? Generally coaches are a very amenable lot and if you have a player with outstanding potential to offer then often times coaches will make adjustments to their scheme specifically to accommodate certain players who have special potential. 

So if this kid is so great and has this unbelievably high ceiling that we keep hearing about, then why haven't his coaches tweaked their offense to let him run deep crossing patterns? Or, for example, do you still think the reason that Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater and Tajh Boyd have never been asked to throw a complete route tree similar to an NFL style system is because their coaches just don't like those pass patterns?

Now on top of that think about the fact that it can take as much as four to five hours of one on one coaching to take a completely untrained individual and teach them how to run a basic pass pattern to a reasonable degree of competence. Not to an NFL standard that's going to beat the likes of Revis and Sherman etc, just to reach a decent level of competence that would be ok at the high school level. Four to five hours, of one on one (or close to one on one) coaching.

Let's assume for a second that your NFL head coach is very generous and allows you 20 minutes of individual coaching time per practice session. That's 12 sessions to reach the approximately fours hours required. Or a whole week of two a days. Except that coaches don't have the luxury of spending a whole weeks worth of individual practice time just working on one route pattern for the benefit of one or two individuals. They have a whole bunch of other stuff that needs attending to as well. And remember, that's four hours just to reach a basic level of competence.

What you quickly begin to realise is that even if we argue that a certain skill can be taught to a player, it is going to take a phenomenal amount of time to do so, time which the coaching staff just does not have. 

This is why I personally put so much value during my scouting assessments into players that already possess the skills required to perform at the next level, and why I judge so harshly against those that lack these skills. It's a simple product of the reality of the time constraints and other barriers that exist for coaches every time somebody says "oh don't worry, you can coach that".

Sure, you can take someone who is already quite skilled and you can refine the product a little. You can teach a quarterback who is already pretty accurate to just adjust his ball placement a little on certain patterns to make it easier for the receivers and to reduce the risk of interceptions. But thinking that you're going to take a weak armed, inaccurate quarterback with poor decision making skills and suddenly transform them into Tom Brady?

Not going to happen.

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