After watching the 2014 season of Hard Knocks with the Atlanta Falcons, I started to write my first blog. The school semester got underway and I never finished the blog. The title of the blog was going to be: “Why the Atlanta Falcons will only win six games this year.” After the Falcons only won six games, I decided to finish what I started and explain why it was clear to me there were serious problems with the Falcons before the season even started.
To refresh – the first episode started with a replay of a radio show that interviewed the owner of the Falcons, Arthur Blank. Mr. Blank said he was concerned that during the 2013 season the Falcons “were not tough enough.” I will show how this one statement by the owner impacted the whole season and lead to the coaches getting fired.
From the start of the series, head coach Mike Smith emphasized that the team needed to be tough and physical. Coach Smith says the team needs to: “Out-work, out-physical, out-run, out-hit anyone we go against.” Coach Smith said after the owners comments he restructured his roster to emphasize physicality. He never disciplined his players for fighting, yet seemed shocked when the team was penalized often.
As I explain what I saw, it would be best to think of watching a game summary by any of the many great commentators on the NFL. What often happens, is the commentator will replay the plays, often in slow motion, and comment on why a play worked or did not work. Often a specific block, move or fake by a player is emphasized to show the impact this single event had on the whole play.
I want to make the same analysis of the coaches of the Falcons. The mistakes made by the Falcon coaches are often made at every level in sports. So think of a slow motion replay of the coach – player interactions.
Because of Mr. Blank’s comments the Falcon coaches were focusing on “toughening up” the players. As you watch a rerun of any of the Hard Knocks series, pause the show after any coach – player interaction. Ask the questions: What did the coach tell the player to do? Did the coach show or explain what they wanted done and how to do it?” Did the player understand what was being asked of them? Did the player change his behavior based on what the coach said? Did the coach say anything that a family member or even a fan could say?
The best coaches are great teachers. Great coaches break down, step by step, what is expected of their athletes and how to do what needs to be done. What was obvious watching Hard Knocks is that there was very little teaching going on. The Falcon coaches did not instruct the players on what to do and how to do it. Athletes often get succeed in sports by being bigger and stronger. If you are on either the offensive or defensive line and you are a outweigh your opponent by thirty to fifty pounds in college, you can have good results without the best technique. What worked for a player at the college level may not work at the professional level. Players at every level in sports need to be taught.
Here are some of the examples I am talking about from Hard Knocks. Notice wide receivers coach Terry Robiskie’s comments to Geraldo “Amsterdam” Boldewijn. While going over film Terry says: “That’s dumb,” “What were you doing?” “You speak four languages and you can’t learn to adjust that route?” During practice when “Amsterdam” made a mistake he said, “Terry is going to cuss me out.” This is a player who is focused on not getting in trouble for making mistakes – rather than focusing on what he should be learning.
While showing game film, special teams coach Keith Armstrong is yelling at the players, saying: “The game don’t mean enough to you.” “Wake up and get some pride in the game.” When rookie Devonta Freeman misses a block: “What the hell is this?” “That ain’t cute” “It ain’t okay not to know.” “Do it the way I tell you.” He belittles the players and suggests “they don’t want it.” Like coaches at every level, he seems to feel that if he is tough on his players they will “toughen up.”
This is very common in coaches at all levels – when the players don’t perform well, coaches blame the players. There is tremendous arrogance in all levels of sports. Coaches often expect players to “do it right,” without the proper instruction. Instead of focusing on what the players should be doing the coaches yelled at them for not “doing it right.” Rarely during the Hard Knocks series did you see a coach working on a players footwork, body position, leverage or technique. Because of Mr. Blank’s comments the coaches focused on the players being “mentally tough.” At one point in the show, offensive line coach Mike Tice says to Mr. Blank: “I don’t know how we will be, but they will be tough.” Instead he could have said: “I don’t know how we will be but our offensive line will have the best technique and be the least penalized team in the NFL.”
As I state in No More Broken Eggs, self confidence is the basis for mental toughness. Confident athletes are able to learn, deal with setbacks and improve. Confident athletes are resilient, tenacious and extremely motivated to perform better. Athletes who are yelled at do not become mentally tough, they become hesitant, self conscious, and mistake prone. One way to build self confidence is by clearly explaining to the athlete what needs to be done and how to do the task. The next step is getting feedback from the athlete and make sure they understand what you are asking of them. The next step is that the athlete needs to perform the task in a low pressure situation again and again. Only then will they have confidence in their ability and be able to perform in a high pressure situation.
If one watches Hard Knocks and tries to pick out the best teacher in the series, the person who clearly stands out is quarterback Matt Ryan. Notice that Matt tells the receivers exactly what to do, when to cut and when to look at him. He does this in a matter of fact way. He is not condescending and does not belittle players.
Many coaches still use outdated practices. I was fortunate enough after the 1992 Olympics to spend time with former 49ers coach Bill Walsh. Nick Biondi, Matt’s dad, and Coach Walsh were college roommates. I was making my transition from being a swim coach into the world of Sport Psychology and Nick Biondi thought it would be good for me to meet Bill Walsh. Over lunch at his home, one of the things I remember Coach Walsh talking about were the outdated concepts that he was brought up with many years ago. Coach Walsh said, “Number one on the list is when coaches use to say ‘Get away from the water.” Coaches use to think that drinking water was not good for players and they would cramp up from drinking water. Proper hydration was not understood at the time. Yet in Hard Knocks, I heard wide receivers coach Terry Robiskie saying: “No water, no water.” Verbally abusing athletes is another outdated concept that has no place in any level of sports.
A Chinese proverb says: “Wisdom begins with the words ‘I don’t know.” The attitude of most people in the sports world is “I know.” For coaches and athletes to improve they must both be open and willing to learn. Coaches need to create an environment where their athletes learn, improve and thrive.