Depending on the state you live in, you’re in the early stages of the high school football playoffs (I’m looking at you, New York), or you have a few regular season games still on the schedule (Connecticut, Missouri, Texas). Successful coaches know that the playoffs require a few adjustments to the regular season routine.
Reduce Contact in Practice
If you haven’t started reducing the amount of contact in practice already, better do it now. Says one coach who has more state championship rings than he has fingers (yes, he has all ten fingers), “We start to reduce contact after the fifth game of the season.” Seems early, but the season is a grind, and that hard-hitting practice that fires the team up in September can be counterproductive around Thanksgiving and after.
Spend More Time on Video
Gone are the days when two coaches would drive 100 miles or more from different parts of the state to surreptitiously exchange game film of state tournament opponents. Now, with sports analysis software services like Hudl, every coach has access to video of their next opponent. Your advantage lies in how you use it.
Kids don’t have nearly the same bandwidth when it comes to breaking down video and using it to identify tendencies, so you must be careful about overwhelming your team with information. Some programs create “teach tapes” that break down important concepts into 8-10 plays. Smaller bits of information over a few days of practice allow players to digest the important information they need to perform on the field without overthinking.
Don’t Let Kids Believe the Hype
Part of the job of a coach is teaching what winners understand: pressure is a privilege. But too much pressure, or the wrong kind of pressure, can do more harm than good. Coaching staffs may feel the pressure to keep up a program standard or to respond to community expectations, and that’s what makes them put in the long hours to prepare for a playoff opponent. And if you have a hard time separating the pressure you feel from the pressure you show, your players will feel it, too.
Remind yourself and your team to control what can be controlled - effort and execution - and remove what you can’t control - outcomes - from the discussion with your team.
If Necessary, Exorcise Your Demons
You never know when you will have to think outside the box to relieve pressure and bring your team together. One team that entered the playoffs with two losses made it to the state finals, and the captains wanted to wear the black pants, but some players saw bad luck. The coach collected a bunch of those Halloween candles that burn inside bags, and in the dark gathered the players around while one player chanted a prayer in Polish over the pants. Then, a local minister who was involved with the team, performed an exorcism to chase the devil out of the black pants. The kids, who had been a little fractured and inconsistent during the season, came together to win the championship game in a rout.