Freshman football coaches spend about 85% of their time trying to deprogram and reprogram players. It would be a great help to both the individual players and the team if the players would “get it” so they can get on with learning how to be a better player.

Football is a scripted sport. The only other scripted sports are gymnastics and diving. In a scripted sport, the athlete must do exactly what he is told by the coaches. That is, his various body parts must be within inches of where the coach said they should be most of the time.

What football players do bears more resemblance to the marching band than it does to the basketball team, more resemblance to the cheerleaders than the baseball team, more resemblance to the theater or dance troupes than to the soccer team.

If the football team were the band or the theater group, the players would pay close attention to the script and follow it precisely. But because they mistakenly think football is like basketball or soccer, they treat coaches’ instructions as if they were only general guidelines as they usually are in other sports. This causes players and plays to fail.

In other sports, the coaches give general tips on how to play better and the players fill in the details. In football, the coaches fill in the details. This is not a mere habit or inclination of football coaches. It is required by the nature of the sport.

In addition to being a scripted sport, football is also a start-stop sport. That is, plays only last about five seconds and they all start from a highly regulated formation. Baseball is somewhat similar in that the pitcher, catcher, batter, and baserunners are highly regulated as to where they must be at the start of a play. It is the start-stop nature of football that causes precise detailed instructions to be the best approach. Football teams get to start each play from a standard formation and the plays only last five seconds which means the teams can and therefore must take advantage of the opportunity to execute high-speed, coordinated movements.

In continuous-action sports like basketball and soccer, attempts by coaches to control the movements of players in detail would rob those players of their initiative and ability to react as needed and therefore place them at a disadvantage. The problem comes when players who have spent most of their lives playing continuous-action sports bring that same mindset to a sport like football.

For example, we want our cornerbacks to execute a shuffle, shuffle, bail move when the ball is snapped. That is, they take two shuffle steps (draw the back foot up next to the front foot then extend the front foot away from the back foot—no turning the body or crossing of the legs) backward, then turn and run away from the line of scrimmage. In one game last season, we were watching our game video and saw a player do shuffle, bail instead of shuffle, shuffle, bail. In other sports, the coaches probably would neither notice nor care about such minutia.

In the play in question, the opposing team threw a hitch pass (receiver seems to head far downfield then suddenly reverses direction and goes back towards his quarterback) which was completed because our cornerback only took one shuffle step before bailing. When he bailed, he turned his back to the opponent and was therefore unable to come back quick enough to stop the hitch pass. Had he taken two shuffle steps as instructed dozens of times, he would still have been facing the receiver when the receiver revealed that he was reversing direction.

Why do players fail to follow simple instructions?

1. They do not get it. They are trying to play football the way they played soccer or basketball.

2. In many cases, doing it the right way is harder than doing it the wrong way. For example, “low man wins” in a collision between two players. Accordingly, all football coaches tell their players to make sure their shoulder pads are lower than the opponent’s in a collision. But such crouching strains the muscles more than standing up straight.

3. Players sometimes make a calculated decision to deliberately violate their instructions because they believe doing so is more likely to get them personal glory—like a sack—on the play in question. There is no “I” in team and selfish players, if any, will find themselves on the sideline.

The vast majority of our coaching efforts are designed to make the instructions as simple as possible and to engender iron discipline with regard to players’ following the instructions. We use the widest possible array of “carrots” and “sticks” to achieve this. Nothing less works. The best teams are those whose coaches and players achieve the highest degree of compliance with the script.

The key to your son’s success and our team’s success is for him to pay extremely close attention to the instructions given him by his coaches and to concentrate hard on carrying out those instructions precisely in practices and games. Each season, some perennial all-stars from youth sports end up on the bench in football because they do not make the mental adjustment to the need to stick to the script and other players who have not starred in youth sports emerge as football stars because they do get it with regard to the script.

Always keep your head up when you hit.