New ideas for old school football coaches

High school football practices look the same as they did 40 years ago. Stretching, agility, stations, special teams; followed by individual, group, and team sessions. Practice always ends with conditioning to conclude a two and a half to three hour practice. Lots of whistles, yelling, and cussing can be heard throughout the session. Encouragement is intertwined with some verbal abuse. Water breaks are hurried and players are expected to hustle from one activity to the next. If anyone screws up the entire team is physically punished. This is the process. The process is unquestioned and dates back to the forefathers of American football (Vince Lombardi, Woody Hayes, Paul Brown, George Halas, etc.)

What if we started over? What if football coaches understood that 80% of our results come from 20% of our work? (Pareto Principle). Or better yet, what if we could agree that most of what we do as football coaches is totally bullshit and counter-productive?

What if football coaches could put aside their massive testosterone-driven paramilitary egos and realize that success on Friday nights may have very little to do with Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday?

Winning is usually the result of talent, luck, and healthy athletes. Winning may be the result of your school having 50% more students than your opponents. Winning may be the result of your team having 60 players and your opponents having only 30. Winning may be the result of the winning tradition at your school in contrast to the losing tradition at another.

Maybe winning has more to do with your opponents doing dumber things in practice than you do.

What exactly are we trying to accomplish in the process of preparing a football team to win on Friday nights?

I would argue that “winning” is a byproduct of high performance. I would argue winning is relative. Winning simply means that your team was relatively better than your opponent. I’ve watched hundreds of high school football games where both teams deserved to lose.

Playing at a high level and maximizing performance on Friday nights should be the goal. Maximized performance will result in relatively successful seasons.

What are the most important things we can accomplish at football practice? I believe you can boil down it all down to four simple things.

  • Gaining and maintaining speed
  • Execution of fundamentals
  • Absence of mistakes
  • General preparation for opponent

What makes me qualified to have opinions on this subject? I played the game and coached the game. I’ve coached at three different high schools in two states. I’ve coached along side two Hall of Fame coaches and coached in two state championship games (Tennessee 5A, 2004 and Illinois 7A, 2016). My father coached football. Three of my mom’s brothers played college football and two became career football coaches. I don’t know if this makes me qualified or not, but I’m not some weekend warrior wearing their favorite NFL jersey.

I’m also a sprint coach. There should be a sprint coach on every football staff. Instead, coaching staffs are overpopulated with weight room meatheads who have never won a race in their life. I have a theory that 90% of all coaches are slow over-achieving white guys who busted their ass. The mediocre results these guys got from their hard work fueled their interest in coaching.

Football coaches are the hardest workers I know. In my opinion, football coaches are zealots. (Zealota person who is fanatical and uncompromising in pursuit of their religious, political, or other ideals.)

Have you noticed how football has a bizarre relationship with religion and warfare? Old school football practice resembles a religious revival, boot camp, and vision quest; all pursued with fanatical and uncompromising passion.

Now that we are done with the preliminaries, I’m going to give my radical ideas on how a football coach should change his program to maximize performance on Friday nights. Making speed the single priority will be a paradigm shift for almost every high school football program in America.

Primon Non Nocere

First, do no harm. In the Hippocratic Oath, doctors pledge to do no harm. In my world, football coaches should make the same pledge.

Long, hard practices combined with verbal abuse followed by weight lifting sessions will cause harm. Players will be significantly slower the next day. The byproduct of a hard workout will be a 48-hour hangover. This is unacceptable if speed is the priority. Speed is incompatible with long, grinding, soul-crushing practices.

500 years ago, Paracelsus said, “Everything is a poison, nothing is a poison, it all depends on the dosage.” Football coaches are 500 years behind the times. They fail to recognize the poisonous effects of too hard, too much, and too long.

200 years ago, Hugo Schulz, echoed the ideas of Paracelsus, “For every substance, small doses stimulate, moderate doses inhibit, and large doses kill.”

Paracelsus and Schulz were the founding fathers of “hormesis”, a term used by toxicologists to refer to a biphasic dose response to an environmental agent characterized by a low dose stimulation or beneficial effect and a high dose inhibitory or toxic effect. In other words, two aspirin magically cures a headache. One hundred aspirin will result in death.

As a sprint coach, I’m 100% certain that speed should be regarded as a poison, subject to the terms laid out by Paracelsus and Schulz.

I’ve preached for years, “Sprint as fast as possible, as often as possible, while staying as fresh as possible.

The visual above is a classic hormesis graph. To be the fastest team possible on Friday nights, football coaches must rethink all football tradition. In my opinion, 90% of all high school football programs value hard work and toughness more than they value speed. Some programs value toughness more than winning. They value the process more than the outcome.

If every team is training wrong, everyone plays slow on Friday nights. The dumb team beats the dumber team. Dumb & Dumber.

The Jimmy Radcliffe Idea

 A year ago Jimmy Radcliffe spoke at our Track Football Consortium III. Radcliffe, the famous strength and conditioning coach at Oregon emphasized speed on game day. When Chip Kelly took the Oregon job in 2007, he asked Jimmy Radcliffe to design a practice plan that maximized speed on Saturdays. Radcliffe designed a workweek that is now copied by 25% of college football programs.

The week was basically fast and furious for two hours on Tuesday and Wednesday. “No Sprint Thursday” is followed by a high speed, helmet-only one-hour practice on Friday. Short practices were facilitated by Jimmy Radcliffe’s famous 7-minute warm-up.

Practice Fast

 Football coaches love Lombardi and they love motivational quotes. Why don’t they walk the walk? If games are played at breakneck speed, practices should reflect games.

“Luck follows speed.” – Bear Bryant

Playing fast seems to be the Holy Grail of modern football. Spreading the field and throwing the ball has made 250-pound linebackers obsolete. Today, the average D-1 linebacker weighs only 226 pounds.

Why do football coaches allow players to practice slow?

If a team’s effort level is high, coaches will mistake effort for speed. Football coaches love effort. In addition, if everyone on the team is a step slow, the fast guys stillappear fast.

Chris Korfist and I are in agreement, when speed is the priority, sprinters should sprint no more than three days a week. Where do we get this idea? Sprint data. I’ve timed over 200,000 sprints in the last 20 years.

  • Speed is fragile.
  • Training should be regarded as a poison.
  • Practice hard all week and sprinters will be turtles by Friday.
  • Overtraining causes athletes to run instead of sprint.
  • Training in the absence of recovery does harm.
  • Every high-speed rep in practice needs to be cherished.

The Radcliffe-Kelly model requires sprinting four days a week. The four-day plan was probably a compromise between Radcliffe and Kelly. Football coaches want to be at top speed every day. Hell, they would go twice a day if they could get away with it. Nothing gets a football coach more excited than “two-a-days”.

Three Days of Sprinting 

  • Fundamental Monday – 90 minutes of skill-building with no emphasis on conditioning and no sprinting. Many high school football programs spend their entire week putting in new plays and preparing for their opponent. Blocking, tackling, and other fundamentals are forgotten. In my program, players will finish practice with gas left in their tank. With gas left in the tank, practice can be followed with an energetic, enthusiastic, minimum-dose weight room session. Nothing that happens on Monday should interfere with the most important practice day of the week, Tuesday.
  • Game-Speed Tuesday – Two hours of practice where SPEED is the priority. Since speed is the priority, rest between reps must be a primary concern. Practice will appear “choppy”, not a beautiful flowing masterpiece. Nothing is done at half-speed, nothing at sub-max. (No conditioning! Conditioning is sub-max bullshit). Game-Speed Tuesday will adversely affect Wednesday. In a twist of Bill Bowerman’s hard-easy concept, I believe “Fast days are never fast enough and the next day is never easy enough.”
  • Game-Prep Wednesday – 90 minutes of practice that football coaches love the most … the chess game. 75% of a football coach’s attention seems to be focused on the next opponent. The hours and hours of watching film (old school term of course) pollutes the brain and creates a near-psychotic obsession with the other team’s formations, tendencies, schemes, etc. My weekly plan forces football coaches to focus inward until Wednesday. Defensive recognition, review, and special teams can be addressed in this one practice session. No sprinting. No conditioning. Do nothing on Wednesday that will interfere with “Super-Speed Thursday”. Weight room following practice should be effective minimum dose upper-body work. Wednesday is a recovery day.
  • Super-Speed Thursday – 60 minutes of high-speed game prep, helmets only. You want your players to ramp up their central nervous system and feel fast. Again, like Tuesday, you want a choppy practice with rest between reps. Unlike, Tuesday, you need to keep reps low because Friday night is all that matters. Low dose and high energy. Lot’s of gas left in the tank.
  • Friday Night Lights – Friday night is the third sprint day of the week. The game is by far the hardest workout of the week and there will be no gas left in the tank. There will be a 48-hour hangover.
  • Saturday/Sunday – Recovery. Absolutely no running! I’ve never understood the mindset of waking kids up for 8:00 am film followed by running. Do football coaches intentionally want to interfere with the recovery process?


If you want to be radical and incredibly fast on Friday nights, try the 3-day practice plan. To be honest, I would be afraid to do this due to blow back from football purists. If my only concern was my team’s performance, I would do this in a heartbeat.

  • Monday – game speed, two and a half hours
  • Tuesday – no sprint, fundamentals, game prep, 90 minutes
  • Wednesday – super-speed, helmets only, 90 minutes
  • Thursday – no practice
  • Friday – game day

Loitering in Practice

Most football coaches have probably already stopped reading. I’ve already compared football to religion and warfare. Whether you are in the church or in the army, there’s very little room for deviation from the norm. Catholic Mass changes about once every thousand years. Military Code dates back to the Romans.

Now I will lose the rest of my audience.

If speed is the priority, rest between reps must be given reciprocal emphasis.

Football coaches are artists and see practice as their canvas. Moving from drill to drill, station to station, and play to play must be done quickly and with purpose. Half of what’s said in practice seems to be encouraging players from place to place and discouraging loitering. Football coaches would rather submit to a colonoscopy than observe a 10-minute water break.

Standing around drives football coaches nuts, but to run each rep at full speed, recovery must be addressed.

For those of you still reading, here is the common sense behind my madness.

If a receiver runs a max-speed 5-second route and then must run back to the huddle, then quickly run back to his position, his next route will be sub-max. Should coaches accept routes at half-speed?

The receiver should find a way to reenergize, even if the optics are not good. Do you want to look good or be good? The appearance of hustle should never supersede high performance.

Football coaches are “process” people. Practice is process. Sprint coaches focus on the “outcome”. Sprint coaches could care less about the optics of their practice. If total rest results in better outcomes, sprint coaches don’t practice.

If we could shift football coaches to outcome-based thinking, practice would reflect games. Football games are mostly loitering.

In a two and a half hour high school football game, a one-way player will play a total of 5 minutes of football. Five minutes of playing football, 125 minutes of loitering. For every one minute of play, a football player loiters for 25 minutes. Why should football practice consist of constant movement? If the game is choppy, practice should be choppy.

The average play in a high school football game lasts 5.6 seconds. Some running plays are over in two seconds. The average time between plays is a whopping 30.8 seconds.

In the NFL, the stats are crazy.

  • Average play length 5.2 seconds, 32.2 seconds between plays
  • Average game length 3 hours, 12 minutes
  • Total football played = 11 minutes (this is total action, no one plays 50% of this)
  • Total time of televised replays = 17 minutes
  • Total time of televised loitering of players, coaches, and officials = 75 minutes
  • Average number of commercials = 100 (players are obviously loitering during commercials as well)

If you are outcome-based, your practice should not copy Bear Bryant’s Junction Boys. It’s time to replace constant motion with speed and rest.

“Don’t mistake activity with achievement.” – John Wooden

No Conditioning?

Football is a maximum effort game. The maximum effort lasts about five seconds. Then you rest. Aerobic conditioning is misguided and interferes the priority of speed.

“Wind sprints at the end of practice had been a part of football since its origins. They were the stripped-down essence of the game meant to increase endurance, toughness, and weed out the mentally weak and spiritually suspect.” – S.C. Gwynne

There’s no question, the heart-rate of a football player will remain elevated during a practice but this is due to the crowding together of alactic work, not an aerobic focus. Running a five-second pass route and resting 30 seconds before the next play will allow another high-speed effort, but the heart rate doesn’t return to 60. What I’m trying to say is this: an alactic focus will provide an aerobic effect. We should never focus on aerobic work in football. Football ain’t soccer.

Since we’ve introducing energy systems to the discussion, what about lactate work (maximum effort anaerobic work of 10-60 seconds). Do football plays ever last 10-60 seconds? Hell no. My sprinters will do lactate work in the spring because I’m an outcome-based coach and my sprinters run the 200m (20+ seconds of sprinting) and the 400m (45+ seconds of sprinting).

Football-related activities will get your team ready for playing football. You never need to do wind sprints, stadium stairs, or up-downs. While you’re at it, do away with stretching, monkey rolls, bear crawls, burpees, gassers, wave drills, calisthenics, and man-in-the-middle.

I said earlier, my dad was my football coach (sophomore year, 1973). Dad was the best football coach I’ve ever had. He was a consistent winner and players loved him. I remember one night at the end of practice doing 25 up-downs (Dad called them “grass drills”). After doing 25 in the August heat, he simple said, “the first quarter is over”. We proceeded to do 100. Like an army after battle, the survivors picked up the dead. Dad told us how proud he was of each and every one of us. I think he made some reference to World War II. Like all football coaches everywhere, Dad saw toughness as football’s priority. In my opinion, toughness had nothing to do with winning games. Instead, we won games because of blocking, tackling, execution, and being led by a dynamic coach.

Read the entire article in the Track Football Consortium.