Who’s Calling Plays? – Playing Time, Egos, and Winning: Struggles of the Player-Coach

4 02 2011

Player Coach

So you’ve rounded up some buddies, some of them have rounded up their buddies and you have enough players to field a flag or touch football team. You’ve thought of a clever team name and registered for the league.  Congratulations, the easy part is over.  Now you have a team to run. Sound easy? Maybe not easy as you’d think, especially when the coach is a player.  Here are some tips to stay competitive and avoid turning a group of friends into enemies in the meantime.

Do We Need a Coach?

“I’m playing for fun with some friends, do we really need a coach?” It’s a common question, but the answer is: you most likely already have a coach (you may not use that title, but handling scheduling, calling plays, and rotating players  makes you coach).  A good, competitive team will need leadership and organization.  Also, in many informal settings (rec leagues, weekend football, etc) you will have no-shows and scheduling conflicts.  For this reason, it is good to have more players on the team than will play on the field each down.  BUT, this also means having more players than spots.  When games become important (playoffs or championships), don’t be surprised if all 14 players show up for the first time all season.  For the unprepared coach, this can be a real problem.  Flexibility on the field is hugely important to respond to different challenges mid-stream, and without a defined leader calling those shots, you will find there are suddenly several coaches on the field, each with strong, differing opinions.

Coaching Style and Structure

Communication is key.  Whatever strategy you use, communicate it to the team as early as possible.  This goes for planning, plays, practices, rotations, schedule and everything else.  Usually the guy who ends up coaching is one of the better athletes on the team.  Often he’s the QB.  In some ways that makes coaching easier – its a natural leadership position, play-calling and organization flow well and the concern about playing yourself more than others disappears (for offensive plays).  If you are not the QB, it will be difficult to be the sole coach for all the same reasons.  If this is the case, consider creating a “coaching committee” of 2-4 players, including the QB.  That way play-calling, structure and organization still comes from a singular point.  You may want to form a committee like this anyway to avoid some of the interpersonal and ego-related issues that can surface.  Taking a player out of a game is far easier if it comes from two or three “coaches” than it is coming from one player-coach.  Of course, it can be more complex making calls from the field, and if disputes arise in the committee, there is no final word.

The more organization the coach(es) have the better.  Having set plays and strategies improves performance and can help with putting people in positions and making rotations. A set rotation may be preferable to replacing players on the fly to ensure better distribution of play time as well as distribution of skill.  Also finding player strengths is important – if one guy is especially effective on defense, you may be able to keep him engaged and interested without adding him to an already full offensive rotation, all without sacrificing talent.

Fun and Winning: a Delicate Balance

This dilemma affects most every (unpaid) coach, from the Dad youth football coach to the junior high team coach, and especially the player coach.  And there is definitely no one-size-fits-all solution.  The balance between winning and fun will be different for each player on the team.  There are players that would rather sit on the sidelines the entire season if it meant winning, while others would play without keeping score, just for love of the game.  The first step for the player coach is to determine where your team comes out on the question.  Are you in the lowest division in the coed football-for charity league? If so, chances are that fun is the reason to be playing.  Do you have a slate of ex-college players, who want to practice just so the championship is within reach? Probably a winning-mentality.   Most people voluntarily engaged in competitive sports probably enjoy winning, but you have to find out at what cost.  Early in the season, you will have more leeway. Once playoffs arrive, you’re playing for keeps.  But even along the way, winning games can be very important.  Consider starting some of the non-playmakers so when the crucial final 2 minutes arrives, you’re not compelled to play a weak lineup.  Also, making a “Red Team” lineup in addition to the regular rotations allows you to fall back on a pre-established system and quickly get your best team on the field when you need it. Oops, the “here-to-have-fun” guy just gave up a 60 yard touchdown and you need to score in 46 seconds: bring out the Red Team. At the end of the day, people need to have fun to keep playing on your team, but if well managed, the mix between adequate involvement and being part of a winning team, should work for the whole group.

Big Picture

A parting thought: remember why you’re playing.  It’s not the superbowl, you don’t have professional athlete insurance on your legs, your game is (probably) not televised.  Is it worth losing friends, offending people and hurting feelings just for the sake of the win? If you have a hard time answering this question, first, take a deep breath and re-consider your life purpose, and then, surround yourself with like-minded players and go win the championship.

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