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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Davies


On Saturday, the American Football Team I coach, the East Kilbride Pirates, played a friendly against an American college team, the Alma College Scots. In The US, there are three levels of college sport, Divisions 1, 2 and 3 (as well as some other options like NAIA and Junior Colleges, but I won't get into those here!). Div 1 is the highest level and most demanding on athletes. Those football players who compete at this level typically find that the demands of the programmes mean that their sport takes precedence over their academics and the aim of these athletes is often to perform at such a level as to allow them to turn professional after their college days are over. In American Football, it is most commonly players from D1 schools who are drafted to play professionally in the NFL. Division 2 offers a more balanced approach to student life and Division 3 athletes are more focussed on their education than their athletics, but the demands on them in terms of training, working out and preparation through film and playbook review are still pretty significant and become a very big part of their college experience. The Head Coaches at D3 schools still actively recruit players from High Schools to come to their college to study and play sport and each D3 school sets specific academic eligibility requirements which their prospective players must meet, in order to get into the school.

To give an idea of the level of commitment to the sport that these players have, the NCAA is pretty strict about the number of hours that student athletes re allowed to take part in sport throughout the year, in order to protect the players, but a D3 athlete is allowed 20 hours of 'countable athletically related activities' per week during the academic year, and of course the Head Coaches make use of every last second of this, in order to ensure that their team is as competitive as possible. And there are plenty of ways in which players and coaches can squeeze extra time in during the week, to make sure they're prepared. What this serves to explain is that the level of preparation and effort that they put into their sport is very significant. Add to this the fact that many players in the US start playing peewee football at age 5/6/7, if should give an indication of the level of experience and capability that they have, by the time they get into their late teens and early twenties!

To contrast this with the sport in the UK, it's not possible to play kitted American Football until you're 13 years old and the majority of players on this side of the pond will typically come to it in their late teens, or even early twenties - the age at which many players in the US will hand up their pads and helmet for the last time. We train typically twice per week, for a couple of hours at a time. Add a few gym sessions, some playbook review and a film session and you probably get to a figure of about ten hours per week of engagement with the sport, for our most committed players. Naturally, starting later, having less exposure to the sport on TV and spending less time training means that the level of understanding and execution is a world away from our American counterparts!

The Alma College Scots are one of 243 Division 3 football programmes. They have won back-to-back division titles and last season, they ranked in the top ten in the US! The Pirates had played three D3 college teams previous to this event (in 2015, 2016 and 2017) and those games had finished with scorelines of 51-0, 62-0 and 73-6 in favour of the Americans. None of those teams had been ranked as highly as Alma, so needless to say, we did not enter into the game expecting a positive result on the scoreboard! As it was, the final score was a 74-3 loss, however there is something very liberating going into a game like that, where you're not anxious about the final score and able to focus on other things throughout. I'd like to unpack that a little in todays blog, because there are lessons which I think have value off the field for all of us!

In the aftermath of the game, there have been a number of people looking on and asking us what the point of the game was. Why go up against a team you have no chance of beating and taking part in such a one-sided event? How can it possibly be of benefit to either team? It's a fair question and I'd like to take the opportunity to share the rationale for why we have done these in the past and plan to continue doing so in the future!

Firstly, as I alluded to above, from the perspective of the Pirates, there is no pressure on us during the game, so the focus comes away from the scoreboard, and we look for small wins in other areas. The first of these is individual execution by our players. If an average game contains about 60-70 plays on Offense and Defense, that's 60-70 opportunities to go up against a player who is much more experience and, likely, much better than you. Every time you manage to get the better of him, that's a huge achievement and requires a high level of execution and effort. If you can beat that guy once, you can work hard to beat him again and those cumulative victories will not only make you a better player, but they'll build your confidence and make the guys we go up against in normal league games seem much easier to beat, in comparison.

From a coaching point of view, American Football is quite unique vs traditional British sports, because the coaches select and call each individual play in for their players to execute. It's not as simple as just picking plays at random, either. Each play should be designed to attack some aspect of the opponent, to exploit a weakness or to set something up for later on in the game. You want to keep your opponent off balance and either make it hard for them to predict what you're going to do, or to make it predictable but hard to stop. Play calling is a skill like any other and it's difficult to get meaningful reps of play calling where you're against a live opponent who isn't intimately familiar with the nuances of your team and your players. We do it at every practice, but it's different against a unfamiliar opposition and Saturday gave us the chance to really work on that and to try new things which plugged gaps and opportunities we'd identified in previous games.

Another thing that's really valuable is the fact that Alma, like all college teams, are extremely disciplined. They're very well drilled and react lightning fast to the game, which means that their players are where they're supposed to be, when they're supposed to be there. That lets you understand how the best teams we play are likely to react. When you play against poor teams or players, things that work on paper, often don't work in reality, because opposition players don't do what you'd expect. We put in the effort we do, in order to try and be competitive with the best teams in the UK, and so this sort of experience is invaluable.

We also get excellent feedback from the opposing coaches. What are they seeing? Where are they attacking our vulnerabilities? Where could we improve and how? That sort of feedback, from a coaching staff who have broken down film of your team and then coached against them is hugely powerful and, again, you cant get that from the teams you play through the season.

So the reasons for taking on games like this are very clear, from a performance development point of view, but there's much more to it than that. The friendships that are built over the course of the game and the night out, endure and in the years since we played our previous games against American teams, we've had players and coaches travel out to visit their new friends, both to take holidays and to spend time with coaches, observing and learning from how they run their programme. Bonds forged in competition can often be really strong and some of my best friends are people I competed against.

For Alma, it was a huge cultural experience. They're called the Scots, their mascot is a man in a kilt and their Head Coach wears a kilt on the sideline, so you can imagine how much they enjoyed actually getting to visit Scotland and do the thing they loved! This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most of them and the memories and stories they'll take home with them will be huge. They brought over 100 spectators, our home crowd was out in force and on the day, between gate receipts, merchandise sales and a few other fundraising activities, we took in over £4300 for the team - which is a significant sum of money when costs are rising.

And most of all, it's a lot of fun! Nobody likes to lose, but those little moments of magic when a player makes a play or your team executes well are hugely powerful moments to remind you that all of the work and time that goes into coaching and preparing to play the game are having an impact.

Throughout your life there will be opportunities where the chance of success is slim, or even zero, but it's worth reframing how you measure success in these situations. If success in sport is only measured on the scoreboard, Saturday was a terrible day for the East Kilbride Pirates, but we know that there are many triumphs and what matters are those you choose to measure. Imagine applying for a job that's well above your current grade. If you measure that only by whether you get the job, it's likely to end in failure. But if you measure it in terms of the opportunity to prepare, to apply and to be interviewed (and to learn from each of these experiences and use that learning in the future) or if you consider the opportunity to get your name out there, get in front of senior people and show them you're keen and capable, you can be successful in a lot of ways. What you choose to measure will change your perspective!

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