Learning from Losses
A few weeks back I took the Scotland u19 American Football development squad on a long trip south to the Midlands, to play against the NFL Academy. As you might expect from the name of our opponents, this team is no joke. The NFL Academy is the first of its kind globally, set up a few years ago in London and lead by Head Coach Tony Allen, the most storied coach in British American Football history, having won countless domestic titles as the HC of the London Olympians and, most recently the London Warriors.
On the other sideline were the plucky underdogs of the Scotland u19 development squad. I set this team up last summer, to fill a gap in the game which had long frustrated me. At present in the UK, kids can start playing full contact, kitted American Football from the age of 13, first playing for an u16 team in the 5-man format of the game, then in the u19 league which is either 7-man or 9-man. These are good entry points to the sport, but they create the challenge of a significant step up, when players move onto either senior (18+) football or University level football, which play the traditional 11-man format of the game.
This step-up is particularly evident when players look to get involved with representative football, for the GB national squad. As you'd expect, that team competes internationally at the full 11-man version, so when they hold open tryouts, the best and brightest from the u16 and u19 leagues head to a central location to show their skills. At these tryouts, there's a combination of individual drills where players can showcase their talent and athleticism, as well as unit and team-based drills where they show their understanding of the broader game and their ability to pick up schemes and work within those. Naturally, it can be very difficult to stand out when you've only played 5-man football and are now trying to understand the schemes of an 11-man format. The learning gap is so great that it can put kids off going to tryout and it also means we don't give those who do, the best opportunity to showcase themselves.
On this basis, I decided to re-establish the Scottish u19 programme as a development squad to allow players from the smaller-sided formats to learn the 11-man game as early as possible in their playing careers. It also has the added benefit of letting them meet and play alongside some of their domestic rivals, build new friendships and learn from other coaches. And for the coaching staff, it has similar benefits as I've brought in two coaches for each position, in order that they can work as pairs with someone from a different club side and learn new approaches. It's great fun too!
We played our first game in the winter and this autumn we got together for 4 practices ahead of our second game. The NLFA have recently moved operations from London to Loughborough University so we took two coaches from Edinburgh and Glasgow to their facility for what was set to be a massive challenge. Bear in mind, the NFL name naturally attracts some of the best young people from not only the UK but far beyond. Many have limited football experience, but all are extremely athletic and, as our players discovered when they got off the bus, very large!!
To give some examples, the NFLA had two Nigerian Defensive Linemen who were each in excess of 6'8"! Their Offensive linemen were all significantly taller and broader than me, and I stand at 6'2" and 280 lbs! In normal society, I seem pretty big. Next to this team (and bear in mind all of their players were 19 or under!) I seemed below average in size!
The game, as was expected by most, was pretty one-sided, in particular during the first quarter of the game where the NFLA played their starters - the best players on their squad. They glided into a comfortable lead, where our players struggled with the speed of the game. As each play passed, however, our guys started to find small successes, which is ultimately what our game consists of. Focus on one play at a team and beat the guy in front of you. Line up correctly, with a clear understanding of your assignment on the play. Focus on technique and doing what we've practiced to execute a good block, Run a crisp route, be in the right place in coverage, fill the gap that's assigned to you. And if the opportunity comes to make a tackle or a catch, apply your skills and do your best. Then, when the whistle blows, line up and get ready to go again. Learn from what worked and what didn't, but have a short memory. The next play is the one that matters.
Watching these young men starting to find their feet and grow in confidence as the game went on is the greatest joy you can have in coaching. Seeing their demeanour change. Having them recognise that while the guy opposite them might be bigger and stronger, that's not a reason to quit, but to double down on their training and find ways to be successful in their miniature game of 1-on-1 is inspiring to see. Having them help one another up when they fall and watching leadership emerge as they carry each other through the toughest game any of them have every played warms the heart. It also flies in the face of the common narrative we hear about young people today lacking in grit and effort, being soft and too easily defeated. Not one of our 45-man squad showed any of those traits. They fought tooth and nail until the very end of the game and shook hands with their opponents, looking each one in the eye and congratulating them on their victory.
In the end, in a friendly, the score doesn't matter. Coach Allen on the opposite sideline knows that better than anyone - the role we have as coaches for these young people is to help them learn and grow and develop, both as players and as people. I love winning on the scoreboard and I don't know any coaches who don't, but winning comes in many forms and it's important to define your own picture of success. For this team, it's learning the game, building their confidence, putting their talents in the shop window for new opportunities and building relationships which will last a lifetime. And on all of those measures, we're moving in the right direction.
Just like I told our players both before and after the game; you don't get better by playing against poor opposition. Challenging yourself while being clear about what success looks like is something that all of us can benefit from doing. Don't pick the easy tasks, the easy jobs, the easy opponents, just to look good externally. Walk the rough roads to show yourself what you're capable of and you'll be amazed at what you learn along the way.