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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Davies

The Season Begins

This Sunday sees the start of the 2024 British American Football National Leagues season! The full-contact version of the sport in the UK is effectively split into two halves, the University league which runs through the winter, culminating in the finals in March, and the National leagues (u16, u19, senior and women's) which run through the summer months, with finals in late August or early September.

Regular readers will know that outside of my family and my work, American Football has been the biggest thing in my life, pretty much since I took up the sport in the autumn of 2005, but certainly since I joined the East Kilbride Pirates in the spring of 2006. Between my years playing and coaching at University, in the Senior league, at u19 and for Great Britain, this will be the 21st season I've taken part in and it's shaping up to be one of the most exciting yet! In November, after stepping down from coaching GB at the end of the 2023 cycle, I was appointed as Head Coach of the Pirates senior team and the last 5 months have been spent preparing for Sunday's game and the nine regular season games which follow.

There are lots of great analogies between sports and business which I find are very popular and often very illustrative, but one way in which they definitely differ is the structure of the year. Our 2024 is effectively split into three roughly equal parts; Jan-April is pre-season, May-August is the season itself and Sept-Dec is the offseason.

As a team we spend the first four months of the year recruiting, developing fundamental skills, installing our playbooks and going through repetition after repetition to ensure that we are getting better at executing the things that we will need to do throughout the competitive part of the year. When the season starts, the games limit the number of training sessions we are able to have, so the focus is very much on preparing for each opponent by watching video and breaking down what they do, preparing our plans to attack their weaknesses and neutralise their strengths and ensuring that we retain the sharpness that we developed in the pre-season without overloading our players and having them break down physically. Once the season is over, the final part of the year involves resting and recuperating, reviewing and reflecting on our performances and processes from the year and setting in place the plans which will set us in good stead for the following year.

At an individual level, the year really starts at the end of the season. At this stage, there's a bit of R&R, but once the players are fully healthy, the months to the end of the year are their most significant in terms of adding size, strength and developing speed in the gym and on the track. Without the knocks and niggles picked up in training and games, they're able to commit fully to their workout regimen, so that they come into the new year physically improved upon the previous season. Bigger, faster, stronger. This training is informed by their performance through the year and their aspirations for the coming one. During the pre-season, they cut back on the heaviest of their work because they're adding the rigours of training back in, but they need to focus on exercises and activities that will help minimise injury and ensure that they're durable through the summer. Alongside the physical work, there's a significant mental workload, learning playbooks and watching film of practices to sharpen execution. And when the season rolls around, the gym work is again about staying healthy and the study is all about looking back at the last game; what went well and what could improve and looking forward to the next opponent, visualising the game and their part within it.

In many businesses, while there's an natural ebb and flow, perhaps through the quarters of a financial year, or even through each individual month (particularly for those in sales cycles), there is FAR less compartmentalisation than is normal in sport. Planning, preparation and practice are typically much more pronounced and more time is allocated to them in a sporting environment than is normal in most businesses. Effectively we spend two thirds of the year preparing and one third actually executing and it's hard to imagine, for example, a retail store which spent 8 months of the year closed and preparing for a 4-month long sales sprint!

But there are still lessons to be learned and things that can be applied to business and other areas of our lives without going to those extremes.

The first is about practice and preparation. Sport takes this to new peaks; I calculated that over the course of a season we do roughly 10 mins of practice for every single offensive or defensive play we will run in games that season. A play lasts 6-8 seconds, so the amount of time spent practicing is about 75-100x the amount of time spent actually executing! But in business it's often the case that people do very important things (sales calls, presentations, answering challenges and feedback, handling objections, holding 1:1s or team meetings) without any preparation or rehearsal at all. And those are things you get one shot at. If I had a penny for every time I've heard a story about a 'moment that matters' in leadership (like announcing redundancies, speaking to someone about underperformance, setting out a strategy) where the leader didn't practice and it didn't land the way they'd wanted, I'd have LOTS of pennies! If it's important enough to do it, it's important enough to do it right and that means dedicating time to prepare and to practice. The same goes with your team; show them how much better they can be at the stuff that counts, by taking time to prepare and to dry run.

The second is about reflection and learning from what we've done well and poorly. Self-scout is a common term in American Football and it effectively means watching footage of ourselves through the lens of an opposing coach or team, to identify our weaknesses. What habits or tendencies do we have which an opponent might pick up on or exploit? Which areas of our squad are strong or in need of reinforcement? Which of our KPIs are we struggling with and what does that tell us about our processes? It requires humility and a critical eye, but without doing this, it's very difficult to get better. How do you reflect individually and as a team? How often do you run retrospectives? What do you extract from these events and then what do you do with that information? How are you making sure that you and your team are getting better every week, month, quarter, year? Are you going to have a forty-year career, or a one-year career, forty times over?

And the third is about load management. As I said, when we move from off-season, into pre-season, into the season, as coaches and players we recognise that we go from no football, to lots of practice, to some practice and lots of games and so the physical demands on the players increase through that phase. Because of that, we taper off the expectations of gym work, to make sure that we're maintaining a balance, not just piling work on top of work and wearing people out. If we don't get that balance right, we end up with injuries, causing players to miss practices and games, thus increasing the workload on the remaining players and starting off a domino effect where others become overwhelmed and injured. In the workplace with many of the leaders I'm currently working with, expectations seem to only go in one direction. More and more is piled onto people, driving them closer to burnout. When that happens, and sickness inevitably absence follows, their workload is passed down the line to the next person or people and the risk of them becoming overwhelmed is increased. Where people don't burn out, they begin to question whether the leadership have their best interests at heart, which can cause some to reconsider their position and leave the team or business, further exacerbating the problem. In business, just as in sport, it's your people, your team, your players who deliver on your behalf. If you don't look after them, it won't end well for you. And that might not mean it goes wrong today or tomorrow, but it'll catch up with you down the line.

So while the contexts might be quite different in terms of the way that a year is structured, there are clear opportunities for learning from how sports teams operate, to refine how we run teams and how we act in other areas. Take some time to reflect on what you could do differently, share your ideas in the comments and if any of this sparks a recognition of a need for change, get in touch and let's chat it through and see how I can help!

Game 1 of the Pirates 2024 British Premier Division North campaign is away to Merseyside Nighthawks at the JMO in Skelmersdale on Sunday 14 April. Kick of is scheduled for 2:30pm. If you're nearby, get yourself along!

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