Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Too simple may really be too complex; complex may be actually simpler

In keeping with the pattern of following a technical article with an abstract, I decided to write about a pet peeve of mine in coaching - the craving toward simplicity. We all hear it in the "coach speak" whether at clinics, listening to tv, or just in conversation with other coaches. Phrases like "it's not rocket science," "our number one goal is to keep it simple," "our goal is to make it easy on the athletes' learning," etc. Then there's the coaching axiom that I've heard more then the coke jingle, "Keep It Simple Stupid," commonly referred to with the anagram K.I.S.S. While I have no problem with these sayings and their meaning in "context." It is the application of these principals that I think many coaches miss. It is the term "simplicity" that gets tangled in the translation.

If simplicity for simplicity sake was the answer, then given that opponents athletes are relative to the level you are on, the pros should be lining up in the power I and running simple, vanilla power off tackle and isolation plays. So with that regard we know that just plain simplicity isn't an answer within itself.

The real question is what is considered simple and what is considered complex. And what makes something simple to learn, yet, broad enough to beat a variety of opponents. We've all been in a lecture where one person ones comes out saying "that made my head hurt" and other, who heard the exact same lecturer says "really, I found him quit easy and understandable." So there seems to be a personal perception involved with the term simplicity. To twist a phrase, simplicity seems to lie in the "eyes of the beholder." Certainly, current education on the topic (familiarity), the way it was presented and by who (source), and the individual learning it (is he a rote, conceptual, etc. learner?) all have a factor. But probably the most important aspect is perception.

We will take a look at all these aspects in regards to teaching football but first why is it important to define this to me:

1. It is our job as coaches to place the players in a situation they have a chance for success. All decisions in life are based on ultimate objectives. If you're #1 objective is to keep it simple then that is what you'll get - simplicity. Winning will become secondary to that. You're goal as a coach should be to give the players a chance to win. That may take outcoaching the opponent. But if you're ultimate objective was to be simple that may no longer be possible. Showing my age, I once heard Woody Hayes say that you build an offense to beat the top three teams on your schedule. He mentioned nothing about simplicity.

2. These terms themselves belittle the coaching profession. When a school hires a calculus teacher - it does not hire him to teach simple math. It hires him to teach the complex and make it seem simple. (we will return to this concept later as therein lies the key to simplicity.) As the football coach, you are the top level of the subject in your school and, like the calculus teacher, you were hired to teach the complex yet make it seem simple. If they just wanted simple they could go to the local little leagues. (no disrespect to little league coaches. Just comparing levels)

3. The simpler the structure, the more emphasis on athletes and the less on coaching. If everybody is as simple as possible then the winning falls with the ability of the athletes and away from coaching. Unfortunately, every game has one team with the better athletes. By this theory, the game has a better chance of being decided prior to the start. (this is also a result of espn) if this theory is working for you now, all the power to you but, remember, there will be a time or game when you has the lesser athletes.

4. The problem with some coaches and the kiss theory is it all goes to justify their lack of ability or effort to establish a concrete system that although complex to the outside is simple to teach and learn. Coach's use these terms as a escape for their own inabilities. (not all -so don't get made - I'll explain later in the article.)

Interesting, when Notre Dame was dominating under Knute Rockne, There was a movement abound to change the rules to abolish all his innovations. Many coaches tried to emulate his offense but said it was too complex to copy. Rather then raise their game, they choose to protest and abolish what they didn't know how to do. (this still happens today with many rules - gauzed under the wrapping of "for safety's sake.") After much barbing, Rockne replied that if he was forced to simplify and run what everybody else ran (as he put it, a neatherthal offense based on simplicity and brute force.) he would leave football and go into a career he could still use his brain. Fortunately, although the "shift" was eliminated, enough of a concession was made that he stayed.

So then all these simplicity axioms are wrong when thousands of coaches have professed to them?

No. The answer is much more complex then that. Taken in the right context these sayings and thoughts are valuable to putting together any offense. It is the definition of simple that poses the problem. To help let's eliminate what simplicity is not:

1. The number of plays you put in.

Although the sheer volume of plays you put into a system affects manageability, it does not affect simplicity. You must have a workable number (concepts) to maintain an organized and meaningful practice, however, one play may be presented in a complex and confusing manor while a multiple offense, that has a systemic approach, may actually be easier to install and learn.

I'll use 2 examples to cover this point:

A. I once went to work for a guy that told me he had 5 plays. That was it. Seems pretty simple. However, none of the 5 plays tied into each other technique wise, vocabulary wise, and concept wise. This caused multiple learning on the part of the players. Additionally, all his plays were blocked by rote recognition. That cause each player to memorize 10 - 12 diagrams (that mean actually nothing to him) and then recognize the defense on the field and apply his techniques that were random due to the recognition system.

B. A very good friend of mine, George Deleone, (I coached for George in the 70's) was giving us a private clinic one day when the install question came up. George said they had a limited # of concepts they would install and then proceeded to tell us that the first day they might be installing outside zone as one of the concepts and would run it 5 or 7 plays the first day. Sounds like somebody would be confused by all those plays on day 1 doesn't it. But when one compares it with the above example you realize that even learning 2 plays with the above method takes more mental learning then George's, where a concept is learned and carried across the board. Additionally, since in the zone case the techniques are carried over with the blocking rules there is an ease of learning that is facilitated.

2. The type of plays you put in does not make an offense simpler?

On the contrary, plays that require decision making after the snap usually cover more scenarios and allow for the use of less auxiliary compliments to be installed. The decision making aspect is a one person learning process that is accomplished through visual repetition and has nothing to do with complexity. It places less learning on the part of the other players since the quarterback's decision making allows for less to be learned by the others.

3. Keeping it limited does not make lesser athletes better.

As a matter of fact it's the opposite. The lesser your athletes the more you need to do to "level the playing field." In the 70's I had the chance to visit the University of Michigan and speak one on one with the legend -Bo. That conversation along with the mentoring by great coaches like DeLeone and my high school coach Tony DeMatteo, had a lasting impression on me. One thing he espoused was that the better the athletes you have the less you do. They will beat people with there athletic ability. The lesser the athletic, the more you do. They are outmatched anyway so give them the only chance to win.

So what is the fine line between complexity and simplicity and how does one make teach a complex system to athletes?

The answer is in perception or the M.I.S.S or "make it seem simple" concept. The overall system must be complex enough to not only handle but conquer and gain an advantage over all situations it may encounter;yet seem simplistic in it's individual learning to the players. (and other coaches as I've found out the hard way.)

Here are some specific points for accomplishing this:

1. Teach concepts rather then totally rote. The beginning of every concept must have a rote basis (I.e. Rules to be memorized, techniques to be associated with the rules but anybody CAN learn those.)However, concepts allow one teaching to cover a multitude of situations and a multitude of usages. (see the zone example above)

Asan example, I can have you memorize the multiplication table or I can teach you the concept of multiplying. In the first scenario you have a vast number of functions to memorize, log jamming the mind and often confusing the participant through its shear volume. In the second I just have to teach you one concept.

Additionally, teaching concepts expand to cover all scenarios. Teaching rote is limited to the scenarios memorized. In the above multiplication situation, the rote student can only answer the limited number of problems he has memorized. The one that learned conceptually can answer any problem including ones he didn't see.

To further illustrate this, look back at the coach mentioned above that had his offense run by a complete recognition, or memorization method. If a defense came up that wasn't memorized the players would be scrambling. Over the last 20 years, have seen just about every "junk" defense imaginable versus the option. Yet, by teaching a conceptual recognition system, our team has been able to handle them.

2. Don't just take - learn. Too many times coaches change what they do to what
they hear at a clinic or what's in vogue. As a result they teach something you barely understand yourself. This causes inconsistencies and lack of answers that future confuse the player. Also, there are specific methods to teaching certain concepts. (I can remember after my week at Michigan that although I really thought I understood the slant angle system, I realized I had no idea how to teach it.)

The same holds true for my private clinics I've given. I don't know how many times I've been asked for "more plays," rather then how to teach the subject.

3. Keep the offense manageable. I know this sounds like I'm being hypocritical but I'm not really. A nuclear scientist deals with very complex matters, yet, he tries to have a manageable workload during the day. The too are totally dissimilar.

4. Don't get hung up in symbols or technical terms. Use terms you are comfortable with, make sense, and have carryover from play to play. Additionally, limit terminology to what you need- no more! As an example, since we are an option team and count - there is no reason that we need to label the outside backer in a 4-4, 4-3, and 50. He is #2 to us regardless. I've seen coaches have kids recognize every position in every defense without need. For us it doesn't matter. He could be the coaches wife. It doesn't matter. For your offense it might. But if the player doesn't need to know if it's a nickel or the starting outside linebacker - don't tell him. You may need to know it for play calling but he might not.

The same is true in how you use your terms. Nothing gets me madder on the field then my coaches showing off their knowledge by calling him Sam or Stud and the player giving him that dear in the head lights look. Again, he's #2, nothing less - nothing more.

Also try and make your terms simpler and more descriptive. Remember the players are empty glasses ready to be filled. If you had no idea of what a fruit was and I said "go get the apple" you would really be scratching your head. However if I said go get the green round shiny round object on the table - you would have a good chance. Technical names are overrated when dealing with novices. (I have even let our players think up some code words when we worked on our audible package. You'd be surprised how good they are with association.)

5. Run packages not plays. Get yourself out of bad plays or plays that need to be accommodated to run against certain looks. This includes what I call "squeeze" plays. These are where you have a play that, although good against certain defenses, has problems fitting into every scenario. So you whittle the end of the square peg to make it fit into a round hole. The more "exceptions" you have to build into the design of the play the harder it becomes to learn. The more confusing it becomes. (think about when somebody gave you directions and then they started adding on exceptions.)

The answer is to have packages. Series of plays called together in order to give the player a "simple" answer as per the defense.

6. Run a system and not plays. A system includes "associated" plays that have a carryover in mechanism of execution, terminology, techniques, concepts, and teaching process. A series of plays present a whole new learning experience whenever one is introduced. A system builds upon one another in knowledge and theory.

7. Teach whole-part-whole. If you can't teach your base system in 5 days (3 in college) then it isn't a teachable system no matter how simple it is. I didn't say execute, I said teach. By teaching everything vs every defense at once you are flooding and overloading the athlete - however the mistakes don't count. Sure you will get more mistakes early but you're not playing anybody the first week. As with any learning curve there will be mistakes and frustration. However, as with any learning curve" these mistakes will lessen through repetition. However, piecemealing your offense up to the first game will get the mistake of the first day through the first game. Additionally, the offense will seem more complex as it never gets completed. There is always new learning, a learning curve, and confusion.

8. Before cutting things out find out where the problem really lies or try to grind through. This is really two considerations. The first one takes away the excuse that it's too complicated to learn and places it back on the players and coaches. Is the reason the player's not getting it because it's too difficult or is he just not motivated? It doesn't take any athletic ability to learn rote. (as a matter of fact, they teach rote in 2nd and third grade. So, an athlete in high school or college can learn his plays.) the problem may lie with the athlete and his real desire (or lack of) to be there. Is it the offense or the way I taught it? Too infrequently do we go back to analyze how we teach. We have computer breakdowns on stats, we study film endlessly in the offseason, but rarely do we look at how we taught something or go to a clinic to learn how to teach it. (with everybody looking for the "magic" play, very rarely is this subject broached in a clinic anymore.)

The second aspect of this is grinding through it. I once was flown in by an excited young coach who wanted to put in the triple. He took copious notes, studied, and planned intensely. About the second week of camp he called me to say, he was going back to his "simpler" offense as this just didn't look good and he was stymied in his first scrimmage.

In the first three weeks of the season everything looks bad. That's why you practice. The more complex the system the worse it looks earlier. However it grows to pass the simpler one on the way.

(to illustrate this let's look at 2 jigsaw puzzles on a table, undone. The first has 30 pieces and the second 500. At a glance the one with only 30 looks neater and more organized even though neither have been done. However over time the one with 500 passes the smaller one in magnitude and beauty. Simpler and less will always look better earlier.)

9. Avoid the temptation of a talent switch or the flavor of the day. Too many times we change our offense for our talent or because we become enamored by what's out there on the clinic circuit. Yes, you have to ADAPT your offense to your talent but not change it radically. Remember, every time you change completely there is a learning curve for you and your coaches in content, the completion of the offense (offensive packages get better when tweaked over time), teaching methods, and practice organization. This adds to player confusion.

Additionally, if you tweak your offense, the techniques, learned material, and method of practice are all carried over by the players, deleting some of the confusion.

10. Your auxiliary must come off your base and be simpler then your base package. Too often coaches put in an "auxiliary" play to either at tact a certain scheme or get the ball to a certain playmaker. While there is nothing wrong with this if kept in the context of the system, it is what whole new concepts and system mechanics must be taught.

I once had a quarterback that although "adequate" I didn't want the defense making him keep the ball every play. So we had a system of tags that we used to get the ball out of his hands. These were also options, that used our system and techniques and were designed against specific looks and packaged to be used only in those scenarios.

The opposite of this would be a option friend of mine who put in a whole "I" package for the same reasons. Used different techniques and different teaching and practice methods. Do you think this added to the learning curve?


As you can tell by the length of this article, I think this is a pretty weighty subject. By going around in circles we've discovered that the old axioms regarding simplicity are really correct except they've been taken out of context because of that one word "simple." Maybe what the should have said was "keep it manageable stupid" or "have a learnable system stupid." Either way, the important aspect is to have a system that is complex enough to level the playing field, seem to be of such magnitude that is gives opponents' coordinators fits, adapts to every scenario that may arise, yet, is teachable, manageable in game plan and practice and, most importantly, SEEMS simple to the players. The last part is the hardest but something the coach controls in his design of the system, its mechanics, and practice methodology.

I hope you Enjoyed it. The next article will return to the technical and, I promise, be much shorter.


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