You guys both have NFL backgrounds on different sides of the coach (Steve) and player (Dave) relationship.
What is the secret to making this relationship work, and how can technology either build more trust or lead to problems?
The secret is no secret at all - it's communication.
I remember back in 2013 when we put Zephyr units on our players at the Browns. We did two things. First, we only put units on our ten best players to start. We called this the Apple rule. Once other players saw Jordan Cameron and D'Qwell Jackson with a sensor on they started to ask why they didn't have one and if they could. That was the hook. Give it to the cool kids first.
But we learned a valuable lesson immediately from Alex Mack - he asked what we were seeing. We learned to over-communicate in simple language and we did that through an amazing S&C who we had buy in with - Brad Roll. He's a legend in the community, and with him explaining what we were doing instead of our sport scientist who had no reputation in football we were able to meet our players where they were at in language that made sense to them.
Trust. If an athlete trusts and believes you really care, they will run through a wall for you. This sounds simple but athletes are like bees and can smell disingenuous from a mile away. Athletes also have a keen sense for nonsense. If you approach them with something that has even a hint of WTF they will turn it down, but if it is something that you and they truly believe will help them be a better or healthier player, they will strap it on in a heartbeat.
For instance, one year personalized in-soles were all the rage. One of our D-Lineman had plantar fasciitis and these new personalized in-sole devices were supposed to make sure no one else ever had an issue again. Problem was 1) they let the company salesman in the training room to pitch the athletes. He was not someone we knew or trusted so he got very little athlete buy-in. 2) He convinced one of our top CBs to try them on. After the CB lost a 1 on 1 match-up with a WR he normally dominated, he took off his cleats and threw them over the fence - aka the athlete wasn't convinced it was making him better.
Safe to say no one used the in-soles after that.
That's hilarious and reminds me of the time a friend who was working for a big European football club screwed up big time.
One of his players was literally a top twenty player in the world, and the team was hyper competitive in practice. The top player had been wearing sensors in practice for over a year, until one day the sport scientist got the bright idea to post the scores so everyone could see them.
Best player was third fastest in that practice. Took his sensor off that day, said it was clearly "defective" and never participated in the sport science program again.
Interesting insights on the soccer player, Steve.
When tech is introduced into a team's culture, how should coaches talk about visibility of the data and personal accountability? How do you get everyone to buy into the "why" — and is the "why" always the same?
Technology and the data extracted from it needs to be accompanied with clear definitions of good, bad, and average.
The beauty of sports is the immediacy of feedback and the clear definition of success. Technology needs to follow those same guidelines. This is exactly why when data analysts say “well 72% of the time they do X” - athletes go crazy. They can’t use that. Technology and data that follow those guidelines and mirror the existing definitions of success and failure won’t have a problem getting accountability. Every athlete out there wants to win.
As far as why? To win.
Win the individual match-up as well as the game. Expect coaches to always ask “how does this help me win more games?” And if there is a clear answer to that, they will buy whatever you are selling.
To DA’s point the "Why" never changes in sports. It’s winning. Athletes and coaches will do anything to get an edge. The way tech and data should be spoken about in a team setting is directly and honestly. The insights derived from data should be delivered the same way coaching points are delivered with video. Player/coach watch video together in a room coming to agreement (most of the time) on what they see and then make improvements off that consensus.
Most teams separate the data guys
from the coaches so it feels black box because it is black box. We gotta bring
the tech and data conversation into the same room together so it can be a level
conversation between player/coach.
Do you think solo sports are more conducive to coaches using technology to improve their relationship with athletes when it comes to performance, injury management, injury prevention, etc.? Solo sports meaning golf, tennis, and the like, because those sports can foster strong one-to-one relationships and make the feedback loop super efficient. Thoughts?
The one to one
relationship definitely makes the conversation easier, but so does the nature
of individual sports to begin with.
Individual sports tend to be super technical and highlight tough physics problems that make science a must-have and not a nice-to-have. Think about cycling for a minute, which is an individual sport competed by teams. I was working alongside the Chief Data Scientist for TeamSky Cycling a few years ago and the conversations with the cyclists where highly technical and really scientific. Part of that is because they spend so much time training on their own that they have to learn the science to understand how to train, but it's mainly due to the fact that it's a sport built around competitive advantages uncovered by science.
The NFL has just as much physics
in it as cycling, but a quarterback still needs a pass to be caught by a wide
receiver. So it's less one-to-one and more one-to-many, which elevates
human dynamics over quantum dynamics.
Easy answer is it depends.
The good with solo sports: 1-on-1 relationships allow a coach to intimately understand their athlete and their issues in order to find the technology that would be helpful in solving said issues. Then once installed the communication can be deliberate and the feedback loop short, so they can quickly maximize the technology's value.
The bad with solo sports: Solo sports don't typically have the funds to support a team of people needed to thoughtfully integrate technology. When you don't have the proper team you fall victim to the game of telephone. The technologist informs the salesman, the salesman sells the coach, the coach doesn't understand and uses YouTube, and then the device is installed incorrectly and gives back bogus feedback. After a while the athlete doesn't believe in it and then the technology joins the other "game-changing" technology in the recycling bin.
You know it definitely varies more sport to sport, than type of sport.
Baseball is pretty data heavy now - that may be aided by the fact that it's a pitcher to batter relationship until the ball is put in play. Golf is data heavy, but it's always been about numbers, distances, and better equipment. Tennis is getting more data, but it's still honestly more traditional from a coaching perspective.
Most of the high profile tennis clients we've worked with are directly from the player side -- not too many in the coaching ranks just yet. They're still relying on their eye and gut. Which isn't wrong! It can just be better informed.
Not all coaches were players, and not all players have what it takes to be coaches. So, what are the differences in a coach’s perspective vs. a player’s perspective? When it comes to the big picture or small details, how do they see things differently or the same?
You guys are business partners now, but do you ever sometimes individually bring a coach’s perspective or a player’s perspective to your work? How does that play out?
I can only really speak from a player's perspective. Players can be pretty sensitive and aloof. Often times the best players are rather insecure as people and that healthy anxiety is what keeps them striving for greatness. Then as athletes they are monsters. They take no prisoners, they exploit every weakness, and they finish the job.
Players are also aloof at times because their singular focus of sport often times blinds them to all of the other things and people working to support them, the team, or the sport in general. For instance, I had no idea how much work and logistics went into some of the details within the NFL's CBA. I would just complain about the issues that directly impacted me without any real idea on how that would impact the entire negotiation. Now that I am out I have learned a great deal on how difficult it is to even change 1 sentence of that thing.
As far as business - I think our player-coach dynamic has really allowed us to survive and thrive. Partners are really hard to find. It’s all cupcakes and high 5's when it’s going well, but when it’s not you need to have someone you can have a healthy disagreement with in order to get to the other side. The ability for us to speak deliberately and not hold back really allows us to quickly cut through the fat. If something bothers us we get it out and get it over with immediately.
Looking back I don’t think it was a coincidence that my business partner would ultimately be a coach. It makes sense I was comfortable with someone that understands me and someone that I inherently respect.
Norv Turner and I were watching film one day and Philips Rivers made some ridiculous play to win a game against the Giants after having to change a route at the line of scrimmage. As we were watching Norv said, “I can draw them up and call them but I can’t do that.” Later that day I told Rivers what Norv said and he made an interesting point. He said he can make those plays at the line of scrimmage but he doesn’t have 30 years of plays in his brain to know which plays should be called in the first place.
Good coaches bring perspective and experience. The wide aperture that enables strategy. Good players bring focus and kinetics. The narrow lens that gets the job done tactically.
Let’s go into that concept a bit. How often are you confident the play that’s been called is going to work? How often are you torn between two or three plays just go, “What the hell…” and pick one? Is there a play-calling situation that you do not miss?
Fun question! About 3x a game you get a “holy smokes this is going to be wide open” play and about 1x a drive you have a “this is going to really suck” play. The rest could be classified as “this looks reasonable we will see how it shakes out.”
As far as picking plays. That’s the OC and QB’s job.
Play callers are confident they’ve got the right call. Otherwise they wouldn’t be calling plays. Like the QB, the OC or DC has to have swagger and confidence in their abilities.
Now with that said defensive coordinators have gotten really good in the last 20 years. I still contend that Wade Phillips basically won that Broncos Super Bowl for Denver. His play calling was otherworldly in that game.
To defend against the rise in complexity on defense, teams with good QBs have done one of two things. Amped up the complexity of their own game plans to account for any game scenario or strip the playbook down to utmost simplicity and coach players to perfection on a smaller set of plays that you can disguise with formations or movement.
We installed a ‘trifecta’ system at one point where the QB had three plays to choose from at the line. Other guys like Shanahan and Carroll make things super simple so their players can just go fast.
The fun part is trying to figure out how to effectively coach all the players, how to operate in the system, and then watch them execute physically in the game.
What was the worst play you’ve ever been a part of? What was your best and/or favorite play?
Worst play - that’s easy. Ray Rice converted a 4th and 29 against us in 2012. When he was halfway down the field and all our defenders just kept not tackling him there the only thought in my head was “geez, I wonder if we’ll get fired tonight or next week?”
I secured the @4th&29 handle on Twitter that night as I was drinking a bottle of red with my wife on our patio in Solana Beach. Never used it but didn’t want anyone to abuse it.
As for best play I've been a part of that's harder. You always remember the bad stuff so much clearer.
Darren Sproles was one of my favorite players I coached with and his body of work when I was with Chargers was amazing. He was an underrated blocker in the backfield, and I can remember clearly a number of his pickups of a linebacker who was about to destroy Rivers. But two games stand out in my mind. In 2009 we were playing the Giants in New York - there is something really special about playing there - just feels big. We were down 20-14 with 2:05 on the game clock. The guys drove down and scored on a Vincent Jackson touchdown. But midway through the drive we had a 1st and 10 and Norv called a play with Sproles running a short post. As soon as he called it I knew Sproles was going to take it long. The Giants had been playing Tampa 2 all drive and the Mike linebacker was gonna get deep quick. Sproles went for 21 yards to get us inside the +20. Vincent scored on the next play, but it never happens without having the guts to put the ball into the middle of the field with Sproles.
I could also mention the 2008 Colts playoff game when Sproles ran for a 22 yard touchdown in overtime to win the game. He and Mike Scifres, our punter, dominated that game. Scifres helped us box Peyton Manning into bad field position, and Sproles took advantage of their linebackers inability to cover him all game. That was a fun one.
Worst play - in 2006 I wasn’t getting a lot of run on either offense or special teams, I was more of a stand-by guy. Which means you stay ready but you are never really in the flow of the game. That's my excuse for this bad play...
Tennessee Titans ~ week 10, 2006. On the 2nd to last play of the half Andre Davis gets rolled up on an Arian Foster TD run. This means I am filling in for Andre on the kickoff team as what’s referred to as the 2. The 2's job is to set the edge on a near return and run the hoop on a return away. It was my first time stepping on the field that day. I prayed that they would return away so I wouldn’t have to set the edge versus their then legal wedge. No such luck. The ball, but more importantly to my health and well being, 2 300lb offensive lineman were running at my face. I fly down the field and catch one of them off guard but the other had his sights on me for about 20 yards. He was able to completely lift me off my feet and throw me on my back. The returner ran around me for a return of 40 yards. The entire back of my jersey was grass stained and dirty while the front looked peachy clean. To make matters worse, that was my only play of the game and I got absolutely berated in the special teams meeting Monday.
Best Play: easy. Andre Johnson went super beast mode on Reed Doughty on a 4th down play to beat the Redskins in Washington. I’d never seen something that athletic.
If you had a magic wand and could invent software—or anything, really—to help coaches during games, what would it do?
If I knew I would build it and save my magic wand for the Delorean in the garage.
More than anything I wish coaches better understood injuries and stopped rushing players back onto the field. My wand would magically let coaches feel the actual injury so they would stop asking “when you going to be ready to go?”
I can promise you that question is what cost the Warriors a championship and KD his Achilles.
Love that point, Dave. I remember having an epiphany moment many years ago as a reporter when I was covering the Yankees. A player, I forget who, had injured himself sliding into second base. The trainer and the manager, Joe Torre, went out on the field to check on him. We later learned that Torre didn't ask him how the injury felt. Instead, and this is what surprised me, he asked, "If the next batter hits a single can you score on the play?" It forced the player to measure his capability and it gave the decision maker real information. The answer was no, and the player came out of the game.
Steve, still want to hear your thoughts on the magic wand. But can you guys also expand upon this: How exactly can players and coaches best communicate so they're both saying and understanding the same thing? Any examples from your pasts?
You’re hitting at the heart of our conversation, Matt!
How do we give coaches and players the same words, and correct syntax for talking to each other in the age of personalization, technology and data?
If I had a magic wand I’d create Google Translate for talking analog coach/player speak to digital coach/player speak - if that makes sense. Often times one side is just using language that the other side isn’t hearing because they don’t have the upgraded dictionary to really listen and process. Kind of like the “White Man Can’t Jump” scene where they’re talking about "hearing Jimi...".
My first, and only (like so many!) season in Cleveland we had Josh Gordon who was suspended for the first few games of the season. He then ripped off 11 of the best games in a row any wide receiver has had in the NFL. We had a really specific plan for communicating with Josh. We spoke to him and asked questions about how he liked to be coached. Devised a specific plan on upskilling the coaches who worked closely with him. We were intentional in everything we did and it was coordinated by the head coach Rob Chudzinski and this crazy English dude who worked in cricket before we hired him to work with our coaches on how to get the most out of our players.
I know that had an effect and helped unleash his amazing potential. I have a feeling in subsequent years he hasn’t had quite that much personalized coaching. The NFL can often be a my way or highway proposition. But if you want the best out of the ones who really can change the game then you better be able to hear what they’re saying and give ‘em what they need when they need it.
Communication is a funny thing in football. There are some pretty archaic practices that don’t always make sense. The game is taught on the board with X's and O's as well as birds eye view video, but on the field the game is explicitly communicated verbally. I used to record all plays on my phone and then play them back in order to line up. It helped me pick up the playbook a lot faster.
More than anything coaches need to use all tools available to make sure they connect with all the different type of learners. Some athletes are ok with the board, some need walkthrus, some need audio, and some will never get it no matter how hard you try.
How many people actually talk on the headsets during an NFL game? Are some just listening? Can you think of any other sport that require the same amount of game day communication/tech as the NFL? What’s the best way to execute this dance—how do you know when someone is done talking, how do you know when it’s your turn to speak up?
There are three channels on the headset for an NFL game. One for each side of the ball, defense, offense, and special teams. Special team coaches typically don't use it though, so normally only two channels are used unless the Head Coach uses the third to talk strategy. That's what we did in Cleveland. Only three of us had access to Channel Three and we'd discuss 4th Downs, strategy on going for two and everything else that needed a calmer approach. Some coaches just listen, normally the coaches work out mechanics on who calls what during the game.
In San Diego there were three of us upstairs in the box. I was charting plays and building the stats/tendency packages by hand in the booth. We had one OLine coach and one TE coach. TE coach called out Down, Distance, and Field Position so playcaller had a good idea of what they had to work with. OLine coach was looking for pressures. I'd call out coverages along with TE coach. On the sideline you have the playcaller and normally QB coach talking the most on the main channel.
I was in charge of alerting the coach on replay during the game, so I only spoke when we needed to look at something. I'd deliver all the stats at halftime unless a defensive coach was doing something out of the ordinary, or if the playcaller needed a reminder.
Dick Lebeau used to bring max pressure on certain downs and distances once you get into "shots territory" (think +45 to +35) so that he can keep you out of field goal position. And the Chargers were a big shots team - we loved to take them. So a gentle reminder when we got into that territory would be made, but nothing elaborate. Communication is terse and to the point. Only say something if you see something that matters.
F1 requires a lot of game day communication between pit and race director. They normally only speak to the driver when they're in clear straights because their brains literally can't process information when they're in a turn or passing another car -- the sport is that technically challenging. It's pure cognitive overload and incredibly complex, like football, so you need another set of eyes. No other sport has as much communication between coach/player on the spot though.
The nature of American football just creates an environment where the coaches can take a lot of the cognitive and decision making load from the players. You can't do that in rugby, which is why at the end of the week before a rugby match the Captain and players are actually running practice normally. The coaches hand over responsibility for the match to the players, but you don't see that as much in the NFL.
Let’s put a bow on this with one final question…
“Less than zero.” That’s how much Bill Belichick recently said he relies on analytics to make in-game decisions, even adding, “analytics is not really my thing.”
Do you believe him? What should we be taking away here? Is there a difference between analytics and information? What does he mean, and what is the truth.
Mind you, this is a future Hall of Fame coach whose staff counts how many times Tom Brady throws the ball to individual receivers during practice—and bans him from throwing to the same receivers too often! (That story is here, by the way.)
Thoughts? Any other closing arguments?
"The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist"
Bill B is the best game manager the game has ever scene. He always wins the situational football battle. He employs the NFL's best research director in Ernie Adams and is a stone's throw from the greatest mathematical minds on the planet. He has been using data to inform his on-field decisions way before people started calling it analytics. He calls it logic.
There is this test that the Patriots and about 15 other teams give players in the run up to the draft. It's one of the few things I'd ever heard of that the Pats did. We did a validation test on it a few years ago for a club who was interested in doing it, in their words, "because Belichick does it."
We found that it actually had a negative correlation versus the positive that every team thought it had. As a former Marine I'm used to counterintelligence and I wouldn't be surprised if the Patriots know darn well it doesn't work. But if other clubs use it and pick players they know they're not even going to entertain then that would be pretty smart wouldn't it?
I have no idea if they use analytics, but I know they're pretty darn smart.