Finding Family

Developing The High School Football Family

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As high school coaches, we spend many hours developing our philosophy of offense, defense and special teams play. We read books, watch videos and attend conferences in an effort to improve our knowledge and find the “difference maker” when it comes to X’s and O’s. But sometimes the difference maker is not a new offensive wrinkle or 3-3-5 blitz; sometimes the difference maker lies in the hearts of the young men you coach and the concept of “family.”

There are so many great clichés in our sport that are used to help motivate our players to perform at their highest level, but the one that stays with me, year after year is, “Victory equals 10 percent talent and 90 percent desire.” After four decades of coaching, I am certain that the will to win overcomes talent more often than not, and that the high school coach who addresses this critical area will find the “edge” we all search for in building a team.

In the offseason, we all begin work on the development of the “new” team, and most of us do it in about the same way, with strength training, speed and quickness development, and games to fuel the competitive spirit. In addition to those standard procedures, we also begin the process of developing the attitude of our new family in a wide variety of ways.

Finding Family: Select a Theme

The first step is to select a theme for the year that will be featured in everything we do: T-shirts, dog tags, schedule posters, program covers, etc. Sometimes the theme comes easily, such as “Back to Jack,” the year after the team made their first trip to Jack Murphy Stadium (now known as Qualcomm) for the section finals. Sometimes it is to send a message, such as “Find a Way.” Whatever is selected, it must be something that can be enthusiastically supported by team, and they can gain strength from. A T-shirt is then designed depicting the theme, and that design is painted on the back of a children’s 45-piece puzzle, which will be used to reveal the new theme on Senior Night.

Finding Family: Senior Night

In late March or early April, we hold Senior Night at a local restaurant that is open only to our team that night. As the players enter, they are each given a piece of the above mentioned puzzle. When everyone is present, they are asked to put the puzzle together, revealing the new theme and t-shirt design for the first time. When finished, we emphasize that it took teamwork and leadership to put it together, just as it will take those qualities to build a successful team.

The goal for the night is to instill in the players the need for senior leadership in the development of the team. Each player has been given an 11-page booklet on leadership. Each coach will take a page to read and discuss the topics in the booklet, such as: A Definition of Leadership, Challenges of Leadership, Rewards of
Leadership, Principles of Success, etc.

The entire session is intent on inspiring these new “seniors” to accept their role and responsibility in building the team into a cohesive family. They are asked to keep the booklet as a guideline for becoming a senior leader, and refer to it whenever needed. Using the fundamental ideas of leadership, they are then asked to make some decisions that will affect their team and their offseason workouts. This gives the players a voice in the direction the program is headed. They conclude the evening by setting the team goals for the season. When finished, they will have experienced a special night of decision- making that has brought them closer together and will pay dividends as the year progresses.

Finding Family: Application And Interview

Following Senior Night, we ask each player to fill out a team application. When finished, the player will schedule a personal interview with the head coach. The first three pages of the application are taken directly from a generic college application, and are designed to help the player begin the process of gathering all the information they will need when official application time rolls around. The purpose of the fourth page is to write three personal football goals, four lifting goals, and an essay about football and its meaning to them.


In the interview, we go over the application for completeness and discuss their goals and how they expect to achieve them. The interview is frank and honest, and sometimes not what they want to hear; however, when finished, I know their hopes and dreams, and they know my current evaluation of their place on the team. It is a great way to get a better understanding of your players.

Finding Family: Togetherness Through Travel

Every program strives to develop a positive team chemistry. The activities we’ve outlined previously are designed to help bring that about, but clearly the one activity that seems to have the greatest impact is taking the team on a trip. We try to schedule our opening game every other year at an out-of-state site that will provide us with a competitive challenge and an educational experience. In the past, we have played in Hawaii, Florida, New Jersey and Pennsylvania; always spending a full week filled with educational sightseeing in addition to our practice sessions. The time spent together has been an incredible bonding agent and something I would highly recommend.

The game trip only occurs every other year, but once every year, we get the same effect (to a lesser degree) by traveling half way up the state to a summer passing tournament and linemen’s competition. Many of the same experiences occur: traveling under cramped conditions, enduring extreme heat, sharing living quarters, eating together, being in an entirely different social culture, and being with the coaches, 24/7. It’s not a full week, but in a non-travel year, it becomes our best bonding experience.

Finding Family: Being Part Of Something Special

On the weekend “Hell Week” concludes, we have a team party that includes food, music, games and swimming, concluding with a very special ceremony in which each player is called up and presented his theme t-shirt and team dog tag by his position coach and the head coach. The dog tag is to be worn everyday throughout the season. The t-shirt is worn on game day under the shoulder pads. During the presentation, much emphasis is placed on how they have survived a grueling offseason regimen to become a member of the Falcon Family, and that the chain of the dog tag is like the chain that binds our team together, strong and sturdy.

Finding Family: Senior Cabinet

Obviously a great deal of time and energy is put into developing a feeling of family within the team, but the glue that holds that feeling together throughout
the season is the seven-member Senior Cabinet. Selected by the coaches just prior to the first practice, the cabinet is made up of six offensive and defensive positions and a special teams position.

The cabinet is the team’s “House of Representatives.” They meet every Monday with the coaching staff to discuss any issue that might be facing the team. Players at all levels know that they can be heard through the cabinet about any team- or program-related concerns. It is a two- way street; the coaching staff knows that by bouncing ideas off the cabinet, they have a better chance of getting team acceptance of possible changes that might lie ahead. This open communication between coaches and team has helped relieve potential tension at times and furthered the feeling of family unity that we are seeking.

There are other small and meaningful ways that we use to further the feeling of family togetherness, but these are the ones that seem to have the most impact. To be successful year-after-year, it takes more than talent because that well sometimes runs dry. If you include “family focus” as part of your off-season program, that dry well may up and surprise you with unexpected victories during the season. It is unbelievable what a team can achieve when they believe.

Ed Burke is the former head coach of the Torrey Pines (Calif.) High School football program. Read more about improving your team’s chemistry through coaching activities.

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