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New School Coaching in the NFL

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Back in the 1980s when I was teaching, coaching and running a dormitory at a private school for boys near Hartford, Connecticut, there was a student in my dorm and English class named Arnold Bucove.

Arnold was the son a renowned physics professor at Cornell—-so the faculty made the assumption that Arnold had to be some sort of a genius. After all, it was in his DNA.

The problem was—-Arnold’s two greatest passions in life were reading comic books and sleeping. As a dorm master it was my job to wake the students up so as to make sure that they dragged themselves over to the refectory for breakfast.

With Arnold, I knew I had to check on him two or three times, because he had a habit of getting up, putting on his khakis, blazer and school tie and then climbing back in bed to finish reading the comic book he nodded off to at bed check the evening before.

For a sixteen year old kid, Arnold’s command of the English language was so sophisticated that this once again assured his teachers that he was a true-blue Mensa candidate. In fact, one morning when Arnold traipsed into my English class twenty minutes late, he entered the room, took one haggard look at me and said, “Um, Mr. Mitchell, I must apologize, my alarm clock malfunctioned.” This sent the students in the class into a roar of guffaws.

I mean how many sixteen year old kids use the word “malfunctioned”?

Well, the faculty and I were always wondering why was this brilliant scion of one of the world’s most renowned physics professors was on the brink of failing every subject?

Of course, I knew that all Arnold really wanted to do was sprawl back in his bed and read comic books until the could drift off into an REM kind of bliss.

After a faculty meeting where Arnold’s teachers were asked to gather in order to discuss Arnold’s poor grades, I took the risk of asking the Dean of Students who was presiding over the meeting whether it would be wise to have Arnold tested for a learning disability.

Back in the 1980s, testing students for learning disabilities was a controversial matter, particularly among parents who felt like that just by the mere suggestion of testing their sons and daughters were being stigmatized.

I told the dean that if I had to take a guess, I would guess that Arnold had ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) and that if he did, we would need to put him on an IEP (Individualized Education Program) in order to give him the accommodations he required.

Many brilliant people suffer from having learning disabilities.

The problem was, the school was reluctant to ask Dr. Bucove and his wife to have Arnold tested.

So, to my knowledge, he never was.

But, having worked with students with ADD before, I tried a couple of strategies with Arnold in my English class. The one that made the biggest difference was asking Arnold to draw his own picture of the characters we were reading in To Kill a Mockingbird. Not only did Arnold embrace the idea, he started brilliantly turning his drawings into comic book scenes.

I gave him extra credit for every scene he drew.

Then came the test on the novel—-and Arnold scored the highest grade in the class. At the end of the closing essay he even had time to draw one last scene of Scout and Jem in their Halloween outfits.

By final exam week Arnold’s yearly grade in English had improved from a D to a B.

But—-here’s where the story gets a tad sensational.

As a dorm master, I used to sit at a desk in the hall during study hall, not only to proctor the hallway, but to offer students extra help with their homework or exam preparations.

The night before Arnold’s geometry exam, he traipsed his was down the hallway to my desk and said, “Um, Mr. Mitchell, as it turns out I need to score an 89 on tomorrow’s geometry exam in order to pass the course.”

“There’s just one thing on the practice exam that I can’t seem to figure out,” he said.

“Go ahead, Arnold, try me,”

“Um, are the diagonals of a rhombus congruent?”

“Well, let’s see.” I took out a piece of paper and drew a rhombus and then I had Arnold draw in the diagonals.

“What do you think?” I asked.

“Um, I don’t know. I’m not quite sure.”

“Well, let’s draw a bigger rhombus,” I said.

After Arnold drew in the diagonals, I was surprised to hear him say once more that he didn’t know.

So, I took his hands and placed them on the vertices of the shorter diagonal and then switched his hands over the longer diagonal.

“See, Arnold—-what do you think?” I asked.

Arnold looked at me with a furrowed brow and a funny little expression of bewilderment and he said, “Well, I know they are not equal, but are they congruent?”

“ARNOLD!!!” I cried.

“It might serve you well to know that—-equal means congruent!”

Here I am asking myself how in the world someone as brilliant as Arnold sat through an entire year of geometry and had never realized that congruent means equal.

Well, suddenly for Arnold it was like a thousand gears meshing—-I could see it in his face—-the old “aha moment”, if you will.

At family-style sit down dinner at the refectory the next night, the very last dinner of the school year, Arnold’s geometry teacher told me that he scored a 98 on the geometry exam.

The truth is—-as a school we failed Arnold Bucove—-he didn’t fail us.

Let me ask you this—-who is to blame when students grossly underachieve?

The student? The parents? The teachers?

Fast forward twenty-five years later. As a veteran teacher at a public high school in southeastern Massachusetts, I was asked to mentor a new English teacher named Alec.

Before long it was a common occurrence to see Alec storm into the English office during lunch break ranting about how stupid and ignorant and lazy the students were.

In each case he would always say, “When I was their age if I didn't do my homework my parents would kick my ass and ground me so that i wouldn’t ever do it again.”

“But today these kids don’t give a damn, pretty much about anything,”

So, one day I pulled Alec aside and asked him, “What do expect? Do you expect to have a class of Stepford students who all sit at attention and say yes sir, no sir and everyone has his/her homework done and is eager to go over it?”

“Well, freaking yeah,” Alec said. “That’s the way it was when I was growing up.”

“Really? So, let me ask you, what is your greatest inspiration as a teacher?”

Alec said, “Having good classes where the class is not held back by the laziness of the students.”

“Yeah,” I said. “But, students who are always prepared and eager to learn are the easy ones. Pretty much anyone can teach those kinds of kids, right?”

“No. It takes a really good teacher to take kids like that to a higher level,” Alec said. “That's where classes should go—-to a higher level.”

“Yes, but doesn’t it inspire you to find a way to motivate and encourage students who are somewhat detached and seemingly indifferent to learning?”

“No,” he said, “they are a pain in the ass.”

“Well then,” I said, “you are NFL.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

“N-F-L, it means not-for-long in teaching. if you don’t embrace the challenge of motivating and connecting with the more difficult students, then you need to find a different profession.”

Alec left teaching at the end of the school year to go to law school.

Just two weeks ago and this is now ten years later I was talking to a former student of mine who is a brilliant young writer and he told me how surprised he was to have become a writing major in college at The New School in New York because, as he put it, “I had an English teacher my sophomore year who berated me and the other students so badly that it made coming to class each day miserable. As as result, back then, I wanted nothing to do with reading and writing.”

Of course, I knew who that teacher was. So I told my former student the same story I just told you.

Teaching and coaching today’s students and athletes has evolved in some very meaningful ways.

As NFL teams like the Cardinals bring in close to twenty rookies, each rookie class is a social and educational study in itself. Like most classes, a very interesting, almost Darwinian survival of the fittest mode occurs within the group. There will be alpha type who emerge as frontrunners, there will be quiet, reticent types who will try to function as sponges and there will be outcasts who are so overwhelmed by the experience that they will appear like fish out of water.

When I had the honor of meeting John Madden he put it this way: “There are three types of people in life: people who MAKE things happen, people who WATCH things happen and people who DON’T Know what the f%^&’s happening.”

“Which one are you? “ he asked me with a chuckle.

For the Cardinals coaches to expect, as Alec did, that all of the rookies will be well prepared and supremely confident in their own abilities is highly unrealistic. The truth is—-in a group of twenty new faces there are guaranteed to be a host of individuals with different learning abilities and styles.

A player doesn’t get to an NFL training camp without being talented in some shape or fashion.

Right before the 2020 NFL Draft there were reports circulating about some of the daft prospects’ low Wonderlic test scores—-thus some pundits were speculating how those reported scores could affect the players’ draft statuses.

Right before the draft, there was a rumor that a red flag had emerged about tackle Jedrick Wills, Jr. of Alabama in the form of some type of learning disability.

I had to laugh at that one because if any player in this draft had learned and mastered the techniques and instincts of playing right tackle, that player is Jedrick Wills.

Yes, learning the sophisticated nuances of today’s NFL offenses or defenses is often a daunting task for twenty-one year old rookies.

When you hear a play call these days and it’s about ten crazy words long. For some players under pressure, just repeating the call is a major challenge.

Now, there are keys to listen to in the play calls for each position group and typically the last last three terms of the play call are pass patterns for the wide receivers and by then the offensive line has heard its protection scheme and the snap count.

But, the point is—-teaching the terminology, techniques and schematic nuances to twenty rookies is going to require in many cases some individualized teaching accommodations.

Old school coaches would expect players to come in and get an instant grasp of the details, otherwise any young player showing confusion could be ostracized, humiliated and made a “Knee Deep” example of.

In Arizona, the old school approach was getting just that—-old.

Coincidentally, the team owner and GM were challenging their new coaches to motivate and connect with what they called “different personalities.”

Well, yes, there are always personality quirks involved form one player to another, but what they are really talking about is players with different learning styles and abilities.

New school coaches are prepared to offer players their own form of IEPs and with them, they devise some critically important learning accommodations.

The first thing new school coaches will do is call the players college coaches to find out what those learning styles are.

The Cardinals’ first round draft pick, Isaiah Simmons, in his first at length virtual interview with the Arizona media, informed the reporters that he is a player who thrives on “structure.”

How many young players tell you that?

If you read the recent articles about how enamored Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables was when he flew out to Kansas to meet this under-the-radar three star prospect, Venables was taken in immediately by Isaiah Simmons’ affinity for learning.

It already looks like Isaiah Simmons will be one of the easy ones for the Cardinals to coach, easy like—-Larry Fitzgerald. Larry has embraced every coach he’s had in his seventeen years as a Cardinal.

It looks like 4th round defensive tackle, Rashard Lawrence, a three year “permanent captain” at LSU ,is already in complete understanding of what it takes to be a good pro. He recently said, “I’m not a hoot and hollering guy. I’m a guy that wants to lead by example. I want to be first in drills, I want to be the first one in and last one out. I want to prove to guys in the locker room that I’m a guy that’s dependable day in and day out.”

That’s the kind of wise approach that QB Kyler Murray made last year when he quietly went about his business of earning his teammates’ trust before imposing any aspect of his will on them.

It was very special to read 6th round inside linebacker Evan Weaver’s reaction to being compared to legendary Cardinal Pat Tillman, “No one will be this man! American Hero, Arizona Hero, Sports Hero! All we can do is strive to be like him and push ourselves to believe like him! Need to keep pushing to be more like Pat!”

This type of maturity that we are already seeing from Simmons, Lawrence and Weaver (and similar cases are being made by Josh Jones, Leki Fotu and Eno Benjamin is a tribute to the kind of thorough scouting the Cardinals are doing.

But each of these players is apt to have a different learning style. Some players are visual learners—-some are audio learners—-some are “by rote” learners who thrive on making note cards—-some are independent and autonomous learners—-but some are dependent learners, and it is unrealistic to think that every rookie is going to catch on and learn what it means to be a confident, high-functioning pro in some kind of a four week crash course.

This is why it’s frustrating to hear some Cardinals’ fans dismiss of some of last year’s rookies already as failures who should be cut, because in their rookie year they didn't come in and light the organization on fire.

New school coaches will tell you that the process of assimilating rookies into the program takes time and in many cases some individual grooming vis-a-vis learning accommodations.

The days of coaches publicly shaming their players in front of the team and to the media are waning.

The player development in an NFL franchise is a cooperative endeavor. The coaches need to diversify their teaching so that the young players can learn and grow with the system.

When players fail, so do the coaches. One of the lamest coaching excuses when the players fail is/was, “but the system works.”

The system only works when the coaching is effective and the players are deeply engaged and ensconced in the learning process. For many players their engagement is dependent on the team’s support systems. Engaged learning and diversified teaching is often the key to developing the players’ confidence.

While some NFL analysts felt that Kliff Kingsbury coming directly from the college ranks was an immediate harbinger of failure, one can make the case that it actually gives him a heads-up in terms of how to relate to the players and how to accommodate their learning styles.

Sometimes all it takes for a visual learner with ADD is the understanding that equal means congruent. Hopefully no coach has quit on that player before that “aha moment” occurs.

As a former coach, I would like add one more rule of thumb and that is—-don’t cut a draft pick if you have never played him in a regular season game.

Practice is precisely the place where you want to make mistakes. You might not believe this, but Tom Brady was legendary in Foxborough for throwing 3-4 interceptions a day at practice.

Any coach will tell you, there are some players who make their fair share of mistakes in practice, but when the stadium lights come on, they morph into electrifying dynamos.

It’s kind of like putting a little wager on your golf game with your buddies. There is something about having a wager on the line that can bring out the competitive spirit in all of us to the point where we surprise ourselves by sinking a 12 foot, downhill left to right putt with a round of beers and platters of cheeseburgers on the line.

Yeah kind of like having to score an 89 on a final exam to pass a geometry course—-and pulling a 98 out of the hat.