Player development is a passion project for us at South Dakota Mines. We believe strongly that we can create a winning edge by creating an atmosphere and attitude that promotes player development through our interactions with players and the structure of the program. Our student-athlete experience here is unique due to the time demands of earning a S.T.E.M. degree and playing in the demanding Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference. Our student-athletes treat their football time as a release from the strain of their curriculum, so it is critical that we plan our practices and player development strategies with that in mind.
The following 15 Maxims of Hardrocker Player Development were not created by me, but rather are a collection of best practices that we have adopted as our template for developing student-athletes on and off the field. In essence, this is a list of best practices that we have collected through the years that will give us the best chance to get the most out of our individual players and, ultimately, our team. Every season, prior to the beginning of fall camp, we sit down as a staff and review the maxims.
1. Coach them UP, not down.
This is the starting point of our coaching attitude. I expect our coaches to be critical of our techniques and performance, but to focus their energy on finding ways to catch our players doing things right and providing positive reinforcement when we do. Certainly we still correct and coach our players with a critical eye and with direct feedback, but we believe that providing players with positive reinforcement when it’s earned, will develop confidence in their performance.
2. Boundaries: If you’re not sure, ask. RESPECT is the cornerstone of a player-coach relationship. It is ok if a player doesn’t LIKE you as long as he RESPECTS you.
At the Division II level we often have very young coaches who are in their first full-time jobs when they get to us, so it is important to establish an appropriate player/coach dynamic. I want our coaches to create a professional relationship with their players that is based on trust so it will withstand the challenges we will face during a season. Establishing appropriate boundaries is essential to building that trust. Our expectation is not that we will become friends with our players, but rather we will serve as mentors and establish credibility through our professionalism. Our “Cap ‘n Gown” academic program for players is the best opportunity for our coaches to set the standard of these boundaries. Our assistants mentor the players in their position group on life skills such as time management while monitoring their academic progress in each class. It is also an opportunity to visit with our players about the events and people in their lives that are not specifically related to football.
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3. PHYSICAL CONDITIONING precedes MENTAL TOUGHNESS. DISCIPLINE precedes MORALE. Both are necessary to WIN.
This is found in coaching manuals far and wide, probably because physical fitness is a foundation for any great team and helps create confidence, trust, and team discipline. Physical conditioning requires zero talent and we completely control what shape we are willing to get into as a team. Every season we have young players step up their game in spring ball and it is always a direct correlation to the work they put into the weight room during winter and the confidence that improved fitness instills in them. Our volunteer summer training program is a critical time and at SD Mines we have players determine their own report date based on how they self-identify. Our players that self-identify as “All-Americans” report in June; our “Champions” report in July; and our “Participants” arrive for the start of fall camp. When we are considering adding “scheme” to one of our units, I always encourage our staff to consider ways of improving our overall fitness level instead to create a winning edge.
4. “Winning the drill” is not our goal, Developing our players so we can be successful on Game Day is.
Certainly we are competitive in our practice environment and we want to embrace such competition, but as coaches we need to see a bigger picture than just an individual drill that we’re conducting on the practice field. We would like to create a specifically challenging environment for our players on the practice field and we can’t compromise proper fundamentals just to “win” in a drill. SD Mines practices will never be 2.5 hours, we don’t even make it to 2 hours, so we clearly identify the best match-ups and monitor our rep counts to get the most out of each minute on the field. We want our best players taking valuable reps against each other during practice; we want to play to a standard that as a whole staff we can see is more valuable than saying we had the upper hand that day. This is especially difficult for assistant coaches during spring practices and fall camp because we are constantly competing offense versus defense. The best coaches are less focused on winning drills and put their energy into developing mental toughness and developing a spirit of perseverance in their players.
5. Next Play.
We believe in a “next play” mentality in our program. Whatever the result of the previous play – good, bad, or indifferent – we want to switch our focus immediately to the next play. We can’t allow one bad play to lead to another. As such, we can’t afford to have long coaching points in between plays in practice because doing so does not replicate game situations and it often doesn’t let a player move on from a bad play. We film practice specifically to teach from, so we believe in training our players to move on mentally to the next play in order to create that behavioral habit. A confident player does not dwell on past mistakes or pat himself on the back for previous success, he plays specifically in the moment and it is our job to train him to do just that.
6. SIMPLICITY and CONSISTENCY. Every coach knows more than he can teach. A confused player can’t play fast.
At SD Mines we believe in fundamental football that emphasizes running, blocking, tackling, throwing, and catching. Our players spend their school days working on subjects like calculus, differential equations, and fluid mechanics. There is a misconception that, since engineers are smart, we can run very complicated schemes. However, we would be doing our players a disservice by adding more clutter to their lives, so we work hard to simplify all of our schemes, calls, and checks in order to give our players a chance to play fast and loose without hesitation. We pride ourselves on the tempo of our system of play. We even implement our tempo into our meeting rooms by keeping the meeting interactive, using response cues for our players, and keeping meetings to 30 minutes. In the end, we commit to preparing our players to make the difference in the outcome of the game, not the sophistication of our system.
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7. Sweat the small stuff. It is the difference between winning and losing.
Over the course of many seasons, we have had good success in close games and I believe our attention to the details is a big reason why. We limit techniques and schemes, but we emphasize the repetition and consistency of our execution. Don’t make assumptions! Watch video to find an edge of some kind and exploit it. Make the minutes of study count. Each fall camp we create a master list of game situations and incorporate those scenarios into daily practice. Make a list of game situations that were learning experiences for your team in the past several years and then replicate those moments. Our players thrive knowing they have been in game stress scenarios and handled them well. One example we work on every season is creating an overtime environment by splitting up the teams and competing in a live drill. It may only be 10 plays of offense versus defense and a couple of field goal situations, but we can be very detail-oriented when we review the film and the game decisions being made.
8. Your personality should be reflected in your coaching … Avoid TV coaching.
I love watching all-access videos and coaches mic’d-up videos as much as anyone, but I encourage our coaches to avoid copying what they see or hear on TV and instead develop a coaching style, verbiage, and personality that is their own. We are all influenced by other coaches and some of them we have great admiration for, but the only way we can connect with our players is to be ourselves. The connection we make will be what produces results, not the catchphrases we borrow from others. Players are impressed by being connected to their coach through emotional attachment and a desire to be mentored, not by catchphrases and one-liners they quote off of YouTube videos.
9. The Coach/player relationship should not be a negotiation. Set expectations and hold our guys ACCOUNTABLE.
It is difficult to get real results from your team when you have to bargain with individuals to do their part. It is always most difficult when we are faced with a very talented player who you know can help you win a game or two. Our greatest successes have come when we set a very high standard of expectations and hold players accountable to those high expectations. This requires discipline and sometimes difficult decisions.
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10. Know the practice plan and timing. Make efficient use of our time.
Due to our intense academic rigor at SD Mines, we are traditionally a 6 a.m. morning practice team so we can avoid class conflicts and get our players up and working when they are fresh. As such, we are limited in our practice time on the field to about 1 hour and 45 minutes, so we have to be hyper-organized and efficient with our time. Along with wanting our practices to be efficient in terms of our time, I like the ancillary benefits for our players – learning the habit of quick transitions to new drills and extra conditioning by running from drill-to-drill. The only way to prepare a team properly in such short windows of time is to take great pride as coaches in our organization and planning. A well-organized practice creates great confidence in our players that their coaches have their best interest in mind and are competent under pressure.
11. Techniques must conform to our philosophy. We should see our system in drills.
More than ever, players are asking “why?” when it comes to the skills and drills that we teach. It is imperative that we build our players with drills and techniques that directly lead to their performance on the field. Often coaches have favorite drills they have seen other teams use or that they have used in the past, but the head coach needs to monitor techniques being taught on the field and ensure they are aligned with the teaching progression. We take time at the end of every season to evaluate techniques for each position group that we can improve upon and then specifically implement drills to develop those techniques. This season we identified ball carriage and ball security as a significant point of emphasis that we were not adequately drilling, so we have developed a new set of drills that will give us a more game-like feel to each repetition. Defensively, we coach the “Big Four” – run to the ball, tackle, takeaways, and block destruction. As such, our defense has a drill for each of the Big Four every single day, which puts credence to our emphasis defensively.
12. Stay in your lane. Do not coach other coaches’ players.
Since my first coaching job in 1999, this is the one issue that has caused the most divisive staff issues I’ve seen. The head coach assigns staff responsibilities for a specific purpose and it is imperative that each coach respects the other coaches on staff enough to help them with their assigned responsibilities without stepping on their toes. When an offensive line coach is correcting defensive lineman during drills, it can have the effect of undermining the defensive line coach and can be deflating to team morale. We encourage our coaches to focus their energy on the players in their position group. Players are more observant than we give them credit for and they sense when tension exists on a staff. We want to have tension in the staff room, if necessary, but we want to be united in our message when we are with our team.
13. We are our own managers.
At SD Mines, we take pride in setting up our own drills, being creative with drill ideas, and how we maximize our equipment resources. Overall practice organization promotes structure and discipline in our program. We certainly use equipment for our drills, but we also take pride in needing fewer “toys” to supplement our instruction. We’ve found that because our coaches are setting up and taking down their own areas, we’ll commit to keeping our drills simple and effective. One way I’ve found to evaluate your drill work is to study some of the game film from a prior season. I study our quarterback play and identify the movements that we actually use, or should be using, in the pocket and look to implement those scenarios whenever possible. Our quarterbacks always enjoy when they make a play in a game or in 11-on-11 that we simulated in our drill work; it validates their process and the work they are putting into their game.
14. Be realistic about our players and our position groups.
My first year as a college football coach was as the tight ends coach at my alma mater, Western Washington. We had four tight ends in the program and I was so excited about those four kids. All I ever thought about was those four players and what their job was and how we could maximize their value. I bragged about those four guys to every coach on our staff, to my wife, and to anyone else who would listen to the story of how I was developing a tight-end revolution. I would go to the other members of the offensive staff and complain about not running enough two-tight-end sets. Within one of the first games that season, we had a bad performance at the position. I was crestfallen. Our head coach, Rob Smith, pulled me aside and taught me a valuable lesson – as a position coach you need to focus your energy on your players and develop them, but you also must be able to see the big picture of the program and be realistic about the strengths and weaknesses of your position group. We believe in being honest with our guys in how we evaluate them and, just as importantly, being honest with ourselves and what we have to work with.
15. Use the VOICE OF A CHAMPION.
This message is one that I tell myself every day; the words we choose are important. I believe that the words we use with our players need to be well though out. I want the families and friends of our coaches to visit practice whenever their schedules allow it, so it is important that our practice sounds professional. I also know that players don’t want to be cussed out. We want to coach hard, but it can be well intentioned and doesn’t require degrading our guys. None of us is perfect, but I know that when we consciously choose the proper voice on the field it is a sign that, as coaches, we are exhibiting a self-control that will be useful to us during the stress of the season.
In 2018, Zach Tinker begins his third year as head coach of the South Dakota Mines football program. Tinker was promoted after four seasons as the assistant head coach and offensive coordinator for the Hardrockers. Under Tinker’s direction, South Dakota Mines has become a high-energy offense able to move the ball up and down the football field with ease. Tinker’s style of play and philosophies have yielded a number of Hardrocker team records on the offensive side of the ball, including total plays, total yards, passing yards, passing attempts, total first downs, and points scored in a season.
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