Blindside

5 vragen aan… Steve Sheppard

Steve Sheppard

In onze wekelijkse rubriek 5 vragen aan interviewen we iedere week een bekend gezicht uit de Nederlandse American Football wereld. Deze week is dat Steve Sheppard, o.a. voormalig coach van de Crusaders en de Dutch Lions…

For our readers who might not know you, who is Steve Sheppard and what is your football background?

I played and coached youth for Norwich Devils in the UK from 1986-96. I coached the Delft Dragons from 2001-5 and the Amsterdam Crusaders from 2006-11 before joining Dresden Monarchs as a full-time coach for the 2015 season. I’ve had two stints with the Dutch Lions (2002-4, 2013-17) and coached the Australian national team at the IFAF World Championships in 2015. Within those teams I’ve had various roles at different times – OL, RB, WR, DL and LB coach, OC, DC, STC and HC.

What did you learn from your experience in football outside of the Netherlands? 

Structure, clear vision, common goals, roles and responsibilities, and preparation, preparation, preparation!

The NFLE taught me about practice structure and how important technique is but the GFL was the first time I had been able to work that way, surrounded by coaches, players and staff who were on the same page. The first thing I was reminded was how little I know about football.

I’d been at Dresden as DL coach in camp in 2014, then joined as full time OL coach and ST co-ordinator in 2015. I learned so much about ST, DL and OL there. I realised quickly that I needed to keep learning every day to keep up with what I needed to teach in order for us to be successful. The other coaches are as busy as you are, so you cannot rely on being taught. You really need to be a self-starter with learning.

It’s important to prepare practice and to prepare your players, yourself and fellow coaches to keep it efficient, effective and keep the tempo high which is critical. We all had clear roles, and we had unwritten processes we all understood.  I would break down and study film of our own games and practices, give feedback, break down film of our opponents to find weaknesses and tendencies and prepare our players to exploit them. I’d plan my practice segments, deliver the ST scout report and game plan on Monday, maintain ST depth charts, field layouts and scout cards and have them ready for the part time coaches so they were ready to go as soon as they arrived from their day jobs.

We were the full-time guys so we offloaded effort from the part-timers. I’d bring in players to the office during the day for 1-on-1 technique work. I became quite an expert in Playmaker Pro and Hudl and would swing between loving and hating them both. The GFL is pretty unforgiving. If you’re unprepared, it is obvious and affects the whole team.

A completely new experience to me was the difference when the team is actually well known within the city. It sounds cool to coach in front of a crowd of 3000-8000 with all kinds of stuff going on. It is too, but you really only notice it after the game for a few minutes before they start to drift out of the stadium. Pre-game and during the game you’re focused entirely on business. The noise is actually just annoying! I found being recognised by supermarket staff and hearing “Hello, coach” from strangers in a hotel actually quite an unsettling experience even though it was meant well. Going to events with the fans’ club when many of them are too overawed to even talk to you is odd. As we tried to mingle with fans after home games, I’d say hello to people who had even friended me on Facebook, yet they would go shy and hide away!

I also experienced how some fans can turn on the team horrifically on a personal level when things go badly, and others can make huge efforts to show their support for you at the same time. I can only imagine how strong you’d have to be at a large professional football or soccer team to not be affected by that. I learned to wait until I’d reviewed our game film before reading the comments on the fan sites. Once you’ve studied the film, you can just laugh off the dramatic opinions, both good and bad, as you are in possession of the facts. When you study your game film it is never as bad as you thought, but never as good as you thought either.

Another huge learning was how critical the organisation is. The volunteers were amazing. Film, medical, accommodation, transport, equipment., facilities, stats. These guys were the true stars of the team. It’s so important that your organisation understands football, their roles and how important it was to keep distractions away from the coaching and playing staff. They asked us what we needed and it was done. The management respected us as experts on the football side, and we respected them for their management expertise, and we rarely clashed. Yes, we had a bigger budget than a Dutch team, but it costs nothing to be organised and committed.

We re-implemented our Dresden model for Australia in Ohio and had to install everything within a ten-day camp before the World Championship tournament began. One or two of the staff were not used to the way we worked which resulted sometimes in some distraction and frustration until we solved it, and that’s when you realise just how important it was and how easily you take that for granted.

I often hear that this is not the GFL. That is true. However, I coached 11 full seasons in the AFBN so I understand the challenges, but I also know that much of it CAN be transferred if we just want to know how and are prepared to do the work. The most recent Dutch Lions era took a lot from what the coaching staff had learned from their NFL(E), NCAA and GFL experiences, made observation trips to Braunschweig and Dresden and successfully implemented what we could on a smaller scale.

In the Netherlands we don’t effectively use our off season. It shouldn’t be a long “vacation” or time to play random games – it’s when you need to do technique work (as well as speed, strength and conditioning). There’s no time to effectively teach technique only during the season. The Germans did that much better.

What issues do you see currently with football in the Netherlands?

I keep seeing solutions, but not the problems we are trying to solve or why. We need to understand our objectives before we can even approach that. However, looking at the NOC*NSF figures, we are really small. That’s obviously a concern at an existential level.

The Netherlands is logistically an ideal country for football. The travelling distances are small compared to most countries. We also have quite some young athletes around especially in the larger cities. It’s quite a wealthy country in general. There’s a lot of opportunity. However, we don’t really take advantage of our situation, and I feel part of it is again a question of organising our resources well.

There are lots of factors but I found the following figures quite telling:

  • 2016 NOC*NSF figures show that 62% of males (59% females) in NL practice sport weekly. The top ten most practiced sports make up for 78% of that figure, only 7% of which is in a team sport (all soccer).
  • Only 25% overall practice sport within the context of a sports club. Of 5-18 year olds this figure is 52%!
  • An (American) study a couple of years ago showed that 70% of kids quit organized sports before the age of 13.
  • The top reasons for kids leaving organized sports in the US are: no longer fun, lack of a scenario where kids can play just for fun, lack of development and lack of playing time.

This indicates that in order to grow and sustain our numbers in a team sport, we have to attract and keep youngsters at an age early enough before they get disillusioned with sport or move to individualistic sport activity. We need to find ways to advertise and demonstrate how absolutely brilliant it is! What are our challenges compared to other sports? For example, is the concussion discussion having an effect? Does heads up tackling even help? Many concussions do not involve head contact. Have we thought about hawk tackling at youth? We should avoid making assumptions with this – we should do a bit of research or at least re-use what is out there.

The other obvious issue in the Netherlands is the level of coaching. We need to develop coaches. The kids have to feel they can develop by coming to practice. We all need to be able to tell them how, not just what. As a league and as clubs we need to take responsibility for the quality of our coaches. That doesn’t just mean sending them on a course and forgetting about it. That means monitoring, measuring and maintaining it.

However, we as coaches cannot sit back and say “ok, AFBN, develop me”. We need to take responsibility for our own development. I was recently asked whether I thought it was better to appoint coaches who knew football, or coaches who wanted to develop. My response was that if they don’t want to develop, they don’t understand football. I would be harsh and say if there are people who don’t want to develop, fine. Let’s develop others and soon the rest will be left behind and replaced. We cannot rely solely on external coaching anymore.

The NFL Europe was free or very cheap and guaranteed quality because they had an interest in developing local players. That’s been gone since 2007 and now the camps which are available vary widely in quality and are usually businesses with all the costs and sky-high promises that come with it.

Do you think there is still hope for football in NL?

Absolutely, and it starts with a common vision & objectives shared transparently with the entire league, not only the bestuur! We need the clubs to buy in to objectives for them to be successful and for that you need a certain level of co-creation. Not endless discussions but stakeholders from the clubs do need to be involved. An “us and them” atmosphere will absolutely prevent success. If the goals are not transparent how do we expect the entire league to positively work toward them? We have such a small member base that we cannot achieve it with a small subset of resources.

High level goals are not sufficient. Once we break down our vision and objectives to clear goals, then we need to address how to achieve those goals. Only then can we really break it down into a plan with defined activities and measured results. I think we need somebody with experience and understanding to guide this process. The bestuur are there to steer, but not to manage detail. That’s not their skill set. A plan means concrete actions, prioritised on value and when necessary with timelines, expected to provide specific results based on solid reasoning.

It is not enough to simply throw the ball over the court and tell a club they need to increase membership by 30% next year. Don’t you think they’ve already been trying? Doing the same things over and over and expecting different results is not a good strategy.Most important principles are making sure you identify everything you need to achieve your goal, and do nothing which doesn’t contribute to it. That’s how to be efficient.

We also need to manage expectations. The objectives have to be realistic. On a longer term if we are successful we can raise the bar. For example, the Dutch Lions made huge strides since 2013 yet I am pretty sure that the general opinion was that we were not successful because we didn’t make it to the A group. I still remember hearing opinions even from within the team (players and staff) that our rightful place was top 6 in Europe. Not in 10 years, but right now. That displays a lack of awareness of the difference in technique, knowledge and current resources between NL and countries like Germany, Austria, France, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, GB and Italy right now.

Could it have happened? It’s possible but would have been a massive upset. We have to realise that a Dutch national team can only work with what they have available from the club level. To be successful on an international level, the foundation has to be stronger and the pool of good coaches and well coached players has to be much larger. We can definitely get there, but have to organise ourselves.

One thing which has to happen is coaching education. I cannot see any objective we can come up with which would not involve having coaches with more football knowledge and teaching ability. Whoever runs this has to have a proven practical understanding of football coaching.

Coach education? We have good coaches in NL, right?

We do have some, but they are few and far between and we need to be honest with ourselves on that. The good ones understand better what is required of a coach, what needs to happen to develop a player to play their position, and what is required of a player to improve. All of these guys have gone out of their way to learn this.

Coaches on every level need to keep learning all the time. When John Leijten wrote an article in Gridiron.nl suggesting that Dutch coaches have little or no knowledge of football, the reactions were “I learn all the time” and “you can never stop developing”. Let’s look in the mirror. We are not there yet. It’s not about maintaining knowledge or adding the finer points or learning new techniques. We first have to get to a basic level of being able to teach technique, run a practice, understand the game.

How many clubs can honestly say that have a defensive line coach who can teach players how to read and react to a down block, the technique involved – hands, feet, hips, eyes, angles, leverage – and go over film showing them how to modify their? That is one of the most basic fundamental skills a defensive lineman requires, and is only one of 7 common blocks you’re likely to face at an average European level. When I was first coaching DL at the Lions most of my players were not even aware that there was a difference in how they needed to play run or pass.

Nobody wants to watch a bad product. Serious athletes will not stick around if they are not being coached to develop their technique. Potential players and staff will not stick around or give consistent time and effort. We have to improve that.

I realise that some people might feel attacked by this statement and that’s not my intention. But we have to have the balls to look in the mirror and get out of our comfort zones or we’ll be saying the same thing in 20 years. If you’re reading this and you think I am talking about somebody else, I am not. I am talking about you, and I’m talking about me too.

What’s in it for coaches to take their development seriously?

Obviously the most rewarding part of coaching is seeing players develop and your development is a key requirement for that, but I’d like to show out how many opportunities this sport has to offer in Europe for coaches who want to develop their skills. Football gives back, especially here!

Since 2001 I’ve coached in or against teams from 17 different nations, met thousands of people and made friends from all walks of life from all over the world through football. In Europe, we’ve been so lucky with access to coaches who most US high school coaches wouldn’t get anywhere near. I’ve coached in EFAF Cup games, Big 6, coached professionally, coached for two national teams including two Euro tournaments and a World Championship, NFLE camps and shadowed at Team Europe. Coaching in the Hall of Fame stadium in Canton (even thought it was empty), and practicing with Team USA on 4th July in Akron’s stadium was special too. As special memories, championships don’t come up high on the list.

It is all out there for you! Even if we have an explosive growth over the next few, football in Europe is a very small community and the US knows it is a relatively untapped market. The opportunities for coaching in this sport are truly exciting. There are others in NL who have had similar experiences, and what is common in all of them is not so much the coaching ability as a willingness and desire to improve and actively seek more knowledge. That gets noticed, and gives you opportunities. For me the learning is one of the most fun aspects. You learn something every day you coach, every day you look at drills or articles on the internet, every time you talk to other coaches and players. It’s the most rewarding thing I have ever done in my life and I would recommend it to anybody!

But we really have to develop ourselves in order to give the players that feeling as well. That feeling that they will develop, and that for some of them doors can open. That’s what will keep them in the sport, and of course what will develop their playing level and opportunities for growth.