Monday, May 4, 2020

Virtually Teaching Football Players Using the Protégé Effect


During the COVID-19 pandemic, NFL teams are teaching players virtually. Many analysts are concerned this may impact player development. Daniel House explains why the "protégé effect" could change the way teams structure their offseason programs. 


by: Daniel House (@DanielHouseNFL)

With so much uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, football coaches across the world are developing creative solutions to teach players virtually.

Organized Team Activities and minicamps are usually a time where young players learn critical techniques and schemes. This spring, NFL organizations will have less contact with new draft picks. There is a real chance teams won’t see players at their facility until training camp.

While organizations wait for normal activities to resume, players are participating in a virtual offseason program. There are a variety of different platforms available for coaches to share film and discuss concepts. Many analysts fear the lack of spring workouts may have a negative impact on player development.

However, there are actually many ways to effectively coach remotely. Coaches can share plays and diagrams virtually. This helps each athlete understand how their role fits within a specific concept. Instead of physically walking through concepts, players are going through mental exercises. Coaches can even share their screen and activate interactive learning features. There is also an option for players to draw on the screen. Athletes may also chime in and discuss their responsibilities during a specific play.

Researchers call this type of learning style the “protégé effect.” Studies have shown that if a student directly teaches information, they develop a deeper understanding of the content. Stanford University analyzed how teaching a virtual teachable agent (TA) impacted student learning outcomes. The TA uses artificial intelligence to learn and interact with students. Researchers found the existence of a protégé effect in these studies. While teaching the TA, students invested more time and effort into learning, which ultimately impacted outcomes.

Dating back to ancient times, Roman philosophers like Seneca discussed the benefit of "teaching to learn." This type of educational method could be extremely applicable within a virtual setting. 

While teaching football, coaches could introduce a concept to the entire team and then split off into position groups. If I was the head coach, I would have one player from each position group lead the virtual chat. During the early stages of virtual learning, each position group can work independently. After a few days, the groups can be split differently. For example, the quarterbacks could team up with the wide receivers and tight ends to look at passing concepts. In another chat room, the offensive line group can work on protections and rushing schemes. Eventually, the entire offense may join one chat and walk through the responsibilities of each player on the field.

The overall progression looks like this (the schedule will be based upon the material coaches want to cover):

Each day starts with one big virtual team meeting. After that, the players are split into smaller virtual groups. The breakout sessions have three different phases and evolve based upon how well your players are mastering the concepts.

Three Phases for Virtual Football Learning: 

Phase 1: Individual Position Group Meetings - (take turns teaching concepts to each other)
Phase 2: Collaboration Between Positions Groups - (ie: Quarterbacks with Wide Receivers - one player teaches the responsibilities of their position - rotate throughout)
Phase 3: Offense and Defense Large Group Sessions - (The offense and defense host separate virtual calls. Pick a player from each position group to explain their responsibilities to the entire unit.)

The progression between these steps is dependent upon the material you are teaching and how quickly your players are mastering concepts. Position coaches should gather feedback to determine when it is best to enter a new phase.

Through this virtual learning style, every player can take turns explaining their role and mindset. For example, a quarterback could explain the progressions that occur against certain coverages or alignments. After that, a wide receiver can discuss the evolution of their route based upon the type of coverage scheme or leverage they receive. This open discussion naturally creates a "protégé effect." Players are developing a deeper understanding of the concept by teaching it to their teammates. After the session ends, an assistant will join the virtual call to answer any lingering questions from players. Assistants are more involved with phases one and two, but players should guide most of the session. These type of player-led discussions may spark conversations, build chemistry and maximize the learning process.

After teaching others, there is a high probability an individual player will develop a deeper understanding of the material. Not only that, but through this discussion, every athlete is also learning the roles of their teammates. This can help speed up an individual player's on-field instincts and improve overall team continuity.

When live workouts resume, athletes will have a deeper understanding of the scheme. Coaches can also focus on developing technique after everyone arrives at the facility. There are even opportunties for assistants to record instructional videos for each specific position group. This allows players to go through drills and workouts that follow social distancing guidelines.

By having a firm knowledge of concepts, players may actually execute better on the field. It’s possible less mental energy will be utilized during future team workouts and games. When it’s time to physically work with coaches, athletes may play faster and focus on mastering technical skills.

Most of the time, continuity among position groups is developed during training camp. The biggest challenge is making sure young players are physically prepared for the season. Strength and conditioning staffs are sending videos and equipment to each player. Through advanced technology, key workout data and metrics can be shared with strength coaches across the country. It’s easier than ever to monitor the physical development of players from a distance. At the end of the day, each athlete will be responsible for their personal growth. Coaches can provide necessary resources, but each player must maximize them.

There are certainly adjustments that must be made to compensate for the loss of live workouts. Nonetheless, there are ways to enhance learning methods by effectively using technology and collaborative teaching styles. It is very clear the schematic knowledge players gain will be extremely beneficial for future football activities.  If teams return for training camp, the virtual coaching strategies could become a fascinating case study for future seasons.

I have developed a research question to explore: is it actually beneficial to spend more time in the classroom during spring football activities? 

A few months down the road, I want to ask coaches how they handled this situation. Did football professionals find players were more prepared leading into the season? Also, was there a possible correlation between increased virtual learning and individual performance?

When the COVID-19 pandemic ends, many of these new methods could be implemented to teach players more efficiently. The way teams respond to this situation could define future player development strategies at every level of the football industry.

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