Book Excerpt: Chasing Perfection

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Imagine the the type of coaching effort required to achieve an undefeated season in high school football. Now, think about going undefeated for 12 seasons in a row! It almost sounds impossible that a coach could have 151 consecutive wins – but, De La Salle High School head coach Bob Ladouceur did just that. We’re excited that he’s sharing some of his high school football coaching tips in this excerpt from his book, Chasing Perfection: The Principles Behind Winning Football the De La Salle Way.

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De La Salle High School head coach Bob Ladouceur is an expert when it comes to high school football, and he knows what it means to be a true Spartan. Ladouceur took part in 399 wins during his time as head coach from 1979 to 2013. From 1992 to 2004, he guided the team to 12 consecutive undefeated seasons, setting a national record for high school football with 151 consecutive wins.

Ladouceur believed that good coaching always started with teamwork, selflessness, humility, sincerity and accountability. He knew that if a coach didn’t have those traits, his players never would. His goal was to not only make his players better on the field but off the field as well. Ladouceur was enshrined to the National High School Hall of Fame in 2001 for all of his success. Chasing Perfection: The Principles Behind Winning Football the De La Salle Way, by Bob Ladouceur with Neil Hayes (Triumph Books, 2015), depicts true portraits of life lessons, football techniques and the value of persistence. This title outlines different positions, plays, tactics and important elements for creating a successful football team. Coach Ladouceur retired in January 2013 after winning his last Open Division state championship in December 2012.

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Coach Bob Ladouceur – photo by Bob Larsen

Book Excerpt: Chasing Perfection:

The Principles Behind Winning Football the De La Salle Way, by Bob Ladouceur with Neil Hayes

Cover of Chasing Perfection
As depicted in the movie, “When the Game Stands Tall”

Motivation and Team Building

Kids and their parents often have unrealistic expectations. They want to compete at a prestigious camp or All-Star Game. They want to play for a major university. They have so many outside things pulling at them, and those outside influences are often concentrated totally on them and nobody else. For that reason it’s more difficult to create a team today than it was 20 years ago because kids are pulled in so many different directions. They’re always wondering, What’s in it for me? If I put in the time, if I work real hard, will I become a star?

The first thing I tell kids and their parents is that I don’t care about any of that. Creating a team is much more difficult than teaching the game or a specific skill or technique. It’s teaching kids how to cooperate with other people. I like to call it being socially sane. Do you have the ability to respect other people and conduct yourself as if the world does not revolve around you and there are other people out there that matter? Can you fit into that mode? It’s making kids understand that they must lose some of themselves in order for a team to thrive.

My primary goal is to create an authentic team experience. The game is about creating a team, and that means being unselfish and doing what you’re told. It means changing positions if we want you to. It means playing special teams like a demon, being on time, and working hard in the weight room. Don’t be a coach watcher. Don’t go along for the ride. Don’t step back, always step forward. That’s why our players set specific individual and unit-by-unit goals every week, including improvement goals, performance goals, and technique goals. Our total and absolute focus is on team. I want them to understand what it means to sacrifice for a team and achieve team-related goals.

They are not it. They are part of it.

I’ve coached players such as Amani Toomer, Aaron Taylor, and Maurice Jones-Drew who have gone on to successful careers in college and the NFL. We treated them exactly the same as everybody else. We won’t stand for any selfish behavior, regardless of how talented a player might be. As it turned out, those guys were our hardest workers, but any kid who comes into our program and thinks maybe he could be a Division I guy, we make sure he knows he is working for the team.

It’s the here and now that we’re concerned with. We’ll help you and promote you if you deserve it, if you prove you are a team guy. That’s where your priority has to be. This is not about you. This is about you playing for the guy making all your blocks, opening the holes you run through, and giving you time to complete or catch a pass. It’s about playing for the guy who is taking on blockers so you can make the tackles.

We get good results that way. Our guys turn into good team guys. Even our best players have been great in terms of being leaders and captains—being first in our conditioning drills and the hardest workers in the weight room. It’s because we insist on it. It’s the only way you can create a team atmosphere. We don’t play favorites. We don’t coddle anybody.

Kids want to be good at something. When they come out for football, they want to be good at it. The motivation is different for every kid. Some kids love the game and want to compete, some kids like contact (not many, but some). Some kids want to be popular, want to be an athlete. They want to wear their jacket around. It’s an identity. Then you have guys who want to be around a team and aren’t really interested in starting and exceling, but they enjoy the companionship of playing. You get all sorts of kids who play for different reasons. That hasn’t changed. It might be a little different nowadays because sometimes kids play for athletic scholarships or because they have visions of playing in the NFL. When I played I wanted to do something not everybody else could do. It gave me a sense of pride that I was doing something unnatural, difficult, something a lot of people didn’t like to do.

I believe team is personality driven beginning with the individual. Are you a team guy? Do you know what it means to be a teammate? Do you know what it means to be a fully functioning member of a team? As much as we’ve worked on kids and tried to turn them and we can turn them sometimes and bring them around, there are others who are unwilling to be teammates. They’re not meant to be. I’ve never found the formula to be able to turn some of those guys.

One of them in particular was a player I’ll call “Michael.” Every team has a Michael or multiple Michaels. Michael wasn’t a team guy. He questioned everything whether he believed it or not. He was always somewhat stubborn and didn’t want to change. His humor was cruel. He didn’t get along with kids. He loved to put kids down. He wasn’t funny. He thought he was, but he wasn’t. I wanted to change this kid somehow. The way we do that is by bringing him into our office, sitting him down, and telling him our concerns. I might say, “Look, this is what you’re doing, this is how you are. This is not working on our team. It’s detrimental to our unity.”

His answer was, “That’s just the way I am. That’s just my personality.”

I said, “That’s really unfortunate because you just shut the door on change, and change is good, and we all must change. We all have to evolve. We all have to adjust. We all have to grow. Change is growth. You just shut the door on growth and change. You don’t want to do that.”

Those are the guys who hurt your team, hurt your program. They drag it down. They find other guys who feel the same way and they create divisions. You can’t turn everybody, but the wisest people are those who are willing to understand their shortcomings, work on them, admit their wrongdoings, and move forward from there.

The ones who can’t be turned into team guys have to go to maintain the integrity of the whole. We have cut guys who have been phenomenal players or could have been phenomenal players, but they just couldn’t fit into a team concept. They were late to practice or they always had excuses for why they couldn’t be there. We are always fine without players like that because our program is based around a commitment we all make to each other, which serves as our ultimate motivation.

We become stronger in the absence of a player, however talented, who doesn’t share our commitment.

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Coach Lad in Action

DISCIPLINE

I used to hand parents a sheet of paper with 20 rules that could get their son in trouble. On a few occasions, I had parents play lawyer with me. The rule says he’s not supposed to be drinking. He was seen holding a beer, but nobody saw him sipping from it…He was passing the joint to another person. He wasn’t smoking it…He had a cooler of beer in the trunk of his car, but it wasn’t for him. It was for his friends who weren’t football players.

That’s when I did away with the rules.

If you lie, cheat, or steal around school, in your car, at home, or on the street, you’re violating team rules. If you drink alcohol or use drugs, tobacco products, or unapproved supplements, you’re in violation of team rules, period. If you sass a teacher or are disrespectful, we’ll mete out a fair punishment for that, too.

If you don’t like it, too bad. That’s the way we do things.

When my students do something wrong or break a rule and come back and say, “I didn’t know. I wasn’t aware that was the wrong thing to do.” I’m like, “Come on. How many of us do wrong things and really don’t know it’s wrong? Be honest. Own your baggage. Everything usually turns out better from that point anyway.” Every time I did something wrong, I knew it was wrong and I did it anyway. So, when they use those excuses: “I didn’t do anything wrong.” That’s not an acceptable answer.

I tell parents we operate in the best interest of your son. If your son is hurting the integrity of the team, he’s going to pay the price for it. That will be a lesson in itself. We want to do what’s in the best interest of the team and what’s in the best interest of your son as well.

We’re fair. We’re consistent. We’re not going to cut people off at the ankles. If a player back sasses a teacher, and it’s not that serious or if it’s the first time, we’ll give him a warning. That’s it. Next time you sit for a half or miss a game. No excuses. If a kid takes a swing at somebody, that’s automatic. He sits. Same thing if he gets caught drinking or smoking. That’s one game regardless of who next week’s opponent is or where we are in our season.

You have to be alcohol and drug-free to be a Spartan. I tell parents their sons will improve dramatically as football players, they will learn to embrace fitness, and they will build lifelong friendships.

They will be around other great kids and they will do a lot of things together and have a lot of fun. They’ll laugh, they’ll bond, they’ll learn to depend on each other, and there won’t be a drop of alcohol involved. I would want my child to participate for that reason alone. I would want him to be a member of that club. That’s a major bonus for parents. Kids might be worried about playing time, but they should be thankful for everything else they get out of it: friendship, lifestyle, camaraderie, and discipline.

Assistant coaches can be more fraternal with players, but a head coach must tread a fine line. You can’t have the same relationship with your players that their peers have with them. That’s not your job. You’re an adult. They’re kids. They already have friends. They need you as a coach, a mentor, an expert, a teacher, somebody they know will hold them accountable and discipline them. They definitely have to see you as a father figure, but you’re not going to kill them with love unless it’s tough love.

I told the kids every year: “I’m not going to be your friend, your buddy. I’m going to do my job and teach you how to play football. I’m going to hold you accountable for your actions and teach you how to play the game and assess you in all those areas. If you’re not doing what we expect you to do, there will be consequences.”

They need that framework. Most child psychologists believe that kids need boundaries. They need to know how far they can push and when they cross the line. There’s that element to it. I’m not a professional coach. They can be a little more lax. They can cut players. If they have a bad apple, they can trade them. These are kids. You’re trying to mold them. You’re preparing them for life. Being a high school coach is a different job.

Modern coaches don’t like confronting kids and holding them accountable. It’s uncomfortable. Sitting kids down, calling their parents—that’s the least fun part of the job, and a lot of coaches avoid it. We don’t. When we hear rumors, we pursue them because they are usually correct. We understand the culture. We seek out information.

We had a quarterback a few years ago with a maturity problem. He was one of those kids who took advantage of substitute teachers by acting out in class. We talked to him about it. We warned him. I was in the lunch room one day and heard a substitute teacher talking about how everyone in her class was throwing spit wads. I asked if the quarterback was in the class. She said he was. I asked where he was sitting. She said he was sitting in the back left corner. I went to the classroom and found a snowdrift of spit wads in the back left corner of the room and suspended my starting quarterback for that week’s game.

We don’t let stuff slide. Our kids know it, too. They know if they do something wrong they’re going to be caught. A lot of young coaches don’t want to do that, but that’s part of creating a team. If you play favorites or you won’t sit your star athlete when it’s appropriate to do so, the kids lose respect for you. They can recognize a double standard. I’ve suspended a starter for the first quarter of the first game because he had trouble in the classroom during the offseason. After a warning the player made another disrespectful comment toward his teacher. Then he threw a piece of paper at the garbage and missed. The teacher asked him to pick it up, and he said that was BS.

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The Power of Commitment

This was a school matter. We could’ve let the dean handle it, but he was also part of our team. We expect discipline to reach all aspects of their lives. I don’t personally believe you can be a total flake in life and then get out on a football field and all of a sudden put it all together. If you pay any attention to the news, that’s being proven on a daily basis.

When we talk about discipline, we’re talking about discipline throughout the whole program throughout the whole year. If you’re a Spartans football player, you’re accountable and responsible to our team 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days per year, on and off the field. That’s critical to our program.

Coaches aren’t doing athletes any favors by letting them get away with things because of their athletic ability or because they need them to win that week’s game. Police blotters are filled with guys who received that treatment. Do you think the coaches of athletes who find themselves in serious trouble later in life did them any favors by letting their behavior slide? Do you think the college and pro athletes who find themselves on the police blotters would’ve benefitted from tough lessons when they were in high school? There have to be consequences for poor behavior. How can you prepare someone for life if he never gets punished because he’s a good athlete?

We want our players to understand that being a Spartans football player isn’t about football as much as it is about life and being a caring, empathetic individual. That’s real important to us. We feel that accountability carries onto the field, knowing that’s who you are as a person. It’s one of the greatest life lessons they can learn.

When they do mess up—and they’re teenagers so they almost always do—they have to be disciplined. Benching a third-stringer is easy. Benching a starter hurts, and we make the player and his parents and the team aware of that. But we’re willing to hurt the team to teach the lesson that what you do affects the entire team and not just yourself. A lot of coaches aren’t willing, and that only feeds the negative behavior that leads to the kind of arrests and embarrassments that have become all too common in sports today.

The Power of a Commitment

If I had to choose one thing a student-athlete learned from playing for me, it would be how to make a commitment. These commitments extend to all facets of life. Wherever I go or whatever I do, I carry that commitment with me, knowing I’m connected to a group who loves, accepts, and respects me but will also hold me accountable for my actions on-and-off the field, 365 days a year, 24 hours a day.

No exceptions, no excuses. It means answering to 45 teammates, following rules, and understanding individual attitudes and actions affect the whole. This commitment is an enormous responsibility. It means I am going to expect the best from you, and you can expect the best from me. It’s not enough to show up, go along for the ride, or look the other way when

We see a teammate doing less than his best. It’s not the commitment itself, but the degree of our commitment that makes our program unique. It’s not enough to say we work. We don’t go through the motions or satisfy ourselves with the minimum expected. Our players know the pain and dedication necessary to ready their bodies for top-flight athletic competition. We as coaches know those grueling hours spent in the weight room or pulling tires across the sun-bleached grass every summer is what galvanizes our players into a team greater than the sum of its parts.

That commitment is not an assumption but a promise that I will be there for you and I can count on you being there for me. From the way you spot my barbell to the effort you give on a double-team block to the lift home you give a teammate after practice, being able to honestly say “I was there for you” is one of the most difficult and rewarding commitments our players will make and comes closest to plumbing the true depth of our humanity.

That may be as close as I can come to describing the key to our success. Teams that accept the commitment play their best football down the stretch. It’s inspiring to see. Teams that don’t make that commitment to each other struggle. That’s why as coaches we are as demanding about players holding each other accountable as anything we do on the field.

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Chasing Perfection: The Principles Behind Winning Football the De La Salle Way, by Bob Ladouceur with Neil Hayes (Triumph Books, 2015) is available at Triumph Books.

About the Authors:
Coach Lad photo
Coach Lad

Bob Ladouceur is a retired American football coach. He began coaching the De La Salle High Spartans in Concord, California, in 1979, when he was 25 years old. He took over a program that had never enjoyed a winning season since the school’s establishment in 1965. His first season as head coach resulted in their first winning season. From 1992 through 2004 he guided the team to 12 consecutive undefeated seasons, setting a national winning streak of 151 games.

Neil Hayes is a former long-time sportswriter/columnist for the Contra Costa Times and the Chicago Sun-Times. He also wrote the script for and helped produce the hour-long ESPN documentary 151: The Greatest Streak. He was an on-set consultant and associate producer for the 2014 major motion picture When the Game Stands Tall, which is based on his book with the same title.

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Excerpt published here with permission of Triumph Books. Photo credits: Bob Larsen.

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