Coaching PhD- See Ball, Catch Ball. It’s that simple!

I have had the privilege to coach some of the best athletes in the world.  Coaching such a high-level athlete comes with quite a task – enhance and improve an elite skill set.  This is easy to write but extremely difficult to do for a litany of reasons.  Comparatively, if you are given a business that is operating at 98% above competition, finding that next 1% of improvement is EXTREMELY difficult. 

Refining and enhancing the skills of a human being that has experienced enormous levels of success is not only functionally difficult to do, but the motivation to get that athlete to put in the work necessary is exponentially harder.  Think about it, this kid has dominated in every aspect of their craft.  They are ballers!  Spend ten extra hours working on ball reception?  I don’t drop the ball, coach!  Work on top end efficiency 3 times a week?  Can’t nobody guard me, coach!

This is where I saw great players transition to ELITE.  Where a seemingly dominant version of that player, in self-evaluation, DISGUSTS them.  All-Big 10?  I am an All-American.  1st Round Pick?  I am a top 10 pick.  Best Wide Receiver in the NFL?  I am the best, EVER.  That mindset of chasing greatness, chasing perfection – THAT is where elite lives.  Never satisfied, always hungry.

Great players don’t want to hear “great catch” – they want feedback that will help them improve.  When an athlete KNOWS that they are improving, they will work exponentially harder.  This was one of my greatest passions in coaching.  Not only HOW to improve athletes – but how to MOTIVATE them to improve.

If you haven’t read about the head athletic trainer at LSU, Jack Marucci, I suggest you do.  He is fascinating.  With 24 years as the Director of Athletic Training, he’s OBSESSED with the science behind athletic performance.  He works with all sports and his own kids were elite athletes. How obsessed?  In his quest to improve sports science he was unhappy with the quality of baseball bats offered in the industry. His solution? Go out back in his shed and handcrafting his own!

Fast forward 18 years and Marucci Bat Company has taken a major share in the baseball bat industry.  He saw a void and created a solution. This mindset is how I operated as a football coach daily.  I looked at film, looked at failures – asked WHY it happened.  Then crafted a plan, a drill, a workout to fix the issue.  I can honestly tell you 85% of drill work we did with receivers at Ohio State was made up in my office with no example of how to do it.  Just a few coaches talking through why an issue happened and discussing how to fix it.

Envision it – it’s team drills, ones on ones… Critical moment in the drill, situational (3rd and 7).  The quarterback evades pressure, slides in the pocket, delivers a strike to a blanketed receiver and… he drops it.  Then wait for it.  You hear the most comical sentence in “coaching” – a pet peeve of Urban Meyer’s, “Catch the damn ball!”

He would always laugh (and by laugh, I mean a very demeaning and uncomfortable laugh) to such a coaching point.  At which point he would get close to you and say, “Hey dumbass, how about you COACH him to catch the damn ball!”  That was my mission daily.  How can I train, develop and prepare my players so that ANY scenario they face in competition – they have done it so many times it is second nature.

Catching the ball.  Simple, right?  See the ball, catch the ball.  What’s so hard?  I plan on exploring this topic in great detail moving forward but wanted to share the most bad-ass analytical tool I have seen in fifteen years coaching. Which is being utilized by, surprise surprise, LSU athletics: It’s called Ocular Focus.

Ocular Focus is a system that tracks where a player is looking, where a player is focused, and the angle which his head and eyes are forced to execute a skill. Simply put – it’s the statistical probability that a player will be successful at a given skill based on the data of their eyes.  How likely is THAT player, on THAT route, on THAT side of the field going to make the play?  I believe there are two answers.  You can utilize data in drill work to identify weaknesses for two applications: Improvement and Success Promotion.

You can identify what eye dominance a player has and put them in situations that stress their weaker eye, their weaker vision set up – and drill those weaknesses to improve the likelihood they execute.  Do it so many times they have a level of comfortability when it arises.  You also can limit and minimize the times they are asked to attempt something where their probability of success is lower.

Look at these stats and tell me there isn’t a problem at ALL levels of football:

The three most targeted wide receivers in the NFL on deep balls last year were Kenny Galladay, Odell Beckham Jr. and Stefon Diggs.  They were targeted down field 102 times in 2019.  When any of them were on the left side of the field they had a 17.1% success rate.  Right side of the field?  50%.  The dudes that were thrown the highest frequency of deep balls in the NFL were 33% better on the right than the left!  That’s not coincidence.

Here is my belief and what I will be setting out to prove (and change).  There are two main factors in receiving a deep ball – Ocular and Manual Dominance.  Which eye is dominant and which hand is most comfortable STOPPING the football?  Think about it, if you are on the right sideline and a ball is coming from the quarterback, your left eye is the primary eye in your vision point on the ball.  Similarly, and simultaneously, your right hand is the primary actor in stopping the flight of the ball.  So, success will be based on (among other outlying factors) your ability and strength of your left eye tracking the ball and your right hand stopping it.

The athlete development platform I am in the process of creating (Zone 6 Training) is set out to research, study and give answers to this relationship and drill work to improve success in all aspects of football.  All positions, all situations – we are just getting started!  Science leads to refined teaching. Refined teaching leads to development. Development drives motivation to improve!  That is our mission.

This study into the kinesthetic science behind athletics is fascinating.  The APPLICATION of sports science in a coach’s world is the red diamond in the rough.  We are set out to be the Red Diamond in Football Development.

by: Zach Smith

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