As in the training of all other groups of human beings for any concerted action, it is necessary to establish and maintain strict discipline among football players throughout the whole season. This not only applies to punctuality and a close observance of training rules, but also to the ingraining into each player of instantaneous and instinctive obedience to the word of command. These two adjectives have a distinct bearing on offensive team maneuvers. It is comparatively easy to teach a team to start in unison at the snap of the ball, or, if a starting signal is used, on the proper number; but it takes weeks of intensive rehearsing to reach a stage of development where each player performs his various assignments subconsciously. This asset is of particular value in the final games of the season when the atmosphere of excitement and noise of the cheering tend to distract the player's attention and when physical exhaustion dulls his brain and prevents quick reflexes. If, however, the subconscious mind has been sufficiently impressed by previous training, it will respond instinctively, with natural speed and precision. For example, players have been known to have no recollection of the last part of a bitterly contested game, yet they played in perfect form until the final whistle blew. Again, a player is sometimes struck on the head, sustaining a mild concussion; and although he is unable to answer simple questions which do not pertain to his immediate duties his subconscious mind holds him to a surprisingly accurate execution of his various tasks.
A dress-parade by the cadets at West Point is the most perfect co-ordination of human units the author has ever witnessed. The complicated maneuvers are executed with such precision that the eye can scarcely discern that the battalion is composed of human individuals; yet, upon being questioned as to the amount of work necessary to obtain such perfection, a cadet answered, "Yes, we have to drill a good deal to get everything just right; but I am now so used to the various moves and commands that I spend my time during dress-parade rehearsing my part in the play we are giving next month." So the football player must learn his tasks so thoroughly as to perform them subconsciously. This leaves his conscious mind free to cope with the unforeseen exigencies which occur constantly during a game.
Because of the short time in which so much must be learned, there is grave danger that the players may be given more than they can assimilate. The coach, who has probably had years of experience in studying as well as playing the game, is apt to assume that the players know more than they do. Until they are thoroughly versed in their assignments by repeated performance, they may know perfectly in theory what they should do under certain conditions, but fail in their efforts to put into effect what they have been taught. Moreover, the fact that all candidates are working under great pressure which often causes them to "lose their heads" must always be kept in mind.
The author can vividly recollect an incident which occurred at Cambridge in 1908 during a practice scrimmage between the first and second elevens. It so happened that a certain man, who had been playing regularly for the previous month with the second team, had that day been promoted to the varsity squad. That the two teams might be more easily distinguished, it was the custom for the first team to wear red jerseys, and the second black. During a hot scrimmage the ball was fumbled and bounced directly into the arms of the player in question. Seeing the abhorrent red jerseys about him, he instinctively fled from them, straight for his own goal posts. The black-jerseyed team, recognizing his mistake, promptly became his ardent interferers. His-own team-mates, as soon as they recovered their senses, vainly tried to tackle him; but by this time the black interferers had formed such a perfect cordon about him that not a single comrade reached him until he fell exhausted between his own goal posts, scoring a safety against his own team. Yet that same player later in his college career made the varsity team.
The coach and spectators must also realize that their viewpoint from the sidelines is far more comprehensive than the player's in the heat of strife. To illustrate: - One of Harvard's opponents in the early part of the season scored a touchdown by a play which started like an end run. The ball was "slipped" to another of the runner's side, who then made a long, diagonal forward pass in a direction opposite from which the play had started. The Harvard backfield was outwitted completely and the receiver crossed the goal line unmolested. That the episode might remain vividly impressed upon the Harvard team, the author asked each player to diagram the play as it had appeared to him. Not a single man diagnosed the play correctly, nor had many of them the slightest conception of its details. But later in the season that same team, after the play had been explained and they had received instructions in the proper defensive methods against it, foiled two attempts of the same play by different opponents.
Mention has been made of the fact that oftentimes players are fed information faster than they can digest it. From the experience just related, the author next tried the experiment of requiring all players on the squad to diagram all the plays which the team was then using. The results were again disappointing. A great majority knew their own duties in the various plays, but only the captain and two quarterbacks drew the correct assignments of players other than themselves. It is not essential that a given play should be as thoroughly known as this examination required, but far greater interest, with corresponding perfection of technique, is aroused among the players if the subject is thus studied in all its details.
Should the spectator peep into the notebook of a football coach, he might find a schedule of a day's practice, as follows:
Tuesday, October 12. Squad assembled at 3.30 dressed in uniform. 3.30 to 3.50, Blackboard demonstration.
a. Additional plays No. 14 and 15 diagrammed and explained.
b. Change in assignments of plays No. 5 and 6 diagrammed and explained.
c. Outline and theory of defense vs. "shift plays." 3.50 to 4.00, Squad at tackling dummy.
Three tackles per man, right, left and head on. Accent on the man "beyond." 4.00 to 4.15, Practice at a walk additional plays and change of assignments. 4.15 to 4.80, Offensive and defensive assignments of punt and drop kick. 4.80 to 5.00, Scrimmage teams A vs. B. Accent on new plays and assignments. 5.00 to 5.30, Scrimmage team C. vs. second team.
Accent on defenses 4 and 5.
The nature of practice varies greatly from day to day. If there has been a hard game on a Saturday, the following Monday is usually devoted to correcting the mistakes made during the game, with perhaps a part of the afternoon spent in coaching the individual. Tuesdays and Thursdays are the best for hard scrimmage. On Wednesdays the great portion of the time may be spent on kicking and forward passing. Fridays are taken up with a thorough signal drill and a sort of dress rehearsal for the game on the following day.