Coaches Corner PoNY: Show me your superpower by Bryan Jones

How does a team prepare for a run at a National Championship? What are the key objectives when planning a season? What are the challenges that a coach might face? And just what should a rookie player do to prepare for tryouts? Hear from PoNY Coach Bryan Jones on all this and more

Pony 2018: Goal Setting & Overall Season Planning

Our season schedule often starts with tryouts in May, cuts in June, our first tournament in July and then the rest. We try to throw in one or two retreat weekends as well.

Goals are set, which help set expectations, but really it’s about trying to get better every day. My job as a defensive coach is to map out where we need to be strategically months ahead:

  • How do I plan to battle against the best teams at Nationals?
  • What skills are we lacking?
  • What’s the development path for those individuals who will be playing in big moments?
  • How do we balance that out with what the team needs as a whole?

These aren’t questions with easy answers. You try to analyze the lowest hanging fruit, what’s the easiest thing to implement that’s holding us back. However, if you do that every day you’ll probably be playing man defense. I need to project out the things that have a longer lag time, such as learning switching, poaching, and improving team communication. All of these are team-wide skills that need a lot more time to work than if I just say “go run hard and play your guy tight”.

A particular challenge for PoNY this year was incorporating people as they became available later in the season. Some schemes needed a refresher. In terms of scheduling time for specific skills, a lot of it came down to experience from past years, knowing where we had to be at certain times in the season; by sectionals we expect to be at a certain level, at regionals a higher level, etc. Some of it was simply the offense wasn’t being challenged enough during scrimmages and we had to make adjustments to keep them on their toes.

What happens at practices/tournaments?

2 practices a week, 1 weekday 1 weekend. A lot of individual meetups arranged since people live throughout a big city.

When introducing new strategy, it’s important to recognize the barriers to buy-in. A lot of competitive players want something to work immediately. Sometimes, you just need to stick with it, troubleshoot what’s happening on the field, and keep spending time on new schemes. Other times, the difference between initial buy-in or not is how well it was explained, or building up a complex idea by starting with simpler concepts, then bringing things together as a whole.

Forming a “brain trust” of people to help vet new ideas, and to probe the ideas with common questions, helps to eliminate issues that might have made it tough to work through these new concepts at practices. After that, it’s a lot about people management, building trust, showing people the direction we’re trying to work towards, and reminding them of goals. 

Chemistry, in terms of something clicking as a team, is really just total understanding of how something works. If your scheme is too complex, people will be thinking about what to do rather than just doing something decisive. Complex schemes need to be built from simpler building blocks. What are the fundamental elements of a large scheme? Can you build them up in a modular fashion over time? Building off of those early efforts slowly ensures that people don’t feel overwhelmed.

Doing something new is always challenging. Like I said earlier, players are so competitive in practice that they want something to work right away. There’s always a risk that players will want to abandon new ideas that don’t immediately get results. In fact, there are elements of our strategy this year that were things that failed in previous years, but were refined in 2018; they required just a little bit better explanation, or improvements to other skills that need to be developed over more than one season.

Every year we make small adjustments, but there’s nothing major I can point to that says, “this change led to a National Championship”. Every year, mental prep leading into tournament is a challenge because old stories and adages go sour and sometimes needs to be started afresh. We did find a mental center in rallying around being the best defensive team in the country; that was our main identity. 

In terms of running practice, we had adjustments in tactics, but not in the way we practiced them. Practices were at a higher level in 2018 because we had great buy in and great talent.

There’s also the mental state you want your team to be in, having fun, loose, but serious, focused and ready to go. On the other side, I try to make everything we do controllable concrete items.  Focusing on what you can control is the most obvious thing out of any mental toughness book. Things aren’t going well? Well what can we do focus on that’s within our control strategically to do better.

Advice for Rookies

Rookies and club players need to have a super power. The worst position for someone to be in making a club team is to be average at everything. A lot of times, on lower level club, or college, being an all-rounder makes you a player that people can rely on a lot. However, at PoNY we ask a lot of people to only use the tools that make them great. What skill do you have as an individual that no one else or a handful of people have? That is your super power, and it’s important to have.

It’s also important that your super power adds something to the team as a whole. The most common complaint you hear after tryouts is someone complaining about a one dimensional player making it over them. “They may play great defense, but I have a better flick huck”. If your flick huck isn’t one of the best on the team, chances are we will ask someone else to be that risk taker.

Other skills that people lack in general are break throws, marking and shutdown defense. Making a great layout block in a tryout against people who aren’t starters isn’t going to get you a spot. Having consistently good marks, being able to hit dangerous spots on the field with break throws, and being able to pressure good cutters/handlers with shutdown defense are the skills most wanting.

Develop your strengths. Yes, you also want to shore up your weaknesses. I want to see what you do better than everyone else. You will naturally get better at your weaknesses on a great team, once you make it. 

People who are more all-rounders tend to make the team only after a long time of establishing trust with club players and coaches; through pickup, or leagues, or just knowing the guys. Tryouts are such a short time to prove yourself, that winning the snapshot of your game is so important. You’ve got to show off your super power.

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