Q&A with Dan Wood

David Douglas High School, Portland, Ore.

By Staff

Coaching Management, 12.10, November 2004, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1210/qawood.htm

One of 51 coaches selected to attend the 2004 NFL Youth Football Summit, Dan Wood came to Canton having won three conference titles in the past year. As Head Coach at David Douglas High School in Portland, Ore., Wood supervises the entire football program, and in 2003, the freshman, junior varsity, and varsity teams each won conference championships.

But the three levels of competition at David Douglas have more than just a recent title in common. They’ve got a system in which coaches rotate from one level to another, a work ethic that emphasizes playing with emotion, and a philosophy that demands each student-athlete do the right thing for himself and his teammates.

Wood began his coaching career in 1976 at South Umpqua High School, where he was an assistant coach in baseball, basketball, and football. After stops at Newberg and West Linn high schools, he came to David Douglas as offensive and defensive line coach in 1986.

In 1990, Wood took over the football program at David Douglas, and 15 years later, three of the assistant coaches who started with him remain. In this interview, Wood talks about his experiences at the NFL Summit, the importance of coaching character, and the lessons he’s learned from coaching his sons—Juston, who played at Portland State University and in the Arena Football League, and Darren, a sophomore offensive lineman at Portland State.

CM: What did you learn from attending the NFL Youth Summit?

DW: The first thing I learned is that the NFL is truly sincere about supporting the youth of our country. Their major focus is on building life skills, and they see football as a positive way to make a difference in people’s lives.

The summit gave us an opportunity to reaffirm that the things we’re doing are putting our kids on the right track. Here at David Douglas, we already spend as much time as we can with our athletes during the course of the day. We’ve set up a study hall every day before practice just for our football players that is staffed by the football coaches. Since we believe it’s important for the kids to connect with their teachers, and it was difficult for them to do so after practice, we bumped our practice back an hour. I’m also fortunate that all of my paid assistant coaches are teachers at the school, and we have a good cross-section of all the different disciplines.

We work hard to communicate with our community and with our athletes’ parents. We’re open and honest about the fact that we have certain expectations of both the players and their parents. In return, they can expect certain things from us. It’s a "we" thing, a family thing, and we’re in this to provide the best experience possible for their children, keeping in mind that we want to be successful on and off the field.

What lessons have you applied so far at David Douglas?

One thing from the NFL summit that I’m implementing this year is the idea of "Choices, Decisions, and Consequences." Our entire program, from fourth graders all the way through high school seniors, will be talking about how we face a million choices every day. It’s up to each of us to make decisions, and to understand that those decisions are going to have consequences that could be either good or bad.

We ask, "What are some choices you’ve had to deal with this week? What are the decisions you could make, and what are the potential consequences?" One week, we’ll talk about the classroom, and the next week we might talk about staying away from drugs and alcohol. Another week, we might talk about something as simple as improving our practice energy and concentration.

What are your expectations for your players and their parents?

At the beginning of the year, every player receives a handout listing what we expect of them: "To do the right thing. Put family first. Be an achiever. Be a helper. Earn respect. Be trusted. Be committed. Care about others. Display pride, self-discipline, citizenship, honesty, and loyalty in everything you do." We take the kids through the list, and explain each item in detail, with examples of what we’re talking about, like "Go hard on every rep. Support your teammates. Communicate. Be enthusiastic. Be coachable. Play with emotion. Show emotional control in what you say and do."

We also have a parents’ meeting where we go over these expectations so they understand what we’re asking of their children. The biggest expectation we have of parents is that they support their son in a positive way and that they understand their son is trying to do the right thing. We talk about how a youngster’s value isn’t determined by the amount of time he gets in a game, or if he scores a touchdown. Their kids are trying to please them, and if they want to support their kids, they should understand we’re all doing the best we can.

Football is a vehicle for me to teach things like respect, communication, and maintaining a positive work ethic. It’s my way to help kids do the right thing and to potentially make a difference in these youngsters’ lives. It isn’t always about football—it’s about life skills. We want to teach self-confidence, and we want to raise self-esteem. We want to teach kids how to compete.

We want to win. But football isn’t just about championships, it’s about getting kids to grow, and if you do that, championships will follow.

What can your athletes expect in return from their coaches?

Our coaches are really good at teaching kids, rather than questioning their effort. Over time, I’ve learned that no player wants to make a mistake, and when they do, it’s important to take time to teach them. Don’t chastise him—show him what he did wrong and correct the mistake, but don’t question his integrity.

I see it happen sometimes with young coaches, when they say, "Come on, Johnny! You can do it!" They’re firing him up, and then Johnny doesn’t get it done. So the coach starts taking it personally and says, "Come on, Johnny, you can go harder than that!" He’s challenging Johnny in a way that might question his personal integrity. Because Johnny is thinking, "What do you mean, go harder? I’m going as hard as I can."

I’ve heard coaches say, "I’ve told you four times not to step with your right foot!" Well, you know what? If the kid doesn’t get it after you’ve told him four times, you need to find another way to tell him. Because your job is to teach the kid and give him a chance to do what he wants to do—which is to be successful.

We tell our kids, "When we coach you, and when we correct you, we will always do it with integrity. We do it because we care about you, and if we ask you to do something, it’s because we really believe it’s in your best interest, not to make you feel bad."

How do you develop leadership in your players?

When the kids come in as freshmen, I have them vote for the top five kids in their class—the people they trust to do the right thing, to be communicators, and to represent them in the decision-making process of our program. With some classes, I’ll keep those groups of five kids all the way to graduation, and with other classes, I might have them vote again if it looks like the chemistry has changed.

These five representatives from each class become our Leadership Council, which meets with me for lunch at least once a week in the offseason. We talk about everything: What makes a good coach? What makes a good practice? Why do you play? How can coaches best communicate with you, and how can you best communicate with teammates? We also talk about trusting each other, the needs of the team, and how we are going to meet those needs.

The kids feel empowered, because this gives them an impact on the direction of our program. It connects our freshmen with our seniors and helps to break down a lot of barriers that come with kids this age.

I also challenge the members of the Leadership Council to do things like going into the cafeteria and introducing themselves to somebody they don’t know. I tell them, "I want you just to tell them who you are, then sit down and ask them some questions about what their interests are. Take five minutes just to introduce yourself to somebody you don’t know. And I want you to get one teammate to do it with you."

How do you spread the coaching responsibilities among your teams?

I have two coaches—the head junior varsity coach and the assistant head junior varsity coach—stay with the junior varsity program. The defensive backs coach, wide receivers coach, defensive line coach, and offensive line coach also work with the junior varsity kids. We platoon our practices, so when the varsity is doing offensive drills, the defensive line coach and defensive backs coach are with the junior varsity team, coaching the younger kids. Then, when we switch to defensive drills with varsity players, the wide receivers coach and offensive line coach are working with the junior varsity kids.

How do you explain having the freshman team, the junior varsity team, and the varsity team win their conference all in the same year?

Well, there’s always a little bit of luck involved in winning a title. But over the years, I think that having my coaches rotate from one level to the next has made a big difference. This way, the coaches get to know the kids, and the younger kids know that they’re being coached by the same coaches in the same way as the varsity kids are at the varsity level. They understand that they are a huge priority to us, regardless of what level they play.

Another big piece is having quality coaches at every level who understand your philosophy, so that the kids are getting a consistent message. Our kids learn how to have a positive work ethic and how to trust each other. They understand that the person next to them is counting on them to do the best they can, on and off the field. If those things are all in place, and you can get your kids to buy into that, they’re going to play hard.

What did you learn from coaching your sons?

When my kids were little, I asked a friend of mine, "What was the single biggest thing that you had to deal with in coaching your sons?" And he said, "Dan, the biggest thing is to remember to love them when practice is over." I learned to communicate with them when we walked off the field, talking about things other than football, so they knew how much I cared about them. Of course I’ve loved my children from day one, but I was probably harder on them than I was on the rest of the team. So I learned to communicate with them, and I learned that when you coach your sons, you’ve got to make sure they’re playing for the right reasons.

That lesson has carried over to the way I treat the whole team. First, they have to play because it’s important to them. As their coach, my job is to remove their worry about pleasing Mom and Dad. As a result, I talk to my players about that every week. I tell them, "You have to play the game for the right reasons. You’re not playing it for your girlfriend or your mother or your father—you’re playing it for yourself and your teammates. When this game is over, your girlfriend, your mother, and your father are still going to love you. You have to play for the sheer joy of the game."

Second, I have a rule with my coaches: When practice is over, talk to your players—but don’t bring up football. Talk to them about something else. If the player talks about football, that’s okay. Then you can talk about football, too. Otherwise, talk about going fishing, about how he is doing in the classroom, or if his big brother is doing well. Talk about the personal things, and let the kids know that you care about them as human beings, not just as football players.