Coaching Management, 14.10, November 2006, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1410/qastolski.htm
In 1952, a group of 10-year-old boys who wanted to play football in a Minneapolis park league needed a coach’s name to put on the sign-up sheet. One of the boys suggested his older brother, a 13-year-old whose three additional years of experience and wisdom seemed sage-like to them.
Nearly every fall since his name was first scrawled on that sign-up sheet, Ron Stolski has coached young football players in Minnesota. Since 1974, he has coached at Brainerd High School, and his 280 total wins were the most among active 5A coaches in the state as the 2006 season started. He also served as Brainerd’s Athletic Director for 25 years before stepping down to focus on his coaching duties.
Earlier this year, he received the American Football Coaches Association’s Power of Influence Award and gave a speech at the AFCA convention in Dallas. He is the Executive Director of the Minnesota High School Football Coaches Association and a past President of the Minnesota Athletic Directors Association.
A strong believer that coaching requires an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and a relentless desire to study the game, Stolski attends as many clinics as he can and even started his own in 1975, the Brainerd Coaching Clinic. In this interview, Stolski talks about disciplining players, getting the most out of clinics, and the dangers of sport specialization.
CM: What lessons have you learned during your career?
Stolski: When I was an athletic director, a coach once told me, “A coach’s job is to create and maintain an environment that people want to be a part of.” If you maintain that kind of environment with the kids, that attitude follows them home to their parents and circulates throughout the community. Then everyone wants to be part of what you’re teaching and doing.
Along the way you learn that coaching isn’t defined by winning and losing—it’s about doing things the way you ought to be doing them. That starts with how you spell out your philosophy, a message that needs to be consistent with what the school preaches. We do a number of things that help us develop what we call the “Warrior Way”—a philosophy grounded in respect for the game, the opponents, the officials, and one another. Our ultimate goal is that when the kids close their locker for the last time, they say to themselves, “This was a great experience.”
How do you make that experience memorable?
I have this romantic notion that kids ought to leave their football experience in the same way they began it. And most kids begin playing football in someone’s backyard, just choosing up sides and throwing a ball around.
So after our season ends, we gather our kids and send the seniors down to our football field in full gear, and they have one last tackle football game together under the lights. The underclassmen stay behind and talk about the seniors and our tradition, and what the seniors have contributed to the season. Then we all go down to the field where the seniors are finishing up their game. We have one last stretch together, and the lights are turned off. The only thing lit is the scoreboard with the year, and under the goalposts is one lone tackling dummy.
We talk to our kids about what our program is really about, being givers in society and not takers, the role models we know, and life’s lessons we shared together—because for one period of time we were one team with one heartbeat. Then the seniors line up, and the underclassmen form a circle around them. I call seniors out randomly and they’ll run through the tunnel and make their last hit as a Warrior. It’s a very emotional time. After they finish there’s hugs, handshakes, and tears, and the seniors don’t want to leave.
Who shaped your coaching philosophy?
I had several mentors when I began coaching. One was a coach who at the time held the state record for wins, Tom Mahoney. He got me into the AFCA, which at the time had a very small high school wing. He taught me that you can never gather enough knowledge.
One of the best pieces of advice came from my father, a tough man of Polish heritage. One year, he asked how my team was going to be and I said, “Well, next year we’re going to be...” and he slammed his hand down and said, “Ron, no one cares about tomorrow. Coach them today.” My father and mother were great mentors because they taught me if you want to be a champion, you’ve got to be able to get up and fight one more round.
What was going to the convention like?
You see this overwhelming respect and admiration we have for one another in the coaching profession, no matter what level a person coaches at. As we arrived in Dallas and got in the hotel, everywhere you looked there were people greeting each other with a simple term, “coach.” A coach is a mentor, a friend, a colleague—someone you compete against. It’s a connection you don’t often see in other professions.
What advice would you give coaches to get the most out of clinics?
Clinics have changed a lot since I started going. When we were younger coaches, we were more than willing to listen to Bud Wilkinson or Duffy Daugherty philosophize about football. Now everything is more specialized, and instead of listening to a head coach you hear from the defensive line coach from LSU or the secondary coach from Fordham.
I went to nine clinics last year, and my daughter said, “Don’t you know it all by now?” Yet every place I go, I learn something new. I think young coaches should approach clinics by sitting in front and trying to soak up all the knowledge they can.
You’ve been very critical of athletes who focus on one sport year-round and especially parents who push their children into this type of training. Why do you believe this is bad for athletes?
Specialization in one sport may be helpful if someone is a potential Olympian, but that only applies to one athlete in thousands. That kind of thinking is very skewed and also very expensive. Parents start to think of it as an investment and expect to see a return.
I believe in multiple-interest athletes, and kids who sing in the choir, write for the school newspaper, and have a life. In 2004, one million kids played high school football, 58,000 went on to play in college, and only two percent of those will go on to play pro ball. We tell our players’ families their children have a better chance of becoming a brain surgeon than a professional athlete. Too many parents get the idea their son or daughter will be a scholarship athlete, but it’s not usually going to happen that way so we have to keep those unrealistic expectations from skewing our programs.
How has parental involvement changed during your four decades of coaching?
When we opened our classroom doors to parents 25 years ago and asked them to be involved in their children’s school, we also opened ourselves up to other kinds of involvement. I tell our coaches that we’re public servants, and if they don’t want to be treated as one, they should get out of this game.
How has technology changed the way you work?
I really think it’s more problematic than anyone wants to admit. On the one hand, technology helps us prepare, but on the other hand, it creates more stress. Take breaking down film, for example. It is very time consuming, and I’m not sure if it’s making any of us better coaches or the game any different. The game still needs to be played on the field by kids who are physical enough and skilled enough to play.
Thorough preparation is important and technology helps with that preparation, but in terms of adding more and more time demands to a coach’s day, I’m not sure that’s a plus. Coaches who work until they’re exhausted are neither healthy nor good for the sport.
This fall, some of your players were disciplined for a hazing incident where another player was tied to a goalpost. How do you discipline your players when their behavior gets out of hand?
We first make sure everyone is aware of our position on issues that result in discipline, whether it’s hazing, not showing up to practice, or misbehaving in school. Expectations need to be explained thoroughly and penalties must be applied consistently. When incidents do occur, we address them directly and immediately.
How often do you evaluate your approach to things like practice plans, defensive and offensive philosophy, and weight training?
We start every season with this premise: We’re brand new and the kids are brand new. We take nothing for granted and start from scratch. Because our staff has been together a long time, we think we have a proven system of doing things, but that doesn’t mean we’re afraid to try new ideas.
For example, we’ve had great success as a wishbone team since the mid-’80s. A few years back, as we saw the game changing and evolving, we decided we needed to evolve. We remained an option team, but began initiating the offense from a shotgun formation. I can remember one opposing coach saying, “They won’t stay in it. That was just for one game.” Well, we’re still in it, and we have rival coaches who have also adopted it.
The evaluation of everything we do is constant, and that’s fed by the knowledge we gain at clinics and through experience. There are some things we do that are proven, and we don’t change just for the sake of change. But ultimately, I believe change is inevitable, and you need to manage change or it manages you.